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The Common Mooring

A Canadian transplanted to the American South, Director Harcourt Morgan had ties to the land that anchored TVA in the people and culture of the Tennessee Valley region.

By Jack Neely

Sometimes folks think of TVA as something that was delivered from the faraway federal government, conceived and bred in the marble offices of Washington, D.C. Several exceptions counter this blanket assumption, though, and the biggest one is TVA Director Harcourt Morgan.

Indeed, Harcourt Morgan is remembered as the founding director who most closely linked the federal corporation with the people actually living in the region — who respected their opinions, valued their advice and made TVA as much of the people as for the people.

The other two directors on the original TVA Board, Arthur Morgan and David Lilienthal, were Northerners; neither had ever lived in the South. Harcourt Morgan, by contrast, had lived in the South for most of his life. When TVA was formed in 1933, he was the only director who didn’t have to move. He’d been a resident of Knoxville, Tenn., for almost three decades.

He seemed Southern, too. For years, when he worked in the administration of the University of Tennessee, he was known to show up at important meetings in farmer’s duds, as if he’d just been out in the fields. Often he had.

Despite Harcourt Morgan’s overalls and strong Southern ties, though, he remains to this day the only foreign-born and foreign-raised director in TVA history. He was a fascinating paradox.

photo of farmerThe most powerful job in the Tennessee Valley region might have seemed an unlikely destination for a kid raised on a farm in Ontario, Canada. The Morgan family farm was near Strathroy, Ontario, on a 50-mile-wide peninsula between Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

Morgan relished farmwork more than his three brothers, who were determined to improve themselves. The young Harcourt Morgan wanted only to improve himself as a farmer. After coming up through the Canadian public schools, he graduated from Ontario Agricultural College. Then Morgan came South to take a job in Louisiana, studying and teaching on an experimental sugar plantation run by Louisiana State University. Here he was able to cultivate his lifelong fascination with insects.

Morgan first became widely known as a young man for his efforts in combating the cattle-tick plague. He would camp in cow pastures to study the tick’s most intimate habits. Before the age of 30, he was famous across the South as “the bug scientist” and had become executive director of Louisiana’s Crop Pest Commission.

photo of brown avres

Brown Ayres

Morgan was befriended by a Tulane professor named Brown Ayres, who in 1904 was appointed president of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Ayres invited his favorite entomologist up to teach at UT’s expanding agricultural department. One of the most popular professors at the university, Morgan became the first dean of its new College of Agriculture.

While he was at UT, he developed a pet theory that became his philosophy of life. He called it the Common Mooring.

Basically, Morgan believed, everything was interconnected, everything was interdependent, and human beings should accept their place in a vast and partly divine natural plan. It was a concept he seemed to understand clearly and picture vividly, but one he often had trouble conveying to others.

“Man’s greatest need in the distraction of the age is to see the unity that runs through diversity,” Morgan said in a typical essay. “He must see how diversity is a law of the universe. Without it, there would be no change. No two people are alike, yet we are all brothers.”

When Brown Ayres died suddenly in 1919, it was Morgan who was chosen to fill the vacancy as president of the entire university. The choice shocked some people, who thought Morgan wasn’t dignified enough for the office. With his leathery face, wire-rimmed glasses, suspenders, and crooked smile, he still looked like a farmer, maybe an old farmer getting ready to tell a joke about a mule.

But Morgan exploited his image to promote the university’s ag program and took the school onto the farm through the UT agricultural extension service. And when, at age 66, he was asked to serve as a director of TVA, the inexhaustible Morgan jumped at the chance. He spearheaded TVA’s agricultural efforts, promoting the use of fertilizer and modern techniques to improve the lot of the region’s farmers.

What’s more, Morgan was the originator of TVA’s “grassroots” policy, which promoted regional acceptance of the federal corporation by enlisting as many local entities as possible in the execution of its mission.

In agriculture, that meant working through the land-grant colleges with which Morgan had been associated throughout his career. In power, it meant promoting the organization of local cooperative and municipal distributorships.

Morgan saw the TVA region as a unified whole. The people, the directors, the land, the rivers were all part of a comprehensive ecosystem, the Common Mooring that he understood as few others did and struggled to explain with charts and graphs.

At age 71, Harcourt Morgan became TVA’s second chairman. When he retired from the Board 10 years later, he was the only remaining member of the original triumvirate. Nor did he stop even then; until his death at age 83, the old Canadian, now retired to the Tennessee countryside, continued to lecture across the TVA region on his favorite subject.

—Jack Neely is a Knoxville-based writer and historian. He is the author of three books: “Knoxville’s Secret History,” “Secret History II,” and “The Marble City.” His column, Secret History, appears weekly in Metro Pulse, Knoxville’s alternative newspaper.

 

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