Leadership Anderson County explores history through “Heritage Day”

  • The Leadership Anderson County Class of 2020 took a walk through history last week as we toured Norris Dam, the Coal Creek Miners Museum and other historic places.

  • We even got to see a once-hidden mural painted by Robert Birdwell in the 1950s

There were many interesting, eye-opening moments during last Tuesday’s “Heritage Day” with Leadership Anderson County, but what I will always remember is this: one fateful day in the 1970s, TVA managers at Norris Dam made the decision to cover up a slightly water-damaged, 1950s original hand-painted mural with a big yellow rug.

The ‘70s, man. It was brutal.

Nobody that works there now even knew about it, from what I understand. They just knew there was a yellow rug on the wall. It was ugly, so they decided to do something different before the dam’s 80th anniversary celebration.

As they peeled away the big, ugly, 1970s yellow rug, they discovered a sprawling mural that depicted all the towns and rivers the TVA served. It was painted by Robert Birdwell, a well known Knoxville artist credited with helping bring modern art to Knoxville.

The paint was lead-based, which may have been why it was covered up.

The mural really tells the story of the TVA, with depictions of the dams and even people.

It’s beautiful.

But as the rug was peeled away, a lot of the paint chipped away, too. The rug had been secured with nails and glue, so naturally that screwed up the painting even more. Chemists and artists were brought in to meticulously restore the mural, which is now on display in the lobby of the offices at Norris Dam. (It’s not open for public viewing.) They were even able to rework the paint chips somehow and reuse them.

The rest of the Norris Dam tour was just as interesting. We traveled down halls that were made from poured cement, but it looked like wood because of the wooden molds used to install them. Seeing those halls, the piping, the ladders and the machinery and technology that was used to create this place nearly a century ago was awe-inspiring.

Next up was Rocky Top. We ate some fantastic barbecue provided by Coal Creek Smokehouse, then visited the Coal Creek Miners Museum. It was my first visit to the museum, and I and the rest of my classmates were blown away by the detailed history told to us by Charles “Boomer” Winfrey.

I had no idea how much of a miners’ town Rocky Top was, or that the town went to war against the state of Tennessee. I didn’t know about the convict lease system or a whole lot about the Fraterville Mine Disaster.

Rocky Top has always been very dramatic, apparently. And intense. The town’s original name was Coal Creek, renamed to Lake City to capitalize on the geography of the area, and now, Rocky Top. The Fraterville mining disaster is one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever heard, and was the catalyst behind the entire nation changing its child labor laws. The Coal Creek War — literally a war, you guys, so intense — was a labor uprising that happened because the mining companies started hiring convicts and firing all the residents of the town. They even wanted to take away their homes. It was ridiculous, and the brave miners were not OK with it.

That changed the way the entire convict lease system worked.

There is strength, resilience, pride and determination coursing through the blood of the descendants of those miners. I strongly encourage everyone to visit the museum.

Our last stop was the American Museum of Science and Energy. Our special speaker, Oak Ridge historian Ray Smith, reminded us that most towns have one historic moment that changed its destiny, but Anderson County has several. The creation of Norris Dam — along with the entire city of Norris — and the subsequent expansion of electricity, and the creation of the Secret City and the bomb that ended World War II changed more than our county.

Those things changed the world.

What an incredible place to live.