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Carolyn Stelzman’s Interview

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Carolyn Stelzman worked at the K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge as an operator and leak-detector. She recalls Oak Ridge’s excellent bus system, the rain and mud, and the stress on secrecy.

Date of Interview:
September 22, 2005
Location of the Interview:


Carolyn Stelzman: Carolyn Stelzman and from Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Interviewer: And have you always lived here in Oak Ridge?

Stelzman: No. I came from Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

Interviewer: And do you just want to tell your story of how you came here to Oak Ridge? And what you did?

Stelzman: Okay. Well, in May of 1944, my mother and dad had moved to Oak Ridge. He was in construction work and brought the family. I was in college at the time they came, but when the summer break came, I came up to be with them. And my dad suggested that maybe I’d like to find a summertime job, so I put in my application and got a job. 

Interviewer: And where did you work?

Stelzman: I worked at K-25, and I worked on a leak detector machine as an operator.

Interviewer: And just tell us something about whether that job came full-time, where you lived—

Stelzman: Well, the job was full-time and, fortunately, I stayed on the day shift. It was operating twenty-four hours a day, but I was able to stay on a day shift for the entire time that I worked there. I did live with my family, my mother and dad and two sisters, and we had a flat-top, a three-bedroom flat-top out on Alger Road in East Village area. And we lived there for the entire time that they were here. 

Interviewer: And so what did you do for social activities?

Stelzman: Well, whatever there was available. [Laughter.] We did bowling and movies, of course, and dancing. I guess that was my original taste of dancing. And I dated mostly G.I.s, a few other people. I was single, of course, at the time, and actually met my husband here.  

Interviewer: And where did he work?

Stelzman: Well he was with the Army Corps of Engineers, and he worked at K-25.

Interviewer: So you never lived in Happy Valley at K-25?

Stelzman: No, I did not. Actually, we were married. We did live in what they called a hutment, which was a one-bedroom. But it was a duplex, two of these little places joined together: one bedroom, one bath, and one room that had everything else—the living room, dining room, kitchen. Very small, very thin walls.

Interviewer: So then after—when did you move from there to another house in Oak Ridge?

Stelzman: Well, Walt was discharged from the Army in 1945, and we left here and went back to his home state of New York, where he finished school. And then Carbide hired him and he went to Charleston, West Virginia. And we were there for about six years, and came back to Oak Ridge and moved into our three-bedroom cemestos on West Newkirk Lane, and lived there for a long time.  

Interviewer: So is that where you raised your family?

Stelzman: That’s where I raised the family. 

Interviewer: And did they go to Oak Ridge High School? 

Stelzman: Well, first they went to Pine Valley Elementary School, then to Jefferson Junior High, when it was on the hill, then to Oak Ridge High.

Interviewer: Can you relate any of the stories of, you know, your friends and what it was like for them to live here in Oak Ridge, and where they lived?

Stelzman: I’m not sure I understand.

Interviewer: Any of your friends that you had made while you were working at K-25, or, you know—

Stelzman: Well, the only one that I really knew at K-25 was the Blacks, Colleen and Blackie, and my husband and Blackie were hutmates in the service, and Colleen and I both worked at K-25. But, other than that, my Oak Ridge friends I made later, when I came back, after I came back to Oak Ridge. 

Interviewer: Any funny stories you can tell us? Did you ever get stuck in the mud?

Stelzman: Well, I don’t know of any right offhand that I can really think of that would be very funny. [Laughter.] 

Interviewer: Anything about the dances that they would have in Oak Ridge? Did you ever go to the tennis court dances?

Stelzman: You know, I have heard about the tennis court dances but I think those must have occurred after my husband was discharged. Now, when I was dancing it was mostly at the recreation building. They used to have dances there and that’s where I danced. I really do not recall dancing at the tennis courts.

Interviewer: What was shopping like?

Stelzman: Well, I remember going mostly to Knoxville to shop. Now, my mother worked at Samuel’s Men’s Store in Jackson Square. She did tailoring there. But I don’t recall, other than there was a grocery store on the corner there, and there was a drugstore on one corner, but I wasn’t into grocery shopping then. But I do recall going into Knoxville to shop. I think Miller’s was the big place at that time. 

