This is what I did that made me happy when I lived in the place where I was happiest.
During the short time that I worked in Oak Ridge, I didn’t learn a lot more about its history until my employer co-sponsored an event at what may be Oak Ridge’s biggest claim to fame, the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE). I took advantage of this free opportunity to look at all the exhibits, the biggest and best of which introduced me to the history of Oak Ridge and The Manhattan Project. The most interesting and salient points of “The Oak Ridge Story” were laid out as a timeline supplemented by copies or reproductions of artifacts that filled in the details of how it all had come to be and a lot of what it looked like back in the day.
From there, I took a long and wide road to discovering my interest in historic preservation in a pretty short time. I probably started by looking at news and stuff in the long running and now nearly defunct local newspaper for leads and then most likely followed up with stops in the city, county and college libraries nearby which probably got me to places like local stores and restaurants and even to city hall. After all of this I reached the conclusion that, at least from my perspective, most of the best parts of Oak Ridge were still kind of secret, and decided to do what I could to rectify that situation.
I became a Board member of the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau (ORCVB) and developed a particular interest in restoring as much as possible the existing stock of the city’s historic buildings. I joined the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association after I found out that my neighbor was one of the founders and president of this nonprofit whose purpose is
ORHPA’s meeting place (and repository of other pertinent info it has collected since its founding) is located in the Midtown Community Center which was itself a Historic Preservation Award winner. The building, located now in what I think of as the heart of Oak Ridge, was completed near the end of the war and gained its most popular moniker in 1951 when it became the “Wildcat Den”, a hangout spot for students at nearby Oak Ridge High School. I never even entered this building until I became a member of ORCVB which was located at one end of the building at the time. I had already driven by it countless times by then and never even noticed any of the signage around it, directional or otherwise.
Even before it officially became the Oak Ridge History Museum, the glass cases in the Wildcat Den, in the big meeting room that housed the dances then and where meetings happen today, held a lot of memorabilia from the times that I barely remember as a child in the 1950s and 60s. That was all there was until ORHPA and other longtime citizens gathered their own personal collections in the museum to shine a light on the “human side” of the Manhattan Project, focusing on history and people’s day-to-day lives during World War II (and really the decade or two after as well).
All of my personal introduction to Oak Ridge’s fascinating real-life history is now combined in The Oak Ridge History Museum since it received or purchased and now displays 100 items from the American Museum of Science and Energy. Circling back to what got me into this pursuit I can still see the timeline of Oak Ridge’s history, displays about the founding of Oak Ridge and the largest collection of original Ed Westcott (official Manhattan Project photographer and one of the first hires in Oak Ridge) photography available.
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