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3 generations of Christenberrys among those at Wheat reunion

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More than 65 people gathered earlier this month at George Jones Memorial Baptist Church to attend the 80th annual Wheat homecoming celebration.

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This year’s celebration was a special one for the Christenberry family. Three generations made a special trip from all parts of the country to celebrate their family’s heritage in the former Roane County community, which is now part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Reservation.

Mary Kathleen Christenberry Pratt lives in Houston, Texas. She, her two daughters and two granddaughters, one of whom lives in New York City, made the special trip, and they said they thoroughly enjoyed the homecoming and the opportunity to become reacquainted with their relatives.

Pratt initially contacted the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association about information on Wheat homecoming.

Pratt’s father, Rufus Lee Christenberry, was born in 1891 in Wheat. He was raised in the community and had many relatives in the area. He graduated in 1912 from Wheat High School, where he and three friends constituted an early Wheat High School Orchestra. They played for school entertainment and at many social functions.

The young men sometimes entertained their neighbors in the evenings by playing their music into a telephone on a 15-party telephone line. To listen to the music, their neighbors would leave their phones off the hook.

Christenberry went on to graduate from Roane College in Wheat and taught school in the area. After college, he began working for National Life and Casualty Insurance of Nashville. They sent him to Oklahoma, where he met his wife. The couple’s daughter, Pratt, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in San Diego until moving to Texas at age 12. She fondly remembers attending the 1932 and 1937 Wheat homecomings with her parents.

Over the years, Christenberry family members owned several parcels of land in Wheat. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved the families out in 1942, records showed that Dr. H.E. Christenberry owned a Wheat parcel of 140 acres.

Interest in family history was spurred in 1917 by Pratt’s aunt, Florence Christenberry Foster, daughter of Joshua King and Annie Margaret McKamey Christenberry. When Foster asked her grandmother and Pratt’s great-grandmother, Nancy Devaney Parker McKamey, about the family history, the older woman replied, “Let’s begin 110 years ago, when the family was still in Virginia.”

The family moved to Tennessee in 1807. The interest in their heritage lives on in Pratt, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The Christenberry family history — along with that of many Wheat residents — took a turn in 1942, when residents of the community were startled to receive notice that they had to vacate their community “for the good of the war effort.”

They were told no more because of the secret nature of the Oak Ridge wartime work. They later learned that their property was the site where the massive Oak Ridge Manhattan Project nuclear plants were built.

The trauma of suddenly losing their land, homes, much of their personal property, their businesses, schools  and churches was great.

Wheat was originally settled in 1796, the year that Tennessee was admitted to the union as America’s 16th state. In the early days, the community was called Bald Hill. The settlement took the name of Wheat, for its first postmaster, Frank Wheat, in 1880.

Wheat homecoming celebrations have been held each year since 1932, including the years of World War II. The annual homecoming is open to former residents, their families and all interested in hearing about Wheat and its history.

Once a year, DOE opens the historic George Jones Memorial Baptist Church in Oak Ridge next to the former K-25 Site for the homecoming.

The event is open to the public.

The church and portions of the former Wheat community are slated to be included in a future Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

For more information on the Wheat homecoming, contact Bonita Irwin, longtime secretary of the Wheat Alumni Association, at 882-1856.