THE TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY
AN ADDRESS BY DR. WILLIAM SHERWOOD FOX, B.A., M.A., LL.D.,F.R.S.C.
Chairman: The President, Mr. J. P. Pratt, K.C.
Thursday, March 23, 1939.
THE PRESIDENT: Gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: Today we have the privilege of listening to another prominent resident of the Province of Ontario in the person of Dr. William Sherwood Fox, B.A., M.A., LL.D., F.R.S.C., who is best known to all of us as President of the University of Western Ontario at London. Dr. Fox was educated in the schools of Toronto and at McMaster University. Following graduation he went to the United States and was on the teaching staff of such outstanding Universities as Johns Hopkins and Princeton. He returned to Canada and joined the staff of the Western University-as it was at that time--and he rose step by step until he is now President and ViceChancellor.
Naturally, with that background, Dr. Fox's writings and addresses have been of a classical nature, but since his taking over the administrative duties of the University he has not had the time that he formerly had to devote to those pursuits, so he has taken up the study of natural history and I believe is known somewhat as an amateur botanist and a famous angler. He asked me to go very easy in introducing him and not to refer to the size of fish which he catches or those he does not catch. However, the subject which Dr. Fox is to discuss today is one of interest to all of us in this section of Ontario, particularly to that group who have been making a study of conditions in the Township of King, in this county. Dr. Fox has had a splendid opportunity for close study and examination of the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority and that is the subject he will discuss today. I have indeed great pleasure in introducing Dr. William Sherwood Fox. His topic will be "A Great Experiment in Applied Democracy."
DR. WILLIAM SHERWOOD Fox: Mr. President and Gentlemen: I am very gratified indeed to get this cordial welcome to The Empire Club. I am also gratified to have the honour of addressing your Club a second time. The invitation seems to be an assurance that my former address was at least not especially terrifying. However, the Club may be wondering, even after the President's introduction of me, just what authority I have for speaking on the subject on which I am to speak today. I may reply as I replied to the criticism of a friend directed at me two years ago when I was about to speak upon Ireland. This friend, a clergyman, with a great penchant for preciseness, said to me, "Fox, you haven't seen enough of Ireland to be competent to speak about it." "Hold a moment," I said; "My good friend, have you not announced that next Sunday you propose to speak on hell? Have you ever been there? I have at least been to Ireland." May I add for your reassurance, Mr. President and Gentlemen, at least I have visited a number of the works of the Tennessee Valley Authority under the personal tutelage of its Chairman.
The wording of my title is deliberately chosen. Personally, I believe that the real principles of democracy have in recent years been obscured by a barrage of words about democracy. The fact that these words have been well meant has not lessened their ill effects. When the people have cried for the bread of democracy they have been given definitions and dissertations. The time has come to study democracy in terms of concrete examples of its successful application. The Tennessee Valley Authority is itself one such example which has already attained some striking results. Surely such an epochal enterprise carried on at Canada's very doors, an enterprise laden with a multitude of lessons, both negative and positive, should not be overlooked by Canadians. For me the TVA drives home one great inclusive lesson in particular: that no policy of government is genuinely democratic unless it brings to the individual common citizen substantial benefits which he can enjoy at his own hearth. The fact that a distinguished Canadian, Dr. Harcourt A. Morgan, is Chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority should enhance our interest in that great work. His personal desire that Canadians learn something concerning the TVA is in large part the reason why I am addressing you upon the TVA today. My remarks are authoritatively based upon the material with which he has supplied me and upon things I have myself seen in the Valley. May I add that the name of Morgan adds still further lustre to the name of Strathroy, the home of great Canadians--the Honourable Edward Blake, Sir George Ross, Sir Arthur Currie, Professor James Shotwell?
I take it for granted that the members of this Club desire to review the TVA with open minds, that is, to view it as a whole and stripped of the many controversial issues that have obscured its purposes and achievements.
Certainly, one would expect Canadians to be quite unlike the incurably prejudiced Southern professor who warned his students against Garrison's anti-slavery paper, the Liberator: "I warn you, gentlemen, against the detestable, dangerous doctrines of The Liberator, of which, thank God, I have never seen a copy."
Happily, the TVA's issue with the Utilities has been satisfactorily settled. The recent congressional investigation has, in the eyes of the nation at large, vindicated the present Chairman of the Commission. Moreover, to decide these issues, which after all are only secondary, is none of our Canadian business.
