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When the World Came to TVA

TVA’s pavilion at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., featured a salty dog, two barges, one floating garden, schools of popcorn-gobbling carpn — and, eventually, a million visitors.

At the Museum of East Tennessee History in downtown Knoxville is a small exhibit of choice artifacts recalling something remarkable that happened here 20 years ago this spring — the 1982 World’s Fair.

TVA was a participant in the fair, of course. The idea of holding an energy-centered World’s Fair in Knoxville owed a lot to the fact that America’s largest producer of public power had its headquarters there. But TVA’s pavilion wasn’t one of those in the blue corrugated-steel buildings thrown up along Second Creek downtown. It was on the water, floating on the Tennessee River.

River Boat and Stadium picture

The two barges that made up the TVA pavilion were moored on the waterfront in Knoxville.

Two imaginatively outfitted barges made up the pavilion. One was called the Morgan, for Arthur Morgan, TVA’s first chairman; the other was the Lilienthal, for third Chairman David Lilienthal. It was a double barge to serve a double duty — representing TVA at one of the most popular fairs ever held in America, and launching the agency’s 50th-anniversary celebration.

With a budget of less than half a million dollars, the TVA exhibits depended heavily on volunteers to get up and running. A call for volunteer construction help elicited an overwhelming response from TVA employees and their families; some 400 showed up early on a Saturday, almost more than coordinator Russ Allen could handle. Among those who wielded hammers that day was TVA Chairman Charles “Chili” Dean, as well as the director of the information office, a man named Craven Crowell, who later became the agency’s 11th chairman. One thousand TVA employees got a sneak preview of their pavilion three days before President Reagan officially opened the fair.

Russ Allen and his volunteers had done their job well; many visitors found the TVA pavilion one of the most tasteful and appealing exhibits at the World’s Fair. A recording recalled life during the Depression, and stark white sculptures depicted people standing in line to look for work. An old Philco radio played a recording of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech. A film showed John F. Kennedy visiting Muscle Shoals, Ala., on the occasion of TVA’s 30th anniversary in 1963.

Exhibits displayed the latest in clean-coal technology and the new Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. A computer game challenged kids to run TVA for a day, trying to adjust the ever-changing power supply to meet the ever-changing demand. Another exhibit let kids of all ages steer toy boats through a working model of a TVA river lock. On the Lilienthal’s stern was a solar collector that powered a music box and a water pump.

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The year after the fair the TVA barges toured 23 Tennessee River communities to celebrate the agency’s 50th anniversary.

The Morgan was a quieter place, with a garden area and agricultural exhibits that emphasized fertilizers, crop development and TVA’s anti-erosion programs. It was also home to a couple of river otters that cavorted in a specially outfitted tank.

The pavilion had originally been given the bureaucratic name “Valley Resource Development: 50 Years of Experience.” Before opening day, fortunately, that was changed to “The Valley Adventure” — an adventure interpreted for kids by a grizzled riverman named Captain Nat.

If east Tennesseans could go back 20 years and return to the Lilienthal, they might be surprised to find that they recognized the captain. He was none other than Bill Landry, who later became famous throughout the eastern part of the Tennessee Valley as the host of WBIR-TV’s award-winning “Heartland Series,” a daily human-interest documentary. In 1982, though, Landry was just a young actor from Chattanooga in search of a good job. He signed on with TVA’s Information Office shortly before the fair, and soon, pipe in hand, he was Captain Nat.

Captain Nat and his first mate, a puppet that used sign language to communicate with the crowd, talked about TVA in the barge’s Adventure Theater. Landry can still reel off his gruff spiel: “Right here, ladies and gentleman, is the Tennessee Valley. Over there is the river. Riverboat pilots called it the Suck, the Boiling Pot. I’ve heard it called everything in creation, most of which I can’t say in the presence of these fine ladies . . .”

Landry did his Captain Nat show four times a day, five days a week, for six months. He made good use of his rare time off as the captain himself might — by fishing from the deck. “I caught a five-pound catfish one day,” he claims. So many huge carp rose to gobble up popcorn that TVA made them part of the show.

“People loved that exhibit because it had such variety,” Landry says. After the fair closed, the barges toured 23 ports on the Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi Rivers, with Captain Nat aboard. Landry admits, “My stories got a little more crusty the farther we got from Knoxville.”

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BVI volunteers Norman and Mary Ann Hatker were among the 850 retirees who helped staff the TVA exhibit at the World’s Fair.

It was an excellent time to celebrate TVA history, partly because there were still quite a few people around who remembered the agency’s whole half-century. Coordinated by H. Brown Wright, the workers who staffed the pavilion were mostly TVA retirees, members of the volunteer organization Bicentennial Volunteers Inc., which had sprung up six years earlier during the celebration of the nation’s 200th birthday. Landry reports that the volunteers were the best thing about the TVA pavilion. “They knew more about it than anybody,” he says.

Keeping the project under budget, TVA didn’t pay them much: $6 a day, mainly for meals, plus a free pass to the fair. Still, they came from all over. Four volunteers drove up from Chattanooga for the job; two came all the way from Muscle Shoals. One couple, Huey and Virginia Long, had met while they were working together at TVA’s mapping service in Chattanooga in the 1940s.

A celebrity among the volunteers was 90-year-old Harry Wiersema, a TVA engineer who’d been there at the very beginning, in 1933. “I love TVA,” he said. “Anything I can do to help, I’ll do.”

“The job doesn’t pay much,” volunteer Ezra Oakes was heard to explain, “but we’re having a good time.” It’s clear that visitors to the pavilion were too. The TVA exhibit was one of the fair’s most popular attractions, averaging about 5,000 visitors a day. By the time the 1982 World’s Fair closed its gates, more than a million people had been entertained and informed out on the river.

 

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