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As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Congress creates the Tennessee Valley Authority in May 1933. The mandate of the TVA is to stop the deadly flooding of the Tennessee River and bring progress to the poverty-stricken area through the construction of a series of dams. Chuck Glover, an idealistic TVA employee, arrives in a small Tennessee town to head the TVA's land purchasing office, where he will supervise relocation and land clearing operations. Chuck's first task is to convince the elderly Ella Garth, matriarch of a large family that has lived on an island in the river for generations, to sell her land to the government. Ignoring the "TVA Keep Off" signs, Chuck crosses the river to Garth Island, but Ella refuses to speak to him. Hoping Ella's three grown sons can help, Chuck approaches them, but when he clumsily suggests that Ella might be senile, Joe John Garth tosses him into the river. That evening, Joe John comes to town to apologize to Chuck and relay the message that Ella will receive him the following day. When Chuck returns to the island, he finds Ella, surrounded by her black field hands and their families, railing against Roosevelt's New Deal. To illustrate her situation, Ella pretends to attempt to force Sam Johnson, an elderly field hand, to sell her his beloved hunting dog. After making her point, Ella, who is not interested in the modern conveniences the dam will bring, declares that she cannot be forced to sell her land because to do so would be "against nature." Noticing that Ella's workers are idle and completely dependent upon her generosity for their survival, Chuck takes Sam aside and asks him to bring the men to the TVA office to discuss employment possibilities. Chuck also appeals to Ella's granddaughter, Carol Baldwin, a young and lonely widow with two small children, who moved to the island after the death of her husband. Although she is sure that Ella will die if forced to leave her land, Carol realizes that progress is inevitable and promises to help Chuck, to whom she is attracted. Carol reveals to Chuck that she is not in love with Walter Clark, the older man whom she is expected to marry, and after spending a night together in the house Carol once shared with her husband, Chuck and Carol become romantically involved. When Chuck hires local black laborers, including Ella's field hands, to work on the TVA's land-clearing operation, he arouses the anger of some of the locals. Sy Moore, a prominent businessman, urges Chuck to create segregated work crews and pay the black workers less than the whites, but Chuck flatly refuses to maintain such inequities, leading Moore to warn of retaliation by less reasonable townspeople. Ella's workers and their families pack up and leave the island, and soon even Ella's sons realize that it is time to go. Ella remains on the island alone, except for the loyal Sam, who refuses to leave her. Carol begs her grandmother to leave, but Ella, who knows that Carol is in love with Chuck, angrily rejects her pleas. Clark is alerted to Chuck's relationship with Carol by Hank Bailey, a cotton farmer who wants to take revenge on Chuck because one of his black workers left to take advantage of the higher wages offered by the TVA. Bailey enlists Clark's aid in getting Chuck away from Carol and back to his hotel room, where Bailey is waiting, but at the last minute, Clark warns Chuck. After Chuck refuses to be bullied by Bailey, who wants to be compensated for the work lost after he nearly beat his field hand to death for working for the TVA, Bailey knocks Chuck to the ground and picks his pockets. The following day, Chuck is phoned by his superiors in Washington, who tell him that time is running out and he must contact the U.S. Marshal to begin eviction proceedings against Ella. Hamilton and Cal Garth approach Chuck to propose that they sell the land themselves after having their mother declared incompetent. However, Chuck, who now understands and greatly admires Ella's pride and dignity, is disgusted with their plan and declares that he would rather have Ella removed with a gun to her head. Chuck reluctantly asks the marshal to remove Ella the next day, then goes to the island to make one last attempt to convince her to leave on her own. Even though she knows that the island will soon be under water, Ella steadfastly refuses to leave, and as Chuck heads back to the ferry, he notices that the faithful Sam continues to plow the fields. Chuck, saddened by Ella's plight and depressed by his part in it, returns to Carol's house, where Carol begs him to take her with him when he leaves, but Chuck is afraid of the emotions Carol arouses in him and is unable to give her an answer. As Carol bursts into sobs over Chuck's ambivalence, Clark arrives to warn them that the town thugs, led by Bailey, are gathering outside. As the sheriff watches from the sidelines, the crowd vandalizes Carol's home and Chuck's car. Proclaiming that he will not be run out of town, Chuck confronts Bailey, but is quickly knocked out. Carol then attacks Bailey with her fists and when Bailey knocks her down, the sheriff finally intercedes. After complimenting Carol on her fighting skills, Chuck proposes and they get married that night. The following day, Chuck and Carol accompany the marshal to Ella's island. As Ella's former workers look on, the marshal reads the eviction notice, after which the silent Ella walks to the ferry accompanied by the sounds of ax blows and falling trees. At her modern new home, Ella sits on the front porch, staring at the river and refusing to speak. A short time later, as workers finish clearing the island and prepare to burn down her farmhouse, Ella passes away. Once his work is done, Chuck and his new family fly out of the valley, first past Garth Island, now a tiny speck in a man-made lake, and then over the powerful new dam.