The TVA was established by Act of Congress in 1933. It began operating immediately under an administrative Commission of three men-Arthur Morgan (Chairman) Engineer and President of Antioch College; Harcourt A. Morgan, formerly President of the University of Tennessee; and David Lilienthal, a very gifted young lawyer with a broad practical experience in public affairs on a large scale. May I refer you to the September, 1938, issue of Harper's Magazine, and to the article that number contains, entitled, "Morgan, Morgan and Lilienthal."
In 1938 Harcourt Morgan succeeded Arthur Morgan in the Chairmanship. The Act establishing the TVA secured national support because of the national significance of its chief aim-the provision of a measure of effective control over the floods of the Mississippi River. This primary aim must not be lost sight of, for it is essential.
But in order to control waters flowing down the Mississippi the system of control must be pushed back to the ultimate sources of the waters-back into the tributaries of the Mississippi, back into their tributaries, the smaller rivers, creeks, brooks and springs; back into the fields, forests, valley slopes, and upper hill country where the rains fall; back to man's treatment of the soil; and, finally, back to the life of man in the Mississippi Valley and to the conditions under which he lives it. What a colossal programme! It involves the study and treatment of the natural resources and the civilization of the whole Mississippi Valley. On that scale an impossible undertaking at a single stroke. However, in order to reduce the scale to a practicable basis a regional unit of the Mississippi Basin was selected, namely, the Tennessee Valley.
In fact, history authorizes one to say that the selection was really made over a hundred years ago in the time of President Munro. In recent times Senator Morrill, Senator Norris and the Roosevelt Government are but carrying out the accumulated judgments of several generations of predecessors.
It is quite easy to get a picture of the Tennessee Valley because its boundaries are sharply defined. This region, significantly situated close to the geographical centre of the United States covers 42,000 square miles, i.e. 26,000,000 acres. It comprises seven States, including a-11 of one State and parts of others: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. It has a population of two and one half millions, while the total population of the seven states is seventeen millions. It is sharply bounded by winding summit-lines of hills and mountains reaching as far east as the western parts of Virgina and North Carolina. The mountains on either side in this eastern section range in altitude from 5,000 to 6,500 feet. This great valley region has, with the single exception of the northwest corner of the United States, the highest rainfall in the whole country. It ranges between 80 inches a year in the Smoky Mountains and 40 in the lower reaches of the Valley-an average of 52 inches a year. The volume of water thus contributing to a Mississippi flood involves almost astronomical figures. One inch of rain falling on an acre weighs 113 tons; 52 inches of rain means 6,000 tons per acre. On 26 million acres the annual rainfall would weigh 156,000,000,000 tons. Now, bear in mind that this inconceivably vast volume of water drops in its course from an extreme of 6,500 feet above sea level to about 350 feet at the Tennessee's junction with the Ohio. The Tennessee alone from Knoxville to its mouth at Paducah, Kentucky, is 650 miles in length and has a total vertical drop of approximately 500 feet. Think of the enormous latent power involved, power nearly all of which has in the past gone to waste.
But a point or two more must not be overlooked. The climate shades from that of our own Southern Ontario to that of the hot cotton-growing south. Nature has endowed the area with almost a full range of supplementary resources needed for a great modern civilization. In it or on its very borders are coal, high-grade clays, lead, iron, potassium, manganese, and of greatest importance for an agricultural tract, a large deposit of phosphate ore. In this area rural life and urban life exist in a natural interlocking relationship to each other. No huge cities have yet developed. Urban life still has its roots in the agriculture of the region. Only about 25 per cent of the two and a half millions live in cities.
Even this thumb-nail sketch explains satisfactorily the reason for selecting the Tennessee Valley for a great regional experiment. But there still remains a more cogent reason, a great twofold one: it was selected first because its resources have been terribly impaired through the carelessness and improvidence of man; secondly, because it is still possible to retrieve a large measure of these resources and to remedy some of the damage done. It is a sad fact that this beautiful, rich Valley of the Tennessee is now after scarcely more than a century's occupation a region of conspicuous human distress on a large scale. Erosion has eaten away seven million acres of farm lands and left- them stripped to the sterile sub-soil or pitifully gullied. They are a sorry, disheartening sight, as I can say from recent observation. Stupid methods of agriculture and the usual prodigality of the pioneer account for much of this condition. Most of the people realize the seriousness of the situation, but ignorance, inertia, sheer bewilderment and superstition have stifled most efforts to seek and apply remedies. Many of the rural people regard the erosion of their hillsides as "an act of God" concerning which nothing can be done without going against the Bible. The inexorable cycle of impoverishment has done its work and done it thoroughly. People have felt themselves helpless before the condition. The municipality, the county, even the state, as separate units, can do nothing, because there are so many interlocking regional factors that are outside the jurisdiction and control of each of these governmental units. Successful handling of the situation is plainly a matter for the Federal Government, since the Federal Government alone is in a position to co-ordinate the many tasks involved.
