The Manhattan Project

Sheila Rowan and Jo-Ellen Iacovino's Interview

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In this interview, Sheila Rowan and Jo-Ellen Iacovino recall what life in Happy Valley was like for children, and how they felt seeing their mother go to work for the first time. They remember going to school for the first time, the difficulty of finding spaces to play in the muddy area, and the constant turnover of the site. Rowan and Iacovino also discuss adjusting to the post-war period.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 17, 2006
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Interviewer 1: Why did your family come to Oak Ridge? When did that happen?

Rowan: Well, we actually came to Oak Ridge in 1945. We left Nashville in early 1945. Because there was no housing available onsite in Oak Ridge, we had to stay in South Harriman, which is about twenty miles away. In the summertime of 1945, we moved into—

Iacovino: No, no, that was ’44. It was ’44. Because we went through the winter, because then the war was over.

Rowan:  We should have gotten our story together. [Laughter.]

Iacovino:  The war was over in ’45.

Rowan:  I know, but we weren’t in Oak Ridge but just a few months.

Iacovino:  Yes, after that. Yes.

Rowan:  Well, we’d need to call in here before our—

Iacovino:  We did. Well, we stayed because she [sister Colleen Rowan Black] stayed and got married.

Rowan:  We stayed for a few months after the war was over because she was being married in November of that year. And we went back. That was what kept us going all the time. We were saying, “You know, it’s just until the war is over. We can go home when the war is over.”

That’s how long we were there. I mean, we have a little discrepancy here we should have gotten straight. [Laughter.]

Iacovino:  We should have gotten it straight. [Laughter.] 

Interviewer 1: Where did you live?

Rowan: At Happy Valley in Oak Ridge.

Iacovino:  It was happy.

Interviewer 2:  Was it happy?

Iacovino:  Oh, it was happy.

Rowan:  Actually, it was pretty much of a shock because of the name. You know, Happy Valley sounds like a nice green little valley with quaint little houses. Here it was a big sea of mud and little brown muddy houses. But it was happy. It was a good time. 

Interviewer 2:  It was a good time? All the time?

Rowan: No, no, no, no, no. But the thing was that, even children, you know, we knew it was part of the war effort. I mean, we really understood the gravity of the situation. It was very personal with us; we had a brother in the service.

We knew what we did for the war effort—you know, he got to come home safe. So that was what really kept us going, as I said, even as children.

Interviewer 2: How long had your brother been gone before you moved here?

Rowan:  He went when the war first broke out.

Iacovino: Yes. So he’d been gone for over a year, I guess.

Rowan: Yes, well, over. But it was a little while. The schools in Nashville, they were doing things for the war effort; we were collecting scrap metal. We knew about the war, as I said, we understood it.

It was really a trying time because our parents went different directions. Our mother went off to work in the war plant even before we even moved and left it to my father to move us all. It was an upheaval. But as Jo said, it was kind of exciting, even though we had to put up with a lot of inconveniences.

Iacovino: Well, we did, but it was interesting, though. It was just such a different life from the norm, what we thought was norm—little houses that are made of brick and stone with front porches and real sidewalks. Here, as she said, we had these little brown huts and wooden sidewalks. They were the worst I think for me because you could lose things in the cracks.

We were grade school, so we were small, and no bathroom in our house. We had to go down the street. It seemed like such a long way. I don’t know how far it was, but it seemed like a long way—

Rowan:  It was a couple blocks.

Iacovino:  —to go down to go to the bathroom or to take a shower, which I’d never done before. We had a bathtub, and that’s the way you got cleaned; you got in the bathtub. But no, we had to take a towel and take your soap and change of clothes and whatever ,and get down to the bathhouse. Then get back clean, which was hard to do through the mud! So it was quite an experience.

Rowan:  And take off your clothes in front of strangers to get in the showers. That was humiliating.

Iacovino: Yes. I didn’t want to do that it either. It was.

Interviewer 1: Well, there must have been lots of kids around.

Rowan:  There were, there were. Lots of people.

Iacovino: Lots. Our classrooms were crowded. We shared a desk; we shared books; we shared the room! We had to just march out and let another class march in and use that room while we were out in the hall.

Sheila was out there drawing a mural, and she could draw. I was supposed to draw the mural and I was just thinking, “What am I going to do now?” Because I couldn’t draw. [Laughter.]

Rowan:  That’s what they did when we had to get out of the classroom because another class was coming in. They didn’t have any place to put us except in the hall. It was really a class. They conducted a class in the hall.

