Wednesday, August 31, 2011


On Monday I remarked about the government taking land in what is now Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the wartime Manhattan Project. Some 92 square miles of what was then sparsely-settled farm land, including three communities, were cleared of people and a fence erected around the perimeter. Inside this space were built 3 industrial plants (code-named K-25, X-10, and Y-12) that formed the largest of the three sites devoted to the race to build an atomic weapon.

The K-25 building was built to separate uranium's fissile isotope, uranium-235, from its other, non-fissile, isotopes, using the gaseous diffusion process. Uranium-235 occurs naturally, but it accounts for only about 0.7% of naturally-occurring uranium. It must be enriched to 20% or more for use in a nuclear reactor, and much more for nuclear weapons. The gaseous-diffusion process is a brute-strength approach that exploits the minute differences in the size of uranium isotopes by pushing gaseous uranium hexafluoride gas through thousands of membranes, called barriers, until the desired enrichment is reached.

The whole process requires thousands of pumps and electric motors, and large amounts of electricity. I've read that during the war, the K-25 plant alone used more electricity than the city of Boston at the time. Hence, it was the building of Norris Dam that allowed the Manhattan Project to be sited in east Tennessee. It took a very large building to contain all of that equipment. The finished, U-shaped building was a mile from one end of the "U" to the other, and contained some 2 million square feet under roof. Workers rode bicycles around the top floor to get from one end to the other.The photo below gives a sense of scale:
Some 12,000 construction workers were involved in building the plant between June 1943 and its completion early in 1945. Many were housed in a temporary construction camp nearby (lower right of photo below) that was dubbed "Happy Valley," allegedly because of its enormous birth rate.
The government eventually built two more gaseous diffusion plants at the K-25 site, and plants near Paducah, KY, and Portsmouth, OH, which provided fuel for commercial power reactors as well as military needs. By the 1980s, there was significant over capacity and the Oak Ridge plants were shut down. The K-25 site is now being decontaminated and demolished, with the land being made available for commercial development.

There has been considerable concern for historic preservation, but such presents enormous challenges. The scale, age, and radioactive contamination of the equipment within K-25 pose costs that are simply beyond any imaginable resources. Several proposals are on the table, and both local and national preservationists are working with the government to find a suitable solution. Meanwhile, the K-25 plant has almost entirely been torn down, as have many support structures on the site.

Note: All photographs used are U.S. government photographs and are in the Public Domain.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Sunday morning, August 20, 1911

He met Sam on Coal Hill Road, just in front of the school. They spoke briefly, there was a single gunshot, and Sam lay dying in the road. His brother, a deputy U.S. Marshall, took him to the jail where his friend Eck locked him up. He was tried and convicted on Tuesday, and returned to Eck's care. Wednesday morning he was gone. Another state, a new identity. The courthouse burned and all records were lost. His wife and children quietly disappeared a few months later. The end of the story.

Immigrants in this place, like so many other coal miners. And like so many other coal miners, they didn't talk about their past. Children and grandchildren born here knew only that there was a family secret. As the years passed, little bits of information began to seep out; the state they were from, their former name, he had killed a man.

They're all dead now; him, his wife, and all of their children. Grandchildren search for clues in old newspapers and among distant relatives. Bits and pieces leading nowhere. Why did it happen? Was it over a woman? Money? Labor disputes? Will we ever know? A century later, is that really important?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Norris Dam

On Friday I wrote that the houses being built for the Cumberland Homesteads had been wired in anticipation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. This large, federal project was conceived to provide flood control, generate electricity, improve navigation, manufacture fertilizer, and lead in economic development within the Tennessee Valley. The net result is that today the Tennessee Valley is one of the leading economic successes of all of Appalachia, if not the entire nation.

The first TVA project completed was a hydroelectric dam on the Clinch River north of Knoxville, which was named in honor of Nebraska Senator George Norris who led the fight for creation of the TVA. Before completion of the dam in 1936, the government purchased more than 152,000 acres of land, and relocated some 2,800 families and 5,200 graves from land to be flooded. An unfortunate sidebar to that story was that several of the families relocated bought farms in the Poplar Creek Valley of Anderson County. Then in 1942 the government took their new homes for the Manhattan Project and what became Oak Ridge, which was located there because of the availability of electricity from the Norris Dam.

