Skip to main content

Letters from the Field: June 6, 1934

Letters from the Field: Reports on the State of the Nation

Lorena Hickok, Jounalist
Lorena Hickok, Jounalist

Editor’s Note: In 1933 Harry Hopkins, Director of the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, asked journalist Lorena Hickok to travel through the United States and report on the state of the nation. Hickok was in the Tennessee Valley during June, 1934, and sent two reports to Hopkins recording her impression of the local scene and the local reaction to TVA. Below is the first of the two.

From Lorena Hickok
To Harry L. Hopkins

Florence, Alabama June 6, 1934

Dear Mr. Hopkins:

A Promised Land, bathed in golden sunlight, is rising out of the grey shadows of want and squalor and wretchedness down here in the Tennessee Valley these days.

Ten thousand men are at work, building with timber and steel and concrete the New Deal’s most magnificent project, creating an empire with potentialities so tremendous and so dazzling that they make one gasp. I knew very little about the Tennessee Valley Authority when I came down here last week. I spent part of my first day, in Knoxville, reading up on it. I was almost as excited as I used to get over adventure stories when I was a child. This IS an adventure!

Since then I have been traveling through the Valley and the state–a couple of days in Knoxville, a trip to the Norris dam and the town of Norris, a day’s motoring across to Nashville, stopping enroute to look over a subsistence homestead colony a few miles from the Valley, a day in Nashville, a day’s trip down here, visiting with farmers, relief workers, county agents in little towns along the way.

Today I saw the Wilson dam and went down into the power house–which is the best way, I found, to get an idea of how big this thing really is–and drove 20 miles on up the river to watch workmen drilling in rock to lay the foundations of the Wheeler dam.

I’ve talked with people who are doing this job, with people who live in the towns and cities that are going to feel the effects of this program, with ordinary citizens, with citizens on relief–as many kinds of people as I could find.

They don’t all get so excited about it as I do. They criticize some features of the program. I have an impression that thousands of people right here in the Valley don’t really know what it is all about. But the people–the people as a whole–are beginning to “feel” already the presence of TVA, even though it hasn’t made any dent on our relief rolls.

Nearly 10,000 men–about 9,500–are at work in the Valley now, at Norris and Wheeler dams, on various clearing and building projects all over the area.

Thousands of them are residents of the Valley, working five and a half hours a day, five days a week, for a really LIVING wage. Houses are going up for them to live in–better houses than they have ever had in their lives before. And in their leisure time they are studying–farming, trades, the art of living, preparing themselves for the fuller lives they are to lead in that Promised Land.

You are probably saying, “Oh, come down to earth!” But that’s the way the Tennessee Valley affects one these days.

Ten thousand men at work may not seem like so many when Tennessee still has a relief case load of 68,000 and Alabama around 80,000. But it’s something. And there’s no “white collar problem” in Knoxville these days. And people say to you, “Oh, we’re lucky down here in Tennessee. TVA’s a help!”

“Oh, I haven’t heard anybody say anything about the Depression for three months,” remarked a taxicab driver in Knoxville the other day. “Business is three times as good as it was a year ago. You ought to see the crowds at the ballgames.”

Over in Nashville the attitude seems to be: “Maybe we don’t get so direct a benefit out of TVA as they get in Knoxville, but it will be coming eventually. And in the meantime, at least, Roosevelt is trying. He’s doing something!”

Another way by which people hereabouts are being made aware of TVA is in the lowering of rates for electricity. They’ve been forced down already, even where the distribution is still in the hands of privately owned companies.

“I put in an electric hot water heater sometime ago,” one man told me, “but I haven’t been able to use it because it cost too much. But now, with this new rate, I can. I can run that, with all my other equipment–range, iron, mangle, vacuum cleaner, lights, and radio– for the same cost as I went without it before.”

Before I leave the Valley, I’m going down to Tupelo, Miss., the first town to start buying its electric power directly from TVA, and see how they get along. Up here, one hears enthusiastic reports.

