Transforming the South: Federal Development in the Tennessee Valley, 1915–1960 by Matthew L. Downs (review)
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Transforming the South: Federal Development in the Tennessee Valley, 1915–1960. By Matthew L. Downs. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014. Pp. 331. $47.50 cloth; $47.50 pdf; $47.50 ebook)

In Transforming the South, Matthew Downs does yeoman’s work in detailing boosters’ and federal administrators’ efforts to bring new industries to four communities in the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama: Muscle Shoals, Florence, Decatur, and Huntsville. Beginning during World War I, a new generation of southern elites courted federal aid and industrial development, developing and maintaining a relationship with federal agencies and taking “the lead in directing the flow” of federal money (p. 2).

The early chapters focus on a series of false starts as local boosters tried to attract investors to take over a hydroelectric dam and two [End Page 119] idle nitrate factories at Muscle Shoals. Henry Ford presented locals with a vision of nitrate factories producing cheap fertilizer for ailing cotton farms in the area and building a broader industrial economy on the cheap electricity from the dam. The complicating factor was the federal government’s control over the facilities, and federal officials, local leaders, and company executives debated the best use of the facilities for a decade.

Beginning in the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) would become the dominant force in the region’s development. Debates between Arthur E. Morgan and David Lilienthal, the first two chairmen of the TVA, held great significance for people living in Muscle Shoals and other towns in the valley. Morgan’s vision of self-sufficient, mutualistic communities gave way to Lilienthal’s focus on industrialization, and local boosters applauded. Communities along the river created professional booster organizations that were effective in promoting their locales for development and courting federal funding.

The last chapters focus on Huntsville’s rise from a former textile mill town to the “Rocket City,” a center of defense and aerospace industries. City boosters formed the Huntsville Industrial Expansion Committee to campaign for a more diverse economy and lobby other manufacturers to locate in their city. In doing so, Downs argues that they created “a solid foundation for economic prosperity” (p. 243). Downs has done a good job of following the negotiations between the region’s boosters, federal officials, and industry executives as well as detailing debates, which were often over the role of the federal government. Readers will also come away with an appreciation of how the booster ethos and industrialism took root in southern soil and gave rise to the Sunbelt.

Downs is eager to credit local boosters for shaping the region’s development, but, in most cases, they appear to be junior partners to federal agencies and budgets. Furthermore, there were thousands of booster organizations across the country that used the same techniques and failed to achieve the same results. With few comparisons [End Page 120] to organizations outside the region, it is difficult to prove that these boosters were particularly instrumental.

Early in the introduction, Downs notes that “prosperity failed to erase inherent inequalities” and that “African Americans demanded full inclusion, workers called for better wages and conditions, women worked to participate more fully in the growing prosperity, and conservationists decried the environmental consequences of unregulated industrialization” (pp. 2–3). It is not clear why the author thinks the inequalities were inherent, and the stories of those groups remain at the margins of this narrative. When we do learn about African American guards, masons, or college applicants, readers often must rely on the elites’ perspectives of their demands for equality. Because of the persistence of racial discrimination and segregation—which are not inherent to industrialization or economic development—we gather that the region’s boosters and their patrons in Congress must have supported Jim Crow until the mid-1960s.

Finally, Downs seems to have as much faith in growth economics as the twentieth-century boosters. Near the end he uses Lawrence County with its “slow-moving economy” and lower levels of education and income as a contrast to the counties touched by federal development (p. 254). He also briefly mentions Senator John Kennedy’s criticism of federal programs that shifted industries from places...