Drowning in memories
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 12:58 pm
Three DeKalb County women have spent the past four years resurrecting memories that were buried beneath the waters of Center Hill Lake seven decades ago.
Driver went on to college and taught school for three years in the Smith County communities of Clubb Springs and Bowlings Branch. She then taught six years at Shop Springs and 22 years at Watertown Elementary.
One of the hardest episodes for her parents was the day they watched the graves of their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles in the Watson Cemetery being opened so that the remains could be transferred to Mount Holly Cemetery in Smithville.
About 1,100 families were displaced by the creation of the lake. In the first years after the water topped the land, DeKalb County's population dropped by 4,000.
Smithville's Mike Foster was born in 1947, a year before the Floating Mill area was deluged. It had been settled by his great-great-great grandfather John Puckett in 1802.
"He had a floating grist mill on Caney Fork River. He had the mill tied so it would come up and down with the river. The river turned the gristmill wheel," said Foster, noting that mill operated in the 1830s and 1840s
"Where my great-granddaddy and Granddaddy Foster lived and where my daddy was born [between Interstate 40 and Hurricane Bridge on Highway 56 north of Smithville] is now covered with water, and when the lake is down a little bit, you can see the rocks that made the chimney and foundations of two houses where they lived. And you still see the graves where they took them out and buried them in Mount Holly.
"It was a big life change to them when they moved out because they had lived there for several generations. I think they all regretted leaving there," said Foster.
One of the first to snare a copy of "Under the Lake," Foster said, "The book is amazing. After I got it, I was looking at it until two o'clock in the morning. It is full of information about all those families who lived where the lake is now. I saw pictures of people I didn't know but then discovered they were some of my distant uncles."
The trio of writers divided their labors with Fuson and Williams conducting the bulk of the interviews, while Baker created the maps, designed the book and shepherded it through the printing process.
Williams said, "We took the names from each section of maps and put them in alphabetical order and started looking for families. DeKalb County historian Tommy Webb told us the names of the descendants of those who lost their farms who lived here, so that we could find them and talk to them."
Webb also shared many vintage photos and copies of interviews that he had conducted in past decades with DeKalb natives. The authors dedicated the book in Webb's honor.
Said Fuson, "When I was a girl, Daddy would take me fishing on the lake and would point and tell me, "This was our place.' I asked him, 'How can you know?' because it was under the lake."
Her father, J.B. Taylor, known by most as "Mr. J.B.," was 29 when he left his home place.
Now 99, he told his daughter, "My dad had been raised there and his ancestors before him. It was his home, and he hated to leave."
Among the areas that Fuson researched was Indian Creek, which had been inhabited by many of her Taylor ancestors, the majority of whom were descendants of Bluetooth Taylor.
"I was very glad that I was able to research the Taylor family and talk with my dad and get to know the different families of Taylors and how they are kin," she said.
Williams said that her great-great-grandfather moved in 1835 on to land close to where the dam stands. At the time the property was part of Smith County. Her family surrendered their 180-acre farm with the birth of the lake.
She lived in Smithville from age of 16 months to 7 years and then moved to Crossville. She returned to Smithville 20 years ago and taught special education at DeKalb County High for 15 years.
Said Williams, "This has always been home to me. My mother died when I was 14. I didn't get to hear her stories. I wanted to learn more about the county and the adventures that happened on the river--the stories that my mother couldn't tell me."
After digging into DeKalb of yesteryear, she has begun collecting pottery that was made along the Caney Fork River in the 1800s.
Baker, a lifelong Alexandria resident, said many of the families they talked with described losing their homes and farms as "a horrible experience."
"One man told his daughter that he'd rather die than give up the land that had been theirs for generations," said Baker.
"One lady had a family who had a farm right on the river. I asked her if they had pictures, and she said they loaded up the wagon and took what they could, but they didn't take any of their pictures or furniture. She said her dad was broken-hearted and so hated leaving that he didn't want anything to remind him of it. There was nobody who wanted to go."
Besides constructing the dam, another major undertaking by the Army Corps of Engineers was the task of removing the remains of 5,200 bodies from 82 family cemeteries and having them reinterred at Mount Holly Cemetery, which they specifically created specifically for this purpose.
(Families had a choice of where they wanted to move the remains of their ancestors. Several elected to have them relocated to cemeteries in DeKalb and Putnam counties.)
When quizzed as to what lies beneath the lake, Williams responded, "Memories and broken dreams. Lost communities. Families moved away to different areas and other states. Most of the churches never assembled again. It was a time and place that will never come back."