Willow Grove: History Covered With Water
By: April Jackson
Wednesday, May 27, 1987
A paper for the Tennessee History Fair, reprinted in the Citizen Statesman Newspaper
For those who have ever been to the beautiful Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, you know of its beauty and great fishing. Though the people whose land this lake took still have mixed feelings about the lake’s worth and need, we who are young and live on this beautiful lake consider it one of our most important recreational spots and a tremendous source of income for summer businesses and opportunities for the town of Celina.
Most of the people who still have mixed feelings about the lake’s worth and need lived in a small close-knit town called Willow Grove. Willow Grove was covered by the waters of Dale Hollow Lake.
Some seventy-four families lived in the town’s 441.54 acreage area and more in the area outside the town.
Willow Grove was a town nestled in the Obey River valley and on the eastern side of Iron’s Creek. It was located thirteen miles from Celina, the county seat. Willow Grove was said to have gotten its name from a grove of willow trees, which surrounded a spring.
Willow Grove was founded as a settlement by five families from New York. Four of the five families were the Edward Irons family, the Hill family, the Barber family, and the Sprowl family. They bought their land from the Cherokee Indians. The Cherokees were a very peaceable tribe. The chief of the tribe was Knettle Carrier, son of Chief Obed and brother of Chief Doublehead. There is no specific record of when this land was bought, but it was before 1785.
Willow Grove was a town with a proud history just like any other small town. It had its own school system, churches, stores and small businesses, service stations, and a post office. There is no record of the first school in the area. Cordell Hull, Secretary of State under President Roosevelt, is said to have attended school there before moving on to Celina.
There is a record of Willow Grove Academy, which began on November 13, 1899. It was a school where the students had to pay a tuition of $1.00 or $3.00 to go to school. This kind of school was known as a subscription school.
Willow Grove’s first high school was established in 1919. It opened with only two students, Eddie Watson and Cecil Rowe. Both of these men became important civic and school leaders. Eddie Watson became an outstanding athlete, a head coach at Central High School in Cookeville, later returned as principal of Willow Grove High School, and was superintendent of Putnam County schools. Cecil Rowe became a well-to-do banker and later associated with the Tennessee Valley Authority at Knoxville.
In 1935 a new brick school was begun at a cost of $25,000 dollars. It was one of the most modern schools in the state. A gym was built with donated materials and volunteer labor. The last graduating class was in 1941 with fifteen graduating seniors.
There was a yearly district fair held by the teachers for the children, parents, and teachers. There were athletic, educational, and agricultural contests held.
Willow Grove had an active P.T. A. group. They helped beautify the new school grounds after it was built.
One incident occurred while building the new high school. The son of Edward Irons, one of the first five families, was killed. The son was known as a great horseman. He was killed at the age of fifteen when he was riding, and a low-hanging branch knocked him off his horse. He was placed in a walnut casket put together with wooden pegs and buried on the hill where the school was later built. When the casket was later found and opened, there were fragments of hair and teeth. They made a new casket and put the casket in the cement steps of the school. The steps were not moved when the lake was built. Some of the older residents of Willow Grove like to go back to see the landmarks which show through the water.
Willow Grove had an established religious system. The town had three churches: the Church of Christ, the Baptist Church, and the Methodist Church.
Willow Grove was developed fairly well economically. There were several stores in Willow Grove and the area around there. There were three general stores, a country store, and a drug store. There was also a blacksmith shop, a machine shop-garage, and a service station. Willow Grove had its own post office.
There were about fourteen residents from Willow Grove who went on to become doctors. Two of these were Dr. Edward Clark and “Doc” Sidwell who stayed in Willow Grove to practice.
Willow Grove was one of the richest farming communities in Clay County and the surrounding area. It has been said that the lake took over some of the most prosperous farming land anywhere to be found.
Willow Grove was said to be rich in minerals, especially oil. Oil wells were plentiful in the area around Willow Grove. About seventeen wells were found in 1925 at Willow Grove. One well on Will Hay’s farm was pumping two hundred barrels daily.
Willow Grove was a town just like any other town. It had its sights set for the future. The people of Willow Grove had hoped that they would live and die in Willow Grove. The people had hoped to pass their land and belongings on to their children and grandchildren who would also live and die in Willow Grove. Rumors had been going around for years that a dam would be built and flood the Willow Grove area. Most of the residents believed that this dam would not be built. Some residents said they would die before seeing a dam and lake on their land.
In 1940 the rumors became true. The dam was going to be built. Building materials and supplies were dumped on their land. The government came in a posted signs on their houses and property that said it was government property, even before they had purchased the land.
The people of Willow Grove were not for the dam and lake. They held town meetings to discuss the building of the dam. The people could not get any action taken against the project. They did not know how to fight the government, and the government was determined to build the dam.