The aims of the TVA may conveniently be reduced to five. In setting them forth I draw freely from Chairman Harcourt Morgan's statement submitted to the first Congressional Committee of Investigation in 1934. The first aim is to aid in controlling floods in. the Mississippi. This aim, entirely apart from all the other aims, is of such momentous importance that it would have been sufficient of itself to set the Tennessee Valley Authority enterprise in motion sooner or later. It would seem to be simple logic to conclude that control of a great tributary like the Tennessee would have an appreciable effect upon the Mississippi. At all events that belief prompted the United States Government to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority. Already there is definite proof of the soundness of the policy. In 1937 the few dams then constructed on the Tennessee accounted for a lowering of six inches in the flood crest at Cairo, Illinois. An infinitesimal difference, you say. Nevertheless, it meant the saving of Cairo and of many other cities farther down stream. This augurs well for the success of the completed system of control dams. Engineers predict a lowering of the crest by two feet, a success sufficient in itself to warrant all the expense involved.
The second aim flows naturally from the first, namely, the establishment and maintenance of improved navigation on the Tennessee River. The series of flood-control dams provides for navigation at no additional expenditure except for that involved in the construction of locks. The TVA can provide for a nine-foot channel for the 650 miles between Knoxville and Paducah. "When completed," says Dr. Morgan, "this development on the Tennessee will tie directly into the national interior waterways system, which will then constitute perhaps the largest improved internal waterway in the world." Can we Canadians not see the plain implication? This will bind together commercially the consuming north with the products of the central south, rich in cotton, tobacco, corn, and certain important regional commodities. Conversely, it will bind the processing north with the south and its need of finished goods. This aim is, in fact, part of a plan originating in 1824 when John C. Calhoun recommended it to President Munroe.
The third aim is the conservation of the soil and of fertility. This aim though put third in order really ranks higher in ultimate importance. In fact, it is an inseparable part of the first aim. Manifestly, dams by themselves are not a sufficient check upon the run of water down a watershed: one has to go back to the very sources of the water, to the rain itself as it falls upon the land. Since the sides of the Tennessee basin are sloping, many of them even steep, the rain literally runs off the land. When it runs off it carries away with it tons of soil and cuts great gashes deep down into the infertile subsoil. Something has to be done to make the rain "walk off," or, better still, soak into the land. If this is done a number of benefits are gained at once--floods are either stopped or lessened, and the land is improved in productiveness.
As the Tennessee Valley Authority viewed this phase of its problem its leaders saw that something more had to be done than merely hold the fertility that still remained in the soil: an effort was needed to put back into the soil as much as possible of the fertility that had already been drawn from it and lost. Of the elements that had become deficient there were two outstanding ones nitrogen and phosphorus. Providentially, Nature has made it quite easy to supply these: the nitrogen could be restored through the cultivation of leguminous plants, whereas the phosphorus in suitable form could be prepared through the waterpower already being generated at Muscle Shoals. A large deposit of low grade phosphorus ore lies near the Shoals. This, though not inexhaustible, is at least ample to permit a long-term experiment in training agriculturists how to use phosphorus and other mineral fertilizers properly and systematically. Of the soundness of this aim nobody with any vision at all has ever entertained any doubt. Nevertheless, it is by far the most difficult aim of all to attain, since its success depends, first, upon convincing individual farmers that the job can be done, and, next, upon securing their consent to try to do it. Complete success would involve the persuasion of 75 per cent of two and a half million people to adopt new views and ways of farming. To anyone who knows the intense individuality of the Tennessee Valley farmers and hillbillies, the task would seem to be as difficult as that of making Niagara Falls flow uphill. However, anyone who has had to do with large bodies of people knows that good initial success with a relatively small proportion will in the end affect the whole group as by a beneficent contagion. As a matter of fact, the process of contagion is going on at the present time. Presently I shall have a few words to say about it. It is in this feature of the TVA programme that the genuine democratic quality of the enterprise becomes manifest.
