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Golden Pond Lives in Memories of Former Residents and New Overlook

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  For residents in Western Kentucky, the name Golden Pond can bring back bittersweet memories. In the late 1960’s, the Tennessee Valley Authority evacuated residents of the town located in what is now known as Land Between the Lakes. A memorial overlooking Golden Pond was unveiled recently, depicting what it looked like. 

All that remains of Golden Pond are two concrete mounting blocks that used to sit in downtown to help people get on their horses. One might think of Golden Pond as a ghost town, but its story is more complicated than most other ghost towns. And Golden Pond is still alive - in the memories of its former residents. Kentucky Department of Parks Commissioner Donnie Holland is one of those residents. He still harbors frustration about the forced evacuation nearly half a century ago.

“For decades we were perplexed about why they took so much land. Why there’s so much land in Land Between the Lakes and why 4,700 people lost their homes in this deal?”

The overlook sits on top of a tall ridge that looks down over Highway 68/80. The memorial, ten years in the making, features panels with pictures and stories... a reminder of what was once there. Holland thanked the U.S. Forest Service and Land Between the Lakes Area Supervisor Tina Tilley for helping in its creation.

“ Tina’s predecessors did not destroy this town. It was the Tennessee Valley Authority destroyed this town. It was an out of control, socialist, wrong headed bureaucracy and let’s be clear that the Forest Service is helping us do things like this memorial.”

Around 50 people attended the dedication. Former residents shared memories of life in Golden Pond and of the evacuation. Land Between the Lakes Heritage Director Chris Thornock said though the project started long before he arrived, it was important to finish it.

“I think it’s important not only to tell the story of Golden Pond, but to have the former residents of Golden Pond tell their own story. I think this is extremely important for the region's history, for educating all the people in the LBL area and for the former residents to be the ones that educate those people.”

Golden Pond was established in 1882. The town flourished. It survived two fires and had a notorious reputation for making moonshine during prohibition, sending product to cities like Chicago and Detroit. Bill Miller graduated high school there in 1939. He said he can remember exactly what the town looked like, even before the second fire in the 30’s

“I guess a dozen businesses were there. Including a little garage and service station and a post office. There were three cafe’s there and two or three grocery stores. There was a pool hall and the bank, and the church was there right in the corner.”

According to the book ‘The Land Between the Lakes: A Geography of the Forgotten Future,’ by Ronald A. Foresta, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress for a program to acquire more recreation land in 1962, then the LBL project was born. Soon after in 1963 he handed the project to the TVA, which promised 170,000 acres of land, which included the town of Golden Pond.

Holland explained what they understand to be the reason behind the expansion of Land Between the Lakes.

“The facts were as we gather it, as why they wanted so much land, was that there was a thought process started by the economist named John Kenneth Galbraith, who was a leading economist with Roosevelt and Truman and others, who believed he had watched the industrial revolution change jobs.”

Holland said TVA wanted big parks where people would spend this time, promising a tourism boom for towns like Canton and Aurora, located along the banks outside of Land Between the Lakes… ambitious plans that would rival the vacation resort of Gatlinburg in eastern Tennessee.

“They promised Gatlinburg at Canton. Matter of fact they went so far to warn against the development of Gatlinburg at Canton. To not let little shabby hotdog stands come in at Canton, or Aurora, cause’ that will be another Gatlinburg.”

There was great resistance from the Golden Pond community, but Holland said the media bought into the idea of a Gatlinburg in Western Kentucky.

“They had turned the press against us. And it was just a matter of time then before the TVA would win.”

The evacuation began in 1964 and continued until the last residents left in 1970. People were often reluctant reluctant to leave, like Miller’s family, who shared a history with the land there.

“My great-grandfather settled that area many years ago, on both sides. It was kindly a hard blow for my mother and father to have to get up and leave.”

Donnie Holland reflected on how hard his family resisted.

“So we formed a perimeter, my father and his brothers and his brother-in-laws, we would keep the TVA out of that house; I was 14. My uncle rick said, ‘We are not armed, but you are not getting into Bill Holland’s house, we will do what we have to do today to stop you from getting into his house.”

But people had to leave. As more people left, local businesses made less money. Slowly, over the course of six years, Golden Pond was reduced to nothing. Highway 68/80 was built through the town and what remained was destroyed.

It took ten years to collect photos, family names and locations of businesses and homes for the new scenic overlook. Heritage Director Chris Thornock said they got lucky in finding the precise location of every building. 

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Attendees look at the new Golden Pond overlook memorial

“Luckily when the former residents were removed, the TVA documented every structure on every piece of property out here."

Some buildings were physically moved across the lake. The Holiday Restaurant now in Aurora was once located in Golden Pond. Thornock said it’s important to provide a visual representation of the town.

“By having the maps and being able to reconstruct the map up here and have photos of the houses and businesses that once existed here, now we can see it, we can imagine it on the landscape.”

A glass panel sits on the edge of the overlook with a small town etched in it. To show people what was there and to remember what was lost.

Thornock said a new initiative is about to get underway: an attempt to put together a definitive history of Land Between the Lakes. The project will include local historians and former residents recording their stories to archive for future generations. 

Taylor is a recent Murray State University graduate where she studied journalism and history. When she's not reporting for WKMS, she enjoys creative writing and traveling. She loves writing stories that involve diversity, local culture and history, nature and recreation, art and music, and national or local politics. If you have a news tip or idea, shoot her an email at tinman1@murraystate.edu!
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