Story and Photos by Ethan Pickering | Lifestyles Editor
Winchester, Tennessee – Walking onto Devils Step Island, a few miles from downtown, offers a glimpse into the early history of Franklin County. Across the span of blue water a few hundred yards away, the noise of a busy dock on the bank of Tims Ford Lake is replaced by the rustling of pines and oaks swaying in the wind and the splashing of water on the shore of the small island.
At the heart of the Devils Step sits a cemetery, a final resting place that 52 years ago was dry ground in the Awalt Valley, a rural farming community that stretched from Winchester northwest to the county lines with Moore and Coffee counties. The valley is now covered by water, a consequence of closing the flood gates on Tims Ford Dam in 1970. As topography would have it, the hilltop is one of the few high points left undisturbed in the inundated valley. Generations of the Shasteen family, early settlers of Franklin County, are buried there.
Time has faded many of the tombstones, but it appears the last burial was held at the cemetery in the fall of 1910.
Today, the island stands as a mute reminder of a different era in Tennessee history, before the Tennessee Valley Authority constructed dams on many of the state’s rivers. It is proof that a place no longer seen once existed.
The Tennessee Valley was forever changed by the actions of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal programs as America came out of the Great Depression.
TVA came to be in 1933 to provide flood control, navigation and electricity to the impoverished region, affected heavily by the Depression.
Tims Ford Dam and lake was a late TVA project, beginning in 1966, to dam the Elk River.
Thousands of acres of land were purchased by the government, and many families were displaced to create a reservoir outlined by 241 miles of shoreline. Directly in the path of the rising water was the small community of Awalt, which was several miles north of Devils Step.
Judy Phillips remembers the lost community well. “We moved to Awalt community, and it was a thriving little place,” said Phillips who is the curator of the Franklin County Archives. She helped found the archives in Winchester in the 1980s. Peering through square glasses that sat low on her nose, she reviewed a folder of photographs of Awalt that she took in the late sixties just before the dam was completed. The photos are considered to be some of the last photos taken before the water rose.
“The store was the center, and five roads came into that little area in the valley,” Phillips recalled.
“I thought I was going to be a journalist,” Phillips, now 83, said. “I was just interested in preserving those buildings because I knew that they were going to be gone soon.”
Phillips’s time in the Awalt community was spent on the ridge overlooking the Awalt Valley and Hurricane Creek that ran through the area.
“My grandmother was a Tims, and back in the 1830s records, to get to the Tims house, you had to ford the river,” said Phillips regarding the name of the lake and dam.
Awalt, founded in the 1840s after a post office and general store was established, was a small farming community that was home to around 400 residents by the time Tims Ford Dam was being planned in the mid-sixties.
TVA had to purchase about 10,700 acres for the flood waters, a project that cost around $13 million by 1970.
By 1966, community residents knew they were going to be displaced and many landowners did not consider the compensation by TVA as fair, according to Winchester Herald Chronicle articles from the time.
The buildings that once marked the Awalt community were torn down one-by-one as the town was progressively bought up by the agency. Most graveyards were moved to higher ground, but some, like the Shasteen Cemetery on Devils Step Island, were left in place because of their higher elevation.
In December of 1970, the dam was complete, and the valleys started filling with water, slowly at first. But, by early 1971, the valleys filled at an astonishing one inch per hour.
A member of the Franklin County Historical Society, Jerry Limbaugh, also volunteers to run the genealogy room at the county library.
“Some of the most valuable property in the county is located on Tims Ford Lake … and that made some of the old residents pretty mad,” said Limbaugh, letting out an amused cackle after.
Limbaugh is retired from the Air Force and a native to Winchester. He has been involved with the Historical Society archives for over 30 years.
Today, Limbaugh said, only memories, a handful of photographs and a few former residents remain from old Awalt. Boaters cruise over what was one time a beloved community of homesteads without an understanding of what was lost. But many folks like Judy Phillips remember the thriving community that is now under hundreds of feet of water.
Ethan Pickering is one of nine Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County this past May writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.