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When Land Became Lake

“Under the Lake” is a book published in 2016 about life in the Caney Fork River Valley prior to construction of Center Hill Dam. Pictured above are the book’s authors (from left to right): Judy Taylor Fuson, Carol Denson Williams and Ria Baker.

Seven decades have passed since Center Hill Dam construction

This coming year will mark the 70th anniversary of Center Hill Dam’s completion and subsequent submersion of the Caney Fork River Valley above it.

Undeniably, many modern benefits accompanied the lake impoundment, from hydroelectric power production to flood control to numerous forms of recreation.

So it’s easy — perhaps too easy — to overlook the heart-rending historical reality that for hundreds of families living in the area, the coming of the federal government’s new dam meant doom for their old ways of living. Along with displacement, the rising of Center Hill Lake’s waters came at the price of washing away all but the memories of the only life many former inhabitants had ever known.

When the dam closed off in the fall of 1948, once rich farmland and forests were inundated, thus “completely changing the face of the northern and eastern sections of DeKalb County,” local historian Thomas G. Webb wrote in a “Tennessee County History Series” book published by Memphis State University Press.

Fortunately, three DeKalb County women — Judy Taylor Fuson, Ria Baker and Carol Denson Williams — have endeavored, with assistance from Mr. Webb, to record for posterity the remembrances and manners of life that existed in the valley before it was deluged.

Their 2016 coffee table-style book, “Under the Lake,” is a painstakingly assembled compendium of history, anecdotes, images, maps and family genealogies. It preserves and pays homage to a bygone epoch that gave begrudgingly away to the 20th Century surge of modern resource development.

Construction on Center Hill Dam, 1946

Williams, a retired school teacher of 30 years, said she, Baker and Fuson pored over property maps of the entire lake in an attempt to catalog all the families that owned land and were forced to move. Thousands were dislodged from throughout the region, particularly in the fertile farming areas areas close to the dam, she said.

“DeKalb County population in 1940 was 14,588 yet the following census, in 1950, recorded the county population at 11,680 showing a 2,908 population drop after the dam project was completed,” the authors write in “Under the Lake.”

It’s hard for people today to grasp the scope and process of removing all the people who used to reside amidst the fingers, branches, ravines and coves of what is now a lake in excess of 60 miles long covering nearly 19,000 acres, with more than 400 miles of crooked shoreline.

“That is a massive amount of land,” said Baker, formerly the town mayor of Alexandria. “We’re not talking about just taking a 500 foot strip for an interstate or whatever. And it wasn’t like they were saying, ‘We’re gonna to cut your farm in half and take just so many acres.’ No, it was, ‘We’re going take your whole farm and you’re going to move — we’re going to cover your house up or tear it down, and we don’t care if your grandmother lived there forever’.”

The process of picking up and clearing out was exceptionally difficult for the elderly, who were “really hurt” by the prospect of leaving forever behind family hearth and heritage, she said. Often they never recovered.

“So many people, the older people especially, were just broken,” said Baker. “This was their home, it was their lives. It would probably have happened to anybody in those circumstances, but it was just such a mass of people here. Of course, it also happened everywhere a dam went in.”

Williams said many were in denial about the inevitability of what was happening.

One man reportedly didn’t believe the water was going to submerge all his property, so he “neatly stacked all his belongings up under a bluff overhang.” Baker said. “They finally had to go get him and pull him out — he wasn’t going to leave.”

“A lot of people knew it was coming even before the Second World War, when (government agents) came and started surveying,” said Williams. “But when the war came they had to stop. After the war was over they started full-force. Some people kept saying, ‘Oh no, this is not going to happen.’ In the end, though, it did.”

If you’d like to inquire about ordering a copy of “Under the Lake,” visit the Facebook page maintained by the authors: DeKalb County, TN, Caney Fork River (@nowunderwater).