The Story of the land between the lakes
Written & Directed by Anne Fentress
Written & Directed by Anne Fentress
While these estimates seem laughable today, the thought that Americans would have copious amounts of free time was seen as a problem so large and looming that Congress created a task force in 1958 to figure out what the American public would do with this promise of almost endless spare time. The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, led by Laurence Rockefeller, designed a plan to fill Americans’ free time with outdoor recreation—access to nature and a place to swim, boat, hike and camp would keep alive the wholesome feeling of the frontier that had propelled our nation to greatness in centuries past.
President John F. Kennedy and the Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall ran with the idea of creating National Recreation Areas all over the country. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had already identified an area in the Tennessee Valley watershed that needed improvement and provided the boldest and grandest of all of the plans for that area. TVA’s Congressional Charter enabled the organization to acquire land quickly and easily with eminent domain powers and little external oversight and so, TVA was given the task of creating one of the first National Recreation Areas in the country.
In 1964 TVA began to condemn 170,000 acres between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley to construct the Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area that was intended to attract 10 million visitors a year. Consequently, the almost 2500 residents who lived between the two lakes were relocated out of—in the words of a TVA official—their “rural slum.” A relocation specialist knocked on many doors with the price TVA would pay for their home and a promise that their land would only be used for “recreation, education and demonstration.” TVA saw the plan as win-win: the residents would receive a windfall of money, be lifted out of a poverty-stricken area and at the same time, the eastern half of America would be given an idyllic natural playground to get back in touch with the spirit of the American frontier.
After LBL was completed, the throngs of visitors never appeared. In its busiest year, LBL served around one million people. The close-knit community that had lived and farmed the area for six to seven generations had been dispersed in the name of progress and a future that never arrived, and many were left without land that had given them a livelihood. Thirty years later, TVA admitted defeat: In 1998, operational authority of LBL was transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. The USFS has now closed many of the campsites and other recreational aspects and is burning and clear-cutting parts of the wooded areas in a controversial bid to create pre-European savannas. Former residents are also concerned about access to their family cemeteries. A Tennessee man is currently awaiting sentencing in Federal Court in Nashville for terroristic threats to a federal officer after he threatened a USFS employee with bodily harm for removing the stakes for his dying uncle’s gravesite in the family cemetery in LBL. A dedicated group of former residents are leading a coalition against what they see as the dismantling of LBL and the commercial nature of some of the timber transactions. They do not want to feel their sacrifice—of both their property and community—was made in vain.
Anne Fentress is an independent filmmaker based in Nashville who has made documentaries for CMT/MTV Networks, including American Revolutions: Southern Rock, a documentary which explored the creation of the genre and its place in American history; True Grit: Junior Johnson, a short documentary about a moonshine runner who became one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time; and a Controversy: Independence Day, an episode in the critically-acclaimed Controversy series that followed the rise of Martina McBride’s hit song about domestic abuse during the O.J. Simpson trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Before moving to CMT, Anne worked on documentaries for PBS through Nashville Public Television, produced John Seigenthaler’s A Word on Words for NPT, and was an editor and freelance writer for various magazines in NYC including O-Oprah’s Magazine, Glamour, Time Out NY, and YM Magazine. A graduate of Brown University with honors and degrees in Environmental Studies and Political Science, Anne has also worked as a naturalist, giving private hiking tours of the Sierra Nevadas, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Her work as a filmmaker seems to combine her interest in politics, nature and popular culture—especially Southern Culture.
My great-grandfather, Chester A. Oakley, was a farmer—and a bootlegger. My grandmother didn’t like to talk about it, but everyone in our family knew. To her, making moonshine had been her family’s key to survival in an isolated, rural area of western Kentucky, which was strangled from outsiders by the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. A lush carpet of romance has grown on that cold, hardscrabble reality in decades hence with whispers of furtive exchanges of cash for booze, loaded onto planes carrying none other than Al Capone himself. Moonshine stories, told in quiet asides and hushed tones, were intoxicating to my mind as a child and created a vibrant reflection of what I thought my family history to be. Bootlegging allegedly enabled Chester to add to his river-bottom farm on the banks of the Cumberland during the Depression, and after his death, when the Army Corp of Engineers came to purchase his land for the creation of Barkley Dam, my great-grandmother was forced to sell. But she never thought about moving beyond the confines of the rivers; she used the proceeds to buy another house further inland in a town called Golden Pond. The land between the rivers was her native land and she didn't want to leave.
But the government would come calling for her home again. In 1964, TVA used its power of eminent domain to force her to sell her new house in Golden Pond. Her house as well as thousands of others—including my mother’s childhood home—were razed and burned. The remains were then buried to make a blank, natural slate for the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The saga of my mother’s family forced removal and the bootlegging stories merged in my mind at some point: I always secretly wondered if the government wanted to remove the 2,500 people who lived between the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers because it would once and for all put an end to bootlegging that had lingered in the area since the Depression.
The answers I found while making this documentary were far more riveting—and heartbreaking—than the narrative I had created in my mind about what happened between the rivers as it became the Land Between the Lakes. After talking to former residents who were forcibly removed from sixth generation family farms and hearing the stories of wounded war veterans whose homes were burned and buried while they were in jail for refusing to sell their property to the government, I believe that the story of the Land Between the Lakes was a great misstep of the Kennedy administration, with effects that still resound today in many of the surviving former residents' dealings with the U.S. Forest Service over the its current management policies of the area.
This documentary, a personal and historical exploration, is an attempt to distill the truth of the conflict between a government and its people, inspired by a projected future vastly different from today’s reality. I have tried to show how the history of the Land Between the Lakes is informing the conflict of the former residents with the Forest Service, and I aim to explore questions like why the former residents are still so involved with the fate of this land through their protests, even now, fifty years later. What is humanity’s connection to property beyond commodity? How are identity and personhood connected to place? The LBL story also provides an entree to exploring issues involving personal sacrifices made for public projects, the relationship between a government and its people, eminent domain, legislators vs. the courts making policy decisions, paternalism, elitism and the conflict between modernity and agricultural life.