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The Perpetual Fire

True or not, the real-life folk tale of Erastus R. Lindamood sheds light on TVA’s concern for the Tennessee Valley region’s most valuable asset—its people

By Jack Neely

photo of dam constructionThe honest people of the Tennessee Valley region have never been ones to let reality get in the way of a good story. A tale that isn’t literally true in every particular sometimes carries more truth than one that’s a slave to the mere facts. Actually, it’s often a better story. And a great story is hard to argue with.

Take, for example, the one about TVA, Erastus R. Lindamood, and the perpetual fire.

With a gray beard, a long nose and deep dark eyes, Lindamood was a man as quirky as his name. He was eccentric even in a holler of eccentrics, in the remote Union County glade he called home, maybe 25 miles north of Maynardville, Tenn., near the unnavigable Powell River.

A slow, methodical man with a photographic memory, Lindamood knew the birthdate of every tree and bush planted on his property. To hear his neighbors talk about him, he was a man of near-supernatural powers. They said he could cure children of diphtheria. He also had a secret technique that would make elderly cows and goats long past their reproductive years bear young again.

The neighbors told lots of stories about Erastus (his friends called him Ras), but the one they told most often was that of the old man's perpetual fire.

Some said that Erastus Lindamood’s father, Isaac, had started the family fire back in Wythe County, Va., before the Civil War. When he moved to Tennessee in 1859, Isaac Lindamood somehow carried the fire with him. It burned there in his new home in Long Hollow when Erastus was born a few years later; it burned through Appomattox, through Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, through Reconstruction. Neighbors claimed that this antebellum fire burned all the way into the days of airplanes, radios and hydroelectric dams. “I was born in this room in the light of this fire,” Erastus Lindamood once told a reporter. “The ashes seldom if ever have got cold in my lifetime.”

When TVA representatives told him he’d have to leave his family home to make way for the Norris Dam project, Lindamood didn’t resist as strongly as some did. But his perpetual fire posed the sort of problem that gets people’s attention. In 1933 and ’34, news of Lindamood’s dilemma got around the region.

One who heard the story was Leonard Lamb, a businessman who ran a souvenir shop for Smokies tourists in downtown Knoxville. Lamb came up with a practical solution to Lindamood’s problem. Out of tin, he built a portable fireproof container, or “chunk box.” Suspended from wire, it could be carried indefinitely. In late 1934, Lamb sent his invention straight to the office of Arthur Morgan, the top man at TVA.

Morgan sent the strange device to TVA representative Marshall Wilson, one of the few city folks who knew Lindamood personally. It was Wilson’s job to deliver the solution to Lindamood’s near-mythical plight. But when Wilson showed Lindamood the firebox, he couldn’t help noticing that the old man seemed a little unsettled about the whole thing.

Lindamood sheepishly admitted to Wilson that his famous fire wasn’t necessarily perpetual. It might have burned for 20 years back in the 1800s, he said. But for Christmas in ’79, his father had bought the family its first match-lit cookstove, and since then the original fire had no longer been crucial. They’d kept it going for a few months to dry the air when his sister came down with consumption, but it had probably died out more than once.

The old man was gracious enough to squeeze out a “thank you.” He may have known that by that time, he was famous. “I think Ras was flattered by the wide publicity he was receiving,” recalled Wilson in his book “Tales From the Grass Roots of TVA,” “and made no attempt to disclaim the exaggerations that went with it.”

Lindamood quietly went about his business as TVA resettled him in Anderson County. When the old man died in December 1942 at his home near Powell Station, he was still best known in the TVA region as the man with the perpetual fire. The newspaper obituary reported that “he was said to have taken coals to his new home” when he moved.

“Whether he ever used the chunk box or any other device to take his fire to his new home I do not know,” admitted Wilson. “Why spoil a good and harmless story?”

—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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