Damming the TVA

Damming the TVA: 50 years ago, a grassroots groundswell fought the federal agency’s plan to reshape the French Broad River Basin
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One fall day in 1971, Jere Brittain walked from his doorstep near the confluence of the North and South Mills River. He passed the foot bridge that led to his father’s house, then the swimming hole near a tract of bottomland, and paused at the shallow edge of the old fording place below sycamores and oaks, their leaves showing autumn color. From a sandy bank, he surveyed the narrow waterway flowing over ancient stones in shades of red, grey, brown, and black, all glistening in the morning sun.

Brittain envisioned what this river could become if its water rose above the banks, swelled over the road, swamped the fields, and permanently flooded farmland, homes, and even the three-tiered steeple of the Mills River Baptist Church.

In fact, if he and others didn’t stand in the way, that’s exactly what was going to happen.

Troubled Waters

Today, the river flows slow and clear, and the two primary branches of the Mills River look much as they did when Brittain was a boy growing up in the quaint river valley eight decades ago. But on that fall day in 1971, despite leading a years-long battle to preserve his valley from the Tennessee Valley Authority—the country’s most powerful New Deal-era federal agency—he wasn’t sure it would be spared.

He’d left Mills River, where he was born and raised, for a while to pursue higher education. After attending college at Clemson, Brittain earned a doctorate in plant physiology from Virginia Tech in 1967 and returned to his home place with his wife Joanne and young children to care for his ailing parents.

“No sooner had we moved back when we heard the TVA had planned this scheme,” the spry octogenarian remembered during a recent stroll near his home in the South Mills River community. Brittain speaks thoughtfully and precisely, seldom raising his voice. An ally in the struggle against the TVA once described him as quiet, droll, and unassuming, but someone who commanded respect. Born in 1935 and reared on a subsistence farm, he descended from the first wave of Scotch-Irish that settled the valleys of Southern Appalachia in the late eighteenth century. “We have pretty deep roots,” Brittain noted, tapping a walking stick.

Suddenly, in his early thirties, he ran headlong into a TVA master plan that was already well on its way to becoming reality. The agency’s megaproject would include 14 dams on tributaries of the upper French Broad River in four North Carolina counties. According to the planning documents, Mills River’s dam would result in a lake that would subsume 660 acres and be bordered by 14 miles of shoreline. It would also displace an estimated 60 Mills River families, including Brittain’s.

“For several years, it was never far from our minds,” Brittain remembers of the dam dispute. “We were surrounded with it.” Going into it, he was well aware that the Herculean TVA seldom, if ever, lost a fight. The plan was endorsed by all units of local government, from city councils to US senators. Despite this, opposition to the dam project surfaced throughout the region, led in large part by Brittain. His defense of the Mills River was the epicenter of a grassroots movement of fierce opposition to the TVA’s plan, which spanned the French Broad river valley from Rosman to Marshall.

“We got very involved in the fight,” Brittain says—an assertion borne out in the archives, oral histories, fading news clips, and sharp memories that record the battle of WNC versus the TVA. “It was a community squaring off and trying to defend itself with the imminent possibility of losing family property. Of losing a community.”

As the UFBDA found its message gaining traction in state newspapers, it spread the word itself through publicity operations including newspaper ads (far left) and mailers like the one shown here.

High and Risin’

The French Broad River valley, because of the region’s steep topography, is tormented by floods. In 2004, to cite a not-too-distant example, back-to-back hurricanes Frances and Ivan devastated many mountain towns and inundated portions of Asheville along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. The floods were blamed for 11 deaths across Western North Carolina.

But the worst flood in recorded history overwhelmed the region the first two weeks of July 1916. Remnants of a Gulf Coast hurricane pounded the mountains, and on July 16, a hurricane from the Atlantic brought epic rainfall. The death toll, though uncertain, may have reached 80 people, with hundreds injured, to say nothing of the enormous losses of property and vital infrastructure. The 1916 flood still stands as the region’s worst natural disaster.

Over the next several decades, numerous dam projects were proposed to temper the punch of future storms and floods, but none of the proposals stuck. However, following a major French Broad flood in 1961, a report from the WNC Regional Planning Commission, which represented the economic interests of 17 mountain counties, recommended the TVA draft a blueprint for a “comprehensive unified resources development of the French Broad area”—a project that would solve the bane of floods and lift the economies of the French Broad valley.