The fourth aim is to distribute widely the hydroelectric power developed at dams on the Tennessee and its leading tributaries, e.g. the Clinch and the Hiwassee. Note that I did not say the production of hydro-electric power. Manifestly, the power is a byproduct of the primary aim, flood control. The dams in holding back the water thereby store latent power. The water belongs to the people and likewise the reserve of power. It seems to be the business of the people's government to see to it that the people have the opportunity to make use of this power, and that is just what the Federal Government has done through the TVA. But since the Authority is not a retailer, it can sell only to groups of citizens--municipalities, communities, utility companies. These in their turn retail the power to the individual consumer. Naturally, the Authority develops the power at low cost and therefore can distribute it at a low price. Quite logically, it exacts of the community groups or corporations that they sell to the ultimate consumer at a correspondingly low price. In a word, it is the duty of the TVA to see that the people get the full benefit of what is their own. On sound business grounds the Authority is required to use the proceeds from its wholesale distribution, "so far as may be practicable to assist in liquidating the cost or aiding in the maintenance of the projects of the Authority."
It requires no cleverness to see the possibility of conflict between the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Utilities. The Utilities have said that the Government, through the Authority, is competing with private business. The Authority says, no, it is only co-operating with the Utilities and helping them and at the same time bringing great new advantages to millions of people and raising their standard of living. The Utilities have said that the Authority's famous "yardstick" for ascertaining the selling price of electricity is unsound. The Authority emphatically denies the charge. Fortunately, the recent purchase of the privately owned Tennessee utilities by the Authority has brought this controversy to an end.
The fifth aim relates to a large-scale provision for national defence, and this aim is generally lost sight of amid the controversies that have taken place. During the Great War the Government developed the power of the Tennessee at Muscle Shoals in order to produce in vast quantities the chemicals needed in warfare. Although at the present time the plant is used to produce phosphates for fertilizer, it is held as a stand=by for war purposes. Even a blind man can see the strategic defensive importance of the Tennessee Valley, far removed as it is from the threat of invasion and attack.
Chairman Harcourt Morgan appends a sixth aim which is really a summary of all the other aims. It is that the unified attack upon all the fundamental problems involved may "lay the basis for reversing the inevitable trend toward impoverishment in this southeastern region," a trend that has been going on since the Civil War.
". . . I cannot believe," he says, most significantly, "that the gradual depletion of any section of the nation can be other than a cancerous growth which must affect adversely the entire national well-being. The loss of a national market and the growing burden of relief are obvious effects. But the real tragedy is the human one. It is the fact of degrading poverty in contrast to the potentiality of plenty."
Certain hasty charges have been made against the TVA. One is that the Authority duplicates existing agencies. The fact is that on the contrary it employs them and co-ordinates them, as I shall show shortly. It works closely with the appropriate Federal agencies as well as with the appropriate agencies of the seven Valley States and of their counties, in such fields as public health, education, navigation, agriculture, reforestation, distribution and. use of electric power and so forth. It is through the representatives of these agencies that the TVA reaches down to the common man in his own home. This procedure is what the Chairman calls the TVA's principle of "energizing at the grass roots"; in short, it is democracy at work. The people thus energized to co-operative effort find all these agencies to be high roads leading straight to the advantages provided for the people by the great Bureaus at Washington, the seven State Capitols, and the State Colleges and Universities.
Again, the TVA has been charged with being a political organization. The truth is that from the founding of the Authority the Management and Staff from top to bottom have been appointed on merit alone. An abler lot of officers and helpers I have never seen anywhere in any organization. At first, people took it for granted that the Authority was just one more big machine for placing political friends in earning posts. But through numerous failures to secure jobs by political influence the citizens have at last learned to cease bothering the Authority. Long may it succeed in this exemplary course!
The so-called "interests" have not been the sole opponents of the TVA. Probably the stubbornest are the small farmers and hillbillies who are perhaps the most individualistic inhabitants of North America. From the start the Authority collided with them in its endeavour to purchase vast acreages of farm and forest. Since many of these people can neither read nor write they have to be handled most tactfully. Many amusing tales are told of the experiences of purchasing agents. One old man, according to Russell Porter, insisted on sufficient time to read a document. "I don't sign nothin' till I've read it with my own eyes," he said. After "studying" it for five minutes without realizing it was upside down, he made his mark, explaining that he could not write his name because of the cramps that he had in his arm that day.
Now, how does the TVA reach down to the individual citizen with its beneficent influence? I can offer only two pointed illustrations here.
The initial step in rural social improvement is the demonstration farm. In order to start such a farm the county agricultural representative calls a meeting of the farmers of his district. Together they select certain farms and farmers for the experiment. To the farmers chosen the TVA gives free supplies of super phosphate fertilizer produced at the Muscle Shoals plant. In their use of these they pledge themselves to follow the directions of the TVA experts and other accredited agents. A study is made of all the conditions prevailing in the several farms concerned. According to the findings the farmers change their methods of tillage, adopt various appropriate means to check the gullying of their lands, alter or rotate or diversify their crops, which are suitably treated with the fertilizer provided. The final results in each year are watched by all the other farmers in the country. Invariably success has induced many of them to imitate the procedure. The occurrence of this year after year is extending with increasing momentum the movement toward better farming in the Tennessee Valley.
