By Joe Rutherford
TUPELO – Tupelo’s 80-year history with the Tennessee Valley Authority brought a diverse crowd from across the region to Church Street School’s auditorium on Friday morning to celebrate the pivotal decision that provided cheap TVA electricity to the city, a change that became reality Feb. 7, 1934.
TVA, a seven-state nonprofit federal corporation, was chartered in 1933 to transform the impoverished, flood-ravaged Tennessee River Valley with inexpensive electricity and a mission for economic development and broad prosperity.
TVA CEO Bill Johnson reminded the audience that changing from a private-sector power supplier to TVA, with its defined economic development mission, was the prototype of a model that President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to enact nationwide.
Roosevelt did not persuade Congress to nationalize power, but Johnson said the Tupelo contract became immediately successful, increasing power consumption 26 percent, dramatically lowering electricity bills, and with the coming of rural electrification, revolutionizing household work with appliances that could be used by homemakers for the first time.
A theatrical re-enactment of Roosevelt’s TVA speech, delivered in Tupelo on Nov. 18, 1934, added strong context with its ringing endorsement of locally structured community development, which became a byword of Tupelo’s effort still used.
“Tupelo secured its place as a trend-setting Southern town with the TVA decision,” Johnson said.
Former Tupelo mayor and one-time TVA Chairman Glenn McCullough Jr. said Roosevelt’s November speech on Robins Field defined a “path to the future” for Tupelo that has never been abandoned.
TVA staff historian Patricia Ezell, in an interview with the Daily Journal before Friday’s event, said she believes the early motto that “TVA always stands for progress” will remain a benchmark of success for the authority and its customers.
She also noted that TVA’s transformative economic benefit started with construction of its trademark hydroelectric dams and the transmission lines like the one built from TVA’s dams in Alabama into Mississippi to serve Tupelo.
McCullough and Johnson both noted the strong present-day link of TVA’s affordable electricity with manufacturers like Toyota, Cooper Tire, Severstal Steel Columbus and Paccar, near Columbus.
Audience members included former TVA employees, descendants of leaders who shaped Tupelo’s bid to get TVA power, and relatives of construction workers who built TVA’s dams and other facilities.