Back of Oak Ridge
(By Grace Raby Crawford)
Since so many stories have been written and told regarding the people who lived here and their customs, and since I was reared in this vicinity and lived here until the land was acquired by the government in 1943 for this “Great Project” as it was called then, I feel it a great privilege to put into words a few facts concerning the same.
It has been said, “From a Wilderness to an Atomic City,” but this is far from the truth. There were many acres of cultivated fertile fields, beautiful farm homes and flowers, churches, schools, post offices, lumber mills, grain mills and at one time an ammunition (powder) mill. Various other small businesses were in this community. There were large peach and apple orchards from which fruit was hauled to market in other places. There were cattle, sheep, and hogs on most every farm. None of these are found in a Wilderness! The people who lived here before 1942 were a very proud and independent people. Hard work and consistency was the key to their success.
A slogan of the 1934 graduating class of Robertsville High School (of which I was a member) was, “The door to success is labeled PUSH”. This must not only have been for them, but for all who lived here, for it seemed they were always striving to push ahead to greater things, as you will see in the pages of this story, that this was truly a great place BACK OF OAK RIDGE!
October was here again, the leaves were taking on their beautiful colors o red, yellow, and gold. The mornings and evenings had a nip of the cool air of autumn. The crops were almost all harvested and winter was not far away.
This being a rural community, farming was the main source of livelihood. Each family grew enough vegetables, corn, hay, and legume crops for it’s own use, and there would be some extra for the market.
They also kept cows and chickens for their milk, butter, eggs, and hogs for the meat for the family table. No one was hungry in this small community. It may not have been the fanciest foods, but it was just right “down to earth” good eating.
The extra money received from the sale of their surplus commodities was used to meet the taxes on their land and to help with the education of their children.
Although this community was located in a remote section of the county, as some might call “back in the sticks”, this did not in the least alter the ambition of each household for their children to get a good education. Many of them went on to realize this goal.
From many of these families came teachers, principals, doctors, dentists, lawyers, ministers, and county officials. Some even went on to be State and Federal officials.
The life here, although not one of luxury, was filled with peace and contentment. Each member of the family had allotted chores and in that way learned the sense of responsibility which would be an asset to him later in life.
A closely knit group of people, “one big family”, you could very well call them. Love was everywhere and each was his “brother’s keeper” in sickness and in health.
Three schools served the area, Robertsville High, Wheat High, and Scarboro Elementary. There were many churches. The mail was distributed by the post office at Edgemoor. There were many country stores to which the residents brought their produce to exchange for the needed items for the home which could not be raised or made. There were no theaters, country clubs, skating rinks, or any big places of entertainment. There were, however, plenty of “Plays”, “Spelling Bees”, and “Old Fashioned Pie Suppers” at the schools. “Fiddlers Contests” were held here and there for the entertainment of anyone who wished to attend. There were many parties and dances in the homes at which the old as well as the young took part.
Going to church was really a recreation for the young people then. They would walk many miles to church and in “Revival Time”, which was usually in the fall, all the churches would combine for one “Great Campaign for Souls”. The Methodist minister would preach in the Baptist church and visa-versa. Denominations were left put and souls were won. The rural roads would be filled with young and old on their way to the “Revivals”. The young man, looking for a pretty girl to walk home, found many of their life companions in this way.
Although the chief occupation of this community was farming, some of the men worked away in the coal mines of the Cumberland Mountains. They would come home to their families only about every two weeks.
Others found work in the then, far away city of Knoxville and would board there for weeks at a time, as transportation was a problem. They made as few trips as possible, the only route being by train and in the later years the bus became available. Very few of the people owned automobiles at that time.
There was much good timber in this vicinity. Men from other counties brought in sawmills and bought the timber from the farmers, cutting it into lumber to be shipped out to the city for sale. This provided employment for the men of the area after their crops were “laid by”, and brought in much needed extra income.
Hunting and fishing were great hobbies of the “townfolk”. The forests were filled with game, such as squirrel, rabbit, quail, etc. Many also hunted opossum, skunk, coon, weasel, and fox for their pelts, which they sold for very low prices, but every nickel counted on their income.
There was much work to this bit of income. They had to spend long hours hunting down the animals. After they were killed and skinned, the pelts were stretched over a pointed board and hung to dry for so long. Then they were packed in boxed for shipment. There were many days to wait for the final reward of their work a “check”.
Fishing was more for a hobby and for food on the table, no sale of them. It was here I remember my grandfather taking me fishing with him when I was a very young girl. We fished from the mouth of a creek going into Clinch River up near the little place of Elza. This being my first try at fishing, I was very excited. He would bait my hook as I was afraid of the red worms we used for bait. It wasn’t long until I go a nibble on my hook, and he showed me how to jerk my pole to catch the fish. When I felt the nibble again I gave the jerk, like he said, and lo and behold I had one! It was only a sun perch weighing less than a pound but I was as thrilled as if I’d caught a five pound bass.
Now this may sound dull to the young kids of today, as they have so many kinds of recreation, but to me the walks in the woods and fishing trips were the things to look forward to.
To go after the cows in the evening and find one with a new calf was a big thrill to run back and tell about. Also to go and gather eggs and maybe find a “nest full” up in the hayloft was another joy for the younger ones of this little secluded valley.
In the autumn there would be “chestnut hunts” for the young folk. They would gather in groups to go hunt for the many chestnuts that had fallen in the forest and which were very good to eat. The couple who came back with the most chestnuts got the reward of a kiss from each other, in front of the group, and all the chestnuts the had gathered.
There were “candy pullings” after the molasses (sorgum) was made. This was a lot of fun for everyone.
Several black families resided here and were just accepted as part of the community. One black family stands out in my mind with an air of great respect. Four generations lived together, the grandmother, mother, son, and grandson. They were loved by all who knew them. Their home was near the settlement called Scarboro.
The grandmother, who we called Aunt Ann, had been a slave before and during the Civil War.
The daughter we called Aunt Jose. Aunt Jose’ father was Aunt Anns’ master. At the time the masters would sire children by the female slaves and sell them, but during this time the slaves were freed and Aunt Ann got to keep her daughter.
I have eaten many meals in their home and always felt welcome. They were very religious family and never ate a meal without first saying Grace over it.
The upper class of the community always sought Aunt Jose out to cook for them on special occasions as her reputation of being the “best cook” for miles around was found to be undisputed.
Aunt Jose was also a midwife and delivered many babies in the homes of the poor who felt they could not afford a doctor. She never charged a fee only took anything she was given which many times was nothing. But from a heart of love she did this.
No night was too dark or weather too bad for her to go when duty called. she would carry a kerosene lantern at night as not many owned flash lights at that time.
She would also cook many good dishes and would walk and carry them to the sick or when anyone was in need.
She was always welcomed at New Hope Baptist Church when she came and seemed to enjoy the services. No one in this all white church felt any resentment of the worshipping with them.
Other black families lived over on what was then known as Black Oak Ridge, now known as West Outer Drive. They owned small farms and a very independent and self-supporting people they were. In this vicinity was a Baptist Church for the blacks which also served as a school for them.
Farmers and timber men were always glad to hire the services of the men, they were such good workers. They bought and sold at the same stores with everyone else and received the same respect.
As we have stated before that “Each was His Brother’s Keeper”, was demonstrated here and we feel that is any of these people are still living they would tell the same story.