The Dam School

                                                                           The Dam School


Elton Camp

            Franklin Roosevelt was president of the United States.  The New Deal was in full sway.   The Tennessee River passed through Marshall County, Alabama at the edge of the town of Guntersville.  It had a long history of regular, devastating floods.  At such times, small boats could navigate the streets of “North Town” in Guntersville.  Crops and even houses were swept away.  The situation added to the grinding poverty during the Great Depression.  Some thought the entire Tennessee Valley, covering parts of seven States, was beyond saving.  Its poverty, including many people living in hovels and near starvation, was a serious embarrassment to the Nation. 

            Roosevelt had a plan.  During his famous first hundred days in office, he signed, on May 18, 1933, the act that established the Tennessee Valley Authority, commonly known as TVA.  Some deplored it on political grounds as an example of socialism.  Others welcomed the jobs it created, and still others were motivated in their approval by a genuine desire to help needy Americans who were unable to help themselves. 

            Flood control wasn’t the sole issue.  The river needed to be made more navigable and there was dire need of additional, inexpensive electricity. 

            Most people in the towns had electricity, but very few in the rural areas.  Private power companies argued that it was too expensive to string lines in the country, especially for people who were too poor to afford electricity.  The drive to provide rural electricity was based on the belief that it would both improve the standard of living and make the family farm better able to compete.  If private power companies wouldn’t provide the service, Roosevelt felt it was the duty of the Federal government to do it. 

            Central to the mission of the TVA was the erection of a series of dams, including one about seven miles from Guntersville.  The mammoth project required a small army of workers.  A village to house the supervisors, workers, and their families was built north of the river near the construction site.  Many of the structures were thrown up quickly at low cost.  A fundamental requirement was provision of a school to handle the flood of new residents.    To that end, huge amounts of money were poured into the establishment of Hebron School.  Far superior to anything else in the area, it was cutting edge in facilities and equipment and somewhat experimental in its teaching methods.  Children already living in the vicinity also attended the school. 

            Authorities sought the best teachers available to staff the new institution.  They must be open to new ideas.  Eloise, a young elementary school teacher with the necessary Normal School diploma and two years of solid accomplishment on her resume was among those employed at what was locally termed “the dam school.”

            Prominent people sometimes inspected the school, as well as teachers from other institutions who came to observe the innovative teaching methods being employed. 

            “Some days, I’d have visitors lined around the walls of the room,” Eloise recalled.  “I told the class to carry on just like they weren’t there, so the children quickly learned to ignore them.”

            On one such occasion, among the visitors was a very fat woman.  A series of activities that day were conducted outside.  The large lady started to sit on the school’s concrete steps to watch. 

            “Just a minute,” the principal said.  “I wouldn’t want you to get your dress dirty.”

            He half unfolded a newspaper, placed it on the steps, hesitated, made an appraising stare at the woman’s broad posterior, picked it up, and opened it fully before he again laid it down.

            His look and action didn’t escape her notice.  The woman jerked up the paper, folded it smaller, and angrily seated herself.  It was a favorite story for weeks by the teachers who saw the entire episode.  The administrator went on to make even worse blunders. 

            “When the dam’s finished,” the principal proclaimed in a faculty meeting, “a great wall of water’s gonna rush behind it and fill the lake within a few hours.” 

            His facial expression and animated delivery showed his excitement at the prospect of witnessing the virtual tidal wave.  The enormous lake, largest of all the TVA impoundments, actually took many months to complete its gradual fill.  His dearth of scientific knowledge was on a level with his lack of ethics as later developments demonstrated.

            With the goal of increasing community involvement and support for Hebron, faculty members were assigned the task of visiting in the home of each child.  The ones living in the dam village were easy to locate, but local children might live in almost inaccessible places in the hills and valleys surrounding the school.  In such cases, the teachers obtained detailed directions from the child. 

            “You go past Reverend Beason’s church to th’ stand of pine trees, turn right on a dirt road, and stay on it ’till you reach th’ big rock and turn left.  It’s up that way a fur piece ’long side th’ creek,” was a typical response. 

            “We had a good bit of trouble finding one house,” Eloise recalled, “but after making a stop at a store for directions, we finally located the narrow lane that led from the road to the house.  It was rough, in spots little more than two ruts with grass growing in the middle, but we could tell that it was traveled.  After bumping along for a distance, the road passed between two huge boulders.  Atop one was perched a shabbily dressed young man with a grizzly beard.  Across his lap lay a shotgun.”

            “Whut’s yore business heer?” he demanded.  He spit tobacco juice to the side of the rock as he stared suspiciously at the callers. 

            After they uneasily explained their mission, he gestured them onward with the shotgun.  “Th’ house ez just a piece up th’ road.  Y’u can’t miss hit,” he said in a voice not entirely cordial. 

            “What do you think?” Eloise asked her companions.  The hurried consensus was that they should proceed.  To risk antagonizing the man wouldn’t be wise.  Besides, with no place to turn around, there was little choice unless they wanted to attempt to back the long distance to the road. 

            After about a hundred yards, the house came into view.  The central portion of the dilapidated structure was of logs.  A rickety front porch seemed at the point of collapse, but cane bottom chairs showed it continued in use. The roof was covered with wooden shingles upon which green moss had gained a considerable foothold.  The windows were raised, but no screens covered them.  A thin trail of smoke arose from the chimney despite the warmth of the fall afternoon.  Additions, with shed-type roofs, extended from the left side and the back of the small residence.  The weathered planks had never seen paint.  In the front yard was an open shelter over a hand-dug well.  A windlass with rope and a bucket allowed the residents to draw water.  Barely visible behind the house was a small outdoor toilet.  Alongside it was a good-size garden that, despite being near the end of its production, was free of weeds.  It was enclosed with a high fence.  The yard had no grass.  To the left of the structure stood a cast iron wash pot.  Three hound dogs lay in the shade under the front porch, but they raised their heads to bark lazily at the intruders.  White chickens pecked randomly in the yard. A skinny mule stood in front of a barn of logs that was considerably larger than the house.  A woman stood at a scattered pile of wood, collecting a few sticks for the fire on which she was cooking supper.  She looked at the teachers, but said nothing.             

