Thoughts On Early Days In Knoxville, The Model T, TVA

Thursday, March 30, 2006 - by Charles C. Sherfey
Mary Sue and Charles Sherfey
Mary Sue and Charles Sherfey

On August 10, 1916, I was born at home on the family farm that had been in the Sherfey family for seven generations in Washington County, Tn. - just north of Jonesborough. I was born before the beginning of World War I, but my father, James P. Sherfey, was excused from military service due to family responsibilities (he was the sole support of his mother and two small children). The family farm was sold about 1920, due to the 1919 death of my grandmother, Sallie (Sarah) Sherfey, in order to split the inheritance among the heirs. With his inheritance, my father bought his first car, a new 1920 Chevrolet touring car (it had 2 seats, no glass, and a fabric roof).

In 1921, he used the car to move our family to Knoxville in order to be near to an older sister and to look for work. His first job was obtained by using his car to sell kerosene (oil) lamps house to house. About 1923, my father went to work at the Littlefield-Steer Candy Company in Knoxville. At the factory, he operated and maintained three chocolate coating machines called “enrobers.” (Girls sat on stools along one side, picking the candy from the conveyor and placing it in boxes --- much like Lucy & Ethel in the “I Love Lucy” episode of 1952 which became one of TV’s most recognizable comedy routines.) In 1932, the owners of the candy company, who were Republican, said that if Roosevelt, who was a Democrat, won the presidential election that they would close the factory. Roosevelt was inaugurated March 4, 1933, the factory was closed, and my father lost his job, making $120/month, where he had worked for about 10 years. Next, for about a year, daddy tried selling J.R. Watkins products (for cleaning, cooking, grooming, etc.), but most people didn't have money to buy anything. Some people would trade hams, chickens, or homegrown produce for the products.

When the banks collapsed in 1933, I lost more than $80 (earnings from my newspaper route) and my mother lost almost $1000 (inheritance that she had received from her mother’s estate a few weeks before). Forty percent of this money was paid back in 1935 and another 20% in 1937. In 1933, a German rayon plant in Elizabethton, TN was expanding, so Daddy and three other men would drive up to Elizabethton from Knoxville on Sunday night, work all week, stay in a boarding house, and drive back on Friday night. (Daddy had the only car that would make it that far.) This went on for about two years.

In 1935, the J. Allen Smith Company of Knoxville (a manufacturer of flour, feed, and corn meal; noted for White Lily Flour) offered Daddy a job for 2 weeks. He took the job and stayed for twenty-six years until he was 69 years old. He worked as a night watchman, shipping clerk, and railroad car loading supervisor. He stayed until 1961 when he retired. He did not receive any pension from the company, because it was sold a few weeks before he retired.
From 1925 to 1934 I carried afternoon newspapers in Knoxville. I carried the Knoxville News Sentinel Newspaper during the days of the 1929 stock market crash, the Scopes Monkey Trial, the prohibition of alcohol, and the depression. I bought my own clothes, shoes, and things that I needed from money that I made from carrying papers. In 1928 I was co-owner of an old model “T” Ford given to us for cleaning up a man’s back yard. In 1931 I traded a bicycle and $6 for another “T” model which I drove to high school and used for delivering papers. In those days we did not have to have a driver's license.

In high school I joined the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corp) and trained in uniform one hour three days a week, becoming a 1st lieutenant the last year. When I graduated from the old Knoxville High School in 1934, it was difficult to get a job because of the depression. I worked for a short time at a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camp near Tazwell, TN, working as a mechanic's helper on trucks. (CCC was part of Roosevelt's new deal, as was WPA, Work Progress Administration, otherwise known as 'We Poke Along'.)
Joining the Navy August 19, 1935 is a very distinct memory of my life, as well as the decision not to reenlist August 18, 1939. Both of these decisions had significant effects on my life. In 1937, Amelia Earhart disappeared near Howland Island (Central Pacific) while trying to make the first flight around the world. I was part of the pacific fleet that was sent to search for her, but no signs of her were discovered. My time in the navy significantly affected me and taught me to be frugal, thrifty, and hard working. Near the end of my enlistment in 1939, I took the examination for Machinist's Mate 1st Class in the Pacific Fleet. Only three men were selected, I was number 5. If I had been selected, I may have continued in the Navy. Not to re-enlist was the most difficult decision I ever made.

After the Navy, I returned to Knoxville and worked in service stations for a while. In 1940 I was accepted into a drafting class sponsored by the National Defense Training School in Knoxville, TN. They used TVA drafting standards. When finishing the school, I was hired by TVA on Feb. 3, 1941 as an apprentice-engineering draftsman at $105 per month to work in the corporate design office in Knoxville, TN. During most of the War years, I worked for TVA in Knoxville, except for a short time in the Navy Reserves. During the end of the war, I worked on the completion of Fontana Dam, which was a national war project for producing power for making aluminum and manufacturing goods needed for the War.

After the war, I continued working for TVA on dams, fossil plants, and 7.5 years at Sequoyah Nuclear Plant until I retired in December of 1976.
Fellow employees gave Charlie Chandler and me a retirement party at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club in Chattanooga, TN. Charlie and I both started work at TVA on February 3, 1941 and both retired on December 29, 1976. He was the Sequoyah construction engineer and I was the Sequoyah supervisor of the office engineers and the field engineers.

I have been retired now for almost 30 years; my wife and I continue to live north of Chattanooga at Lakesite where we have lived ever since 1969. The most productive result of my retirement has been the complete amateur restoration of a 1926 Ford T-model coupe (a one seater).

I bought the car from William O’Neil of Bolivar, Tn., in January of 1984 and hauled it to on a trailer to my home in Lakesite. It took me until April of 1989 to restore it; I recently gave it to my son, Steve Sherfey, who drove it in Sept. 4, 2005 from Lakesite to St Elmo at the foot of Lookout Mountain. America should be thankful to Henry Ford, the assembly line, and the Model T for making cars affordable to the average man, such as I. I have owned mostly Fords during my life; today I own both a Ford truck and a Ford car.

Jason Sherfey and girlfriend try out the Model T
Jason Sherfey and girlfriend try out the Model T

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