Land Before the Lakes - Part 3
Murray, KY – Kentucky and Barkley Lakes are points of pride for Western Kentucky. They generate considerable income for the area and provide residents with peaceful places to spend summer afternoons. However, all of this came at a cost. To create the area's most prominent get-away, TVA had to slowly evict people from their land throughout the 1940s and 50s.
(David 3-2, 12 sec) "it was being done for the sake of others. We were being sacrificed because the Federal Government thought other people deserved our land more than we did, and that really hurt."
As former resident David Nickell puts it, people shifted all over the region, hoping to stay in the general vicinity of their ancestral lands. Some moved three or four times, eventually winding up in an inland peninsula called Between the Rivers. But, in the 60s, that was taken as well to create the wildlife refuge. Residents spilled into the surrounding counties whether they wanted to or not. Nickell says some people resisted TVA's militant use of eminent domain, and they paid dearly for it.
(David 3-3, 31 sec) "People were escorted out of their homes in handcuffs. Houses were pushed down and buried with everything they owned still inside it. I mean, it was bad, and the only one of those kinds of cases that was ever documented was a woman named Babe Williams, and she refused to leave, and they tricked her into being gone from home, and they pushed her house down and burned it and then buried it. That was for the Barkley Lake project. There was a story about that in the Paducah Sun Democrat."
Many residents tried to fight TVA's claim to their land, appealing before tribunals. In the end though, every last one had to move. Eventually, bulldozers ran through the houses, businesses and schools throughout Between the Rivers. One by one, the buildings that comprised each community disappeared. After the eviction, only cemeteries remained. And sometimes residents had to fight for those, as well.
(Della 3-1, 15 sec) "The meeting was scheduled by the corps of engineers, and it pertained to the cemetery. We had a wonderful turnout because when you mentioned the cemetery of the churches, you got the attention of the people who lived here because those two things were very near and very dear to their hearts."
Della Oliver vividly remembers an assembly called shortly after she left her home near Woodson Chapel. TVA had let the old church stand for the time being, and its congregation gathered inside to hear what the company had to say.
(Della 3-2, 23 sec) "And, then they heard the cars coming down the road - I believe there was two of them - they drove up into the churchyard and stopped. Everybody quit talking and watched the guys get out. They were dressed in their little, green engineering uniforms, and all of them carried briefcases. Now, carrying a briefcase in Between the Rivers meant you had serious business going on, so we all knew we were there for a meeting that was probably of some importance."
The engineers in green uniforms informed residents that they needed to cut off the area's old roads, and it would be too expensive to build new connections. This meant no one would be able to reach Woodson Cemetery to maintain the graves. The officials told the crowd they would need to either move the graves or abandon the cemetery.
(Della 3-3, 20 sec) "I remember a gentleman stood up about that time and he said, Hmm, I can tell you here and now, the first shovel that's stuck in the grave of any of my family, the man that does it will be laying beside the grave.' When he said that, the whole meeting erupted. Everybody was very angry. The five gentlemen filed out much quicker than what they came in."
Oliver says after that meeting, TVA did eventually build a road into the cemetery, and former residents still maintain the graves today.
While many people fought the acquisition of their homes and farms, others simply tried to cope. Vanetta Stavely says her father watched people attempt to fight TVA and the government in vain when the lakes were built. He knew eviction was inevitable, so he left before officials had the chance to properly oust him from his home.
(Venetta 1, 6 sec) "At some point you've got to realize, you can't fight the battle forever."
Stavely says she wanted to make sure her homeland was well-cared for, so she decided to work within the system. She now assists genealogy projects for the Land Between the Lakes heritage program. LBL established the program to help preserve the area's pre-lake history, and Stavely has spent time updating cemetery contact lists so people will know if they have relatives buried in LBL.
(Venetta 2, 14 sec) "I think there is a possibility of bringing forward history, instead of just letting it die. So, that's why I'm doing what I'm doing in order to preserve some of the heritage and some of the history."
TVA no longer controls Land Between the Lakes. The U.S. Department of Forestry now runs the wildlife refuge, and the utility company has not been involved with the area since the late 90s. TVA representatives declined to comment in this story. Without job opportunities at the dams and tourism from the lakes and LBL, Western Kentucky would look considerably different today. However, as one drives down the Trace, pitches a tent near devil's elbow or kayaks near Coulson Hollow, they might contemplate the price paid for Western Kentucky's tourism.