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The Consequences of Modernization

A Review of Michael J. McDonald and John Muldowny’s TVA and the Dispossessed

Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Canada, Michael James McDonald entered the coal mines as a young man to support his family. There he joined the United Mine Workers of America and was president of his local union. Ever since then he involved himself with numerous unions and often took up leadership positions, constantly involved in the world around him.


Amidst the throes of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration implemented several ambitious programs intended to provide relief and recovery to the suffering masses. As an active leader and innovator, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created agencies and programs addressing the various needs of a wide range of groups. One of the earliest and largest agencies to date is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which was created to harness the power of the Tennessee River for flood control, power and cheap fertilizer production, navigation, and economical development. The TVA targeted the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly affected by the Great Depression, and selected the Norris Basin as its first project for renovation. Essentially a trial run, the Norris Basin was one of the most important projects undertaken by the TVA. Renovating these regions meant not only the purchase of land and the relocation of families to facilitate the construction of dams and reservoirs but also a significant change in lifestyle, and TVA and the Dispossessed by Michael McDonald and John Muldowny examines just that – the process of displacement and the various ways in which the TVA coped with it and the ways in which modernization of transitional societies creates “conflict and human doubt which bring unintended consequences.”1

The Norris Basin seemed the ideal test subject. Although it had developed into a self-sufficient and stable community following the Civil War, it had changed little since then and became economically stagnant and socially lagging – automobiles and radio had just begun to alter the locale. Working the land to its limits, its population yearned for positive change. Furthermore, the Norris Basin was in dire need of restoration and some beneficent change that would “break the stasis imposed by environmental conditions.”2 Before the Great Depression and the TVA, self-sufficient farms existed in the Norris Basin, and a strong sense of independence prevailed among farmers. Although Norris Basin farmers made barely enough to live, they placed a high value on the sense of community togetherness. The Norris Basin was a tight-knit community, in which even religious differences caused no tension. Rather than being a place of polarization, a church was “a provider of communal cohesiveness” and played a highly diversified role in the day-to-day life of the community; besides serving as a place of worship, it also offered recreation, sociability, and education.3 Likewise, other municipal buildings, such as the general store, were common meeting places and centers of activity. Thus, during the depression, the TVA stepped into this strong, cohesive social network and proposed progress and modernization. Because the people of the Norris Basin viewed their lives as difficult and isolated, they perceived the TVA as a disturbing factor. Regardless of the TVA’s long term perspective or good intentions, the Norris Basin residents could not ignore the short term implications: they would have to sell or leave their farms, uproot themselves from communities where they had been settled for generations, and relocate to unfamiliar settings. Not surprisingly, they weren’t enthusiastic about it. Still many recognized the benefits and importance of modernization and struggled with conflicting feelings toward the TVA.

The Norris Basin was not a particularly prized region. Adjoining the Appalachians, the Norris area bore characteristically steep slopes and broken ridges, and in this natural environment, the constant pressure of rural populations eroded soil and depleted forest resources. Although the Basin contained some fine soils of great agricultural range and versatility, most of the soils were relatively mediocre. The best lands were at the bottoms or beds of rivers and in valleys, but the TVA purchased these lands for the reservoir and dam site, forcing Norris Basin farmers to press less arable lands to their productive limits. Over time, the continuous utilization of marginal soils, declining productivity, poor types of soil, and soil depletion thus made life on small self-sufficient farms marginal. Moreover, the burgeoning population of the Norris counties at the beginning of the 20th century pressed against the limited natural resources. Out-migration was the only means to alleviate population pressure, but it resulted in continually diminished returns from the land. Furthermore, it failed to negate effectively the intensive farming of poor lands, soil depletion, or rural overpopulation, and out-migrants often had to return to farms after failing to find jobs in the cities. Clearly, the Norris Basin needed rescuing from an outside authority. In the summer of 1934, the TVA prepared a detailed eight-page questionnaire to “examine every facet of life” and make the process of removal and relocation easier.4 The TVA took great care to put together a comprehensive socioeconomic profile of each displaced family, inspecting a wide range of variables, such as religious preference, sanitary facilities, books read, newspapers taken, farm income and expenditure, types of personal possessions, and relocation preferences. At the conclusion of this research, they discovered many differences in the lifestyles and socioeconomic statuses of landowners and tenants. Mainly, they realized the position of tenant families was precarious: while owners could expect reimbursement from the TVA for the land they sold, tenants could not. Tenants were not legally entitled to compensation and were totally dependent upon new agreements with landowners and landowners’ willingness to relocate their former tenants upon their new farms. Tenants also farmed proportionately poorer classes of land than owners. Along with soil deficiencies, difficult terrain, and inability of tenants to finance farm improvements and increase productivity, tenants struggled with an aggregate farm income structure that could provide for most necessities of life but few extras.

