West: Percy Priest had a major impact

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An article on the front page of today's Cannon Courier delves into the creation of Center Hill Dam which had (and still has) an impact on Cannon County and the surrounding area.

Perhaps equally important is the story behind Percy Priest Dam, which plugs up Stone's River. As you well know, a substantial part of Stone's River gets its start in Cannon County on Short Mountain and flows through Woodbury.

Priest Dam and Lake came along much later than Center Hill with the goal of flood control and was a Corp of Engineer project not like TVA's construction of Center Hill.

You probably know the river is named after hunter Uriah Stone who discovered it in the 1700s. Uriah was the ancestor of Col. Jim Stone of Woodbury, who is active in preserving the Stone family's history.

Before Uriah's time, the Stone's River basin had been a favored hunting ground of the Creek, Chickasaws, Shawnees and Cherokees.

Some 200 years later, the U.S. Congress commissioned a dam under the Flood Control Act of 1946. Initially, the project was named Stewart's Ferry Reservoir and set unapproved for several years.

Following the death of Rep. J. Percy Priest, the dam project was renamed in his honor.

Priest, a Maury County native, he attended Teachers College in Murfreesboro (MTSU) and graduate school at George Peabody College in Nashville and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and was a high school teacher and coach in Culleoka. Later he became a reporter/editor for the Nashville Tennessean.

He was elected to Congress as an Independent in 1940 but soon switched his allegiance to Democrat and had a distinguished career including writing legislation that established the National Science Foundation. He became Democratic "Whip" in 1946 and served Tennessee's Fifth District, which included much of Middle Tennessee at the time.

Priest was among the few Tennessee politicians who refused to sign the "Southern Manifesto" in 1956. Written by Sen. Strom Thurmond, the manifesto opposed racial integration of public places. Tennessee Senators Albert Gore and Estes Kefauver also refused to sign, along with then Sen. Lyndon Johnson.

Priest died of compli-cations following surgery for stomach ulcers on Oct. 16, 1956.

Murfreesboro businessman, the late E.W. Carmack, said following Priest's sudden death, the members of the Cumberland River Development Association petitioned the project be renamed for the late congressman. Nashville District Commander Col. Gilbert Dorland stated "the name change for a recently departed and greatly beloved member of the House was a piece of inspiration that brought approval of the request for funds."

Congress officially changed the project name from Stewart's Ferry to J. Percy Priest on July 2, 1958. Groundbreaking occurred on June 29, 1963 with excavation beginning the following month. President Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated the project on June 29, 1968.

It was a hot day when President Johnson dedicated the dam. Yep, I was there along with my Mother and two brothers. It was hot and LBJ was far away, which is about all I remember. I remember my family touring the little village of Old Jefferson, which was demolished to make way for the lake. Plenty of families, including Murray Miles of Tennessee Farm Bureau fame, lost their homes and farms. Graveyards were moved to higher ground.

But the experts were wrong. When the dam was completed and the area flooded most of Old Jefferson was high above the lake. Yep, that was a shock to everyone.

Those were the days before the Interstate Highways came to Nashville. Nowadays, you can get a good view of Percy Priest Dam off I-40 about 10 miles east of downtown Nashville. The lake is 42 miles long and covers portions of Davidson, Rutherford and Wilson Counties and consists of 14,200 surface acres of water.

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Mike West
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