This narrative poem is based on the real-life experiences of my maternal grandfather's mother when she was told by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early 1940s that she would have to move off her homeplace due to the imminent flooding of the area by the Dale Hollow Dam project. She refused to leave, and ultimately died before she was forced to.
Miss Ida Belle McHenry Talks to the Man from the State
"Stories from Our Seniors" Project
There was a woman lived over the ridge there,
Ruby Donaldson was her name, granddaughter
Of Rachel Donaldson, Andrew Jackson's wife.
The old Donaldson place is under the lake
Now, just out from the dam, about where
The swinging bridge crosses over from
Hickory Grove to the island. She had
An old open-back banjo that Clyde Forrest
Had made for her daddy, but he never learned
To play it. Miss Ruby picked it up
And got right good at it. She'd sit on her porch
In the evening in the hickory rocker,
With her back straight as a board, and she'd hold
That banjo with the neck straight up and down
And play "Cripple Creek," "Fare Thee Well Old Joe Clark,"
"Under the Double Eagle." I never knew
How anybody could hold a banjo
Any such a way and still be able
To play it, but she did. Many a time,
When I was a little girl, I could hear
Miss Ruby's banjo come tinkling across
The holler. Sometimes it'd make our old dog
Buddy commence to howling. My daddy'd come
Out on the porch and holler "Whoa here Buddy!
Shut that ruckus up! You hear me?" And then
The banjo playing would stop, and my daddy
He'd shout across the holler "Never you mind
This old hound, Miss Ruby! He ain't got no sense.
Play 'Shady Grove' for me." And she would.
Anyway, that was long before they built
The dam, before Miss Ruby got the skin cancer.
I recollect it was nineteen and forty-six
When they started the dam. I guess Miss Ruby
Must've been getting on toward seventy then.
She got the cancer a year or two before
They moved her off her place. That woman suffered,
Especially during the summer, what with
The heat and the flies and all. Her daughter,
Lavelle, took good care of her, though, until
The very end. Lord knows it must not
Have been easy. I don't know if I
Could've done what she did.
When the Corps
Of Engineers first started coming around,
Telling folks about how they were going
To build the dam, some people were all for it,
For the electricity and all, and some
Were against it. Just like it is with the
New North/South highway, I guess. Then as now,
It seems like it was mostly the younger ones
That were for it. And so many of them
Ended up moving away, anyway.
The older folks though had lived on their farms
All their lives, and their people before them.
Some of them got plain riled at these TVA men
For telling them they had to move off
The old home place because they were going
To flood it. Bury a perfectly good
Farm under water. It just didn't make sense.
But it was plain as day they were going
To do it. It was just a matter of when.
They got senators and congressmen and such
To come and speak about it. Finally,
Most realized it wouldn't do any good
To try and hold out and just took the money
And moved further up on the ridges. It was
The saddest thing to see some of those families
Leave their farms. They'd pack everything they owned
Up in the wagon and then just stand out there
On the road. And then after a long time
They'd finally call to the mules and the wagon
Would start creeping up the ridge so slow
You'd have though the water would get there
Before they got away. Seems I recall
Ardy Bransom took his porch apart
And took it with him.
Miss Ruby, though, she
Was a fighter. She wouldn't leave for no
Amount of money. The chairman of the whole
TVA—Morgan was his name—even came
Down from Washington, D.C. and sat on
Miss Ruby's porch and tried to get her to
Take the money and leave. They offered her
More money, but she wouldn't go. "I was born
In this house, and I aim to die in this house,"
She would tell them. Then they offered to move
The house. She wouldn't hear of it. Finally—
And this is the part I like the best—
They had to send in a Federal Marshall
With an eviction notice and a bunch
Of corpsmen to escort her off her property.
Miss Ruby just sat in her rocker
With her banjo in her lap and wouldn't budge.
The corpsmen finally picked her up, rocker and all,
And carried her to their truck.
I was sitting
In our kitchen, across the holler, while all
This was going on. All of a sudden
I heard Miss Ruby's banjo, and then
A bunch of voices I didn't recognize.
I ran out the back door and up to the top
Of the hill behind the tobacco patch
Where you could look across and down to
The Donaldson place. There was Miss Ruby,
Sitting just as stiff as always in her
Rocker in the bed of the truck, just playing
The living daylights out of her banjo.
I remember it was "Shady Grove" she played.
I never heard her play it so fast or so loud.