When he was only five or six years old, James Brennan delivered a pail of water to a farm worker on the grounds of what today is Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The worker took a drink, pulled out a pipe, removed his eyeglasses and lit the pipe by focusing light through the glasses.
Brennan remembers being profoundly impressed by that feat.
Long before the ORNL took up residence on Chestnut Ridge, the land was home to James Brennan. Brennan’s family lived on the property before the government seized it in 1942. His father’s old barn stood where the main office complex at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source is now.
“Dad had a rolling store, a wagon he pulled with a team of gray mules,” he says. “There were no stores around. He sold the basic goods—sugar, coffee and salt.”
Brennan’s father bought the Chestnut Ridge farm in 1915 (Brennan has the original land grant for 100 acres near Chestnut Ridge that the state of Tennessee issued to Thomas Hagler on July 12, 1831. )
The elder Brennan was able to pay off the farm loan in just 10 years. “Dad liked the Chestnut Ridge tract mainly because as a farmer he knew the value of water,” says James, “and the land was unusually endowed with three springs.”
“It was productive farm land. We had three tenant families and a sawmill that provided work for a lot of people.”
The Brennans raised cattle and crops, marketing their produce in nearby towns.
Brennan visited ORNL in August 2007 at the age of 89, and could still recognize many sites, although the changes over 60 years were sometimes drastic.
His directions to the visitor’s center mentioned the Conference Center pond. He remembered that pond as a small stream where he used to come for a drink after services at New Bethel Baptist Church.
James Brennan was born in Bear Creek Valley in 1918. One of Brennan’s favorite memories of life there is when his father got his 1922 Model T Ford truck stuck on a muddy road. James’ father gave his mother, who had never driven a car, a crash course in driving while he pulled it out of the mud with a team of mules.
She successfully drove to a field near their house but didn’t know how to stop. Brennan remembers standing on the porch with his brother watching his father run around trying to instruct his mother on how to stop the car while keeping a team of mules under control. James doesn’t remember the conclusion exactly, but somehow his father got the truck stopped.
In December 1941 the Brennans moved to a 64-acre farm near Scarbrough to get electricity but still owned the property on Chestnut Ridge. James enlisted in the Army almost immediately after Pearl Harbor.
He says his parents planned to keep the Chestnut Ridge place in the family for the rest of their lives, but by fall 1942 events beyond their control dictated otherwise. The Manhattan Project uprooted the family a second time, and they finished moving out of Chestnut Ridge near Christmas that year.
James had already left for the war effort.
“I don’t know how my father was able to get rid of what he had in such a short time,” he says of the move.
During World War II, Brennan worked in telephone communications, laying and maintaining telephone wires. He served in the Pacific Theater early in the war—including Guadalcanal and Bougainville—and later in Europe, including the latter part of the Battle of the Bulge and a memorable trip to Paris.
“The French government gave us $17. I still don’t understand the reason why exactly, but we accepted the $17 anyway. That’s what we went to Paris on,” Brennan says.
He remembers the beautiful buildings he saw, but his strongest memory is of the Parisian subway system. He and his Army buddies got on the subway not altogether realizing that the stops would be announced in French, that none of them understood French and that they could not see where they were going.
When he returned from the war, Brennan worked at the water treatment plant at Y-12 for a few years. He later did contract work at several sites on the Oak Ridge reservation, including the High Flux Isotope Reactor.
When that long-ago farm laborer from Brennan’s childhood focused photons to light his pipe, perhaps he foreshadowed how Oak Ridge National Laboratory would focus protons onto a target to produce neutrons. The ORNL’s processes are much more complicated, but the wonder both produce is the same.
“Long before SNS, memories of farm life pleasant for Chestnut Ridge resident,” by Charlie Smith, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Reporter, Number 93, October 2007
online at www.ornl.gov/info/reporter/no93/oct-07_dw.htm