As if on cue, in 1964, the river again exceeded its banks, soaking Rosman and Brevard near the French Broad’s headwaters and submerging Asheville streets. The flooding reignited public interest in the TVA’s potential countermeasures. In 1965, the agency presented a preliminary design, then the next year unveiled a massive plan calling for 14 containments. Located in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania counties, the dams would immerse 19,200 acres under water and create 6,700 acres of lake area and 183 miles of shoreline. The projected cost of the project was $96 million (or $800 million today, adjusting for inflation). The plan, the TVA said, was “part of an overall program for economic advancement in the region.” The program promised to “provide significant flood control benefits, as well as benefits from water supply, water quality control, recreation, shoreline development, fishing, and area redevelopment.”

According to the plan, Mills River’s dam would be first in the construction line, the Brittains’ farm set perilously behind it.

Power to the People

Created in 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority was started as a federally owned corporation devised to build dams to control floods, facilitate navigation, lift people from poverty, and provide electricity to the South on a massive scale. The TVA became a symbol of the economic might that rebounded from the Great Depression and the ability of a benevolent public enterprise to solve monumental problems. The sprawling, powerful agency helped America recover, guided by its motto: “Power to the People.”

The TVA, however, was not part of any federal department, and thus had an unusual amount of freedom. The agency, then and now, operates like a private corporation and receives no taxpayer money. Although highly regarded by many for its lead in the electrification of the South, the TVA wasn’t exempt from criticism. The agency’s stature, in fact, began to fray once the Depression and World War II were in the nation’s rear view, but it remained definitively in the dam business.

Since the TVA’s origins, its leaders understood that an imposed federal program would be unwanted unless it brought together the local agencies and groups concerned with the development of a region’s resources, such as private organizations, state agencies, and local governments and commissions. To serve the TVA mission of gleaning local support for tributary projects, it created organizations made up of local civic leaders and local governments in effected watersheds. Such groups were bestowed special powers, among them the use of eminent domain—the right to expropriate private property for public use (with fair-market compensation) —and the ability to allocate funds throughout the region.

Critics like Brittain alleged the watershed associations were led by affluent, influential, and powerful citizens who had a personal incentive—economic or otherwise—to support dams. The organizations, opponents charged, were set up as a constituency to advance the TVA’s agenda without a participatory process to gauge the will of the public. But in Mills River and neighboring communities, the TVA was about to get an unexpected earful.

Good Morning Man

The chair of the TVA’s WNC watershed organization was the late Kermit Edney, a Hendersonville media figure and champion of local economic progress. In a cheery voice, Edney woke up generations of Henderson County listeners as The Old Good Morning Man, a program broadcast from 1947 to 1991. The World War II veteran forged his broad listenership from the small radio station WHKP, ultimately earning a spot in the North Carolina Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was also a civic leader. In a biography prepared for a 1996 leadership award, an admirer stated that “Kermit never did anything for self-interest. He has always been dedicated to the community and people he loved.”

Edney’s goodwill, however, wasn’t extended to least one resident of the county: Jere Brittain. Edney was a zealous advocate of the TVA dams and, in particular, the one on the Mills River. His point of view may have been hardened by the floods witnessed throughout his lifetime. In fact, Edney was a weather buff and authored a book about the 1916 flood. In the 1960s, he envisioned a new era of economic development in Henderson County and foresaw the upper valley as the “hub around which virtually all development will come in Western Carolina.”

Created in December 1965, the Upper French Broad Economic Development Commission’s function was to interface between local elected officials and the TVA. Its members were selected by county commissioners, and as chair, Edney understood that the commission was positioned to help direct federal assistance from the TVA and other agencies, giving it real power.

Brittain would soon come to spar with Edney in the arena of public debate. “His radio show was widely listened to at the time, but I didn’t know Edney on a personal basis,” Brittain recalls. “I knew him only as a political adversary. … He was genuinely convinced that this represented a big economic boon to the area. What his motives were beyond that, I couldn’t say.”

According to Brittain, Edney became the de facto mouthpiece for the TVA in Henderson County, and an effective one at that. In no small part due to the radio host’s advocacy, acceptance of the project was near universal among civic organizations, local governments, and broad swaths of the public. Given the powers vested in the mighty TVA, many regarded fighting the dam, Edney, and the regional economic organizations as a fool’s errand.