Interviewer: When you were in college, what were you studying?

Stelzman: Well, my major was Home Economics. Of course, I had a minor in science and a minor in art, and I did go back and get my degree after I was married, but that was what I studied.

Interviewer: I’ve heard stories that they hired a lot of women with home economics degrees to work in the plants and do chemistry because they—

Stelzman: Well, I never heard the home economics part of it. I did hear the science part of it, and I do think that maybe the fact that I did have a minor in that, and had a lot of chemistry and physics and knowledge in all that, that did, maybe, play something. I don’t know. 

Interviewer: As a leak detector, what did you do?

Stelzman: Well, we tested equipment- pipes, pipe fittings, and things like that, to make sure there were no leaks. And that was basically what we did.

Interviewer: Did you have on-the-job training?

Stelzman: Yes.

Interviewer: Did it take two or three hours to teach you what to do, or—

Stelzman: Well, first off, they had a school. I think it was held at Wheat School, a training, and I don’t remember how long it lasted. Several days, I would say, maybe even a week or two. I’ve forgotten, but yes, we had that prior to the job.  

Interviewer: Did they stress secrecy and not to talk to one another about what you were doing?

Stelzman: Of course, we were not to talk about it. But, being nineteen years old, I could’ve cared less what I was doing. You know, I just wasn’t interested in talking about what I was doing. It was not a high priority with me. I just was interested in the paycheck. [Laughter.] 

Interviewer: What kind of salary did you receive?

Stelzman: I have no idea! But I was living at home and so I put it all in the bank. Of course, we were working seven days a week too, so there wasn’t much time for shopping, but when I did get a day off, then I would go and spend the whole wad.  

Interviewer: Did you take the bus around a lot in Oak Ridge or did you walk a lot?

Stelzman: Yes. We had an excellent bus system in Oak Ridge, and I rode the bus to work everyday, back and forth. There was, in our neighborhood, there was supposed to be a bus going by every fifteen minutes. Sometimes there would be three in a row, not even five minutes apart, but, nonetheless, really good bus service. And yes, we did ride a lot.

Interviewer: Did you have a uniform you had to wear?

Stelzman: No, whatever.

Interviewer: Okay. What was just general—when you first arrived there during the war years, what were your general impressions just going in? What were your first impressions of Oak Ridge?

Stelzman: Of Oak Ridge? Well, very strange. First off, you had to have a pass to get in, and, of course, when you would go to leave you’d also have to show your pass. I did ride the bus to work, and we must have gone to work at seven o’clock because it was always dark, it seemed. And my impression, really, was that it rained everyday. I don’t know that it did, but it seemed like it rained everyday.  

Interviewer: Now, talk about what all that rain caused. We’ve heard—everybody’s talked about the mud.

Stelzman: Now what did you ask me?

Interviewer: The mud. Everyone’s talked about the mud.

Stelzman: Well, of course, there was mud. Our sidewalks, that we had, usually were boards nailed up and the streets were muddy with slag. And if you were going to church or going to a party, you wore your old shoes or galoshes or boots and carried your dress shoes. And, I don’t remember doing it myself, but I have heard of people saying that the muddy boots and things ended up in the shower, in the bathroom, so they didn’t get the floors all muddy. I don’t remember that, but I’ve heard people tell that tale.

Interviewer: Okay. Anything else? Anything else we missed that you think is interesting about that time?

Stelzman: You know, actually, my time in the early days was such a short time here that a lot of the things that—

Interviewer: Were there more men than there were women?

Stelzman: No, goodness, there was a lot more women then there were men. I don’t know what the proportion was, but there were not many young men, except with the G.I.s, more of them were young. But most of the other people it seemed, that were working, were older. And by older, I mean, you know, thirty was old to me at that time, but it just seemed like there were no really young men that were. And a lot of the ladies were single, a lot of them were married and their husbands were in the service, and a lot of women here. 

Interviewer: Did they start up a lot of social clubs, or how did they—

Stelzman: You know, I don’t really know. I didn’t belong to any at that time. I think probably the age and the fact that I was living at home probably made a difference. Those women that were here alone lived in dormitories, and maybe they had more clubs and things like that, but I didn’t belong to any of them.


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