The story below is an excerpt from our Nov./Dec. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Among the Tennessee Valley Authority’s early programs were test-demonstration farms, designed to advance both farming and economic stability in East Tennessee. One of those farms had a particularly significant visit 60 years ago this November.
Prince Albert of Belgium stands in the home of dairyman Ralph Peterson and his wife Hazel in rural East Tennessee in 1955. Dale Peterson (far right) and writer Dennis Peterson—content with his thumb—stand by, oblivious to the significance of their unexpected visitor.
In the majestic Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Sunday evening, November 13, 1955, the directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—Herbert D. Vogel, Harry Curtis, and Raymond Paty—along with politicians and other guests, patiently awaited their guest of honor.
They were eager to meet 20-year-old Prince Albert of Liege, brother of King Badouln of Belgium. Apparently, there had been a delay during the prince’s scheduled tour of East Tennessee’s TVA facilities. He was to visit Fort Loudon Dam, the Kingston Steam Plant, and a TVA agricultural facility. But something had gone awry; he was now two and a half hours late.
And where was the prince?
Well, cut from downtown Knoxville to a farm in north Knox County, where dairy farmer Ralph Peterson, his wife Hazel and their two small sons also waited somewhat less than patiently. It was well past milking time. Ralph paced the floor of his newly constructed home, periodically gazing out across the wide pasture to his father’s farm, which was a partner in their operation, a TVA-sponsored test-demonstration farm (TDF).
And why was Ralph impatient?
Because he was awating the departure of the long coach bus in his father’s driveway—a bus chartered by TVA for their guests. The knot of people around the owner of the farm—Garfield Blaine (G.B.) Peterson—was taking in the wonders of this showcase farm, which was in effect a schoolroom— for the community, the nation and the world.
Among those guests, one stood out prominently. He was tall, thin and well-dressed. He admired the lush pastures, which contrasted sharply with surrounding land, parched from the drought of 1953–54.
He also admired Peterson’s newly built barn, which was large for the day. It had two milking parlors on the ground level, one on either side of a manger from which the cows were fed while being milked. Hay could also be dropped from the loft on the second level through trapdoors located in the ceiling above the manger. Peterson put the milk into large milk cans, stored them in an electric cooler in the milk house, and delivered them to Avondale Farms Creamery in Halls once a week. The man in charge of testing the milk at Avondale claimed that Peterson’s cows gave the best milk around and that it never had any onions in it.
Near the end of his visit to the farm, the prince pointed toward Ralph’s house across the pasture. He spoke briefly to G.B., who nodded his head. Then the tall visitor led the way to the bus and climbed aboard. The other guests followed.
Finally! Ralph thought, Now I can rush to my milking. Maybe I’ll still be able to finish and get back to—.
But he stopped in mid-thought as he glanced out the picture window again and saw that the bus had not turned left toward Knoxville but right, and it was coming toward his house.
The bus turned into the driveway, struggled around the bend, and hissed to a stop at the end of the house. Ralph, Hazel, and their two little sons exited the house through the kitchen door and apprehensively met their unexpected visitors—the Prince of Belgium, his entourage, and W.M. Landess, TVA agriculture information officer.
The banquet and dignitaries in Knoxville would have to wait.
In response to a question, Ralph explained that he had built the house himself using lumber cut from his land. The prince asked if he could see inside. He strolled wide-eyed into the kitchen, gaping at the shiny new electric stove. He seemed awed by the fact that a common American farm worker could have so much—a new house and even an electric stove—while wealthier Belgians could not because that country was still recovering from the devastation of World War II.