When Brittain returned to Mills River in 1967, the prevailing opinion among the community “was that we just threw up our hands and said, well, this is the TVA and the federal government,” he says—so resistance was futile. “For whatever reason, I didn’t believe this was true. I believed that it was feasible to oppose these people within the system. I believed it could be beat.”

The brewing but scattered opposition to the TVA plan took a hit in January of 1969, when Congress allocated $3.3 million to begin construction of the Mills River dam. The displacement of 60 families, be they willing or not, appeared imminent. (Brittain acknowledges that some of his neighbors would have gladly accepted a payout and TVA-funded relocation.)

“We all felt despair, myself included,” Brittain recalls. “None of us has much experience in the world of politics. Politically, it looked like a done deal. It took us quite a while to convince ourselves that we could mount an opposition. Our mantra was that we were going to work through the system the best we could.”

Much later, towards the conclusion of the community’s battle with the TVA, Bill Edmundson, an ad salesman at Edney’s station who worshipped at the Mills River Baptist Church, approached Brittain. “One Sunday morning at the height of all of this, when Kermit realized that we might have a chance of winning, Bill took me aside at the church steps and said that Kermit wanted me to tell you that this project means more to him than life itself.

“I was so startled by it that I remember it distinctly,” Brittain says. “I had no other basis for having ill will about Kermit. I had great ill will towards what I considered the manner in which the economic development commission let itself be manipulated and used as a tool by the TVA.”

The Casserole Lobby

As the push to build the dam mounted, in February 1969 a high-ranking TVA employee, John “Jack” Barron, sauntered confidently up the gravel hillside and through the door of the one-room cinder block Mills River Community Center—a building that, if the TVA got its way, would become a ruin under a hundred feet of water. Joining him were an aide to U.S. Congressman Roy Taylor, who supported the dam plan, and a member of the economic development commission.

Long before the Upper French Broad TVA proposal had materialized, the community center’s covered-dish dinners were a bedrock of local life. Brittain, who is partial to pound cake and ice cream, recalls community dinners with tasty home-cooked staples, cakes, cobblers, and casseroles. Typically held on a Thursday or Saturday, the dinners were long a predominantly social occasion—that is, until they became pep rallies in the fight against the TVA.

On that cold evening more than five decades ago, the three proponents of the dam found no harmony. To the left of the center’s doorway on the front wall, a fire sizzled, but unlike at most gatherings in the community center, this one hosted no covered dishes, just a pot of coffee—and dozens of Brittain’s neighbors.

Unintentionally, says Brittain, who presided at the meeting, the guests were backed against the raging hearth, but while the tone of the meeting was at times confrontational, things remained orderly. One by one, the three proponents laid out their case for the benefits of a dam and the future of the valley, but their statements proved woefully unsatisfactory to the skeptical audience.

“We confronted them about their so-called cost-benefit analysis of the project and that they hadn’t taken into account the social costs of the families living here for generations on the same property,” Brittain recalls. “How do you place value on a church or a graveyard? They did not have an answer and it appeared they hadn’t bothered to think about it.

“They may have felt that they had walked into an ambush,” Brittain recalls, noting the fury in the room aimed at the TVA. “They may have thought they were going to be with people that weren’t able to articulate the issues. I think they took us a lot more seriously after that meeting.” Nevertheless, in the weeks that followed, it became clear the dam project would continue, and Brittain broke off communication with the TVA. Instead, he says, “we started to play hard ball.”

Newspaper headlines in November 1972 announced the defeat of the TVA’s proposal. Six years earlier, local citizens had begun staging protests against the agency’s plans to appropriate their lands for the project (while offering fair-market compensation).

The Dam Fighters

The outspoken Mills River residents weren’t the TVA’s only problem. Other small but active opposition groups assembled over time in neighboring communities that shared similar concerns. One took root in Transylvania County, on the Little River. Another sprang up at Warren Wilson College along the Swannanoa River in Buncombe County, where the school’s working farm was jeopardized by the plan. They met at churches and community centers and squeezed into living rooms. People were informed and updated by church bulletins, telephone calls, and bulletin boards at gas stations and country stores. In Mills River, Brittain rallied his “dam fighters” with petitions that gathered hundreds of signatures.

