"Mr. Carmody, We Want Lights": The Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Under the New Deal

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"Mr. Carmody, We Want Lights": The Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Under the New Deal


Any discussion of the 1930s conjures images of the Dust Bowl, unemployment, and economic deprivation across the United States. Perhaps more disadvantaged than most in the nation were the residents of the Tennessee River Valley. Generations of farmers had overworked and deforested marginal land. The region had failed to attract industry, and the general standard of living for valley inhabitants was poor. Already plagued by frequent epidemics, inadequate housing, and meager incomes, the Great Depression only exacerbated problems in the region.

The Tennessee River Valley was not the only region whose people lived in conditions that seemed primitive when compared to contemporary urban standards. Many rural dwellers across the nation faced similar problems. Recognizing the importance of aiding family farms across the United States, and the potential for revitalizing and developing the Tennessee River Valley, the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority were created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration as part of his "New Deal" to get American citizens out of the choke hold of the Depression.


Roosevelt appealed to Congress for help in establishing "a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise." On May 18, 1933, Congress passed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. The TVA Act covered parts of seven states—Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—an area that extended the geographic limits of the Tennessee Valley, but shared many of the same economic woes. The historic act sought not only to alleviate some of the economic effects of the Depression, but, in its unprecedented Section 23, provided a mandate to improve the "social well-being of the people living in [the] river basin." Thus, the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, was one of the most ambitious components of Roosevelt's New Deal.

From the beginning, TVA pioneered an integrated approach to resource management. The mission of TVA was comprehensive—whether it was power production, rural poverty, flood and erosion control, navigation, agricultural reform, disease prevention, reforestation, or cultural resource management—and each project was studied to determine all attendant conditions. Special attention was paid to concerns of long-term impact upon man and the environment.

The TVA began its first project the summer after the TVA Act was signed. Norris Dam, named after Senator George Norris of Nebraska—dubbed "the father of TVA," was built along the Clinch River. The project was one of the most ambitious and controversial of the TVA's early years. Norris Dam was constructed to flood the entire Norris Basin area, one of the poorest in all of the TVA region. The thousands of residents who lived in the basin were forced to move. Those who owned their property outright were compensated financially, but many basin residents were sharecroppers and tenant farmers and thus received nothing. The TVA, with the assistance of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), constructed model communities with modern amenities, schools, and stores, to which they hoped the basin residents would move. However, the construction of the dam required the influx of a great number of workers; these workers moved into the planned communities, which then became in effect "company towns." Citizens displaced by TVA dam and reservoir projects often found themselves relocating to areas that had faced the same endemic problems as the places they had left.

By June 1934 the TVA employed 9,173 workers. Several thousand more were employed by the WPA to assist with the construction of TVA projects. Sixteen dams were built between 1933 and 1944. In regions previously prone to catastrophic flooding, the construction of a series of dams enabled better control of excess water and almost eliminated the threat of serious floods on the stretch of river between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The dams also provided reservoirs, hydroelectric power, and locks that eased shipping difficulties on the Tennessee River. The construction of the Wheeler and Wilson dams near Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama, improved the navigability of the river so greatly that the tonnage of river trade increased from 32 million ton-miles in 1933 to 161 million ton-miles in 1942. This ease of shipping meant that local farmers had greater access to markets and also made the region more attractive to industrial interests.

The TVA was also charged with helping the Valley's farmers become more productive and cause less damage to already fragile farmlands. Outdated farm practices, over fertilization of land with chemicals, deforestation, and the need to produce more and more crops in order to meet rising costs took its toll on much of the region's arable land. Erosion, flooding, and poor harvests were endemic problems. The TVA established model farms to teach Valley farmers about crop rotation, responsible fertilization, and counter-erosion techniques. The organization worked closely with local land grant colleges in an effort to further educate farmers and aid them in becoming more productive and to raise their standard of living.

The main component of the social and economic plan for the region was the generation and distribution of electricity. Working through direct commissions and private distributors, the TVA quickly began the process of electrification in rural areas and provided a greater quantity of power, at a lower cost, to the Valley's larger cities. Tupelo, Mississippi, became the first city to purchase its power wholesale from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Unlike the majority of residents in the Tennessee River Valley, most private power companies in the region were critical of the government's intervention. Utility companies saw the TVA as a threat to competitive business and regarded the government as not being capable of adequately generating, selling, and distributing electricity. The TVA was challenged in court several times during the 1930s; almost all of the cases were brought forth by private power companies. In 1939 the constitutionality of the TVA Act was upheld in the Supreme Court. By 1941, just eight years after its inception, TVA had become the largest producer of electrical power in the United States.