Having set up the laboratory, the TVA proceeded with the experiment. The project involved land acquisition, population relocation, and grave removal, each headed by a different director and administrative unit. David Lilienthal was responsible for purchasing the land, Harcourt Morgan for relocating the families, and Arthur Morgan for removing the dead. First of all, and most importantly, the TVA needed to develop a workable land acquisition policy, because the act of purchasing land brought the agency into immediate contact with the people of the Norris Basin. “Armed with cash and the right of eminent domain,” the TVA soon found itself the target of much public scrutiny and undesirable criticism, which soon rendered the policy of land acquisition a stormy issue.5 Accordingly, the TVA proceeded cautiously in setting up a program of land purchase and came up with a policy that they hoped “[disrupted] production and community life the least.”6 There existed among the directorate a friction resulting from clashing ideas and from attempts at equal distribution of power, and the debate over purchase policy widened the gap between the two extremely different Morgans. They disagreed on the overpurchase policy – and both individuals boasted strong arguments. Arthur Morgan argued for the purchase of a broad protective belt, citing the protection of the reservoir from siltage, the recreational enhancement of the reservoirs through the provision of limited access, and the prevention of disease through malarial control measures as justifications; Harcourt Morgan argued against overpurchasing, in support of the retirement from cultivation of much East Tennessee farm land due to its unproductive character and the abuse it had suffered through row-cropping. He also voiced concerns about the issue of erosion and poor use of the soil as one of the most waste-producing problem. Ultimately, the purchase policy adopted at Norris was a victory for the foresters, recreationists, planners, and engineers, and the TVA purchased a protective strip all around the reservoir. Still opposition persisted, among them Lilienthal and Harcourt Morgan. Amidst opposition, a policy of heavy purchase was adopted.

In the chaotic first year of the Authority’s existence, no substantial program was developed to meet the needs of the farm families displaced from the Norris Basin. It took nearly a year before it established any kind of substantive program to aid the process of relocation and resettlement. Funded by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to aid in the development of farmers’ cooperatives, it was finally decided that the Tennessee Valley Authority Cooperatives, a fund for the project, could be expanded into more of a mortgage loan company if director Harry Hopkins agreed to it. However, the limited aspects of the relocation proposal approved by Harcourt Morgan were criticized, and alternatives sought. Eventually, the Reservoir Family Removal Section was created as a service organization “existing to bring resources and individuals together” to “solve the various problems of removal.”7 By the summer of 1936, most of the families were removed, and the Authority turned its attention to reassessing the past two years’ work. Most agreed that the TVA stumbled, because it failed in developing coordination of efforts and centralization of administration. This trouble with organization and administration carried over to grave removal, an unpleasant but necessary act to clear the land for the reservoir and dam. While the agency eventually developed a structured bureaucracy to handle the problems of grave removal, much of the initial work was delegated to W. R. Woolrich, a mechanical engineer from the University of Tennessee and an assistant to Harcourt Morgan. After much deliberation and discussion, the agency agreed to let the Campbell County Baptist Association, a local board of trustees, execute the removal and relocation of graves. All parties felt the trustees of the association could carry out the entire process better than the agency. In the end, the agency successfully dealt with the complex problems of grave removal with “sensitivity and restraint.”8 The TVA’s performance – considering the failings of their previous efforts in population relocation – was even more commendable.

Authors McDonald and Muldowny’s purpose is two-part: to examine the process of displacement and the various ways in which the TVA coped with it, and to illuminate our general understanding of the ways “in which modernization of transitional societies creates conflict and human doubt.”9 McDonald and Muldowny attempt to set the scene by studying the culture and lifestyle of the Norris Basin before touching on the TVA. Conducting interviews with former Norris Basin residents during the Great Depression, they paint a vivid picture of the tight-knit, cohesive community rooted in the Tennessee Valley. Through the numerous firsthand accounts of life in that region, the authors show the economic and social conditions of the Norris Basin prior to the TVA. Then they describe the arduous administrative tasks and complicated issues that the TVA tackled involving the acquisition of land, the relocation of population, and the removal of graves. They elaborate on the sensitivity of these topics and the abundant heated debates dedicated to resolving conflicts, adding another dimension to the TVA’s herculean undertaking. As the TVA attempts to modernize the standstill economy and society of the Norris Basin, it becomes clear that more factors must be considered, economic gain and social development aside. While the TVA seems to have recognized this – it conducts extensive questionnaires intended to provide the agency the widest perspective possible – and takes it into consideration, it fails to adequately prepare the population for the immense change. Furthermore, it neglects to provide the resources and means to aid and expedite the process. The result: disillusionment, conflict, and doubt. McDonald and Muldowny thus illustrate the polarizing effect population relocation had on all parties involved. Looking back at the TVA’s first project after fifty years, McDonald and Muldowny consider the TVA’s long term outcomes as well as its short term consequences. Although the agency struggled mightily in the Norris Basin, the authors can discuss its later successes and inspect the growth of the TVA throughout the years. McDonald and Muldowny peer through fifty years of history – during which the TVA was well and active – and evaluate the agency’s ultimate success. The 1980s were a time of disillusionment and political apathy, which McDonald and Muldowny’s matter-of-fact tone of writing reflects.