The enclaves of community pushback against the TVA project were, at first, independent. Gradually, however, they united into a single movement, consolidating in 1970. “It was slow and steady, but the formation of a single defense organization was a natural result of more and better communication between the communities,” says Brittain, who was nominated to chair the group at its formation in September 1970. “There was consensus that we would have strength in numbers and a stronger identity. It was an interesting coalition of locals concerned about losing property—who were mainly conservative—and national environmental organizations that were liberal. It was a perfect storm for a successful battle.”

They called themselves the Upper French Broad Defense Association, and at its peak the group had 1,500 dues-paying members. Edney, for one, despised the UFBDA. He criticized their name as “totally similar to the name of UFBEDC, the legally constituted body serving with legal status.” And indeed, the choice was no coincidence, says Brittain: “We wanted to make it clear who we were opposing.”

Edney downplayed Brittain as the leader of a rogue, “self-appointed” resistance assisted by a “few retired people,” and disparaged Brittain’s unsuccessful run for county commissioner in 1970. Reflecting on that campaign, Brittain admits with a chuckle, “Obviously I wasn’t very good at it, but I don’t regret it. My purpose was singular: to influence the dam.”

The Valley People

While Brittain’s political career may have ended before it started, he leaned on another political upstart from Transylvania County named Charles Taylor. As Brittain quarterbacked a grassroots movement, the protection of the Mills River was anchored to the political fortune of the future U.S. congressman. Taylor would go on to serve 16 years in Congress, but in 1966 he was a lone Republican among a sea of Democrats winning a seat in the lower chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly. His platform included his strong opposition to the TVA’s plan.

“Charles was smart and articulate, and he was the only game in town as far as political support,” says Brittain, who remains friends with Taylor to this day. “Charles played a major role. If it hadn’t been for his political connections, this valley would have been lost.”

Taylor’s political weight was bolstered by concerned citizens like Martha Gash Boswell of Brevard. Among the most active members of the UFBDA, Boswell stirred opposition to damming the Little River tributary. Brittain calls her the “grande dame” of the organization and remembers her as personable and no stranger to public affairs. She was active in the women’s liberation movement for decades and the environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s. “She had a certain dignity and elegance and spoke with perfect diction,” he recalled of the retired English teacher. “Martha was smart, politically savvy, and was diligent in getting her facts together. She was a great political strategist.”

“If you wanted to improve a school or build a road, you went to the UFBEDC,” the late Boswell recalled in a 1983 interview. “They were advertised as to bring all sorts of goodies.” In addition to dozens of archived letters, she self published a history of the fight: Grassroots Along the Upper French Broad: The Valley People Versus the TVA.

“The TVA money was flowing out, and the more it flowed out, the more support there was for the TVA. It was proving to be a grand bonanza,” she said sarcastically.

According to Brittain, Boswell was the godmother of Charles Taylor and may have been pivotal in bringing him to the fight. She served as a mentor to the politician, and Taylor would return the favor by providing care for Boswell in her final years.

At the time of the dam dispute, Taylor wasn’t able to find places to speak in Democratic-leaning Transylvania County, so Boswell formed her own organization, the Citizens and Taxpayers League. “We called a meeting to give Charles a chance to talk,” she said of a February 1967 gathering. “It was a little front, that was all. We would pick out some local problem” to trick the local paper into covering the meeting, then bring Taylor to the front. At a 1967 meeting of the Brevard League of Women Voters, Taylor stressed that the TVA plan included the right to “acquire real property by appropriation.” The pronouncement, she wrote, “chilled the hearers.”

To build their campaign against the TVA plan, Brittain, Boswell, and others launched a well-coordinated marketing campaign they called their “speaker’s bureau” and delivered dozens of presentations to civic groups, garden clubs, churches, and local television views. The volunteers cranked out hundreds of letters to newspapers and politicians.

In Brevard, Boswell recruited Hap Simpson, Alex Duris, and Elmer Johnson to form what she called the “propaganda committee.” Duris, who was among the most active, lived on what would have been the Clear Creek reservoir, near Fruitland in Henderson County, under the TVA’s plan. “He was a great writer of letters to the editor and politicians,” Brittain recalls. “He must have read 20 different papers and would send clippings about related activities. He was tireless and served as secretary for most of the life of the organization. There is no telling how many letters he licked and sticked.”

Boswell’s missives, as well, were hard-nosed, clever, and informed, and she was unmoved by title or stature. She sent dozens of typed letters to Senator B. Everett Jordan, an unwavering supporter of the TVA. In one, she wrote: “You have never supported any measure advocated by conservationists in Western North Carolina, but I am grateful ... for the mass of TVA propaganda that you have shared with me these past six years.”