As time went on, the people realized the dam was going to be built. They had to prepare to move their belongings, their families, and even their cemeteries to new locations. Most of the people moved several of their belongings by truck and drove their cattle and livestock in herds. The hardest thing for the people was digging up the graves from all the cemeteries. They moved most of the graves to St. John’s Cemetery and Fellowship Cemetery. If they could not find anything under the grave markers, they would take a bit of dirt and rebury it at one of the other cemeteries.
In 1942, the contract for the dam’s construction went to Morrison-Knuddson Construction Company. When completed, the dam was 1,717 feet long, 185 feet tall, and cost $28,105,406. The Dale Hollow project covered 26,380 acres of Clay County’s 166,048 acres.
The people of Willow Grove knew the dam was being built to provide for flood control and cheap electricity. These reasons were not important to them. They were concerned only with the uprooting of their families and homes.
On July 18, 1942, the people of Willow Grove met as a whole for the last time on the school grounds. Dr. Clark gave his heart touching farewell speech to the community.
I have been asked, urged to talk to you a little. I am a sick man, both in mind and body. Those of us in this area, which is soon to be inundated with water, have a double problem to the rest of you. I do not know what to say to you, or what I ought to say to you. I do not know how to say it.
I am standing before you this afternoon attempting to address you when it occurs to me that I have more problems and more serious problems than anyone else I know. We people in this valley are soon to have to seek new homes somewhere. All that has been dear to us, we are going to have to turn our backs upon and leave. Many of us have sons in that awful conflict that is raging now and will have for the balance of this war. Many of you have other sons who will be inducted into the service, and I am telling you now many of them will be sacrificed in this conflict and before it is over their blood will be spilled on foreign soil. All of the sad things I know anything about are war and hell. And Sherman said war was hell, and I believe he is right.
In addition to that problem with you, we are having to give up the dearest thing that any human has ever had from a human standpoint, and that is our lit6tle castle called home. These words are Home, Mother, and Heaven. I realize that in this great crowd of people her today who have gathered here to make contact for new homes, the majority of you will never see each other again. Some will go one way, some another. But I want to tell you that with that kind of dark picture before you, you should be thankful because we are living in a country and under a flag that so far has guaranteed to you the right of Liberty, Justice, and the Pursuit of Happiness. You can & will find homes in other communities. We hope and trust that after this is over and we settle back to normal you will be useful citizens and happy the rest of your lives. I am thankful that we have had this get-together meeting here today. I hope that much good in the way of directing the tenant farmer to the people who can furnish them homes wi8ll be accomplished, and I believe that if we will just use our judgment with the help of the Extension Service of the University of Tennessee is giving us and will continue to give us we can and will all find homes.
I want to say this to you – be careful! The price of land is 40-50 percent higher that it was a few days ago. The man who has land to sell wants to get all he can for it, and the man who has to buy feels he has to buy regardless. Remember that after the other war there was an awful letdown. It is coming to all of us again to some degree. To those of you who are going to buy land, let me admonish you to be careful. Buy your home in a community where you think you would like to live; where there are churches, schools, and in an enterprising community that will help you to be better citizens. So far as knowing what you ought to do, I do not, I do not know myself. I do not know what I am going to do. I do not know what I ought to do. I do know what I can do, but by the help and the direction of the Almighty God I am going to live somewhere and try to make an upright, useful citizen the remainder of my active life, which is not long, and I trust that you will do the same.
Most families left by the end of 1942, but a few families still remained in 1943. The families who were the last to leave hoped that the lake would not fill up quickly. It did; it took only one year. By 1944, Dale Hollow Lake was full, and Willow Grove was covered. A town was gone.
During the research of this paper I found that Willow Grove was an important part of Clay County’s history.
The people of Willow Grove, that did not accept the government’s price for their land, took their cases to court. Some court cases were settled as late as 1953.
If Willow Grove were still here and on the tax roll, it would have a value of $10,552,000 in taxes. As it is, it brings in $3,766,446 in tourism dollars.
Each year on the Sunday before Labor Day there is an annual homecoming at the Willow Grove Park. The Corps of Engineers built a shelter there especially for that reason.
While I was talking to the people I interviewed, I found that some of the people enjoyed talking about Willow Grove, but others became upset. Some were angry that they could no go back and see where they were born and reared. They believed the move from Willow Grove shortened a lot of older people’s lives.
Gravedigger Digs Up Stories
editor/publisher, Livingston Enterprise
On a dark and misty night as the moon slowly peaked through the clouds, dozens of people gathered at the Willow Grove Campground to hear master storyteller and author Darren Shell tell tales of the history and lore surrounding the creation of Dale Hollow Lake and the once proud community of Willow Grove.