But part of it was drawing this mural. That was the one thing that I really regretted when I left that school. I didn’t get to finish my mural. [Laughter.]

Interviewer 2:  What was your part of the mural?

Rowan:  I don’t even know what the whole theme of the mural was, but we were studying ancient history and I was drawing Babylonia.

Iacovino: Isn’t that amazing? On my end of the hall we were doing an American Indian scene, and I was drawing this woman. She was supposed to be grinding corn, and I realized I had both arms coming out of one side. Now, I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what to do about that. They weren’t upset, the teachers weren’t upset of course.

Interviewer 1: What were the teachers like?

Iacovino: Young and pretty and nice.

Rowan: Enthusiastic.

Iacovino: Yes.

Rowan:  They were having so much fun. You couldn’t help but have fun too. I was plunged into things that I never even—it was a real introduction to me, the whole curriculum.

The first day we were into Greek mythology. Of course, I didn’t know anything about Greek mythology but I fell in love with it. They even had us modeling little clay models of our favorite gods and goddesses. They were having fun, and we were too.

Iacovino: It was fun. You couldn’t hardly get out of the camp, though, because nobody had a car. Gas was rationed and meat was rationed and sugar was rationed and butter and shoes. The only thing I really cared about was the shoes and the sugar. Our brothers got all the shoe rations because they wore out their shoes so fast.

But Mother would buy us these little shoes. They were cute but they were darned near cardboard, I think. If you got caught in the rain, they just disintegrated. You learned to take your shoes off. Then, finally, I figured out you would have to take the socks off too, because you would wear holes in them by the time you got home and that wasn’t good a thing. But we had Sunday clothes and we would dress up and go to church downtown.

Rowan: We did. We got to go into town to go to church, which was in a movie theatre. We didn’t have a church.

Iacovino: But we could go to Chapel on the Hill if we would get up at 5:45.

Rowan:  Right. We never made it.

Iacovino: [Laughter.] Because that was the Catholic time, was real early. Then they had different denominations had another time and another time. But then they had masses over at the theater, so we thought that was pretty cool; go to church in the movie theater and then hang around for the movie. [Laughter.] No, we didn’t.

Rowan: Well, no, because I don’t know about that movie. But, in our little Happy Valley, we had a big movie theater. It was really nice because we got to go to the movies a lot more often than we would have at home, because there was nothing, really nothing, to do at the trailer. There was really not a yard.

Iacovino:  There was no room to do it.

Rowan: You went out in the yard, you were in somebody’s living room. We were lucky; we were on the corner and we had a little green patch behind our trailer where we could go. We weren’t supposed to go very far because that’s where the gate with the fence was, where the guards patrolled.

Iacovino: We were at the end of Happy Valley. [Laughter.] The end of Happy Valley!

Rowan: Yes, it was the end of Happy Valley. But we weren’t supposed to go up, because the guards were on horseback patrolling that fence. Of course, my little brother went up to talk to the guards. They weren’t supposed to talk to anybody, but they just couldn’t help themselves. They talked with him.

We did have a little patch of green fairly close but there was not much to do. Therefore, we got to go to the movies.

Iacovino: Got to go the movies, and we could walk up sometimes. My baby sister was in the nursery school up there and we spent a lot of time trying to get her to say, “Nursery school.”  She told everybody she went to the “Nazi school,” which upset us to no end. We said, “You don’t go to the Nazi school!”

Colin Clay: How distinct were the communities of Happy Valley and Oak Ridge?

Iacovino: Very.

Rowan: Very, very distinct. That was like going to another state, when we got to go through the gate. The guards had to come on and look at everybody to see if you were hiding anything.

Our father was working in another place. He was working in Detroit. We only got to go into town when he came, because he had the car and he could drive us in. We had no transportation.

In the previous year also, we were in South Harriman. The only way you could get around was with a cab. You had to take a cab into town, a cab here. We could walk to school.

Iacovino: But now they had work buses that came out, but the work buses came—

Rowan: The work buses came for the worker. Our mother would—they sent out a bus for anybody in this little project, housing project, where they just threw up these houses in South Harriman. It was truly really, really crowded in South Harriman because of all the Oak Ridge traffic.

The schools there were really, really overcrowded. In fact, when—we left in the middle of a school year, and when I got there, we had to go enroll in the South Harriman schools. There was no room for my class, and we went to class in a little church that was on the—it was real close—

Iacovino: I didn’t know that.

