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Chapter 1: Wartime Laboratory

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ATOMS IN APPALACHIA

Before late summer of 1942, residents of four rural communities in the Clinch River valley farmed the land, growing tobacco and corn and raising cattle, chickens, and pigs. Some men made cornmeal in grist mills, and others mined coal in the nearby Cumberland Mountains. Women canned berries, beans, pickles, and peaches in their clapboard homes or log cabins. Families participated in hog killings, quilting parties, strawberry picking, ice cream making, and corn shucking. Children traded eggs and berries for candy in the country store, where villagers gossiped and exchanged news. Families worshiped and enjoyed all-day singings, square dancing, pie suppers, and homecomings at their local churches.

The land occupied by these settlers had been acquired for homesteading in 1798 by a treaty between the U.S. government and several Cherokee tribes. Some of the residents of the four communities had moved there after being displaced by government activities such as the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by the National Park Service and the construction of Norris Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority. In September 1942, about 1000 families were displaced again by the U.S. government's acquisition of 59,000 acres for the wartime Manhattan Project.

The four displaced communities were Elza, Robertsville, Wheat, and Scarborough (now spelled Scarboro). 

Elza, named after a construction engineer in charge of building a railroad bridge there, was once the home of John Hendrix, the "prophet" who around 1900 predicted that Bear Creek Valley (where the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant stands) "someday will be filled with great buildings and factories, and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be."

Robertsville was settled in 1804 by Collins Roberts, who had received a 4000-acre land grant in what is now Oak Ridge. Robertsville High School was built there around 1915; its auditorium is now the gymnasium of Robertsville Junior High School.

Wheat, settled in the middle of the 19th century, was named after the first postmaster, Frank Wheat. It was the home of Roane College, a liberal arts college that was open from 1886 through 1908. The community was dispersed by acquisition of the land for the K-25 Site.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its surrounding land displaced Scarborough, which was founded in the 1790s and named after three early settlers—Jonathan, David, and James Scarborough, brothers from Virginia. The area had been called Pellissippi by the Cherokees.

Of the four communities that predated Oak Ridge, only Scarborough retains much of its old character (although the houses and country stores along Bethel Valley Road are gone). Scarborough Elementary School burned in the late 1920s but it was rebuilt as a brick structure, part of which is still standing and used by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

Also standing is the New Bethel Church across from ORNL. Church leaders were convinced that the government would tear down the church in 1942, so they voted to erect a monument to the church as their last official action. The memorial behind the church reads "Erected in Memory of New Bethel Baptist Church, Open 1851 Closed 1942...Church Building Stood 47 Feet in Front of this Stone."

However, the U.S. government let the building remain and used it for storage, meetings, and experiments. It serves today as a museum about the residents who had to move and leave their beloved land.

Residents of Scarborough were as unhappy as the settlers in Wheat, Robertsville, and Elza about leaving their farms and land. But, as one of them said: "What do you do? The government needed your land to win the war. Who would refuse such a request as that?"

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