The Marshall County -
Editor: Dale James - Jan. 31, 2007

BENTON — Jamie Bennett closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. Two hours of dodging verbal potshots had left her physically drained.

“My dad was a minister,” Bennett told the last of some two dozen people collecting their things as they prepared to leave the conference room of the Marshall County Public Library, “but even he never had to preach for two hours at a stretch.”

Bennett is with the USDA Forest Service. She is also manager of the Land Between the Lakes Heritage Program. She was in Benton Saturday to conduct another in a series of area meetings designed to gather input about possible ways to preserve the heritage of those who lost their homes and their land when the Tennessee River was dammed.

The meeting did not go exactly as planned.

Emotions ran high as several of those in attendance took the opportunity to sharply question whether they could trust the same government that took their land not to exploit their heritage as well.

Bennett dealt patiently with each in turn, resigned to the fact that — for now — the expressed purpose of the meeting would have to wait.

“They can’t give me their ideas until they get rid of their pain,” she concluded afterward. “Until that happens I’m going to be on trial, and I accept that.”

When the Tennessee Valley Authority began damming the Tennessee River back in the 1930s it provided a cheap source of electrical power, the economic engine fueling the creation of thousands of good-paying industrial jobs in areas that had been largely rural and steeped in poverty. It also helped to control the frequent flooding that had long plagued many of those same areas.

But those changes did not come without collateral damage. The same dams that brought economic prosperity to so many drove others from their homes and land, including those living in what is now the Land Between the Lakes.

The Heritage Program was established in part to preserve the memory of those whose sacrifice helped make those changes possible.

“These people lived, they laughed, they cried, they gave birth, they died,” Bennett told those gathered for the meeting. “Their lives and their stories are still out there, but nobody knows it. People go away not knowing the price that was paid. If we don’t tell their stories nobody will.”

It was in an effort to determine exactly what form, if any, the attempt to tell those stories should take that Bennett began holding the series of meetings that have taken place in recent weeks.

“People think that I have all this preprogrammed. I don’t,” Bennett insisted. “I’m making this up as I go along. Nothing is set in concrete.”

The possibilities suggested thus far range from the decidedly humble to the somewhat more ambitious. On the humble end of the spectrum, Bennett suggested a brochure, “professionally produced.” More ambitious suggestions include an interpretive center, complete with exhibits, or a system of trails throughout the LBL area.

Some of those in attendance Saturday appeared unimpressed.

“How much is it going to cost for people to see all this heritage,” grumbled one participant.

Fees charged for various LBL activities are a chief source of contention among those whose families lost their homes to the project. They contend that fees violate TVA promises not to exploit the land for commercial profit. Rumors have even circulated that the Park Service is planning an amusement park for the area.

“Listen,” an exasperated Bennett declared flatly, “there is no theme park gonna happen.”
She was more equivocal on the subject of fees.

“There’s a difference between making a profit and being commercial and paying your way,” she pointed out. “If you want a center to tell your story, then we’re going to have to sit down and figure out a way to pay for that. All I can say is that no one in the Forest Service is going to dictate what that might be. The program is going to come from you. That’s why I’m here.”

She has her work cut out for her.

As an example of just how bitter the resentment runs, some participants contended that the fees being charged for campgrounds in the LBL area place them out of the reach of the very people whose homes and land were confiscated to create them.

“The people using these campgrounds don’t even live around here,” argued one participant. “They come from outside this area.”

Bennett emphasized that the Forest Service could not rule out the use of fees for existing facilities or any future ones.

“The problem with saying there will never be any fees,” she said, “is that everything costs.”

Most of those present acknowledged that a small handful of people paid a high price for the changes that have benefitted so many. They were less united on what the next step should be. “It’s time to move forward” was a phrase that was bantered about more than once.

Bennett was sympathetic.

“I can’t turn back the clock,” she said. “I can only let you tell your stories and hope that brings some sort of closure.”

Bennett will conduct another Heritage Program forum from 10 a.m. to noon, Feb. 3, in the Lyon County Public Library in Eddyville.