One of the greatest needs is that of reducing drastically the row crops such as cotton and corn, since these always expose the soil to erosion. They require to be replaced by such cover crops as hold the soil and at the same time impregnate it with nitrogen. Again, where row crops are retained the land must be worked by contour terraces of varying widths. Such a treatment as this delays or even may entirely stop the water in its run off the surface of the land. Study has revealed that under certain conditions a combination of cover and row crops appears to be desirable. But, unfortunately, there has been no implement in existence possessing the two qualifications of capacity to do the work and of being sold at a price within the reach of the low income farmer. And one must remember that the average rural income of the area is appallingly low.
At this point appears the co-operative service of an established agency. The problem devising a suitable implement is given to the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tennessee. In due time the engineers submit a design to an implement manufacturing company. "It will cost a hundred dollars per machine," says the company. "No good," retorts the engineer; "the poor farmer cannot pay a cent more than $20.00." Back and forth goes the exchange of arguments till at last one of the great factories turns out an implement to retail at $22.50. It is successful and is now on the market. This machine makes possible what is called "corrugated farming." By this method grain can be easily sown in furrows cut through a matted cover crop. The method costs less than the ordinary method of preparing the land and of seeding, and at the same time conserves the soil and its fertility. Moreover, it raises the farmer's income, enhances his standard of living, absorbs the rain, keeps his farm from migrating to the Gulf of Mexico, and in proportionate degree it aids in lessening the volume of flood waters each year.
Another illustration may be cited. The TVA holds in trust for the people, as we have said, its by-product of electric power. The people who need it most are the poor of the rural districts. But as individuals they cannot get the power for use, and for very obvious reasons: they lack the means to purchase both the power and the articles of electrical equipment, and, besides, the TVA is not a retailer. However, the TVA says to a group of neighbours: "Combine together for an experiment in the use of electric power. Start with an experiment in community refrigeration." They agree to make an attempt but find that the cost of any existing make of refrigerator is quite beyond their financial resources. Again, an appeal is made to an existing agency. The Agricultural Extension Service of the University is asked to devise a refrigerator that will be large enough to serve the community and at the same time can be sold at a price the community can afford. The result is the production of a substantial inexpensive "walk-in" cooler. The essential parts are now made by the large refrigeration firms; these may be assembled anti put together by the village carpenter, and the total cost of this "walk-in" cooler is about $700. A brief quotation will explain: The cooler is located in a community store. The store keeper is a member of the group and keeps all records of tests, weighs produce in and out of the cooler for all patrons, keeps the books of the organization and looks after the equipment. The cost of operation and maintenance of the cooler is prorated equally among the six members. The storekeeper who acts as manager of the plant is amply compensated for space furnished and for his extra labour by the benefits he derives from having the equipment located in his store. By using his allotted space in the cooler for storing meats to be sold over the counter and by selling surplus meat for other members, he has built up in a three months' period a thriving trade in fresh meat. The community did not have a dependable fresh meat supply prior to the installation of this equipment.
Space which is not needed by the members of the co-operative group is rented to non-members at a flat charge per hundred pounds of products stored per week. Revenue derived from non-member patrons is used to help pay operating expenses.
This ends the illustrations and I come to my conclusion. I could cite many more similar specific examples of the way in which the TVA is bringing real benefits into the very household of the humblest citizen. These examples have related to the rural citizen, but I could give others that show how the urban citizen also has profited in like degree. I leave it to your imagination to realize how the people of the entire Valley will be helped progressively when the beneficent wheel of improved prosperity begins to turn. The movement will be like an infection. It will be communicated first to the 17,000,000 people of the seven states and thence to the whole nation and to the other nations and, among them, primarily, Canada. In the meantime, Canadians can take time by the forelock by study of the TVA's purposes, its setup, its methods of operation, its failures and successes. Canadians, if they are really alert, can be prompted to institute enterprises in applied democracy in order to rectify certain comparable social and economic conditions in Canada.
I thank you, Mr. President. (Applause)
THE PRESIDENT: Dr. Fox, we thank you most cordially for bringing to us this most interesting talk which all of us can plainly see is the result of boiling down a very large amount of information which you have gathered by reading and by personal observation. On behalf of the Club, I extend to you our warmest thanks.
The meeting is adjourned. (Applause)