Jordan’s replies were congenial, but he forwarded each of her letters to the TVA headquarters, a step that irked Boswell. The responses to her criticism of the project often came from the chairman of the TVA’s board of directors, Aubrey “Red” Wagner, who became director of the agency in 1954.

Known as “Mr. TVA” by rank and file employees, Wagner was beloved and part of the agency’s heroic, earlier era. Known to be stubborn, especially when he believed he was right, he had a lifetime of confidence to back his belief the TVA’s plan would win the day. In a 1971 letter, Wagner defended the upper French Broad proposal. “We realize that in every change someone is going to be inconvenienced to some extent,” he wrote. “We feel that as a whole the proposed plan will achieve the greatest overall benefits while at the same time causing the least inconvenience to area residents.”

The ground was shifting under Wagner, however. Mounting criticisms—and potential legal constraints—threatened to reign in his agency. The waning image of TVA as a conservation organization in the 1960s and ’70s coincided with the rise of the environmental movement and the “conservation Congress” that passed seminal legislation, including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.

Known as the Magna Carta of environmental legislation, NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects and social and economic impacts of a proposed project before making a decision, and to prepare an environmental impact statement describing the consequences of the proposal, while requiring federal agencies to provide opportunities for public review and comment.

In the decades since its creation, the TVA had dammed hundreds of rivers, moved thousands of families, and profoundly changed the landscape of the Southeast, yet had never held a public hearing.

Cracks Form

Despite NEPA’s passage and the UFBDA’s persistent voice, news in early 1970 was not good for Brittain’s dam fighters. “When we heard that Congress had appropriated money [for the Mills River dam], it was pretty bleak at that point,” he recalls. In March, Barron, the TVA’s director of Tributary Area Development, who’d been grilled at the the Mills River Community Center a year prior, declared that core drilling of the Mills River dam site would begin soon.

As irreversible as the project now seemed, cracks formed in the prior level of support, and Brittain and his fighters pounced. In early 1971, Brittain travelled with Ernst Laursen, Warren Wilson College’s farm director, up the crooked road from Asheville’s city center to the governor’s Western Residence on Town Mountain. The college’s cropland was threatened by one of the proposed dams on the Swannanoa River, and Laursen wanted to enlist Governor Robert “Bob” Scott, an old acquaintance, in the opposition.

The visit proved “a turning point in our optimism,” Brittain remembers. “We laid out our case to him,” and while the TVA had counted on Scott’s endorsement, the governor insisted otherwise: state engineers supported the dams, but Scott did not. In fact, in the summer of 1971, Scott publicly raised questions about the adequacy of the project’s environmental impact statement, which, he said, grossly underestimated the potential ramifications.

“It was the first crack in the shell of the TVA’s claim that they had full endorsement at the state and local level,” Brittain says. “It was the first domino to fall.” Meanwhile, local opposition to the Mills River dam gained momentum. In August 1971, the mayor of Brevard revoked his support for the project. Civic organizations began to waver, and statewide editorial pages, perhaps provoked by the UFBDA’s media blitz, increasingly critiqued the plan.

Then, Brittain and his allies received what was perhaps their biggest windfall: under the recently enacted NEPA, the TVA would finally be forced to start holding public meetings. The environmental impact statement mandated by the legislation was released in June 1971, and the opposition was about to confront the TVA on its most visible stage yet: a public hearing in Asheville.

What the People Want

“Ladies and gentlemen, can you hear me in the back?” blared the TVA’s Jack Barron. It was August 31, 1971, and he was seated at a table on the stage in the Humanities Building at UNC Asheville. In front of him, more that 200 people had assembled. The atmosphere was jubilant, more like a tent revival than a public hearing. The official transcript of the hearing, which Brittain has curated in his basement, includes two volumes, each the size of a Sears catalog, documenting more than 2,000 pages of public comments.

“Talk louder,” someone yelled. The necks of the majority of people in the room were wrapped in yellow scarves, with the letters UFBDA printed in large black letters, giving them the appearance of cadets waiting for a pep talk.