Reviewing TVA and the Dispossessed , Donald Holley recognizes McDonald and Muldowny’s attempts to inform readers that the TVA encompassed a “desire to modernize rural life through social and economic planning,” but left the dispossessed families worse off than before.10 The review discusses the author’s set up and the author’s perceived reason for the failure of the TVA: conflicts among the members of the board of directors. Holley goes on to applaud the book, hailing it as “a valuable addition to the TVA literature.”11 However, he criticizes McDonald and Muldowny for failing to appreciate the TVA’s practical goals. In another review of TVA and the Dispossessed , Wilmon Droze also lauds McDonald and Muldowny’s book. Droze revisits their claim that the TVA’s social experiment was a failure and offers approval before closing with a few remarks about minor technical flaws.

TVA and the Dispossessed touches on a wide range of variables regarding life in the Norris Basin before and after the New Deal. From farm sizes to primary crops, and from farm income to fertility, authors McDonald and Muldowny discuss seemingly minute details truly to show readers the grand scheme to things. While the broad picture is appreciated, certain details and quantitative data (such as the fact that about 2.7 percent of the removed population need assistance and are defined as “incapable of supporting themselves”) seem unnecessary.12 Moreover, the authors spend too much time describing administrative changes. Yet, plentiful information and a fresh perspective on the Great Depression offer engaging reading and new insight.

As one of the earliest and largest New Deal agencies, the TVA ushered in a new politic era, one in which the federal government took more interest in the nation’s economic affairs and was expected to intervene. Suffering the dire consequences of a lax federal government, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took drastic measures to revive America and ensure such catastrophe would not happen again in the future. The TVA is a product of his admirable efforts, and modern Americans study his New Deal policies for guidance. In addition, the TVA marked a watershed in American cultural history with the modernization of the Tennessee Valley area. Still without electricity by 1930, some rural regions of America struggled to keep up with the ever-industrializing, ever-modernizing American society. The TVA provided a means of modernization to the third world agrarian society of the Tennessee Valley and set the precedent for social change across the nation. The Norris Basin population mulled around in a “stasis imposed by environmental conditions” because it had not grown much since the end of the Civil War.13 As a stable, self-sufficient community then, it felt no need to change now as electricity and technology beckoned them forward. However, hard hit by the Great Depression, the Norris Basin population – and all of America – realized modernization was beneficial and necessary.

Today, America faces a similar economic downturn. Poor economic management by the federal government and carefree spending has forced this nation into a recession. However, with knowledge of the Great Depression and President Roosevelt’s New Deals, America can better evaluate her situation and devise a course of action. Some new Deal agencies from the Great Depression, like the TVA, still exist. Perhaps this time, agencies will be better equipped to tackle large, significant projects like population relocation without the “ambiguities and contradictions” that tormented the TVA.14



1: McDonald, Michael J. TVA and the Dispossessed . Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1982. 26.
2: McDonald, Michael J. 27
3: McDonald, Michael J. 43
4: McDonald, Michael J. 89
5: McDonald, Michael J. 127
6: McDonald, Michael J. 128
7: McDonald, Michael J. 175
8: McDonald, Michael J. 214
9: McDonald, Michael J. 26
10: Holley, Donald. “Review of TVA and the Dispossessed .”
11: Holley, Donald. “Review of TVA and the Dispossessed .”
12: McDonald, Michael J. 86
13: McDonald, Michael J. 27
14: McDonald, Michael J. 270

Student Bio

An ambitious student who prides himself on his academic achievements, Daniel Lee enjoyed the rigors of Advanced Placement courses his junior year. He hopes to gain admission to the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and pursue a career in medicine.


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