Today only some 10% of TVA's power is generated by dams, with most coming from fossil plants and roughly a quarter from nuclear. There is a growing development of renewable energy that includes 17 wind generators on Buffalo Mountain and methane from a Memphis wastewater treatment plant.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Cumberland Homesteads

The Cumberland Homesteads was a New Deal project designed to bring hope to miners, factory workers, and others displaced by the Great Depression. Workers and their families would be relocated to small farms, which they would pay for through their "sweat equity," that is, work on the project itself for which part of their salary would be held back in repayment of their loans. More than 2,000 families applied for some 250 available homesteads.

The stone and timber used in construction of houses, barns, and outbuildings were obtained locally. At the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, each house had indoor plumbing, which was uncommon in the rural area at the time. Running water was supplied from a 50,000 gallon tank housed in the tower shown above. Also, each house was wired for electricity in anticipation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which began supplying electricity in 1937.

Originally built to house administrative offices, as well as the water tank, the Homesteads Tower now serves as a museum for the National Register of Historic Places district. The Cumberland Homesteads are located 4 miles south of Crossville, Tennessee, near the Cumberland Mountain State Park.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Yard Art

This horse-drawn, cutter-bar mower once found its place in a farmer's hay fields. Now, tractors and more-efficient mowers have pushed it aside. Shall it be melted down for scrap? No, it makes a perfectly rustic mail-box post, and lends an agricultural flavor to a landscape that has long since moved on to other pursuits.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Grace, beauty, and function

Shaker design is valued for its spare beauty, often the result of an obsessive devotion to functionality. Still, examples exist where function could have been achieved more simply. The stairs in the 1839 Trustees Office at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill are one. Instead of paired, straight stairs on either side, as is found in all the other buildings at Pleasant Hill, Micajah Burnett built twin spirals on either side of the central hallways that rise three floors. The stairs curve in opposite directions, as if they were anticipating discovery of the structure of DNA. The bedrooms next to the stairs even have their walls curved inward to accommodate the stairs.

The Trustees Office is the one building in the community that wasn't intended for exclusive Shaker use. It was built as a place where the Trustees, or business agents, for the community could greet and house people from outside the community in order to conduct their business affairs. Perhaps Mr. Burnett was trying to impress the outsiders with the Shakers' ability and ingenuity.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Declarative or Imperative? Or what?

We've grown accustomed to these signs, especially following passage of the economic stimulus packages. They come just after you have cleared a construction work zone and inform that it's permissible to resume normal speeds. There is one associated with our by-pass project that causes pause, however.

This one comes just as you approach the actual work site. Hmmmm??

Is it coincidence that it's located next to one of our famous "WARNING - Jesus is coming!" signs? Could there be another meaning?

Monday, August 22, 2011

It's a snake-eat-snake world!

My friend Tyler, age 14, called from near the barn "There's a snake", followed by "There are two snakes, and one is eating the other one!" After taking a quick look, I ran for my camera. There was no time to change lenses, so let's ignore the quality and focus on content.

There was a Black King Snake (Lampropeltis getula nigra) swallowing a Smooth Earth Snake (Virginia valeriae). King snakes eat lots of things, but they are famous for eating both venomous and non-venomous snakes. Since they do eat Copperheads and their kin, they're valuable snakes to have around and I was glad to see this one. I would rather he had a Copperhead in his mouth, however. Today's lunch was an uncommon species that feeds on worms, insect larvae, and such. I wouldn't have minded keeping him around, as well, but who is to argue with nature?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Don't worry, Mother, I'll protect you

My wife was wanting to cut some sunflower heads to bring into the house and I saw this unusual pair. It was as if the smaller head was ready to take the bullet for dear old Mum. That thought and the naturally polarized sky behind them demanded a photograph.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Game of Graces

The Game of Graces was invented in the early 19th century to be a proper exercise for young ladies. It is played by two people at a time, each with a pair of dowels. There is a hoop that one player tosses by pulling the dowels apart and the other attempts to catch with her two dowels. The first player to catch ten tosses wins a game.
It's more difficult than it looks!
A supposed additional benefit of the game was teaching girls to be graceful.
It turns out to be fun to watch, too. Even this Mountie was taken in by it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Quilt Show

This is the third of four installments about the 2011 Frozen Head State Park Heritage Festival. What is more a part of our heritage than hand-made quilts? Quilters from throughout the area assembled a show of traditional and modern quilts that drew considerable attention. First, there were the traditional quilts, such as Grandma's Flower Basket, Rail Fence, and Sunbonnet Sue.