Well…. Tennessee has got a huge job of rehabilitation on her hands. And with TVA setting up standards in rehabilitation, the rest of the state has got a long, long way to go.

Out of nearly 70,000 families on relief in Tennessee, probably 30,000 or more live in small towns or in the country. Many of these are in abandoned lumber and mining camps. Most of them who are farmers apparently are living on sub-marginal or marginal land.

Fairly typical, for Western Tennessee, I gather, was a district I visited yesterday. Table land. Thin soil. Terrible housing. Illiteracy. Evidence of prolonged undernourishment. No knowledge of how to live decently or farm profitably if they had decent land.

“Five years is about as long as you can get any crop on this land,” one farmer told me. ” Then it’s gone and you have to clear some more and start over again.”

Crops grown on it are stunted. Corn, for instance, grows only about a third as tall there as it does in Iowa. They tell me it isn’t even good timber land. Just a thin coating of soil over rock. A county agent said it might make good orchard land, but any farming operation there should be under skilled supervision with authority to make farmers do as they were told.

Eastern Tennessee is worse, of course. There you see constantly evidence of what happens when you cut timber off mountain sides and plant crops there. There are great “bald patches” of rock on those mountains!

What to do with these people makes a nice little problem. Whether to move them off–and, if so, where to put them–or, on table land, for instance, where with careful and authoritative supervision they might eke out a living, leave them there and take a chance on their being absorbed in the industries that should be attracted down here by the cheap power furnished by TVA.

There might be, I should think, the possibility of a sort of temporary supervision. Rehabilitate the present adult generation where they are. Try out orchards instead of corn on the table land, for instance. And have it understood that their children are not to inherit that land, but that it will be taken over by the Government as they die, the Government to pay the heirs for it, either with cash or land somewhere else. The idea was advanced by Grace Falke, Secretary Tugwell’s assistant, who has joined me on this trip. Help the parents to get at least a fairly decent living now and do a bang-up job of public health and education on the children.

This may sound wild, but I doubt if in Tennessee there is enough good land available for all of them.

Near Crossville, for instance, a subsistence homestead unit, with some of the loveliest little houses you ever saw, is being set up on about 12,000 acres of new land. They are starting out to raise mostly vegetables on it. The farm expert in charge [says that the soil] won’t stand up under anything heavier, although it’s good soil if handled expertly. They haven’t been able to dig cellars under those houses because, if you go down 20 inches below the surface, you hit rock! I wonder if any sort of farming can ever be carried on permanently on soil that thin.

That homestead unit has the nicest houses I’ve seen anywhere. They are building them of a beautifully colored rock found on the place. They are grand houses, really. But it’s the same old story. Each family moving in there will be somewhere around $2,500 in debt, and any definite plans for enabling those people to pay off those debts aren’t in evidence. They seem to be trusting to God–and the Government.

Well–so far, Tennessee hasn’t got far with any rural rehabilitation program. As you know, they’ve had a lot of administrative trouble.

They’ve at last got a rural rehabilitation man, out of the agricultural extension service. He’s just finding himself. They’re not thinking of rural rehabilitation in Tennessee for this year, but next year.

And all over the state, in the rural areas, the story is the same–an illiterate, wretched people, undernourished, with standards of living so low that, once on relief, they are quite willing to stay there the rest of their lives. It’s a mess.

But then–there’s TVA. It’s coming along. My guess is that, whatever they do or don’t do about rural rehabilitation down in Tennessee, in another decade you wouldn’t know this country. And the best part of it is that here the Government will have control. There’s a chance to create a new kind of industrial life, with decent wages, decent housing. Gosh, what possibilities! You can’t feel very sorry for Tennessee when you see that in the offing.

Yours very truly,

Source: Hickok, Lorena, “Letters from the Field: Reports on the State of the Nation,” New Deal Network, (April 18, 2014).