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Clash of the Titans

In the 1920s, Senator George Norris and automaker Henry Ford tangled over public ownership of Wilson Dam in Alabama. The upshot was the nation's first great experiment in regional public power — TVA.

By Jack Neely

photo of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison

Henry Ford (left) and Thomas Edison

A few weeks ago, competing national news organizations came up with their lists of the most influential Americans of the century. On nearly every list, of course, was automaker Henry Ford. That’s no surprise. Ford made the automobile affordable to the workingman, made the assembly line practical, and made millions of dollars in the process.

What’s not quite as well known is that Henry Ford had a hand in the founding of TVA. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the TVA Act into law in 1933, but Ford’s role in TVA history was played out long before that, and not in any way that he intended. Ford helped found TVA mainly by annoying another man with a greater vision, a man who arguably had more influence on the shape of TVA than Roosevelt or any of the agency’s original directors. His name was George William Norris.

Between 1921 and 1924, these two old men — Norris and the great Henry Ford — battled over an obscure place where neither of them had ever lived, a place called Muscle Shoals, Ala. Their fight had a profound effect on Norris’s career, and on the future of the greater Tennessee Valley region.

Norris wasn’t a Southerner. He wasn’t even a Democrat. He was a Republican senator from Nebraska. Born in rural Ohio in the early days of the Civil War, Norris, like Ford, was a generation older than FDR. Round-faced and pug-nosed, with round glasses and a shock of white hair, always a dapper dresser in a black Abe Lincoln tie, he looked like a kindly railroad conductor in an old Frank Capra movie.

Norris spent most of his life in the Midwest, tending to his constituents’ concerns. He had seen his 60th birthday before he ever had any personal connection to the Tennessee Valley region. And that connection came about only by a series of accidents, one of which involved the famous creator of the Model T.

Norris was a stubborn Republican from the progressive days of Teddy Roosevelt. A prairie lawyer and judge, he was first elected to Congress from a rural district in Nebraska in 1903, during TR’s first term.

When most of his party veered toward the conservative side, Norris stayed the progressive course. In the century’s first decade, he was pushing for government intervention to improve the lot of the small farmers who made up most of his constituency. You’d expect that in a guy from Nebraska. And you’d expect him to be principally concerned with Nebraska matters — not massive projects a thousand miles away.

As a senator, Norris was perhaps best known for leading a minority faction that opposed America’s entry into World War I. By the politically conservative ’20s, the “Fighting Liberal” was a leader of the dwindling minority of liberal Republicans in the Senate.

In 1921, Norris’s interest in the plight of farmers landed him at the head of the Senate’s Agriculture and Forestry Committee. He was preoccupied with both Nebraska issues and national ones, especially farm relief.

President Warren G. Harding, eager to privatize as many federal projects as possible, stopped construction on Wilson Dam, part of a wartime ammunition-manufacturing project down in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and offered the dam and two nitrate facilities for sale or lease. Norris wasn’t terribly interested in the matter, and attempted to use the Senate bureaucracy to channel this headache to a war-appropriations committee.

But then the wealthiest automaker in America answered President Harding’s ad. After visiting Muscle Shoals with his pal Thomas Edison, Henry Ford in 1921 offered $5 million to lease the government facilities there through the next century.

Ford wanted to use cheap power from Wilson Dam to produce nitrate fertilizer. His proposal, which gave rise to hopes among local farmers that Muscle Shoals would experience the kind of growth Ford had set off in Detroit, spurred rampant land speculation in the Tennessee Valley region.

But the tycoon’s plan raised the hackles of old Senator Norris of Nebraska, who took on the issue and soon found himself spending much of his spare time in the faraway Tennessee Valley region, eating cornbread in unlit shacks and studying engineers’ diagrams and hydroelectric projections.

To Norris, every proposal involving Ford sounded fishy; in this case, the numbers just didn’t add up. It wasn’t a good deal for the government, he said, and it wasn’t a good deal for the workingman either. Norris believed the power of Wilson Dam should be put to work for the public good, not Henry Ford’s private gain.

“The magic name of Henry Ford seems to have dulled all the reasoning faculties of thousands of farmers,” declared Norris. If the government turned Muscle Shoals over to Ford, he quipped, it would be the worst real estate deal “since Adam and Eve lost title to the Garden of Eden.”

As the dispute continued, Ford’s rumored presidential ambitions also came into play. Calvin Coolidge took office at Harding’s death in 1923 and would be up for reelection the following year. There were stories that Coolidge had offered to put the Muscle Shoals deal through if Ford would agree to stay out of the presidential race.

Eventually Norris had his way. Ford, knowing when he was licked, withdrew his offer in 1924. But the controversy over whether Muscle Shoals should be in public or private hands remained. Around the halls of the Senate, this undying issue became known as the Alabama Ghost.

Norris received death threats from angry people in the Valley who believed Ford had been about to make them rich. On his first trip to Muscle Shoals, he was accompanied by an armed bodyguard. The threats seemed only to galvanize the old man, who over the next decade came up with a comprehensive plan for federal flood control and development in the Valley.

Norris’s interest in the region continued to grow. He spent more and more time in this valley so far from his home.

In early 1926 — when Franklin D. Roosevelt was still a New York lawyer and banker who hadn’t even been elected governor — Norris introduced a bill directing the federal government to take over and expand the Muscle Shoals project and, in addition, to build more federal dams along the Tennessee River. Predictably, it didn’t go anywhere during the Coolidge administration. A later bill was vetoed by President Herbert Hoover.

But by the time FDR finally arrived in the White House, Henry Ford, preoccupied with marketing his Model A and engineering the new V-8 engine, had almost forgotten about Muscle Shoals. And Norris’s retooled TVA was ready to roll off the assembly line.

— Jack Neely is a Knoxville-based writer and historian. He is the author of three books: “Knoxville’s Secret History,” “Secret History II,” and “The Marble City.” His column, Secret History, appears weekly in Metro Pulse, Knoxville’s alternative newspaper.


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