Rowan: Really? It was really close to the school. It was within walking distance of the school. But that’s where I was all my time in South Harriman.

Iacovino: That school didn’t have a cafeteria either. I remember, in South Harriman, I would go across the street, and there was a little restaurant and they sold a bowl of chili for a nickel. They had a counter, but I couldn’t reach the counter. The lady would take the children in the back and we could go around this table in the kitchen, and, for a nickel, you could get a bowl of chili. Isn’t that something?

Rowan: You had to take it to the kitchen?

Iacovino: Yes.

Interviewer 1: Did you have to take your lunch to school when you were in Happy Valley?

Rowan: In Happy Valley, yes. It’s odd, you know, my memories of it are truly sketchy. I don’t remember ever having to fix lunch or anything in the trailer, but that’s what we had to because we ate at our desks in the school. There was no cafeteria.

Then there was not really any yard in the school. Recess was going home. So we were basically just in the school while we there.

Iacovino: The lunch I remembered is the lunch that Daddy made us that time. It was going to be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and he mixed the peanut butter and jelly. We got to school and we had these gray sandwiches. [Laughter.]

Rowan: Before the war our father never entered the kitchen. [Laughter.] And so when our mother went to work, I mean, it was a great shock because she had always been a stay-at-home mother and she was always there for us.

So when she went off to work, and our father was still working in Nashville, but he was there left to fend for us. Then, during periods when she was working in Oak Ridge, he would come and he would have to fix the lunches and breakfasts. It was really a very big change for him, too.

Iacovino: Very interesting. The kitchen was really skinny. It was just a little hall kitchen. It was really just a one person kitchen, so if he was in there nobody could help him because he took up all the room.

Rowan: Well, it was just a one person number, it was a one person meal. But it’s odd, I really don’t remember any hardships about that. I mean, we ate.

Iacovino: I remember being cold. Sometimes in the night it was cold. Mother would come in and of course we had blankets, but it would just get cold and she would take coats and just put them on top of us, on the bed.

Rowan: Well, it was a strange little heating system also in that trailer that was a stove. I don’t know what the fuel was, to tell you the truth. But it was in the middle of the trailer. It actually got hot so you couldn’t get close to it. Right now I don’t even know what the fuel—

Iacovino: Well, it must have been coal. Was it? Everybody had coal.

Interviewer 2: Sounds a little dangerous.

Iacovino: [Laughter.] It must have been!

Rowan: Listen, I do believe it was dangerous. And all those trailers that close together all lined up on that place, don’t you know! But people put up with it and of course we put up with it. We didn’t know any better.

Iacovino: That’s why, when that war was over, they took that place down. There’s nothing there. You can’t see anything there anymore. It’s gone. Only in these sketchy memories. [Laughter.]

Rowan: Yes, the sketchy memories, that’s right. We said, “Oh well, we’re going home when the war is over. We’ll go home when the war is over.”

So the day that the war was over, our little brother was in school. He had heard all this talk about people coming and going, terminating from the plant and terminating here. When he heard the war was over, he went to school and he terminated. He came home and he told Mother, he says, “Well, I’ve terminated.”

She says, “You go right back. We’re not leaving yet.” [Laughter.]

The odd thing was, he was able to do that! You know, in the schools, all while we were there, people were coming and going. Children were coming in and going out. I guess the teachers didn’t—

Iacovino: They thought, “Well, okay, he’s leaving.” [Laughter.]

Rowan: And that was the same way in the trailer camp. You might get to know a person two trailers down; the next day they would be gone and somebody else would be in their trailer. It was a real strange time.

Interviewer 2: Kind of hard to make friends that way.

Rowan:  Very hard, very hard. Yes.

Interviewer 2: You would need the person at the desk with you.

Rowan: [Laughter.] True, true.

Clay: Within Happy Valley there were the trailers, obviously, and you said there was a movie theater. What else was there? Was it a full-functioning town?

Rowan: Well, you would think it was. There was a bowling alley. It went day and night. People would be walking by our little door day and night. It was just like daytime all the time. They had the bowling alley. Then, I just heard the other day, and I was not aware of it when I was there, but they had a place called “Coney Island. It was kind of like an arcade. But I’m sure we didn’t know about it because we weren’t allowed to go there.

Iacovino: No, we didn’t. But it was a twenty-four hour place. Everything was open twenty-four hours because the shift was going twenty-four hours. They kept everything open. But it had a post office and it did have a little store. They also had a store that came around, the driving store, the rolling store, where you could go and buy various and sundry things, because you didn’t have any transportation.

