Emminent Domain as Land Cannabalism: Riehlife Op-Ed by Erwin A. Thompson

Sitting around talking one day…as we do…Pop recalled seeing two movies that reflected his views and experience with the govermental policy of Emminent Domain. He could recall the gist of each, but not the specifics. After some extensive Google research I found them: “Wild River,” and “Fire on the Mountain.” You’lll see the reviews of each below my father’s post. Because he rarely watches films this is a further amazinging set of observations as he links these into our experience with our own land on the bluffs above the Mississippi.

Read it and weep.

Janet Riehl

by Erwin A. Thompson

You have just read what the reviewers had to say about these two movies.
I have said and I believe that every United States citizen should see these shows. They were good ones, but that is not my main reason.
If you were to ask the next hundred people that you meet if they believed in cannibalism, I think that you surely would have quorum of those who would be horrified to be asked such a question.
And yet. Our government has followed the principle of cannibalism many times, with the expressed philosophy of: “The greatest good for the greatest number.”
But from the viewpoint of the person who is forced to surrender their heritage for a certain amount of money it is a painful and agonizing experience.
No doubt the projects that were involved, the dam for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the testing grounds for the atomic bomb were needed. The movies listed above tell the other side of the story; the terrible agony of seeing one’s inherited land and life style be swallowed up in a major project in which the old timers have no interest.

In the Wild River story, the scene that still clings to my mind is after the dam is closed and the waters rise. A Negro is plowing the field that he has plowed for most of his life. He knows that his efforts are domed to failure, but he has to follow his instincts and his heritage.

Fire on the Mountain is a great story, but I do not recall most of the scenes. It has been years ago. The one scene that is still outstanding in my memory is when the mountain man comes to get the young Mexican woman out of jail. He made a speech that would compare favorably with Patric Henry’s “Gove me liberty or give me death!”

The reason that I can identify so well with the victims is because I have “walked the path.”
In 1936 the Federal Government condemned fifty six acres of our bottom land in much the same situation as in the Tennessee Valley story. We owned a mile of river frontage and half a mile of frontage to Piasa creek. They were building a dam at Alton, six miles down the river. When the locks were completed they would raise the river to a permanent stage that would make farming our ground impossible. They offered us $35.00 an acre for the tillable land, and $15.00 an acre for the timber. Ridiculous! One good corn crop would have paid for the tillable land, and the timber had furnished our winter’s wood supply since my grandfather bought it in 1864. Today, we do not have a foot of shore line water access. A hundred years ago we had our own steamboat landing, “Riehl’s Landing.” We can’t tie up a row boat! Now we have to use the public launching ramp. The reason that the government gave for needing a fee simple title was “National defense!” They now have a public boat launching ramp where our corn field was. National defense? If we lied on the witness stand we would be in jail! When the representative of our government came to pressure my aunts into signing the agreement he was so obnoxious that she asked him to leave the house.

Cannibalism. We abhor the thought. And yet. Our government follows that principle. There are times when it was necessary. But what irony! Our country was founded on the principle of individual rights. As they bask in the cool of the electric air conditioner (the electricity made with coal delivered in barges from the river) who really thinks; or cares if they would, that we lost the most tillable land of our farm in order to maintain the water level deep enough to float the barges!

The saddest part of the transaction was the patronizing, condescending attitude of the representatives of our government. The arbitrary setting of a price that was not in keeping with the value of the property. The insistence of getting a fee simple title when all they needed to legally close the locks was a flowage easement. We engaged an attorney, but he only got enough more money to pay his fee. Fire on the Mountain by Edward Abbey

Grandfather John Vogelin’s land is his life — a barren stretch of New Mexican wilderness, mercifully bypassed by civilization. Then the government moves in. And suddenly the elderly, mule-stubborn rancher is confronting the combined land-grabbing greed of the County Sheriff, the Department of the Interior, the Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Air Force. But a tough old man is like a mountain lion: if you back hom into a conner, he’ll come out fighting.

Director: Donald Wrye
Cast: Michael Conrad, Ron Howard, Buddy Ebsen, Julie Carmen

A 1962 novel by Edward Abbey was the source for this 1981 TV movie. Buddy Ebsen plays a stubborn oldster who refuses to leave his mountain property when it is targeted for a government missile base. Not even a promised $100,000 compensation will induce Ebsen to leave. Young land developer Ron Howard is sent to vacate Ebsen, but soon Howard joins the older man in defying the military. Soon it boils down to a battle of wills between Ebsen and the equally bullheaded army officer Michael Conrad. Fire on the Mountain may have your typical “all-TV” cast, but it’s a good one. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide.


Wild River (20th Century-Fox). The story of the Tennessee Valley Authority is an epic in search of a poet. Elia Kazan produced and directed this picture…a man who can experience the elemental tensions of the tale—public against private interest, mule-team against machine society.
two novels: Scriptwriter Paul Osborn has lifted some characters and incidents from William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars, but much of his plot is taken from Borden Deal’s Dunbar’s Cove.

As finally assembled, the picture tells the story of a young TVA agent (Montgomery Clift) who is ordered to turn an 80-year-old woman (Jo Van Fleet) off her land so that a big new dam can be closed, the area flooded, and a waterpower project set in motion. She refuses to budge. “I don’t sell my land,” she croaks fiercely, “my land that I poured my heart’s blood into.”

The agent tries to explain that a few individuals must suffer so that the whole region may gain: flood control, better crops, new industries, more jobs. “You don’t love the land,” he protests. “You love your land.” She sends him packing with a proud but pathetic declaration of the frontier’s faith: “I like things runnin’ wild. I’m agin dams of any kind. And I ain’t crawlin’ to any guvmint.” Evicted, she dies of a broken heart, and a new generation buries the old.

This is the mainstream of the story, and the script should have followed it through the film. Instead, it wanders aimlessly into backwaters of violence, sex, segregation and even antiSemitism. The sex develops into a love affair that, as these things go in Hollywood productions, is unusually fierce and sweet and natural. But the rough stuff is merely conventional, and the race question, in the last analysis, is begged. Kazan’s direction, however, is firm—most of the leading players give creditable performances, and Lee Remick, as the back-country belle the hero falls for, is singularly touching.

Most impressive of all is the wise and gentle moderation of the film’s philosophy. Kazan comes down firmly on the side of eminent domain and the commonweal, but also takes time to recognize, with a kind of puzzled honesty, that what is good for the greatest number is often bad for the soul.

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