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Atlanta attorney bringing Ducktown Smoke to Knoxville

The public is invited to Books Sandwiched In, monthly lunch and learn program on Wednesday, October 16 to the East Tennessee History Center.

KNOXVILLE -- It would take anyone by surprise. Suddenly there’s a desert in a region that receives almost 60 inches of rain a year. It was that desert, in the middle of the lush, diversified Southern Appalachian forest, that took Atlanta attorney Duncan Maysilles by surprise. And it is the story of that desert Maysilles tells in his book Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South's Greatest Environmental Disasters, the featured book in Knox County Public Library’s Book Sandwiched In, Wednesday, October 16, 12 p.m. in the East Tennessee History Center auditorium, at 601 South Gay Street. The program is co-sponsored by the East Tennessee Historical Society, which will open its museum to program attendees before and after Maysilles’ talk, and the City of Knoxville, as part of its Conservation Expo Centennial celebration, celebrating a century of conservation in East Tennessee.

“My interest in Ducktown began many years ago when, like many other Atlantans, I drove through the region on the way to the Ocoee Gorge,” Maysilles says. “The countryside looked tortured – nothing like the hardwood forest expected in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. While there, I took a tour of the excellent Ducktown Basin Museum to learn about the heritage of local copper mining.”

The Ducktown story is about environmental disaster, one of the worst the South has experienced, and its impact on environmental law and Appalachian conservation. Beginning in 1896, the widening destruction wrought in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina by Ducktown copper mining spawned hundreds of private lawsuits, culminating in Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co., the U.S. Supreme Court's first air pollution case. In its 1907 decision, the Court recognized for the first time the sovereign right of individual states to protect their natural resources from trans-border pollution.

“My thoughts returned to Ducktown several years later when I was working on my Ph.D. in history at the University of Georgia. I entered the program with a background in law, and gained new insights through Paul Sutter’s stimulating course in environmental history,” he says. “It all came together during a period of summer research at the Georgia Department of History and Archives. As I explored another topic, I kept coming across gubernatorial correspondence with the note “Ducktown” penciled across the headings, Those documents sparked memories of my earlier trip to the region and then grew into the realization that there was an important environmental story to tell, one that also involved an equally important legal story, leading as it did to the first Supreme Court air pollution case, Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co.”

In Ducktown Smoke, Maysilles reveals how the Supreme Court case brought together the disparate forces of agrarian populism, industrial logging, and the forest conservation movement to set a legal precedent that remains relevant in environmental law today.

While writing the book, Maysilles came to love Ducktown. “I spent every spare moment on trips to do research in the wonderful trove of original documents archived at the Ducktown Basin Museum,” he says. “When I explained my project, Ken (Rush, the director) told me that the museum had rescued a mass of century-old documents that others had considered rubbish destined to be tossed down a mine shaft. I was thrilled when he set me up at a table in one of the museum display rooms and then brought me box after box of the documents from the time of the smoke litigation. Many of the documents had moldered over the years under a leaky roof before being rescued by the museum. They were often covered in dirt and mold, and the fasteners were rusty, but I didn’t mind since their condition was proof that I was the first person to examine them in generations. It was a great thrill for a newly minted historian!”

The public is invited to join the conversation and bring their favorite sandwich or pick up something from a downtown restaurant. Copies of the books are available at the Library if you'd like to read one before the program.

Books Sandwiched In will continue on November 20, when Marshall Stair, City Councilman and practicing attorney, will discuss What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution by Gar Alperovitz. On December 4, Jerry Burgess, President and CEO of Community Health Alliance, will discuss The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T. R. Reid.

Published September 26, 2013

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