Prohibition was the first major issue to face Tennesseans in the new century. An 1877 law that forbade the sale of alcohol within four miles of a rural school had been used to great effect by Prohibitionists to restrict the sale and traffic of alcohol in towns all over the countryside. As the century turned, pressure mounted to extend the law, and public opinion in support of temperance grew, although it was never without contest from the powerful distillery industry. Finally, in 1909, the legislature passed the Manufacturer’s Bill, which would halt the production of intoxicants in the state, and overrode Governor Patterson’s veto. When the United States followed suit with the 18th Amendment in 1920, Prohibition was old news in Tennessee.
True to its nickname, Tennessee sent a large number of troops to fight in World War I. Most became part of the Thirtieth “Old Hickory” Division, which entered the war on August 17, 1918. The most famous Tennessee veteran of World War I was Alvin C. York, a farm boy from the Cumberland Mountains who staged a one-man offensive against the German army after becoming separated from his own detachment. Reports say that York killed 20 German soldiers and persuaded 131 more to surrender.
The movement for women’s suffrage had been established in Tennessee prior to the turn of the 20th century, and it gained influence as the century progressed. The Southern Woman Suffrage Conference was held in Memphis  in 1906, and a statewide suffrage organization was established. State bills to give women the right to vote failed in 1913 and 1917, but support was gradually growing. In the summer of 1920, the 19th Amendment had been ratified by 35 states and one more ratification was needed to make it law. Tennessee was one of five states yet to vote on the measure, and on August 9, Governor Roberts called a special sitting of the legislature to consider the amendment.
Furious campaigning and public debate led up to the special sitting. The Senate easily ratified the amendment 25 to 4, but in the House of Representatives the vote was much closer: 49 to 47. Governor Roberts certified the result and notified the secretary of state: Tennessee had cast the deciding vote for women’s suffrage.
The 1920s were years of growth and development in Tennessee, thanks in part to the able leadership of Austin Peay, elected governor in 1922. He reformed the state government, cut waste, and set out to improve the state’s roads and schools. The improvements won Peay support from the state’s rural residents, who benefited from better transportation and education. Spending on schools doubled during Peay’s three terms as governor, and the school term increased from 127 to 155 days per year.
Peay also saw the importance of establishing parks: Reelfoot Lake State Park was established during his third term, finally ending fears of development in the area. Peay also supported establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park , and raised $1.5 million in a bond issue as the state’s part toward the purchase of the land. Peay was dead by the time the park was opened in 1940, but it is largely to his credit that it was created.
The progress and hope of the 1920s was soon forgotten with the Great Depression. Tennessee’s economic hard times started before the 1929 stock market crash. Farming in the state was hobbled by low prices and low returns during the 1920s. Farmers and laborers displaced by this trend sought work in new industries like the Dupont plant in Old Hickory, Eastman-Kodak in Kingsport, or the Aluminum Company of America in Blount County. But others, including many African Americans, left Tennessee for northern cities such as Chicago.
The Depression made bad things worse. Farmers tried to survive, turning to subsistence farming. In cities unemployed workers lined up for relief. Major bank failures in 1930 brought most financial business in the state to a halt.
President Roosevelt’s New Deal provided some relief for Tennesseans. The Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, and Civil Works Administration were established in Tennessee. Through the CCC, more than 7,000 Tennesseans planted millions of pine seedlings, developed parks, and built fire towers. Through the PWA more than 500 projects were undertaken, including bridges, housing, water systems, and roads. Hundreds of Tennesseans were employed by the CWA to clean public buildings, landscape roads, and do other work.
But no New Deal institution had more impact on Tennessee then the Tennessee Valley Authority. Architects of TVA saw it as a way to improve agriculture along the Tennessee River, alleviate poverty, and produce electrical power. The dam system would also improve navigation along what was then an often dangerous river. The law establishing TVA was introduced by Sen. George W. Norris of Nebraska and passed in 1933. Soon after, dams were under construction and trade on the river increased due to improved navigability. Even more importantly, electric power was now so cheap that even Tennesseans in remote parts of the state could afford it. By 1945, TVA was the largest electrical utility in the nation and new industries were attracted by cheap energy and improved transportation. Tourists also came to enjoy the so-called Great Lakes of the South.
The TVA story is not without its losers, however. TVA purchased or condemned more than one million acres of land and flooded 300,000 acres more, forcing 14,000 families to be displaced.
The 1930s in Tennessee was the age of Ed Crump, Memphis’s  longtime mayor and political boss. The son of a former Confederate, Crump was born in Mississippi in 1874 and moved to Memphis when he was 17 years old. First elected in 1909 as a city councilman, Crump was a genius of human nature and organization. Able to assure statewide candidates the support of influential Shelby County, Crump’s power extended beyond Memphis. His political power often required corruptions, patronage, and the loss of individual freedoms. To get ahead you had to pay homage to Boss Crump. He was particularly popular during the Depression, when constituents and others looked to Crump for much-needed relief.
Crump manipulated the votes in his home Shelby County by paying the $2 poll tax for cooperative voters. He allied with black leaders such as Robert Church Jr. to win support in the black community of Memphis .