Striving to implement some of the ideas of the TVA program across the nation, the Roosevelt administration created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935. The main goal of the REA was to provide electricity to all rural areas, most especially family farms. Private power companies in many regions did give farmers the opportunity to purchase electricity, but in order to run rural lines, most demanded all or a majority of the construction costs up front. Furthermore, many companies proposed to charge higher rates for the power they supplied the countryside. These factors made electricity a prohibitive cost to many farmers and rural citizens.

The head of the REA, John Carmody (1881-1963), visited areas adjacent to the TVA region in order to assess the people's reaction to the projects that the government was undertaking nearby. Unlike that of the private utility companies, the response from citizens was overwhelmingly positive. In areas that had been denied electricity based upon claims by power companies that rural lines were too expensive to construct and that the residents could not afford to pay for power, the residents were generally in favor of government intervention in the region. During his visit, Carmody spotted a sign in north Georgia that read: "Mr. Carmody, we want lights!" The plea of the region's residents to be included in New Deal programs was heard, and Georgia became one of the pilot regions for REA sponsored rural electric cooperatives. Five years later, under REA guidance, Georgia was one of the most widely electrified states.

By 1939 the percent of rural households nationwide that had electricity had risen from just under 10% to 25%. The REA aided in the establishment of over 400 electric cooperatives that served 288,000 individual households. While the push for rural electrification was largely completed during the New Deal and immediately after the end of World War II, the Tennessee Valley Authority remained active. In the postwar era, TVA shifted from its New Deal broad economic and social mission to a more streamlined organization focusing on the production and sale of power and the maintenance of its dams and reservoirs along the Tennessee River and its tributaries.

In 1959 the TVA petitioned for the authority to issue bonds, and later that year Congress enacted legislation that made the TVA power system self-financing. Over the course of the next three decades, the TVA continued to develop its innovative approach to regional planning. In the 1960s TVA began using nuclear power in some areas; in the 1970s the organization was one of the first to implement pollutant emission standards. Though TVA has followed a general trend toward becoming more similar to other power companies, in the last decade of the twentieth century TVA began to reincorporate updated versions of their New Deal initiatives. The TVA is one of the chief moderators in the ongoing social dialogue between various business, cultural resource management, environmental, and industrial groups in the region.


Rural electrification brought many changes beyond electric lighting to farmers and residents of small towns. As power cooperatives were established, the REA instituted programs to help members purchase modern appliances like stoves, ovens, and refrigerators. Such appliances were not only meant to make life more convenient and comfortable for rural residents, but also to reduce waste and help the farms to become more productive. For example, REA studies conducted in 1936 estimated that American farmers who did not have electricity or a means to refrigerate food wasted one-third of all of their meat stuffs. Starting programs that helped collectives and individual farmers purchase walk-in coolers was supposed to alleviate not only problems of spoilage, but also improve the daily diet of farm families.

Similar initiatives provided low-interest financing for tractors, combines, and other farm equipment. Such programs were intended to make small family farms more productive and able to compete with larger farms. Though the productivity of small farms did increase as a result of rural electrification efforts, the same programs and technology were available to the large farms. While the REA did help to improve the quality of life and the income of many American farmers, it failed to offset the general trend of families leaving rural areas to move to the city. The number of small family farms continued to decline through out the New Deal era.

Despite the progressive nature of most TVA and REA projects, some citizens were not included in the government's plans for improvement in rural areas. During the course of the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) investigated the TVA on three separate occasions for racial discrimination in the housing, hiring, and training of blacks. TVA planned communities excluded black families and African-American land grant colleges were not permitted to take part in the agricultural training or extension programs. In an attempt to justify policies of racial segregation, the organization stated that such exclusions reflected the traditional social structure of the older Valley communities. However, black leaders noted that the region's white and black sharecroppers and farmers had worked together and lived as neighbors for years.

From its inception, the TVA was concerned not only with the impact of its projects upon man and the environment, but also upon relics of the past as well. With the assistance of workers from the WPA, large archaeological surveys and excavations were carried out on all land that was marked for TVA development. Some of the most famous archaeological discoveries in the southeastern United States were made in conjunction with TVA projects. Working closely with the WPA, and later the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), TVA archaeological projects included the identification, cataloging, and excavation of sites as well as the establishment of local museums. In more recent decades, the TVA has helped to pioneer cultural resource management legislation that is more sensitive to the interests of Native American groups as well as scientific interests. TVA continues to be one of the most prominent sponsors of archaeological research in all seven states that it spans.


Further Reading

Badger, Anthony J. The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1949. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991.

Creese, Walter L. TVA's Public Planning: The Vision, the Reality. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

Grant, Nancy L. TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

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"Mr. Carmody, We Want Lights": The Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Under the New Deal

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"Mr. Carmody, We Want Lights": The Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Under the New Deal