France to the French Broad – A Uniform’s Milkshed


A soldier’s World War I uniform is a visible reminder of many elements of today’s milkshed. This uniform teaches us how actions taken, although seemingly small and minute at the time, can have a long-term and life-lasting influence many years later.

In this case, the gentleman who wore this uniform nearly 100 years ago had an impact on your modern global foodshed, in several different  ways.  His name was John Graham, and he was my great-uncle.

Uncle John left his family’s Jefferson County, Tennessee farm to enlist in the Army in The Great War.  As common with so many young men of his day, his calling was not forced due to a draft; it was simply a point of honor,  and a belief that America had the duty being the world’s leader in defending democracy, and it was his responsibility to help that mission.

He served in the European Theatre, and returned  back to East Tennessee at war’s end. We know he was a corporal, but ‘remembrances’ have him at a higher rank.   Hopefully, some of the paperwork and verification will show up in a long-lost box in the top of a closet sometime in the future.


A bit longer than a decade after he returned home, Uncle John’s family found themselves experiencing the government mandate of ’eminent domain,’ when TVA began bringing dams to the Southeast and East Tennessee, both for flood control and in the name of jobs as the country struggled out of the Big Depression. The family was forced to move from Jefferson County by the Douglas Dam project, to a new home farm on the Little Tennessee River, in Loudon County, not far from the juncture with the (Big) Tennessee River.  That move occurred early in 1936.

As the family re-established itself with a diverse family farm (dairy cows, registered Holsteins, sheep, hogs, tobacco), my Uncle John was also building a real-estate career and working on the farm part-time.  His focus was on farm sales.

I was delighted –  and astonished – to find out recently that some friends of mine who operate a Polk County, TN river-bottom farm came to those life-generating, fertile soils courtesy of my Uncle John bringing them to that site. Their large dairy herd produces over 4200 gallons of milk a day – that’s a year’s worth of milk for 40 average families in a day’s time!

In the mid-60’s, Uncle John found himself, once again, in the middle of a Graham family relocation due to a TVA dam.  This time, the Tellico Dam project, again using eminent domain, came knocking and was telling my immediate family, with my dad at the helm, that we had to find a new farm.  Uncle John, with his real estate contacts, was instrumental in locating farms across the Southeast for my dad to look at (if you’re running a dairy, you don’t have much time to look yourself).   When he thought he found something that might work, our weekends were spent loading up and driving to check out what might be our ‘new home.’

This ‘looking’ went on for about 3 and 1/2 years before we finally moved to a new farm home.  The  process involved options on a river-bottom farm in Sequatchie County, TN, a row-crop farm near Guthrie, KY, neither of which materialized) and many, many dairy farms across Middle and East Tennessee.  Finally an unexpected death of a farm owner who remembered my Uncle John and Dad, and a widow’s desire to not have anything to do with milking cows, led to a somewhat sudden purchase of a farm that had been the very first one my family looked at.
Uncle John made the trip with my dad to sign the first documents of purchase, and may have even co-signed the loan (again, a missing file lost in a box would verify that, or not). 
This river-bottom farm near Newport, Tennessee lays in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, 20 miles from the NC border.  Through many hundreds of years, it has been home to Indians who grew maize (the predecessor of today’s corn, settlers, the Robinson family, the Myers family, and was owned by Mr. Sluder before the Grahams purchased it.  The last time cows were milked here was the late 1970’s, after I went to college, but it has played a huge role in the Southeast milkshed because grains grown here have gone into feed for dairy cows.
The river bottoms are bordered by the French Broad River, which some geologists recognize as the third oldest river in America, and one of the oldest in the world.  I can’t help but be amazed by the changes in the world that, “If this river could talk,” we would learn about.
My generation of Grahams is only a speck in time of the stewards that have witnessed changes in agriculture and in the world.  I hope we are up to the challenges that face us in a future of agriculture as we struggle to feed the world, and balance that struggle with the function of a family.
If only Uncle John, with his wisdom and perspective that were enhanced by a uniform of honor, were around today to give us some advice on farming, foothills, river bottoms and a family farm!  All of these elements affect the future of your worldwide milkshed.  Indeed, all of these elements affect the future of your worldwide foodshed!