Norris Family Marker
York Free Chapel Cemetery
Courtesy of Don HeuringNorris remembered that “my father’s death [some months later] intensified my mother’s grief over the loss of John. I never heard a song upon the lips of my mother. I never even heard her hum a tune. The song of life…. was silenced forever in the bitter grief and sorrow of those years between 1864 and 1867. The war ended, and the young men came back, but John slept in a soldier’s grave in the blackened southern countryside. There were times when it seemd that her heartache over her son never would pass.”
From that day forward, Mary Norris relied on faith, family, friends, and hard work. There were no government programs to serve as a safety net for families on the frontier, struggling to survive in an economy built on physical labor. As Norris tells it, not only did his mother spin, weave, wash, cook, sew, and can, but she worked in the fields and handled the family’s finances.
His childhood memories of his mother’s grief and “grim drudgery and grind which had been the common lot of eight generations of American farm women” never left him. That vision of loss and of so many grown old before their time drove Norris to find ways to improve the lives of America’s farm families in whom he believed so deeply.
Today it is difficult to comprehend that only 10% of America’s farms had electricity during those years. Norris knew that hydropower could dramatically change their lives. Tempered by childhood adversity, the “Gentle Knight,” as many called him, was up to the challenge. From 1912 to 1933, right through the Great Depression, he fought on, enduring presidential vetoes and resistance from his own party. In the end, he was victorious. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Act that soon followed, tamed the Tennessee River and brought flood control, hydropower, and light to thousands of poor farm families across a six-state region. One insightful journalist wrote that “the powerful senator had fought for the poor and the beaten down…and he seemed never to forget that in his own time he had been among them…” .