ORAL HISTORY OF HELEN BISSEL Interviewed by Sarah Kolb
October 21, 2002
Mrs. Kolb: A good way for us to get started is to find out why you came to Oak Ridge.
Mrs. Bissell: My husband was working in the American Limestone office in Knoxville, and he saw a request for people to work for the Clinton Engineering Works. They did not say what they would be doing, but it was for the war effort. They hired him to work at Y-12, where he remained until he retired.
Mrs. Kolb: Were you married and living in Knoxville at the time?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes. At first, we weren’t offered a house in Oak Ridge, because we did live in Knoxville. He could commute. This was the spring of ’43. By November, they asked him to move to Oak Ridge. On December the third, we moved into a “C” house in Oak Ridge.
Mrs. Kolb: Did you have children then?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, we had two children at that time. We intended to go to my mother��s in Knoxville for Christmas, however. We had an ice storm the night before, and we couldn’t drive our car, so my husband thought we were so disappointed. We didn’t know anyone, but he had met Harvey Saler at work. He lived across the street. So we might visit he and his wife for a while, he said. Later, we became very close friends with the Salers.
Mrs. Kolb: Well, tell me what, who were your children that you had.
Mrs. Bissell: We had Jane, who was seven, in the first, six, in the first grade, and then we had Johnny, who was, no, we had Keith, who was three when we moved here.
Mrs. Kolb: Okay.
Mrs. Bissell: Yeah, I got kind of mixed up.
Mrs. Kolb: That’s fine. It doesn’t make any difference. Just feel free to talk. Did you want to tell me the names of the rest of your children now? You could tell me who your other children are.
Mrs. Bissell: Well, we have Elaine and Betty and Johnny.
Mrs. Kolb: Okay. Do they all live around here now?
Mrs. Bissell: The two sons live in Nashville, and Elaine lives in Chattanooga, but Betty lives in Clinton, and Jane lives out in the country between here and Kingston.
Mrs. Kolb: How many grandchildren do you have?
Mrs. Bissell: I have eight grandchildren.
Mrs. Kolb: Oh, my. Well, where did your children go to school?
Mrs. Bissell: Well, I was going to tell you about Jane. She was in the first grade when we moved here, and she walked up to Cedar Hill on the boardwalk. It was just a block away and had just opened.
Mrs. Kolb: Did the other children go to Cedar Hill?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes.
Mrs. Kolb: They all went to Cedar Hill?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, they did.
Mrs. Kolb: Okay. I was interested in the conditions that you had when you lived here, and you said you had to walk on boardwalks over the mud.
Mrs. Bissell: Well, yes, we walked in boardwalks. They went all the way down to Jackson Square and they were very handy to walk on ’cause there was so much mud.
Mrs. Kolb: What kind of shoes did you have to wear?
Mrs. Bissell: Well, we had to wear big, comfortable shoes. We had a large grocery store in Jackson Square called the Community Store. Before we could get our car repaired, when we went to the store, we filled our car with water and then carried a jug of water to put in the car in order to get back home. We had nice department stores in Jackson Square all the time. They changed often. First we had Miller’s, then Taylor��s, Loveman’s, Value Mart, and then Watson���s.
Mrs. Kolb: So Watson’s was one of the main stores down there?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes.
Mrs. Kolb: What grocery? And you did all your shopping at Jackson Square essentially.
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, yes, we did.
Mrs. Kolb: Was Grove Center there? Was that there at that time?
Mrs. Bissell: They were just beginning to build in Grove Center.
Mrs. Kolb: So you wouldn’t have gone there very often.
Mrs. Bissell: No.
Mrs. Kolb: Well, did you walk down to Jackson Square most of the time to do your shopping?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, we did.
Mrs. Kolb: Was there some kind of public transportation that you could take?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes. They had buses, and they just charged five cents to ride the bus.
Mrs. Kolb: So you could, if you had a lot to carry, you could ride a bus if you wanted to, it isn’t so terribly far.
Mrs. Bissell: Yes. None of the wives in my neighborhood worked, so we visited during the day. We often had lunch together. Food was rationed, so we had simple things. I remember we had baked beans and a lot of salmon loaf. I don’t know why, but cans of salmon were plentiful. For a while, we could drive away from the town and go by the farm houses, where people had moved out. There were flower gardens in the yard and sometimes there was a barn that went with the house. They started developing the land, and then we were not permitted to go back.
Mrs. Kolb: Okay. What kind of, you said your entertainment was simple. Did you ever attend any public dances. You were married and had a family. You may not have.