I think Colleen walked to work. Did she walk to work?

Rowan: I don’t know.

Interviewer 2: Colleen is—?

Iacovino: Is my sister, my older sister. I think she walked to work.

Rowan: She’s the one who was working there and who got married right after the war was over, there in Oak Ridge. That was one of the reasons we stayed on just a little while before we went home.

Interviewer 2: So what did you do in the middle of the night when you had to go to the bathroom?

Rowan: Well, what we have just told you—we went down the street!

Iacovino: Well we didn’t, not all the time. I would rather have gone down the street, I think. But we had this chamber pot. [Laughter.]

Interviewer 2: Did everybody have a chamber pot?

Iacovino: No. Well, I guess, maybe we had two. I don’t know.

Rowan: No, you mean each of us? No. There was one for the trailer. It was to be avoided, if at all possible. You had to go empty it the next day.

Iacovino: It was under the bed.

Rowan:  Yes.

Iacovino: It was under ours. I don’t know if Mother and Daddy had a separate one or not because they were on the other side, and we had one.

Rowan: We had one.

Iacovino: We had one. But we had chores to do and that was one. Take that pot down! [Laughter.]

Rowan: Now that I’m thinking about it, I never saw another person emptying the chamber pot. Do you guess they all just got up and went down to the—?

Iacovino: I don’t know. Well, they were going around all night, but who knows what they were doing.

Interviewer 2: Whose job was it to empty the chamber pot?

Iacovino: We took turns. [Laughter].

Rowan:  It was such a delightful chore.

Interviewer 2: That was the job to be avoided?

Iacovino: It was the job to be avoided. It was kind of heavy. We would do it two, by the handle. [Laughter.]

Interviewer 1: What is the best memory you have of living in Happy Valley?

Rowan: Well, I have two or three. We always liked it when our father came in to town and we would get to go into the big city, Jackson Square or central or whatever they called it. Then we would get to go to the big cafeteria there. We may have even gone to the movie, I don’t remember, but that was a field trip.

Iacovino: A field trip! [Laughter.] It was. That cafeteria is where, or so Colleen says, where Colonel Sanders [Kentucky Fried Chicken] got his start. Colonel Sanders was working there. Now, he wasn’t frying chicken all the time, but he was there.

Rowan: I don’t even think they called it Colonel Sanders at the time, but he was there.

Iacovino: He was there. Dave Thomas [Wendy’s] lived out with us, I think.

Rowan: Of Wendy’s, yes.

Iacovino: But anyway, we didn’t know them.

Rowan: We didn’t know him, but I understood he was supposed to go to that school, but he quit and went in to Knoxville and started to work. So I don’t know at what point he quit, but he was there, but we didn’t know him.

The happiest memories. You know, I’ll have to say probably the school was probably the nicest thing that I can remember because it was sort of an escape from the trailer camp. Because we were there for a while before we enrolled in school, and it was such a delight to really get into school.

Iacovino: I think mine was maybe playing out in the back, because I would go out there. I have three siblings younger than I am, and we would just be out there playing near the woods. That’s all there was, the woods. I mean, everything else was mud, and just right behind there then there were some trees and grass. I guess I liked that. Walking up to get my sister, Kathleen, from the “Nazi school,” I liked that because it was out.

Interviewer 2: Did you ever talk to the guard on the horseback?

Rowan: Ooh did you? You weren’t supposed to.

Iacovino: I don’t think I did. You know, I was shy, very shy.

Rowan: We had rules. Now, we didn’t always follow them, but we did have rules, I mean, security rules. But of course, we would never go down and try to get out from the fence or anything. We understood it was very serious. We absolutely understood that.

Iacovino: When I was seven, and looking out, I knew the war was going on somewhere. I didn’t know how close it was to me. I thought maybe somebody could get in a car and drive up there from the war. You would hear about it, and so I wasn’t sure where it was. I felt safe in there because I was. But it’s just a strange thing when you’re seven; you don’t understand.

Rowan: That’s right. They stressed that it was for you protection that you stayed there.

Interviewer 1: Yes, how did they talk about the secret? How did they get children to keep the secret?

Rowan: Well, actually, it was relayed to us through our parents and school. They mentioned it in school also. Our parents really stressed it.   

