In December 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war were second-rate news stories in Clay County. The top story of the day was the giant dam the government planned to build here in the Blue Ridge Mountains along the North Carolina-Georgia border.
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Chatuge Dam would flood 3,700 acres in Clay County and 3,500 acres in Towns County, Georgia, much of it prime farmland that allowed residents to earn what living the could in a region still swamped by economic depression. In less than a year, the TVA sent 278 families to new homes, built new roads and imposed a new life on communities from Hayesville, North Carolina to Blairsville, Georgia.
The little cooperative, Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation, formed only four years earlier to bring Tennessee Valley Authority electricity to this area, reached out to mountain families and offered a new form of power to accompany the changes. Already skeptical of sudden change, some families flatly refused to join the electric cooperative, fearing that electricity would kill their livestock or burn down their barns.
Into this scene came young Velma Beam from Roxboro—all 4 feet, 7 inches of her—hired by the TVA and the North Carolina Extension Service as “assistant home demonstration agent.” Her job in 1941 was to help Clay County families adjust to the changes that TVA and electricity would bring to farm life. But she just went about helping people any way she could.
Velma’s main role was to help people plan new houses and get them “happily and comfortably located.” But what they really needed was to revive their anemic farmlands. “These hillsides were bleeding,” Velma said. “When a rain came the mud washed down. It was our job to get people to grow legumes and grass.”
Many evenings she sat on farmhouse floors, met with farmers by oil lamp light, studied maps and setting plans. The TVA gave farmers phosphate and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service gave them lime to enrich the soil. They would leave unfertilized “check plots,” said Velma, because “a lot of the elderly men thought phosphate was just sand.” Within six years farm income increased 106 percent. The program established 174 poultry farms, and Velma said the eggs brought a fancy price. Soon, these families considered buying electric stoves, washers, and dryers.
Velma clearly saw the advantages electricity would bring to this area. Her spunky enthusiasm carried her from farm to farm enrolling members in the electric cooperative. “I went from Shooting Creek to Brasstown, from Fires Creek to Myers Chapel working up the membership lines. That was a real good job, and I was happy to do it.”
She recalled seeing women rubbing their hands raw while washing clothes outside in a black wash pot. “They couldn’t have a washer and dryer. Now you go through Clay County, almost everyone has a washer and dryer.”
Besides introducing the convenience of electricity to Clay County, Velma taught home furnishing, nutrition, estate planning and family life economics.
The TVA and North Carolina Extension Service demonstration program soon gained national attention. Students from South America, Norway and Greece visited Clay County to observe their program. Extension groups across America asked Velma to speak at their clubs.
“I was thrilled to brag about Clay County,” she said.
Velma believed her principal accomplishment was to encourage mountaineers to appreciate their culture. “When you make people realize they have something special, it makes them want to live up to the expectations,” she said. “I was a little country girl, and I knew they had something special. It’s a gift from God.”
Her dedication to the county continued after she retired in 1958. She and her late husband, J. Walter Moore, gave land to establish the Hinton Rural Life Center, a mission agency of the United Methodist Church in Clay County that encourages young people. She was active in the First United Methodist Church of Hayesville and was an auxiliary member of the Clay County Care Center. She wrote a weekly column for the Clay County Progress and expressed concerns for her county, such as the demise of many farms.
Velma Beam Moore made a difference in the lives of many people. I remember her fondly as a dear friend and one who encouraged folks. She loved Clay County and was struck by the beauty of our Blue Ridge Mountains. She said, “In Clay County, I feel I am on the threshold of heaven.”
Cutline for photo: Velma Beam Moore brought light to our mountains.
This story is being reprinted from Carolina Country Magazine.