TVA Historian Patricia Bernard Ezzell shows a photo of a family receiving a new washing machine and stove in the early days of the TVA system, which demonstrates the improved quality of live in the TVA service area. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Saturday marked the 80th anniversary of the passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act by Congress.
On that day in 1933, former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt put ink to paper, kick-starting what has been known to this day as “the engine that powers the South.”
TVA’s story began with Muscle Shoals, a stretch of the Tennessee River where its elevation drops 140 feet in 30 miles. That created the “shoals,” or rapids, the area is named for, and traveling upstream was virtually impossible. The federal government purchased the land in 1916 to construct a dam to generate electricity needed to produce explosives for the World War I effort, but the war ended without a dam being built.
Years later, Roosevelt took action. He pledged to improve navigation, provide flood control, improve farmland, jump-start industrial and agricultural development and to create a government nitrate and phosphorus manufacturing facility.
“This was meant to improve the quality of life in the Tennessee Valley, and most people just don’t understand how difficult life was,” said Patricia Bernard Ezzell, TVA historian. The Tennessee River was not navigable. Not the entire river. You could travel on parts of it. This part of the country lagged behind in almost every indicator. There was no rural electric transmission.”
The Roosevelt administration believed that if private enterprise could not supply electric power to the people, then it was the duty of the government to do it.
It was not all smooth sailing, but it brought electricity to thousands of people at an affordable price. It controlled the flood waters of the Tennessee River and improved navigation, as well as introduced modern agriculture techniques.
“Most people in the 1930s were farmers,” Ezzell said. “Today, you don’t wake up and think about how you’re going to start a fire. People used to live from sunup to sundown.”
The Tennessee Valley, which drains the Tennessee River and its tributaries, includes parts of seven states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, U.S. Forest Service, Civilian Conservation Corps and state agricultural experiment stations and extension services, were, and are, among the agencies that have worked with the TVA to carry out a well-rounded program of rehabilitation for both the land and its people.
In October 1933, construction began on Norris Dam, named after Nebraska Sen. George Norris, who campaigned for the TVA’s creation. Sixteen dams and a steam plant were constructed by the TVA between 1933 and 1944. At its peak, a dozen hydroelectric projects and the steam plant were under construction at the same time, and design and construction employment reached 28,000 workers.
Additionally, the TVA set up the Electric Home and Farm Authority to help farmers purchase major electric appliances. The EHFA made arrangements with appliance makers to supply electric ranges, refrigerators and water heaters at affordable prices, which were then sold at local power companies and electric cooperatives. A farmer could purchase appliances there with loans offered by the EHFA, which offered low-cost financing.
“It provided a lot of jobs,” Ezzell said. “The lock and dam system also created recreational opportunities when reservoirs became full. But the key to quality of life was electricity. For the first time, people had ovens and washing machines. TVA also had economists that would travel out to rural areas to demonstrate how the appliances worked.”
The TVA worked to change old farming practices, and taught farmers to substitute nitrates with such plants as alfalfa and clover that naturally add nitrogen to the soil. TVA extension programs introduced contour plowing, crop rotation, the use of phosphate fertilizers and the planting of cover crops for soil conservation.
Initially, federal appropriations funded all operations, but funding for the TVA power program ended in 1959 and appropriations for TVA’s environmental stewardship and economic development activities were phased out by 1999. TVA is now fully self-financed, getting its operating revenues primarily through electricity sales and the financing of power systems.
Today, the TVA is America’s largest public power company, with 17,000 miles of transmission lines delivering power through 158 locally owned distributors to 8.5 million residents of the Tennessee Valley. It also has become a major recreation provider as well. The reservoirs behind its dams provide opportunities for fishing, sailing, canoeing, and many other activities, while some 100 public campgrounds provide facilities close to the waters’ edge.