Aaron Astor, an associate history professor at Maryville College, discussed life along the Clinch River in Anderson and Roane counties before Oak Ridge was built in a special meeting at the historic Freels Bend Cabin on Thursday, October 13.
It was the monthly public and membership meeting of the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association. Here are pictures by D. Ray Smith.
The Freels Bend Cabin was built in 1844, and it is the oldest structure in Oak Ridge. It’s on the National Historic Register.
The opportunities to see the cabin, which is in south Oak Ridge east of Clark Center Park, are rare. It’s on restricted U.S. Department of Energy land.
Oak Ridge Today has previously interviewed Ruby Shanks, who lived at the cabin for a few years in the 1940s, when she was a teenager.
Shanks said she and her parents and four siblings lived in the cabin for about two years starting in October 1941, before the city that is now Oak Ridge was built as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. The family had no running water, fished in the Clinch River, and raised cattle and horses. The children had to trek a long distance, all the way from Freels Bend to where a stoplight is now located at Y-12 National Security Complex, just to catch their school bus.
Shanks’ father was a farmer and miner who worked for Roane-Anderson Company during World War II. She recalled plucking chickens for 50 cents an hour.
Oak Ridge was built during the war as part of the Manhattan Project, a federal program to build the world’s first atomic weapons.
There are a few other former homes built before World War II that remain. One is a historic house, a one-story stone bungalow at 151 Oak Ridge Turnpike known as the Luther Brannon House. It once served as a home and headquarters for General Leslie R. Groves during the Manhattan Project. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was the first home in Oak Ridge to be privately owned.
The home was built by Owen Hackworth in 1941. Hackworth was a longtime resident of the Clinch River Valley.
The Luther Brannon House was acquired by the federal government in 1942, according to the home’s registration form for the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. Groves, the commander of the Manhattan Project, lived at the home and kept his headquarters there until administration buildings were completed, according to a property documentation form filed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
The home was one of the most modern structures in the valley when purchased by the federal government, according to the property documentation form.
“Built near the community of Elza, the house is the only extant residence associated with the original valley settlements,” the form said.
As of 1991, there were only three pre-World War II dwellings left in Oak Ridge: the Luther Brannon House; the Freels Bend cabin, the 19th-century log structure located near the Clark Center Park in south Oak Ridge and the city’s oldest building; and the J.B. Jones House built around 1920 on Old Edgemoor Road across from the Bull Run Steam Plant.
There are also two churches that pre-date the construction of Oak Ridge: the George Jones Memorial Baptist Church in the former Wheat community in west Oak Ridge and the New Bethel Baptist Church on Bethel Valley Road near Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The Luther Brannon House is significant for its affiliation with the early development of Oak Ridge and its association with Groves. It’s the only pre-war house that remains inside the city proper, and it’s the only confirmed residence of any of the key personalities associated with the Manhattan Project, the National Historic Register filing said.
One hundred eighty of the pre-World War II houses were used to alleviate the severe housing shortage on the 59,000-acre military reservation in Oak Ridge during World War II. The city’s population quickly swelled to 75,000 during the frenzied top-secret effort to build the world’s first atomic bombs, and homes, businesses, and military activities replaced acres of farmland and several rural communities. Almost all of the remaining pre-World War II homes were torn down after the war.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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