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Rummaging Through TVA’s Attic

The TVA Historic Collection houses everything from an antique electric bug zapper to an entire helicopter—the artifacts of 67 years of service to the Tennessee Valley.

In a corner of the concourse level of TVA’s West Tower in Knoxville, Tennessee, there are a group of quiet, darkened rooms where the visitor is surrounded by mysterious shapes. Some are small and some very large, but in the dimness, it’s hard to make out what they are.

As one walks among the shapes, lights flicker on automatically, and then strange and colorful objects appear, made of wood, steel, marble, ceramic, brass, and bronze. There are statues, vials, teapots, and—more numerous than anything else—machines.

This is the main office of the TVA Historic Collection. It looks something like Thomas Edison’s workshop, except that it’s too clean and well organized, most of its artifacts displayed on shelves in perfectly ordered rows.

For years, of course, TVA was such a new idea that no one thought of it as historic. But by the standards of the National Historic Preservation Act, which encourages federal agencies to keep track of artifacts from their own pasts, something is historic if it’s 50 years old or more.

TVA turned 50 in 1983, and in 1987 the Board of Directors established the TVA Historic Collection program. It didn’t take shape overnight. From 1987 to 1991, a committee of the TVA Cultural Resources program in Norris, Tennessee, began soliciting donations and inventorying TVA’s historic possessions.

photo of chain saw

This six-foot-long chain saw helped clear the woods during the building of TVA’s Wheeler Dam in north Alabama.

And the result is pretty impressive. The collection now boasts 30,000 artifacts housed in three facilities; its contents are worth more than $10 million. At 5,000 square feet, the Knoxville facility is the smallest of the three, but it’s the showplace. There is also a 9,000-square-foot warehouse in Norris, and 24,000 square feet in Hartsville, Tennessee.

The artifacts in Knoxville range from tiny teapots produced during TVA’s porcelain-manufacturing efforts in the 1930s (see The Great Porcelain Experiment) to a whole helicopter used by TVA in the 1950s.

Many of the most interesting display pieces, like the $100,000 Gamewell fire alarm system or the 24-foot-tall Westinghouse spark-gap voltmeter have been spotlighted in this column’s “Name That Artifact” feature. And a number of them, objects acquired by the agency at its founding, help trace the development of TVA-related technologies like electricity generation, minerals experimentation, and communications hardware.

For instance, the Edison bipolar dynamo, which dates from around 1900, is useful in illustrating the history of electricity before TVA came on the scene. One alcove contains hundreds of bottles of coarse-grained sand—phosphates dug up in corners of the world ranging from Ethiopia to Montana and used in the pursuit of the perfect fertilizer at TVA’s National Fertilizer Development Center in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Even pest control is represented in the collection, in the form of an all-brass 1920s bug zapper that looks like a tiny birdcage. Visitors often respond most strongly to the familiar objects. There’s a chain saw, for example, that was used in about 1935 to clear the area around Wheeler Reservoir. It’s not like the one in your garage, though.This one is six feet long and takes two men to operate.

Even though there are art deco designs on porcelain objects and kitchen appliances, there is only article truly defined by TVA as cultural.

It’s a small quilt, entitled “Uncle Sam’s Helping Hand,” made by Rose Lee Cooper, an African-American woman whose husband worked on Wheeler Dam in the 1930s. It depicts a silhouetted figure holding a guitar; an arm in a blue sleeve with a star on the cuff reaches into the picture, symbolizing TVA’s efforts to improve regional living standards. (Some visitors joke that the figure looks like Elvis, but Cooper made the quilt the year before Elvis was born in his own corner of the Tennessee Valley.)

Like TVA itself, the Historic Collection is a work in progress.


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