There was a fancy applique sampler quilt.

There was a sampler that used patterns from the Morgan County Heritage Barn-Quilt Trail, for which the Trail organizers sold kits to help defray costs of the Trail.

There was a whimsical quilt made as as present for the Morgan County Chamber of Commerce's Executive Director on her 75th birthday. Gigi is famous for wearing high heels, even in the annual Christmas parade! It's called Objects of Desire. (She loved it!)

But the star of the show (no pun intended), was this king-size Lone Star quilt. It took 8 months to hand-piece the small parts and another 12 months to hand quilt it. Such patience is beyond my understanding!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Clogging or Buck Dancing?

Yesterday I mentioned the cloggers at Saturday's Frozen Head State Park Heritage Festival. For some reason, clogging wasn't a part of my youth; I didn't discover it until I came to Tennessee. But I now know it was, and is, practiced in West Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Wikipedia has a succinct article on it, which added to my knowledge as I prepared this posting.
Somewhere along the line I learned to call it clogging when there was a group that danced in unison, and buck dancing when the dancers each did their own steps. I'd call this buck dancing.
Part of the function of any heritage festival is to pass the culture on to younger generations. We got to see that happening on Saturday, when one of the dancer's grandchildren joined her onstage.
We also got to see what happens when youth, athletic ability, and threat of losing the spotlight converge. Yes, I'm envious.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Frozen Head Heritage Festival 2011

Frozen Head State Park's annual Heritage Day is equal parts fun and education, keeping the Appalachian traditions alive.
There was Bluegrass music, of course,
which brought out the cloggers.
There was food, served up by the Morgan County Cattlemen's Association.
There were craft demonstrators,
and a spinning demonstration using freshly-plucked fur from Angora rabbits.
There was apple cider, freshly squeezed and served by the volunteer fire department,
and games that held a built-in history lesson, led by a ranger educated in Appalachian studies.
There was a chance to experience working with a two-man cross-cut saw,
and a Confederate soldier who came all the way from west Tennessee.

And there was a show of traditional, hand-made quilts. Yet, with all these attractions, crowds were light.
It was a great event; pity so many people missed it!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Dixie Cafe

It's just off the courthouse square in Byrdstown, Tennessee. It's nothing fancy on the outside, and the inside continues in that vein. But they serve up good food at reasonable prices in a family atmosphere. And every Friday and Saturday night they also serve up Bluegrass!

The best bands from the Upper Cumberland can be found here, playing to audiences that frequently contain 3 generations of families. They serve no alcohol, so if things ever get a little rowdy, it's strictly audience response to the night's band. So if you're ever at Dale Hollow Lake on a weekend, come on down to the Dixie for dinner. It's a true Upper Cumberland Plateau cultural experience.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wind Farm

Returning from a trip to Northern Virginia this week we stopped over with relatives in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. When I was invited to "go up on the mountain" to view the newly operational wind generators, I jumped at the chance. Sitting atop four mountains and their intervening ridges is a wind farm of 119 generators that stretches for some 15 miles (24 km).

Each generator stands 400 feet (120 m) tall and generates slightly more than 1.5 megawatts of electricity. The farm has a combined output of 186 megawatts (a megawatt is one million watts, or enough electricity to light ten thousand 100 watt incandescent light bulbs). The developer claims the wind farm will satisfy the electrical needs of some 50,000 households. The blades look slender and graceful as they turn slowly in the wind. But up close, they appear much bulkier.

The man and pickup truck show the great scale of one blade. The towers were assembled on site, but the developers still had to greatly widen the winding road to the mountaintop to accommodate the long trailers carrying the components. Now the maintenance crews and tourists enjoy a wide, safe access to the top. I was surprised to find we could drive up for a close view of the towers.

There was considerable local resistance to building the wind farm, primarily because people didn't want to see the towers as part of their mountain view. That position was reinforced by a lawsuit that claimed operation would result in unacceptable deaths among the endangered Indiana Bat population. Obviously each of these objections has been overruled since all units were operating when we were there.

I really don't know what, if any, effect operation of wind generators has on bat populations, but I personally don't mind seeing these white towers along the mountain top. And these are located in what I find to be one of the most beautiful areas I've ever enjoyed. The view from the mountain top over the wooded valleys and distant mountains is simply breathtaking. And they neither emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere nor produce dangerous, long-lived wastes to be managed.