There’s an old joke handed down from one of Scott County’s earliest businessmen that people from Oneida are smarter than people from Knoxville, because if you go to Oneida and ask where Knoxville is, everyone can tell you, but if you go to Knoxville and ask where Oneida is, few people can tell you.
Truthfully, there are quite a few people in Knoxville who can tell you where Oneida is. And there are probably a few who could tell you where Huntsville is. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Knoxville who knows where Norma is.
Yet, there was a time in Scott County’s past when it was Norma — not Oneida or Huntsville — that was the booming town in this county. And its vibrant history is owed to the large stands of timber that once crowded the New River valley — and, specifically, the New River Lumber Co.
Norma, Tenn. has been a “place” since December 17, 1878. It was then that the U.S. Postal Service established the first post office along the banks of New River. But it would be another quarter of a century before the settlement really took off, and that’s when large-scale logging operations began.
At its peak, the New River Lumber Co. had company housing for 87 families in Norma. There were two club houses, including a large, two-story clubhouse that included an upstairs meeting hall for the Masons, Odd Fellows, Boy Scouts and other organizations. Both public and private education was available.
In 1878, when the post office was established, Norma wasn’t known as Norma. It was known as Skull Bone, Tenn. It was located at the base of Gray Mountain, the 16th-tallest mountain peak in Scott County at 2,610 ft. in elevation, and along the banks of New River. The name was changed to Norma in 1887, and has remained that way ever since, except for a four-year period from 1915 to 1919, when it was known as Norcross — for the general manager of the New River Lumber Co., Frank G. Norcross.
When Norma was first established, the vast timberland surrounding New River and encased by the Cumberland Mountains was known simply as the “Bird Lands.” It was this tract of real estate that was purchased by the New River company — which was headquartered in Cincinnati, Oh. — shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
In 1905, the New River company purchased the Paint Rock Coal & Coke Railroad from Oneida to Stanley Junction — located near where Tunnel Hill Road and Cherry Fork Road meet just to the west of the old Paint Rock settlement, and by the following year construction had begun to extend the railroad — renamed the Tennessee Railroad — south to Norma.
Initial estimates of the timber reserves in the New River valley were a whopping 485 million board feet. Most prominent among the timber stands was the American chestnut. Blight would later wipe out the stately trees, and the same blight prevents chestnuts from reaching maturity even today. But, in 1905, there were an estimated 85 million board feet of chestnut listed among the New River Lumber Company’s reserves.
A saw mill was built at Norma that was capable of churning out 125,000 board feet per day when operating at full capacity. It was powered by a steam engine that turned a 20 ft. by 4.5 ft. belt. According to Jennings Hatfield, writing in the first edition of the FNB Chronicle, 110 steer hides were used to build the leather belt.
By the peak of the New River Lumber Co.’s operation, Norma was quite an industrialized place. The company homes were connected by 5-ft. sidewalks constructed of oak lumber. There was electric lighting and a street light system, and the main buildings all had running hot and cold water and steam heat. At one time, it was estimated that there were nearly 400 kids being served by the public and private schools at Norma.
Norma wasn’t the only modern settlement in the Cumberland Mountains in the early 20th century. Just across Gray Mountain, along the banks of Roaches Creek, was the Dean mining community. The mines were active from the early 1920s to the late 1950s, and it was called the most modern mining operation of its time.
Eventually, both the stands of virgin timber and the seams of coal played out. And while both logging and mining operations have continued into the 21st century, they’re of a different nature today than they were then, and Norma is long past its heyday. The stores have closed, and the schools have, too. Mountain Peoples Health Councils still operates a clinic at Norma, making health care the last element of government or commercial enterprises operating in this forgotten mountain town. The decline was a slow one. Perhaps it really accelerated in May 1970, when Dr. D.T. Chambers — the prominent physician who served the community for decades before being murdered during a home invasion — was killed. Or, perhaps it happened still later, when Norma High School was finally closed and the children of the area began to be bussed to Scott High School in Huntsville.
Either way, Norma is but a shadow of what it was a century ago — with only a few of the original buildings left to remind us of what was once Scott County’s most bustling settlement.