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Public Power Transforms Real Lives

TVA’s history is inextricably linked with FDR’s New Deal. But to really grasp the depth and breadth of TVA’s great work, you have to look beyond the politics to the ways electricity transformed real lives.

To understand TVA, you have to start with the Muscle Shoals Controversy. In 1916, as America prepared for WWI, the nation needed a homeland source for synthetic nitrates for the manufacture of munitions because our supply from Chile was threatened by German U-boats.

President Woodrow Wilson selected Muscle Shoals, Ala., as the site for two nitrate plants and built a hydroelectric dam to power them. But no sooner had production at the nitrate plants begun than World War I ended, temporarily eliminating the need for munitions.

Wilson dam

Stranded with the assets, Congress put the facilities up for sale in 1920, and automobile magnate Henry Ford bid $5 million for the properties that had cost $130 million to build.

This proposal went up before the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, headed by Senator George Norris. Norris blocked the proposal, saying that if Ford’s low bid was accepted, it would amount to “the greatest gift ever bestowed upon mortal man since salvation was made free to the human race.” 

Congress debated the offer—for so long that Ford finally withdrew it. However, the controversy continued over how to dispose of the property. Senator Norris, a proponent of public power and rural electrification, proposed his own plan, which utilized the concept of integrated resource management to improve the Tennessee Valley region.

However, Norris’ bill was not passed right away. Other entities, such as Alabama Power, worked to gain control of the facilities at Muscles Shoals throughout the 1920s. 

Winds of Change

In 1929, the economic boom of the 1920s came to an end and the country entered the Great Depression, an unprecedented economic disaster.

It was especially difficult living in the Tennessee Valley. Primitive farming practices resulted in depleted soil as well as soil erosion. It was common for half of the Valley population to be on relief. The per capita income of those in Tennessee Valley was half that of the country as a whole; meanwhile, the birthrate was one-third above the national average. Levels of literacy were low and the labor force was largely unskilled. 

boiling water outdoors

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, and with him came hope of change. By 1933, the political and economic climate—both nationally and regionally—was ripe for the creation of TVA.  It truly was a perfect storm . . . Roosevelt quickly threw his support behind the Norris plan as part of his New Deal program to revitalize the economy.

In fact, Roosevelt’s language is pretty visionary:

“It is clear that the Muscle Shoals development is but a small part of the potential public usefulness of the entire Tennessee River. Such use, if envisioned in its entirety, transcends mere power development: it enters the wide fields of flood control, soil erosion, afforestation, elimination from agricultural use of marginal lands and distribution and diversification of industry.” 

FDR signing TVA Act

 “I, therefore, suggest to the Congress legislation to create a Tennessee Valley Authority—a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise. It should be charged with the broadest duty of planning for the proper use, conservation and development of the natural resources of the Tennessee River drainage basin and its adjoining territory for the general social and economic welfare of the Nation.”

Power to the People

The TVA Act clearly intended that TVA be a public power company from the beginning, giving it the ability or acquire or construct power houses and structures, transmission lines and incidental projects throughout the Tennessee Valley.

And it was clear to whom the power would be provided. The board was “empowered and authorized to sell the surplus power not used in its operations to states, counties, municipalities, corporations, partnerships, or individuals . . . And shall give preference to states, counties, municipalities, and cooperative organizations of citizens or farmers, NOT organized or doing business for profit, but primarily for the purpose of supplying electricity to its own citizens or members…”

dam construction

The board was encouraged to extend power lines to agricultural areas and to small towns that did not already have access to reasonably priced power, and to promote the wider and better use of electric power for agricultural and domestic use, cooperating with state governments, educational or research institutions, cooperatives or other organizations.

Hence, The Electric Home and Farm Authority was formed as an agency of TVA. The slogan “Electricity for All” summed up the aims and purposes of the EHFA. Its insignia—a fist grasping a lightning bolt—was the mark of the Power Division of TVA. It was patented, and the insignia was placed on those appliances where “Tests for quality and performance assure maker and purchaser alike that approved appliances are the best values manufacturers can produce at the prices asked.” The insignia was a seal of approval like the “Good Housekeeping” trademark is today!

Appliances on display

A Better Life

Rural residents to whom electricity was made available were quick to realize advantages. Surveys of farm homes along some of the new rural lines in Colbert and Lauderdale Counties, Ala., in 1936 showed that 89 percent of homes had electric irons, 69 percent had radios, 61 percent had electric refrigerators, 36 percent had electric water pumps, 25 percent had electric ranges and 16 percent had electric washing machines. 

The coming of electricity caused farm families to realize the lack of other conveniences, and many homes were modernized by the installation of bathrooms and plumbing systems as well. One 30s-era survey of 173 farm homes showed that after receiving electricity, an average investment of $225 per home was made in electrical goods were purchases or building.

A graphic showing before and after rates


In more metropolitan areas, low electric rates led to greater adoption by more people—and higher usage rates over all. In the chart above, the figures on the left represent conditions during the last month of high-rate operation (May 1934). Corresponding figures on the right were taken after two years of low-rate operation. [Athens, Ala., municipality’s initial power contract with TVA was June 1, 1934.]  Athens is representative of public power changes across the Tennessee Valley.

There is little doubt that TVA’s unique package of services to the Valley—flood control, navigation and affordable electricity—made lives better for the residents of the Tennessee Valley then. And we're committed to doing the same today through providing energy at the lowest feasible price, caring for the Tennessee Valley’s environmental assets and engaging in the economic development of our region for a more prosperous future.

Pat Bernard Ezzell, TVA Senior Historian