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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Reba Holmberg’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

After studying at the University of Tennessee, Reba Holmberg went to work at the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge. The government evicted her family from their farm to use the land for the Manhattan Project, and she describes the situation of the people dispossessed following the government’s land seizure. She discusses working at the Y-12 Plant and living in the “Secret City.”

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


Reba Holmberg: My name is Reba Justice Holmberg and I have lived in Oak Ridge since 1950, but I was born—

Bob Holmberg: 1923. 

Holmberg: I was born—[Laughter.] You have to do some editing. I was born here in the community of Robertsville in 1923 and I went to Robertsville High School, which is now the community school in the Robertsville community. And it was the school that housed all grades through high school. And I went to the University of Tennessee and got a B.S. in science, and came back to Oak Ridge to work in an analytical chemistry lab.  

We were dispossessed by the—you know, I didn’t know I was going to have to do this.

Kelly: Okay. Why don’t you start with that? Maybe you could say, you know, where Robertsville was in relation to Oak Ridge—a lot of people won’t know—“Which is now twenty miles from Oak Ridge,” or ten miles, or two miles; I don’t even know myself.

Holmberg: Well, it now—

Kelly: But start again because you’re going—no one’s going to hear what I say.

Holmberg: Okay.

Kelly: Okay? They’re just going to edit—don’t worry about starting again or making mistakes, whatever. That’s what the editor does. He just takes those little snippets that he wants.

Holmberg: Okay.

Kelly: So why don’t you—

Holmberg: Start with my name and all—

Kelly: No, no, not the name. But just talk about, “I was born in 1923 on a farm in Robertsville, which was—”

Holmberg: Okay. I was born in 1923 on a farm in the community of Robertsville. I went to school at the Robertsville school, which now houses the Robertsville junior high, or the middle school, I suppose it is. And I graduated there and went to the University of Tennessee, where I got a Bachelor of Science degree. And then I came to Oak Ridge and went to work in an analytical chemistry lab at Y-12.

Now, a lot went on between that time, because we had lived in the valley for many generations and a lot of the relatives were clustered in the East Fork Valley, which runs—which is now Robertsville Road. My grandfather had three brothers who lived—two brothers who lived there and two sisters, and so we were all nicely settled. My great-grandparents lived on the hill where is now Willow Brook [Elementary] School. And they gave the land for the church that is now behind the Willow Brook School, but it is known as another—it was the Robertsville Baptist Church, but it’s known as another church. Part of it is still there; it was redone.  

Well, when we heard rumors that the land was going to be taken, my grandfather believed them and he started looking for land to move to, although we had not gotten the notice yet. And he didn’t drive a car; my grandmother always drove for him. And he went walking across Black Oak Ridge, which is Outer Drive, and down in the valley toward Oliver Springs. And he found a farm there just across Poplar Creek that he made arrangements to buy, so when this piece of paper came he was ready. 

Do you want to—

Kelly: The cameraman will do that. You can either—you can hold it up, if you like. I mean, the editor—can you sit back? And you can talk about the paper. That’s fine. You can read it, if you like.

Holmberg: Okay. The first official notice came when my grandfather came home one night. And by the way, we lived next door to my grandparents; my mother was an only child and so they stuck pretty close together.

And it says, 

“You are hereby commanded to notify James M. Jett,” who was my grandfather, “or his tenant or agent that, heretofore, on the 15th day of February, 1943, a judgment of the declaration of taking, number fifteen filed in the above proceedings, gave the United States of America possession of track #F567, containing 106.1 acres in Anderson County, Tennessee, in connection with the establishment of the Kingston Demolition Range. As of the 15th day of February, 1943—which tract of land is fully described in the declaration of taking, number fifteen on file in my office—and to forthwith vacate said premises immediately.”

“You are further commanded that, if none of the parties are found in actual possession of said premises, to post a copy of this notice at a conspicuous place upon the premises and forthwith make the return of said services to the court.” 

And this was signed by Lee A. Beeler, Clerk, United States District Court.

And that’s when they decided to make plans for leaving. And it was rather hard because this was in January and they couldn’t take the crops out of the field, the problems being that, with high security, they were scared somebody would hide someplace among the bales of hay or the stacks of corn. So they were not allowed to take any of the crops. And I don’t know how they managed with their livestock, with their cattle and horses and so forth. But I was away at school so I wasn’t right on top of the proceedings.