            “Looks like they added rooms as they had children,” one of the teachers speculated. 

            Two young men with protruding ears, unruly hair, and wearing dirty shirts approached the car and stared at the visitors.  Incongruously, one of them wore a wrist watch which he made sure to keep turned so that they could admire it.  The two looked like older versions of Lucas, Eloise’s student in the first grade.  The awkward situation was defused as Lucas ran from the house toward the car. 


            “You actual came t’ see me,” the youngster said with an excited voice.  “I didn’t really think y’u would.”  The child gave each of the three a quick hug.  “Maw, here they is,” he called to his mother at the woodpile. 

            As her son beckoned to her, she ambled over to the car to greet the company.  To do otherwise would be a violation of deeply ingrained tenets of southern hospitality.  She wore a faded blouse and a skirt that extended to the top of her shoes.  Her hair was clean, but long and pulled straight toward the back of her head.  The mother’s wrinkled face and neck had been exposed to the sun for too many years.  She squinted her eyes in the manner of a person who needs glasses. Lucas was the last of her large brood of children.  The difficulty of her life showed in her face, but she managed a smile that showed missing and decayed teeth.   

            Yet, she was surprisingly articulate and appreciative.  “I thank you for coming,” she said.  “I’m so proud that Lucas has that fine school to attend.  I grew up over in Georgia and went through the eighth grade.  I hope he’ll be the first in the family to graduate high school.  Anything you can do for him, I’ll appreciate.”

            At her invitation, the group accompanied her into the house.  “Let’s sit in the kitchen,” she said.  “I’m finishing up supper and need to add a bit of wood to the cook stove.” 

            “Can they stay fer supper, maw?” the boy asked. 

            “Why for certain they can, son,” she replied without hesitation.  “We got plenty such as it is.  It’d be a honor to have them.”

            The lady opened the door to the stove’s firebox and thrust a few sticks onto the red embers.  They immediately flamed up.  She donned a long apron before she turned the slices of ham that were frying in a cast iron skillet.  The aroma was enough to make anyone feel hungry. 

            A large pone of cornbread rested on a plate on the kitchen table, a bows of green beans and another of corn were alongside it.  A mixture of sliced cucumbers and onions lay on a saucer.  The meal also drew nonhuman attention:  flies buzzed across the table and a few crawled on the food.  The woman seemed oblivious to their presence. 


            “I felt my stomach do a flip,” Eloise later told her husband when she related the adventure.  “It’d have made me sick to eat a single bite, but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.” 

            The group managed to decline the invitation courteously on the pretended basis of having eaten only shortly before beginning their visits and needing to make some more calls.  The elated Lucas bragged at school the next day about the distinguished visitors to his house.                 

            When the dam was complete, the directors of the TVA issued an invitation that allowed for no refusal.  The teachers were to bring their classes to see the amazing structure.  Eloise, along with her husband, made a preliminary inspection to see what was in store for the young children in her class. 

            No expense had been spared on the project.  Concrete sidewalks and professional landscaping were everywhere in evidence.  A set of restrooms, topped with an observation deck welcomed visitors.  The north end of the dam was easy to approach on a long incline, but as the couple walked onto the concrete structure itself, Eloise felt mounting alarm. 

            The dam was far taller than it appeared from a distance.   She walked to the downriver side and looked with apprehension to the alarming drop to the water. 

            “These rails are strong,” she said, “but the gaps are big enough to let a child fall right through.  I can’t possibly watch them all.  It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.”


            By the day of her class visit, Eloise had solved the problem.  She obtained a long, strong rope and tied it around the waist of each child and then anchored it to herself.  “Even if one slips over the edge, all of us together can keep him from falling,” she explained to the class.  “But stay way back from the edge and don’t take any chances.”  The field trip proceeded without incident as they walked across the top of the dam, peered into the depths of the lock, and descended into to the turbine room where electricity was generated.  She breathed a sigh of relief when they were safely back on the north end of the dam and loaded onto the bus.

            Some seemed to think that teachers surrendered their Constitutional rights when they signed an employment contract.  At a faculty meeting, the principal issued instructions to the teachers as to how they should vote in an upcoming election. 

            “Do what I say if you expect to hold your jobs,” he blustered.  “And this is coming from a higher level than me.”

            At the next faculty meeting after the election, he stalked boldly to the front of the room.  “You all knew how you were told to vote,” he commenced.  “You also knew what would happen if you didn’t.”

            The man then called out each teacher’s name and announced how he or she’d actually voted.  The principle of secret ballot obviously meant nothing.  When a big portion of the faculty, including Eloise, resigned in protest at the outrage, the principal himself was forced from his position. 

            “I just did what they told me to,” he protested.  “I didn’t expect nothing like this.” 

            His face turned red and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he proclaimed his innocence.  He felt that he’d done no wrong. 

            The dam school continues in existence down to the present, although it is no longer any better or worse than others in the Marshall County system.  It accomplished a great deal of good.  Lucas not only went on to high school graduation, but with the aid of an academic scholarship, became a first generation college graduate.  He returned to Hebron as a teacher and served as its principal for the final ten years of his career.  He’s now in his eighties and living in nearby Grant, Alabama. 

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Short Story
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A young teacher accepts a job at a mountain school. Set in the 1930s in Alabama. Humor and pathos.