Mrs. Bissell: There were dances on the tennis courts occasionally, but we did not attend because we had small children. There were two movie theaters in Jackson Square, and we went to the movies occasionally. My husband was on a basketball team and a softball team, and I sometimes took the children to the games. We were members of First Methodist Church. Our Sunday school was held in what was then the High School, located above Blankenship Field, and our church services were held in the Ridge Theater.
Mrs. Kolb: Do you still belong to that Methodist Church?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, I do.
Mrs. Kolb: Now then, you told me before or I think I know that you belong to the Woman’s Club. Did you join that pretty soon after it was organized?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, I did. In 1945, the Junior Chamber of Commerce was permitted. My husband belonged to that. And a Rotary Club was chartered in 1946. Also the League of Women Voters.
Mrs. Kolb: Did you belong to any of those other organizations?
Mrs. Bissell: Well, I belonged to the Jaycettes, but I didn’t belong to the League of Women Voters.
Mrs. Kolb: Okay. Now, when you mention your husband, I know he was mayor for a while, for many years. How many years was he mayor?
Mrs. Bissell: About thirty years.
Mrs. Kolb: How many?
Mrs. Bissell: Thirty.
Mrs. Kolb: Thirty years! My goodness. I didn�����t realize it was that many years. Well, he was mayor for a long time. Were you involved in that as a family? I mean, I know a mayor has to entertain visitors that come to town and so forth.
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, we were involved and we helped in every way we could.
Mrs. Kolb: Well, back to the Secret City, I don’t know that your husband had work that was secret, did he? Most everybody did.
Mrs. Bissell: Most everybody did. None of them could talk about what they did at work.
Mrs. Kolb: Well, was keeping a secret hard for you to do?
Mrs. Bissell: No, I wouldn’t think so.
Mrs. Kolb: But you really didn’t have contact with many people that weren’t involved with that I guess.
Mrs. Bissell: No, there was an interesting thing about that though. I had some friends that came out for dinner from Knoxville. And, of course, we got passes for them to get into Oak Ridge. And, of course, they started talking about what was being done out here. That was the usual thing people did. And one of the ladies said, "I understand they’re trying to split the atom." Well, I didn’t know anything about that, and my husband didn’t say anything. But later, after the war, he told me he nearly fainted when she said that.
Mrs. Kolb: You wonder where she got the information?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes.
Mrs. Kolb: I’m sure there were lots of rumors about. I’m just curious, did you grow up around here? I mean, you said you were living in Knoxville.
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, I grew up in Knoxville.
Mrs. Kolb: Did you meet your husband in Knoxville?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes. He lived between here and Knoxville in Karns, and he went to Karns High School.
Mrs. Kolb: So while you were living in Oak Ridge, you still had family around on the outside also –
Mrs. Bissell: Yes.
Mrs. Kolb: – that you did see them. Okay. Did you participate in the war effort with a victory garden, collecting foil, buying war bonds, anything like that?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, we had a victory garden, and we bought war bonds.
Mrs. Kolb: Another thing I was asked to find out about you is, did you have any contact with Afro-Americans, and how did you feel they were treated during that period of time?
Mrs. Bissell: Well, of course, they went to separate schools from us, from the other children, in the beginning, until they were integrated, and as far as I know, the integration went very smooth.
Mrs. Kolb: Okay. Do you remember how you heard about the first A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, we were on our way to Myrtle Beach on vacation, and we drove through a small town in South Carolina, and people were running out on the streets, and we stopped the car and found out that the war had ended. So we celebrated with them, people we didn’t know.
Mrs. Kolb: So you went on to Myrtle Beach, I presume.
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, we did.
Mrs. Kolb: Do you remember when the city gates were opened in 1949?
Mrs. Bissell: Yes, and we did not feel bad about being behind the gates. In fact, we felt more secure when the gates were up.
Mrs. Kolb: Are there any other experiences that you remember from the early days that you’d like to mention?
Mrs. Bissell: No. One thing I didn’t mention, there were playground activities for the children in the summer and after school. They also taught dancing at the school. My oldest son went to his first formal when he was in the first grade.
Mrs. Kolb: What has made Oak Ridge an unusual community in which to live?
Mrs. Bissell: I think it’s because the people who lived here were from all parts of the country, and they were very friendly, and we had just a real nice relationship with each other.
Mrs. Kolb: All right, well, thank you very much, Helen, for your interview, for telling us some things that you remember about the early days in Oak Ridge.
[end of recording]