So then I came. It was very sad. I mean, some people left their animals behind and they were running around and lost. And people were scattered all around Clinton and Norris and Knoxville, but we were very close-by. It was very rough going through this, but my parents and my grandparents all took jobs on the project. My mom and my grandmother had never worked outside the house and, believe it or not, they took jobs too, which meant they could pursue their hobbies at home and have a check coming in every month.

Let me think a minute.

Kelly: That’s good. Let me take the paper so it doesn’t crinkle.

Holmberg: Okay. What else, Bob, should I say?

Well, I lived at home and—

Bob Holmberg: You never said where Robertsville was.

Holmberg: Robertsville is where the middle school is now.

Bob Holmberg: No. Everybody doesn’t know where the middle school is, in the center of Oak Ridge.

Holmberg: In the center of Oak Ridge on Robertsville Road, which is near the Hilltop Gatb, down the ridge from Hilltop Gate.

Let’s see—

Kelly: Can you tell me—do you know what jobs your mother and your grandmother had at the plant that they worked at?

Holmberg: My mother had an interesting job. She was a chaufferette. They had cars that people who needed them could take, and so there was a carpool and she drove the bigwigs around in the cars. Actually, she went out of town sometimes to take people.

And she was responsible for getting my job at the lab. I came out here and I knew the personnel manager—his daughter was a roommate of mine at UT. And so he said, “Would you like to work with my daughter?” 

And I said, “Yes, I would.”

So when I took the job it was in the reproduction room and it was running off materials, it was turning drums, and stuff like that. And I thought, “Surely I can do better than this. I’ve got this hot little degree in my hand and most of the people I’m working with are just out of high school.” 

So I talked to my mother about it and she said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

So she was connected with the people who were in a position to hire me. And she kept asking around, and finally one of the men asked her, “Has she had chemistry?” 

And she said, “Yes.” 

“Send her down.” 

So it took me just a few days to pass the “Q” clearance, and I went to a job—work in the analytical labs at Y-12.

And my husband’s a chemist also, but that’s not where I met him. I met him through somebody that I worked with. Bob came here shortly after I did. And we knew each other for a long time, and were married in 1950 in the Chapel on the Hill.

And then we bought—we lived in rental houses because they were not—private houses were not available at that time. You couldn’t own your own house. But we bought a—when the houses were being torn down—after people were allowed to buy their own land, Bob said, “I think I’ll buy some lots.”

And I was in the hospital having one of the kids, and he picked out a lot that he liked. It was a double lot where they had two “flat tops”. But he was able to—you were able to buy according to seniority; you had to bid on the lots and they were very reasonable. So he bought this piece of ground, or he applied for it, and he got it. And when I got out of the hospital—those were the days when you could loll around in the hospital for a week when you had a baby [laughter]—and I went out to see it and I said, “Bob, you’ve bought part of the back 40.”

So the whole street we own—we live on now was on the farm that my folks [had]. We live on the ridge, and down in the valley there was a house that was torn down—that had fallen down, and the rumor got around that that’s where the Indians lived. But it wasn’t. It was where my father’s—my grandfather’s helper lived on the farm back there. So we still live there today. We had four children and they’ve all married and moved away, except one who lives here. And it’s a great city; they got a great education.

And I suppose that’s all I should say. Anything else, Bob?

Bob Holmberg: I don’t think so.

Holmberg: Well, Bob’s from Iowa. He came—

Kelly: He can talk about him. 

Holmberg: Okay.

Kelly: How about a little more about your family or other people that were dispossessed, and how they felt about it, and how—you know, now the years have gone by, you know, how they feel about the coming of this project for Oak Ridge. 

Holmberg: Well, everybody was very confused and very sad. It came so quickly, and everybody was—had to get out right away. And they didn’t pay enough to replace the type of place that you had. We were very poorly paid for the land, and also we had a lot of people who were looking for land, so that made it hard.

And I know I’ve often had to bite my tongue when people said, “They put the plant there because there was nothing there.” Actually, it was fairly well populated, and we had a post office and lots of churches and two schools—the Wheat School and the Robertsville School—and stores. And all the things you find in rural communities.

And, let’s see, it was very sad for my grandfather because he’d lived there since he and my grandmother were married. And he’d built barns and ponds and cultivated and developed his fields and fruit trees and all the things that you do over the years. And he had to leave it all that behind. But he didn’t mope around about it.

So he just came and he was—you asked me what their jobs were—my grandfather was a custodian at one of the schools, and, you know, I don’t know what my grandmother did. But my dad worked for the—my dad had a business; he was not a farmer. My grandfather took care of the farms.