“I apologize for the public address system,” said Barron. “It was working yesterday afternoon.” The sound quality would be the least of the TVA’s worries during a marathon three-day hearing, held to address the dam planned for the Mills River. The hearing would be the second ever held by the agency; the first, just a week earlier, convened in Tennessee to hear public comment on a pair of contentious dams on the Duck River.

Once Barron concluded his initial statement, which spans 22 double-spaced pages of the transcript, an ally of the dam fighters appealed to grant Brittain an equal amount of time “to rebut some of [Barron’s] remarks.”

The request was denied, but the opposition would still have a hefty say. As Brittain recalls, “we rounded up people to convince them that even though they never made a public speech in their lives, they could say something at the hearing.” In all, over 300 people requested to speak. To give everyone an opportunity, the TVA limited each comment to five minutes. The first speakers for the morning and stretching into the afternoon were proponents of the dam, including Edney’s ad man, Bill Edmundson, who delivered comments in his boss’ absence.

After a lunch break, the meeting was opened to speakers from a sign-up list. According to the 1983 interview with Martha Boswell, two young women unconnected to the movement but sympathetic to the dam fighters provided their names to speak. Slyly, Boswell withheld yellow scarves from the two so they would appear to be in favor of the project and perhaps more likely to be selected to speak.

“The TVA saw these two women sitting there with no scarves on and they got their names from an usher and called on them to make speeches,” recalled Boswell. “The first one got up and said, ‘I give my five minutes to Mr. Jere Brittain.’ The second one did the same.” And, according to the official record, so did a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth cued-up speaker relinquish their time to Brittain.

Barron conceded a bit, asking, “Would Mr. Brittain like to give his 15-minute talk at this time?”

“I have more than 15 minutes,” said Brittain, adding that he’d accept “all you will permit me.”

At roughly 2:45 pm, Brittain approached the podium and leaned into the microphone, fixed during a break in the hearing, and began by reading a prepared statement. After laying out his case against the dam, he said “most big public work projects have a father, someone in whose name the cornerstone is placed,” while pointedly noting the absence of Edney. “Let the father of the plan step forward at this hearing,” Brittain asserted toward the conclusion of his testimony. “Let him take responsibility for destroying our community, burying our church, wrecking the lives of our old people, flooding our land, killing our stream.”

With his time running out, Brittain asked if there are any more yellow scarves. “I would like six of them. I would like to present each [TVA employee present] a scarf as a reminder of the way the people feel in this area so they might hang it up on their office wall,” he said, adding: “I have an extra one for Mr. Aubrey Wagner.” With that, more than 200 men, women, and some children, most wearing yellow scarves, cut loose with applause and a roar that echoed through the building like a flash flood.

What followed that afternoon and the following two days was an onslaught of creative opposition. Poems were recited. Songs were sung and Bible verses intoned. To the podium marched business owners, environmentalists, farmers, pastors, garden club members, teachers, mayors, commissioners, and students.

Finally, late in the evening of September 2, after 25 hours of public comment, Barron spoke, thanking Brittain for his “golden bandana” and wishing a thank you and good night to the crowd. Then, Barron surrendered the floor to Brittain once again.

The leader of the dam fighters praised the TVA for bringing out the best in the Mills River community. “We didn’t know how strong we were, Jack. I think we are possibly so strong now that we are going to beat you,” he said. “It has been an incredible three days. I don’t know of any place else in the world where a thing like this could have taken place.”

It was 10:25 pm when Brittain finished, and still more speakers followed him in opposition to the dam. The proceedings closed around midnight, capping a run of testimony that logged 58 speakers for the dam and 81 opposed.

Back on the first day of the hearing, Brittain had laid down a gauntlet that now seemed solidified. He told the TVA officials: “If you say you have come here in good faith to hear what the people want, we are going to tell you what the people want.

“We are willing to rest our case on the outcome of this hearing,” Brittain said. “I wonder,” he added, staring at Barron, “if you are?”

The Tide Turns

“I felt we had done the best we could to articulate the case for the opposition,” Brittain now says of the fateful three days talking to the TVA. “The turnout and passion at the hearing gave us confidence that we were on the right side of the issue.”

Days after the hearing, Governor Scott publicly declared the TVA’s environmental impact statement inadequate. The US Environmental Protection Agency agreed and demanded a more detailed cost/benefit analysis. In October, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners changed their tone and encouraged the TVA to find another site. In Transylvania County, the commissioners approved a resolution asking that funds for the Mills River dam be frozen.

