The Oak Ridge Prophet: The Man Who Predicted Y-12, WWII 40 Years Before

interstate signs for y-12

John Hendrix of East Tennessee is said to have predicted the formation of what would later become Y-12 and Oak Ridge's important role in WWII (photo by Mary Connelly)

It was a top-secret project. No one was supposed to know. But the Oak Ridge Prophet? He predicted it 40 years in advance.

There is quite a history of land near the Smoky Mountains being taken over by the federal government for a variety of reasons. In addition to the National Park, for which price and access were negotiated, there is the TVA system of lakes. The former town of Bean Station, for instance, sits under Cherokee Lake, part of the Tennessee Valley Authority system. 

But with the pressure of World War II and the necessity for what would become the Manhattan Project, time was of the essence and negotiation was non-existent. Residents on what would become Oak Ridge National Laboratory property were given three weeks to move. America needed the land for its atomic weapons program.  

One of those residents was Parmalee Raby. She was the stepdaughter of John Hendrix – the man known as the Prophet of Oak Ridge. The man who saw the Manhattan Project coming. 

Known as the Secret City, Oak Ridge National Laboratories were developed in 1942 and established in 1943 after the Manhattan Project was moved from New York City. The goal was simple: enrich the uranium to use in the world’s first atomic bomb. It was a top-secret project that essentially became its own city in East Tennessee. No one was supposed to know. But John Hendrix? He predicted it 40 years in advance.

Friendship Bell Oak Ridge TN
The International Friendship Bell in Oak Ridge is a symbol of peace and friendship between the US and Japan today (photo by Mary Connelly)

Who was John Hendrix? 

Born in 1865 in Anderson County, John Hendrix was a farmer of little note. He married Julia Griffith in 1888 and the two had four children, including the youngest – Ethel. The family lived on a hill overlooking the present-day site of the Bull Run Fossil Plant in Claxton. But tragedy struck when Ethel died of diphtheria at the age of two. Julia blamed John for the child’s death – multiple sources say he’d spanked the child before she fell ill. Julia left John, took the remaining three children, and moved to Arkansas where she remarried. 

Distraught at his daughter’s death and losing his family, Hendrix was gripped by a religious fervor. He took to the woods where he slept on the ground and prayed. Some sources indicate he did this for 40 days and 40 nights. However, that detail feels a little like artistic license. He survived, some say, with the help of a local woman who fed him chicken soup and provided a quilt to keep him warm. 

When Hendrix returned from his self-imposed exile, he had wild stories about visions he’d received. He was thought to be mentally ill. And so he was placed for safe keeping at the “county farm,” a mental institution from which he would escape. According to Oak Ridge Historian Ray Smith, Hendrix told authorities that God would destroy that place. Weeks later it burned to the ground following a lightning strike.

Eventually, John calmed down – or the townspeople got acclimated to his ways because he kept going into the woods to have visions. He married Martha Whitehead, a divorced mother of seven whose husband was one of the Cades Clove clan of Gregory. And he settled into more of a routine.   

Hendrix reportedly predicted there would be a Black Oak Ridge and many other intriguing hints of what was to come (photo by Mary Connelly)

His predictions

Some versions of the story say John would regale his stepchildren with his visions. Others, that he told his visions to a large group outside the general store. Regardless, the Prophet of Oak Ridge was open with his visions. 

The gist of the most significant vision was that Bear Creek Valley would be filled with great buildings and factories that would help in winning the “greatest war that will ever be.” He said big engines would build big ditches and thousands of people would be “running to and fro. ”Additionally, he was specific in saying there would be a city on “Black Oak Ridge – naming the farms the central authority would sit upon. He saw the rail spur. Also, he predicted that they would build things and there would be great noise and confusion and the Earth would shake.

“I’ve seen it,” he said. “It’s coming.”

American Museum of Science and History Oak Ridge TN
Hendrix passed away long before WWII but his grandchildren survived to pass his story along (photo by Mary Connelly)

What happened?

Hendrix died in 1915 of tuberculosis and was buried on a hill overlooking his farm. The farm was passed down to his stepdaughter and her husband. They lived there until the federal government gave them three weeks to move to make way for the city that Hendrix had predicted 40 years before.

It’s impossible to know the specifics of Hendrix’s visions. At first, they were thought of as the ravings of a madman or at least a colorful character. There weren’t a lot of reasons to document them until the Y-12 project created a city much like Hendrix had described. So, it’s right to wonder how much people’s memories were shaped by the reality that came to be 40 years later. 

Still, there was documentation of the visions as early as 1950 and Hendrix’s stepchildren recognized them sooner than that. ORNL became much the place Hendrix allegedly described and did serve a major part in ending the war.

While it’s impossible to know exactly what John Hendrix saw, many believe he was privy to a vision of the future. Looking out over the ridges and valleys of his homeland, he saw a vast mechanical city that would change the world. And while that wasn’t his only vision, it is the one for which – over 100 years later – he is chiefly remembered.  

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