Like a spider spinning his web, Shell, dressed as a gravedigger, led those brave enough to participate on a ghost tour through the campground last Tuesday evening, spinning tales of heartbreak and sorrow as the people of Willow Grove were relocated during the creation of Dale Hollow Lake. And like the spider, Shell connected each story while he spun his web, as the participants were drawn deep into the stories surrounding Willow Grove.
“This started out as a history tour originally,” Shell began as participants gathered at the Willow Grove Campground gatehouse. “But the people with cameras started telling me such neat stuff, it kind of developed into a ghost tour,” he said, referring to what some participants had captured on their digital cameras.
“As the tour goes on, I want you to know that all of this is documented fact I tell you about,” Shell emphasized. “I can’t promise you’re going to see ghosts. I don’t know that I’ve actually seen a ghost here, but I’ve seen some interesting stuff happen.
“A lot of non-believers have come on this, and some have gone away disappointed,” Shell paused, “And some of them have run away to their cars.”
As tree frogs spoke and crickets chirped, providing an eerie symphony for the event, Shell led the participants on the ghost tour through the campground. He encouraged participants to use their cameras to take pictures in any direction when they felt it necessary, hopefully capturing small, spherical white images known as “orbs,” what some people believe to be ghosts in the form of energy.
“When you feel it is when it usually happens,” he said, encouraging participants to share with others any orb images they may capture. “I’m not sure what they are, but I know when we find them they seem to be in places where historical things have happened – where history good and bad has happened.”
And the spider began to spin his web of tales, starting first with the creation of Dale Hollow Lake.
“Most of you know that Dale Hollow is a man-made lake…part of this campground and beyond was an old city, the biggest city that was covered in water when the lake was made in 1942.
…You don’t just pick up and move a city,” Shell emphasized. “You move homes, and you move people.”
Shell went on to tell the participants the people of Willow Grove were heartbroken when forced to leave their homes, as well as those in other communities that were relocated because of the creation of the lake. Homes were demolished and timber cut during the relocation, including the moving of many graves.
“There were also several cemeteries back that one same road here at this junction (a highway that went through Willow Grove when the lake was created),” Shell told the participants as they began their walk through the dark campground. “They were documented as moved by the Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers moved 106 cemeteries off of Dale Hollow,” Shell continued, as one of the participants gasped “Oh my God.”
Some of the cemeteries had only a few graves, but many had over 100 graves in them he explained.
“Nobody wanted this job,” he emphasized. If you think about it, back in 1942 most of those graves were not the nice, big pretty graves you see now. They were in a rough section of the woods, and probably they’ve been there for 100 years already and quite possibly there was nothing left to dig if they were going to dig up the grave in the first place.
“If it were fairly damp soil, their old wooden casket would have rotted. Probably their bones might have rotted in that amount of time. The only thing left was just teeth and belt buckles and boots.”
He went on to tell the participants you can still see places where the graves were.
“You can go out on the lake right now, and I can tell you where you can step up on shore and see rows of these great big holes where big caskets were moved. But, there were also many, many, many out there that’s just got a little divot – that’s just about all.”
Shell said gravediggers were given wooden boxes for each grave. When a casket could not be located, a few shovel fulls of dirt were placed in the box, the headstone was placed on top if there was one, and it was moved to be reburied. Most of the graves from the area were moved to St. John’s cemetery, just a few miles from the campground.
“When you talk about moved graves and unmoved graves, I can tell you the ones that are documented as moved, there’s are a whole bunch of them that the people are still there. You can go out on Dale Hollow right now…and you can see rows of the old Dracula-shaped caskets in the soil. Those people were the ones that they took a few shovels of and left…”
Shell led the participants through an area that used one of the senses not often thought of when searching for ghosts.
“When you walk this direction, I want you to know I did talk about seeing, hearing, smelling –for some reason in my youth I walked through this area and smelled hay.”
Shell said he would smell it at different times, even in the winter. It wasn’t until later in life that he learned an old hay barn used to sit in that area before Dale Hollow was constructed.
“Keep your eyes and ears open,” he told the crowd. “Please, if you get some orbs, show them to people.”
No sooner than Shell spoke, many of the participants taking digital pictures began noticing unusual lights appearing in their pictures. “Wow, look what I caught!” one exclaimed in excitement as he shared the picture with the gravedigger.
“They’re very common in this area,” Shell replied, as he continued leading the group to another location.
“This is one of the places in the campground that I do not like to be,” he said upon arriving at a turn on the road.
“Not because it’s particularly scary, but it’s particularly unhappy,” he said, as a member of the group said “it’s right there, it’s right there.”
“I just got three right over there!” she said, as another member of the group proclaimed “oh my gosh!”
Several other members said they also captured images at the location, as Shell proceeded to spin the tale about the area.
© 2003 Livingston Enterprise, A Division Of Mitchell Media