Opposition continued to mount for another year. Then, in November 1972, an unsuspecting Brittain fielded a call from a local reporter who asked for his reaction to the TVA’s decision to terminate the project. The fight was over, and the dam fighters had won. On November 17, a Hendersonville Times News headline announced, “TVA Drops Plans for French Broad Dams.” TVA Chairman Wagner was among those who attributed the decision to the prevalence of local opposition. Whereas once the plan seemed to be welcomed in WNC, he said, “an assessment today indicated that adequate local support and commitment no longer exists.”

In Hendersonville, a deeply disappointed Kermit Edney blamed the outcome on the rising environmental movement. “The pendulum of the ecology movement has swung too far,” he told a reporter. “We’ve gone from too much development to too little.”

It was a stunning ending to a long struggle, but Brittain doesn’t recall a big celebration. Perhaps the dam fighters were reluctant to rub their victory in the faces of neighbors and family members who were for the project, who they would see in church and at community suppers. Perhaps they were simply exhausted.

“It was an intense period of time,” Brittain notes. “When it was all over, we were emotionally drained. It essentially consumed our lives, and we were dealing with it every day for three or four years. I was worn out.”

The lessons of the struggle were only starting to emerge. Chris Manganiello, a historian who co-authored a scholarly paper on the dam fighters in a 2018 issue of the journal Environmental History, says that the clash with the TVA to protect the tributaries of the upper French Broad showcased the role that southerners played in the environmental movement and expanded the definition of an environmentalist. He said the role that southern communities played in the 1960s environmental movement is overlooked. Generally, he points out, the typical environmental narrative is white, liberal, affluent, and suburban. Most of that story plays out in the North and West and is guided by powerful organizations. Although the national environmental community organizations joined in the opposition to the TVA, they arrived towards its conclusion.

“Their fight doesn’t fit the conventional story of environmentalism; the trope of the backward Appalachian people who got steamrolled by the federal government,” explained Manganiello, who is the water policy director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in Atlanta. “The agency and activism of Southern people ignored by scholars is an important part of the story.”

Brittain, for his part, insists that he doesn’t deserve special credit in the saga. “My role in this has been exaggerated because there were such a good number of amazing people in the core group,” he says. They prevailed, he asserts, because they were fighting for a greater good. “I would hope that the legacy of this is that there are still these flowing streams and that future generations can make local decisions about what is in the best interest of the community.”

But he isn’t certain that his valley is forever safe. One legacy of this story, Brittain says, is that politicians, residents, and policy makers should be reminded of why the project failed, should the TVA ever reconsider it.

“Until my dying day, I’ll bristle when I hear those three letters,” Brittain sighs, before issuing a warning. “There’s nothing really hindering them from coming back again.”

Damn the TVA

Years after the clash between local residents and the Tennessee Valley Authority, Jere Brittain penned a song, “Damn the TVA,” commemorating the work of the Upper French Broad Defense Association. Here are the first and last verses:

Its mother was the New Deal
Its pa was FDR
Dams were in its DNA
They built ’em near and far

From Mussel Shoals to Knoxville
They built dams and closed the gates
They saved the Tennessee from floods
By coverin’ it with lakes

When they ran out of rivers
In Kentuck’ and Alabam’
Fourteen French Broad tributaries
Were chosen to be dammed

They conned the local governments
With promises of loot
Except for Charlie Taylor
They all were in cahoots

Now raise yer glass and drink a toast
To the UFBDA
Keep the rivers runnin’ free
And damn the TVA

They rigged the Asheville hearing
Their arrogance was plain
We filled the hall with yellow scarves
And beat ’em at their game

We wrote a thousand letters
Testified in Washington
The seventy-two elections
Were proof that we had won

When e’er you cross Mills River
On a bright and sunny day
Remember those dam fighters
Of the UFBDA

Photograph (1916 flood) courtesy of NC Office of Archives and History; (Edney) courtesy of Baker-Barber Collection/Community Foundation of Henderson County/Henderson County Public Library; (Laursen) courtesy of Warren Wilson College; (Brittain) courtesy of Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNCA; (Boswell) Courtesy of Transylvania County Public Library; UFBDA materials courtesy of Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNCA; photographs (rally & meeting) courtesy of Western Regional Archives, NC Office of Archives and History; (bumper sticker) courtesy of Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNCA; (protest) photograph courtesy of Transylvania County Public Library