“When I was younger, I’d beg Uncle Joe to let me ride Bert as he drove him out the lane to the tobacco patch. Straddled atop ol’ Bert, I’d listen to the squeak of leather, take in big gulps of the mule’s scent, and listen to the dull rattle of harness chains as we made our way. As crazy as it sounds, Bert smelled good. The equine family has a unique sent that no other animal has. If you’ve ever experienced it, then you know what I mean.”
Good writing is personal, and Carolyn Ritchey’s new book, “Last Stand at Fork Creek: A Farm Family Fights to Save Their Land, Community and the Little Tennessee River,” is as personal as it gets. Like any good story, “Last Stand” has heroes, villains, struggles and victories. But the final act doesn’t come within the book. The redemptive part of the story, for the Ritcheys and other Monroe and Loudon county families who were bullied and betrayed by their own government, comes with publication.
The Ritchey family farmed beautiful, productive land in the Jackson community between Vonore and Loudon. If you’ve never heard of Jackson, neither had I, despite having grown up on the other side of Bat Creek Knobs, visible from the Ritchey farm. The reason is that by the time I was old enough to pay attention, Jackson had been swallowed by Tellico Lake.
Carolyn’s grandfather worked the land as a sharecropper before her father, Ben, bought 119 acres on a small plateau above the Little Tennessee River at Jackson Bend and settled it with his wife, Jean, in the 1950s. They raised Carolyn, older sisters Sally and Mary Ann, and younger brother Randy to work hard, value education and stand up for themselves.
And stand up for themselves they did as they fought the Tennessee Valley Authority, state and national politicians determined to turn their beloved home into an economic experiment. The Tellico Project, which gained steam in the mid-’60s, would allow TVA to confiscate 22,000 acres more than the water would cover, then develop it into pricey neighborhoods and industrial parks.
The lake would also cover sacred native lands including the former sites of Cherokee capitals Chota and Tanasi.
After a 1979 protest rally along the river at Chota, Carolyn reflected, “It was heart wrenching for me to think that anyone would be cruel enough to support the enormous, senseless, and tragic loss of such a beautiful, rich valley. I went home that day humming, ‘Dam the TVA, save the Little T. Why can’t they see what that river means to me?’”
Some pretended to understand and promised to help. But many promises were broken, and the betrayals sting still today.
Along the way, the Ritcheys kept dozens of artifacts — letters to and from officials, pictures of protests, before-and-after shots of the community that was, newspaper clippings, and personal correspondence with families facing the same plight. Meticulously curated and carefully arranged, “Last Stand” features more than 200 photos, most of them color, of everything from the razed and drowned community of Jackson, to Fort Loudoun before the dam, to sister Mary Ann with U.S. Congressman James Quillen on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, to Uncle Joe driving ol’ Bert. One of my favorites is a newspaper clipping of a “tractor-cade” of farmers driving their John Deeres and Massey Fergusons down Western Avenue towards TVA headquarters in Knoxville. Their signs read, “Dam Congress Not the Little T,” “America’s Future Rests on Six Inches of Topsoil,” and “Put Tellico Farmland Back into Production.”
Their efforts were valiant, but not enough. Even the Endangered Species Act, discovery of the snail darter fish and a Supreme Court ruling couldn’t stop the dam. The Ritcheys, the late Beryl Moser of Vonore and Nelle McCall of Greenback were the last holdouts, evicted by U.S. marshals before their homes were condemned and bulldozed in November of 1979. Abandoned in so many ways, they did enjoy widespread moral support.
As Carolyn recorded of those final days, “With the demolition of Beryl and Miss Nelle’s homes on Tuesday, our house was now the last one standing within 38,000 acres confiscated by TVA … Letters arrived throughout the week bearing postmarks from Midland, Texas; West Point, Miss.; Delano, Calif. … These kind people had either read about us in the paper or watched the whole fiasco on national TV. From Texas we received a small amount of cash to help with moving expenses. A Mississippi farmer seemed to be having similar troubles with the Army Corps of Engineers and asked for help with his fight … Closer to home, from Maryville and Loudon, the people were sympathetic bystanders.”
“Sympathetic bystanders” could describe many back then. Today, “complicit benefactors” is more fitting. Who among us hasn’t fished or swam in Tellico Lake? Who doesn’t have a family member who’s worked in a Tellico industrial park? Who doesn’t have a friend who lives in Tellico Village, Kahite or Rarity Bay? I’m guilty of all of the above. Yet I can empathize with the Ritchey family, acknowledge the injustice and endorse their disdain.
Released in late September, “Last Stand” already boasts 10 five-star Amazon reviews. A story of citizen activism that ties local characters to state and national leaders — Governors Frank Clement and Winfield Dunn, Senators Barry Goldwater, Howard Baker, Strom Thurmond and Al Gore Sr., Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter, plus the spirited hero of the book: Mrs. Jean Ritchey, a proud “East Tennessean Forever.” Enlightened schoolteachers would be wise to teach it as part of state and U.S. history.
“Last Stand at Fork Creek” won’t bring back the family farm. It won’t revert Tellico Lake into the Little Tennessee River. And it won’t erase the trauma caused by a merciless, faceless, seemingly all-powerful enemy that harassed hard-working, patriotic Americans while most of us looked the other way. But it does unapologetically share the little guy’s side of the story, bringing closure and vindication more than 40 years overdue.
“Last Stand at Fork Creek” from Ramble Corner Publishing is available in hardcover and paperback at Amazon, the Vonore Museum, Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, and the Loudon and Athens Co-Ops. Copies can also be purchased directly from Carolyn who has been invited to do a book signing at Grain Bin Commodities on Holt Road just outside of Sweetwater on Thursday, Nov. 17, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and at the Athens Co-Op later this month.