And he had a business back in the days before TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] came in. He had a coal mine and an ice house, so he sold ice and coal before Oak Ridge. And it wasn’t until TVA finally came in that we had electricity; we didn’t have electricity until I was ten years old, so we had to use ice and coal and lantern lamps and things like that.

Let’s see, I suppose that’s about it.

Kelly: Was your grandfather able to buy as much land east of Poplar Creek as he had had at Robertsville? Or did he—

Holmberg: I don’t think so, because he had—my father had two farms. He had one that was beside the Robertsville School. We lived next door to the school. And then he had one further down the valley on Robertsville on East Fort Valley Road. And their farming abilities—they didn’t have as much land to farm on as they did before.

But my mother was a horsewoman [laughter], so she started raising and training Quarter Horses. And so she was quite happy. They had a big barn, and she furnished the horses and we furnished the kids. [Laughter.] She went to horse shows, and they participated in horse shows all over the—east Tennessee, actually. And that was her big—she did that and did her job, and she was quite happy with it.  

And my dad, he also bought some school buses. So he had hired people to run his school buses because the kids in Oliver Springs—that’s where our—the farm is, had to go all the way to Clinton to school. And it was very sad because the kids couldn’t come back in here without badges or without permission slips. There was a lot of bitterness toward Oak Ridgers, I think, because they’re here having better schools, more money to spend, winning all the sports activities, and we had to go all the way around to school in Clinton.  

But, as for me, it was great because I came right out of school here, and there were so many guys just out of college who were scientists and engineers coming to work that the pickings were great. [Laughter.] And it was lots of fun to have all the guys to pick from. And I met Bob through a fellow chemist who worked in our lab.

Kelly: Were there very many women chemists or other women with degrees in science?

Holmberg: Not many.

Kelly: Can you make a sentence of that? Because people won’t hear my question.

Holmberg: Okay. In the lab, in the [Building] 9733-2, there were probably fifty—let me take that back—I’m just guessing—thirty chemists. And, of those, there were probably ten or twelve people who worked in the lab because they had secretaries and so forth. Glassblowers, we had a lady glassblower, but not many ladies working in the lab. So that was fun too. And the labs were very crowded; you hardly had space to work because there were so many people in each lab.

Kelly: What year did you come to work?

Holmberg: ’43, in August of 1943. I don’t remember how long I worked at the other place; not very long ‘til I moved to the—and—

Kelly: Did you live at home or did you—

Holmberg: I lived at home. My mom and I came to work together because we both worked at Y-12. And I had one sister but she didn’t work; she stayed home and kept the home fires going, I guess.  

And of course there were lots of things to do in early Oak Ridge. Most every club—most every hobby or interest you had, there was a club to support you. And of course you heard about the dances on the tennis court, and all the recreation buildings had dances most every Friday night. And they were quite crowded and you met a lot of people there. 

And my roommate I had in college was a phys. ed. [physical education] major, and she went to New York and was a trainer for the [John] Powers model [agency]. She went to a play on Broadway, and she wrote me that one of the songs that she heard was, “They burnt down the house that I was [brought] up in.” [Laughter.] So she thought that was interesting.

And you have any other questions?

Kelly: This is good. This is great. Do you remember—you say your mother had a job as chaufferette and that she drove around the bigwigs. You remember whether she ever drove General Groves or—

Holmberg: No. He worked at the Castle on the Hill and she only worked at Y-12, but she did drive around most of the visitors who came to Y-12. It was a carpool, and I guess it had ten or twelve people in it, and there were only two women in the carpool; the rest were men.

Kelly: Did the men tease her or give her a hard time?

Holmberg: Pardon?

Kelly: Did you or your mother get any teasing for being—sort of, doing a man’s job?

Holmberg: No. My mom had a hard time. My mom had the lowest badge in the carpool, and it had a union, and when there were things to decide she always got first choice because she had the lowest badge number. And she always wanted to take her vacation on the Fourth of July because it was a good time to be home. That was when the blackberries were ripe; she liked to pick a can of blackberries. And the men did get pretty upset at her for always taking the Fourth of July week. I remember that. No, she got along all right with the men.

But I heard a lot of people, you know, make sort of remarks about the hillbillies who lived there, and it was kind of bad to have to listen to that. And it is true that not too many people went to college. But there where eighteen people in my high school class, and I think, out of that, about four of them went to college, which was a pretty good number; went to UT [University of Tennessee] or to Carson-Newman [College] or to Maryville [University].  

And most of the people didn’t move far away; you know, some place in Anderson County mostly. Lots of people are in the Norris area. John Rice Irwin was our neighbor, and, of course, he developed the Museum of Appalachia. I guess he moved there.


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