Working for the TVA

On May 18th, 1933, Congress chartered the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), beginning one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first projects of his “New Deal” social welfare programs.  Its goals were to “To improve the navigability and to provide for the flood control of the Tennessee River; to provide for reforestation and the proper use of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley; to provide for the agricultural and industrial development of said valley…and for other purposes.”  The TVA was also to serve as a test of whether or not is was possible to achieve Roosevelt’s wider goal of rural electrification across the United States. The resulting Tennessee Valley Authority was the focus of several films that we will be examining today: Tennessee Valley created by the Department of the Interior in 1936 and Valley of the Tennessee produced by the Office of War Information in 1944. 

Senator George W. Norris at Scott’s Lookout Near Bessey Nursery, Halsey, Nebraska. Record Group 95, Records of the Forest Service General Subject Files, Photographs Relating to National Forests, Resource Management Practices, Personnel, and Cultural and Economic History, National Archives Identifier 7003028

A major part of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” agenda was to create agencies and public corporations to provide services to Americans that had often been overlooked by private companies, particularly farmers and others who lived in rural areas.  The very first of these was the Tennessee Valley Authority, introduced by Nebraska Senator George W. Norris. The Act gave the TVA the “power to acquire real estate for the construction of dams, reservoirs, transmission lines, power houses, and other structures, and navigation projects at any point along the Tennessee River, or any of its tributaries.”  It was with this authority that it created and executed the Unified Development of the Tennessee River Plan.  The Act also called for the TVA to work with farmers by distributing fertilizer to replenish the soil, washed away by decades of erosion.  The Act also stipulated that the power produced by the TVA would be distributed throughout the valley, especially to rural communities and that rates would remain as low as possible.

Since such an ambitious project would need the support of the public, the TVA and the Department of the Interior created the film “A National Program in the Tennessee Valley” documenting the need, creation, and advantages of electrified America.  The film opens with a statement from President Roosevelt laying out his grand vision for the Tennessee Valley and expansion of the Muscle Shoals nitrate plants in Alabama.  Created during World War I to supply nitrate for the allied war effort, the Muscle Shoals Reservation required the building of a new dam as well to provide electricity to the plants.  While the plants fell idle after the end of World War I in 1918, construction of the dam continued through the 1920s. Throughout the 1920s, elected officials and private business fought over control of the facility, with the elected officials ultimately prevailing.  

The first film, Tennessee Valley, highlights the major goals of the TVA: rural electrification, development of the area, land restoration, and benefits to the local communities. The film then moves to the construction of the Norris Dam, 25 miles northwest of Knoxville, Tennessee on the Clinch River.  A secondary goal of the TVA act was the development of the valley as a byproduct of the construction of roads as well as new housing and even completely new towns, such as the aptly named Norris, Tennessee; a break from the traditional method of creating temporary worker’s housing that would be destroyed once the project was completed.  Since the dam was considered a major part of the new deal program, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in her capacity as FDR’s “eyes, ears, and legs”, visited the worksite during initial construction in 1934. After examining the construction of Wheeler Dam further on down the line, the film’s focus shifts to another aspect of the TVA’s purpose: land improvement.  Aside from removing trees and other brush, the authority had a mandate to end the soil erosion that had long plagued the valley.  The nitrate works at Muscle Shoals, lying dormant since the end of the First World War, were re-activated to study and test new fertilizers and methods of revitalizing the phosphate depleted soil.  Another, more conventional method explored by the TVA was the use of brush mating and terracing to distribute rainfall and prevent it from taking valuable topsoil with it.  The film ends by examining the primary goal of the TVA, providing cheap, readily available power to outlying areas.  The first beneficiary was Tupelo, Mississippi, which had it streets, public buildings and private homes electrified by the TVA at 55% reduced cost, and spurred a 126% increase in customers.  The movie shows a sample bill from a customer in Athens, Alabama, who pays almost 42% less in utilities for TVA power as opposed to private power.  The film ends by demonstrating the various modern devices that could be brought into new parts of the country, encouraging businesses and factories.

The second film, Valley of the Tennessee, released by the Office of War Information in 1944, details the history of the TVA and its effects using original film as well as re-enactments to tell the story of the TVA.  The film lists some of the influential figures behind the TVA: Sen. James P. Polk; Harcourt Morgan, President of the University of Tennessee; David Lillienthal, Director of the TVA and Sen. George Norris for the organization of the TVA. The motion picture also included the perspective of citizens of the valley; namely through the fictitious Henry Clark, a farmer.  The story of Henry Clark highlights key aspect of the TVA; the use of “test demonstration farms” in cooperation with state agricultural services, the TVA helped set up thousands of demonstration farms across the region. By then, farmers had learned some respect for manufactured fertilizer, and the TVA donated phosphate-based fertilizer to selected farmers who agreed to make certain changes in the way they used their land. It wouldn’t be easy to convince farmers that their land-management practices, many passed down over generations, were a major source of their distress. TVA organized meetings, lectures and “lantern-slides” about erosion in rural communities around the Valley region. Among the changes was that, rather than planting all their property with cash crops, they let some of it relax as grass, woodland, alfalfa-planted cow pasture, or fields of a leguminous cover crop like lespedeza. Another was that instead of planting up and down hillsides, they cut terraces into them, creating flat fields where water would soak in rather than run off. Finally, and most important, these demonstration farmers were required to show their neighbors what they were doing and what the results were. In return, besides the fertilizer, they received free technical assistance: A corps of about 200 TVA experts fanned out across the TVA region, offering plans and advice. Sometimes they even got the help of work crews from the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, who replanted lost crops and dug drainage ditches to control the erosion gullies.

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s impact was dramatic to say the least. David Lilienthal, in his Democracy on the March, pointed out that by 1944 over 85,000 farmsteads in the valley had electricity. Compared to a decade prior the numbers were: only one in 10 farms in Mississippi; in Georgia, one in 36; and in Tennessee and Alabama, one in 25. The success of the TVA inspired other regions to launch similar programs; by 1943 19 other states had demonstration farms to teach soil conservation techniques to their farmers. The TVA remains in operation to this day, partnering with over 153 local power companies to provide residents of the Tennessee Valley electricity.


Tennessee Valley:

Valley of the Tennessee:

Tennessee Valley Authority Act:

Rural Electrification Act:

Executive Order 7037, establishing the Rural Electrification Agency:

Indexes for Aerial Photography of the Tennessee Valley Authority:

History of the Tennessee Valley Authority: