Sitting in her recliner Halie Forstner, 107, of Chattanooga, can tell you history’s great stories of both triumph and tragedy—World War I, World War II, the moon landing and much, much more—because she lived them.
Ms. Forstner recalls that in 1933, when TVA was created, the nation was gripped in the Great Depression and the Tennessee Valley was a hard place to live. The average yearly income in the Valley was about $168, half the national average then; about $2,400 in today’s money.
As we mark 85 years of TVA making life better in the Tennessee Valley, we sat down with Ms. Forstner—one of TVA’s first employees—to understand how TVA transformed our region from one of hardship into economic prosperity.
Graduating high school and entering the workforce should be an exciting time, but imagine graduating in 1930, in the first years of the Great Depression. “There were no jobs to be had,” says Ms. Forstner. “My father was skilled in five trades and he still could not find work. My mother’s sister was living with us and had a job at Chattanooga Medicine Company. She kept us alive. We didn’t always know where the next meal was coming from. We lost our home and had to rent. It was a very hard time.”
Following the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, things began to improve. “I finally got a job, on Valentine’s Day in 1933, as a filing clerk at Chattanooga Medicine Company,” she says.
Roosevelt was bringing change, she recalls. “I didn’t know much about TVA, but I knew it was special and different than anything we’d ever seen before.”
Ms. Forstner began work at TVA in 1939. “I got married in 1938, and they had a rule at Chattanooga Medicine Company that when a girl got married she had to leave. They hadn’t asked me to leave yet, but I applied and quickly got a job at TVA as a filing clerk.”
Powering Our Lives
Growing up on Sand Mountain in Dade County, Ga., Ms. Forstner had a telephone, but no electricity. “We didn’t have electricity until we moved to Chattanooga, in St. Elmo, when I was nine years old in 1920. We had one electric line coming in with one light bulb in the center of the room.”
Around 20 years later, when Ms. Forstner and her husband were building their home on Signal Mountain, they were told they wouldn’t have electricity. “TVA lit up Chattanooga, and power was only a block away,” she remembers. “I was a little more bold in those days and marched into the division manager’s office at TVA and told him what I wanted. He asked where it was and told me we’d have power next week—and we did!”
“TVA had a bearing on everything,” says Ms. Forstner. “When World War II began there was a lot of uncertainty, even with what would happen in the TVA. Men were leaving in droves it seemed, and more women were going to work. The electricity and the jobs provided by TVA during that time were life-changing.”
Building a New Life for the Tennessee Valley
Ms. Forstner describes herself as living through very hard times, but reminds us that there were was so much good and so many who helped. “TVA made a new life for people. When you hadn’t had anything and then you had electric stoves and electric heaters and other appliances—it just made so much difference.”
“TVA made the life over for that period. It bettered life all the way around. The war had caused a lot of heartache, but TVA was there to help. Businesses grew from TVA and just the availability of electricity opened so many doors. And that prosperity spread out across the Valley.”
Ms. Forstner took great pride in her job at TVA “People looked at you with respect when they found out you worked for TVA,” she says.
Employees can be proud to work for a company that makes a difference, and TVA is still recognized as a great place to work. In 2017, TVA was listed by Forbes on the top 500 America’s Best Employers list.
TVA’s mission to make life better for the people of the Tennessee Valley is as important today as it was 85 years ago, and TVA continues to serve the people of the Tennessee Valley through our energy, environmental and economic development efforts.