Iacovino: But we didn’t have an opportunity, really, to talk to anyone. We did go home. We still had our house at home and we went home for Christmas one time, it seems like, and were there. I know, in our upstairs window, we could see the lights—I could see the lights of Thayer Hospital, which is outside of Nashville. They said, “Oh, they’re bringing the wounded there.”

I thought, “Oh, well the war must be right there.”

Rowan: That’s right. That was before we ever came to Oak Ridge. Our sister, Colleen, who before we moved to Oak Ridge, before she went to work in Oak Ridge, they used to have these dances, the USO [United Service Organizations] dances. She would get all dressed up to go, and she went to that area. So that’s when Jo thought that’s where the war was.

Iacovino: That’s where the war was. So I thought it was all around us. I was going to be good. I wasn’t going to tell anything or do anything.

Interviewer 1: When the war ended, what did you think would happen to you?

Rowan: Well, we knew we would go home.

Interviewer 2: That was it?

Rowan: Yes, well, that’s what we were counting on all this time. I wanted to go home and get back in my own little school that I left. Now, of course, things were never the same, because after the war, everything changed. It didn’t affect us so much, but it did affect the whole country.

But we did go back to our home and to our house. We did re-enter the school we left. Things were pleasant. We got a new car because we hadn’t had a new car. Our brother came home from the war. Things were really positive.

After my mother went to work for the war plant, then she never stayed home again. She went to work, she opened three restaurants, and after that she opened an antique place, and she managed an office someplace in Nashville. She just never did go back home, really. We didn’t ever get our mother back. But it was great. We were getting older and it was a new world.

After the war, we didn’t really know what happened here. As you see, they tore the whole place down.

Interviewer 1: Now tell me what you thought when your mom went to work for the first time.

Rowan: Well, it was a traumatic experience for me. She had left Nashville before we did. She had gone to this place in South Harriman and gotten our house and gotten it all there. When our father came and brought us all up—here they were sending this big old ugly vehicle out to pick up my sister and my mother for work. My mother comes out in pants, and I had never seen her in pants.

I couldn’t take it. It was really something. She was just not my mother [laughter]. But that’s just the way it was. We got used to that. She got used to it.

I’m sure it was really hard for her. I think about it today, how hard it must have been for her to do all that with all of these children, to take care of them. But we didn’t know that at the time.

Interviewer 2: How many children were living in the trailer?

Rowan: Six children in that double trailer.

Interviewer 2: Jo, what did you think when your mom went to work?

Iacovino: I was sad. Maybe sad is not the word. I had a little trauma there, because she had always been there and then she wasn’t there. But as she said, things changed and they explained that they had to, that’s what you do next.

Colleen often said that we had different mothers, and we did, because she changed.

Interviewer 1: What did your house look like in Happy Valley?

Iacovino: Oh, that house of cards! [Laughter]. We used to make little card houses.

Rowan: It was like a house of cards. It was clever. The beds rolled up in the daytime. Then they had this little plywood cover that you put over it so it made space in the trailer, as much space as you can get.

Then the kitchen Jo was talking about. Everything was just so convenient for one person. You would do the stove over here and if you got in the refrigerator, you would have to make sure to close the door before you got back to the stove. It was really, really well organized for what it was.

Then that stove in the middle of the trailer—you would have to avoid it, but of course you didn’t need that in the summertime. Of course, we didn’t have any air conditioning. It was hot as blazes. It was really, really hot.

Interviewer 2: Did they run school during the summer time?

Rowan: I don’t think so. We were there for a little while before we got to enter school. I know my mother would have put us in the school. Thinking back on it, it would have made sense that they would have run it in the summertime, but I don’t really know. I was so glad when school started.

Clay: Were there any social divisions within Happy Valley?

Rowan: I was aware of social divisions, but I wasn’t aware of them there.

Iacovino: I think all of the social divisions happened because the engineers were in town and we were in Happy Valley. This was the construction camp.

Rowan: It was the construction site.

Iacovino: They had built the A, B, C, D, E houses. Those were already here. The engineers and scientists and those folks got those. Then they were all filled up. So they were still working, and they made these construction camps out there. But no, I don’t think so.

Rowan: I was not aware.

Iacovino: On a personal level, I don’t think so.

Rowan: You didn’t know them, so you didn’t really associate with them. That was one of the big things—going to the bathhouse, they all seemed to be not my kind of people. We were taught not to just jump in and be friendly with strangers. So basically, they were all strangers and there got to be new strangers every day, coming in and out. I never did make any judgments about social divisions.

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