Memories of ‘Wild River’ filming overflowed during local activities
by DAVID DAVIS, Managing Editor
Jun 06, 2010 | 3795 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Banner photo, DONNA KAYLOR 
SHUTTLE  — People attending the “Wild River” celebration in Charleston Saturday took a ferry ride across the Hiwassee River to “Coon Denton Island,” just like in the movie. See more photos, Page 10.
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Wild River Days is a five-day celebration of a 50-year-old movie. It was the first movie filmed entirely in the state of Tennessee. It was one of the first movies director Elia Kazan filmed in color. It was the first movie role for Bruce Dern and the first to have so many local non-actors with speaking roles.

Before is was a first in the film industry, it was first a real life story.

Charlie Randolph, of Cleveland, was 9 on Jan. 18, 1936, when his parents, Jim and Mattie Randolph and five siblings, were evicted from their 14-acre farm in rural Campbell County. That was the only time TVA removed a family using eminent domain procedures. After the family was removed, their two-room cabin was burned to the ground.

He was among the 170 people at the Hometown Hollywood Party in the Museum Center at Five Points. He said you never know where life will lead.

“The movie was based on my family,” he said.

He remembers watching the water rise to within a few feet of the cabin as the water backed up behind the Norris Dam that stands 265 feet high and stretches 1,860 feet across the Clinch River. Construction of Norris Dam began in 1933, only a few months after the creation of TVA.

“The Norris Dam, when they built it, they backed the water up over the place,” he said. “They took our place, really. They gave us $530 for 14 acres. Part of it was river bottom, real good land and we made a living on it.”

Randolph remembers wading through water up to his waist to pick corn and then by boat as the water continued to rise. He remembers the rough time his family suffered during the following months after their removal.

“We lived good back then, but when they throwed us out, they took us to the poor farm,” he said. “They built a big tent and put us down there on the county farm.”

The family lived in the tent six or eight months before his parents bought about 35 acres of hillside land near Pine Crest.

“There were a lot of pine trees we had to cut down to farm it,” he said.

While the movie faded from the collective memory, the story behind the movie stayed alive in the mind of Randolph, but even then, what occurred in 1936 would have eventually been lost, just like the Randolph farm, had a Cleveland man not taken his mother out for a drive one Sunday afternoon.

David Swafford said in an interview published Jan. 26, 2009, in the Cleveland Daily Banner, he knew the film location was on the Hiwassee near Charleston, but he couldn't quite remember where.

"I stopped and asked a couple of people and they said there was never a movie made there," he said. "They were older people and it shocked me for them to say that and it bothered me. They kept saying it was filmed up in Reliance."

It bothered him very much the local community was losing its memory of the movie selected in 2002 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Swafford went to the Museum Center at Five Points and libraries searching for artifacts or written historic information. He found a script and snapshot of the crew next to a plane but that was about it.

"I thought, man, people are forgetting. I didn't want people to forget the movie and particularly the locals who were involved in it," he said in 2009.

Since then, Swafford has a list of 200 names of local people involved in the movie. And while it saddened him no one remembered the movie, he said Thursday at the Kiwanis Club meeting there were 25,000 people in Bradley County in 1959. Today there are more than 100,000.

He said Thursday Kazan filmed the movie in color because of the beautiful landscape.

“It wasn’t just the backdrop, it was the essence of the story,” Swafford said. “He wanted to capture the beautiful scenery we have here, but at the end of the movie, only to be covered by water and lost forever.”

Swafford, who is a welder by trade, decided to do a film documentary because he felt a book could not capture the way someone who lived it could tell it. He began researching the movie after the first of the year in 2009.

“One of the strangest phone calls I got,” he said. “I got a phone call right after the first article in the Banner. The Banner called me up and said some anonymous lady wanted to tell me a story.”

The movie, he said, is based on two novels, “Mud on the Stars” by William Bradford Huie and “Dunbar’s Cove” by Borden Deal.

“I knew the story wasn’t even real and for the lady to even say that — but, I take all my phone calls and she started describing the exact end of the movie,” he said. “I agreed to talk to her dad. I talked to him and he sounded really convincing, and then he says he has the newspaper article.”

He did have a newspaper with a picture on the front page showing Charlie Randolph’s family being evicted.

“And it showed a picture of their little two-room cabin burning,“ he said.