yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee


Judge W. H. Denison

[Paper written by Judge W.H. Denison, March 1941, for his son Wyatt Denison, Jr.]

The first settlement in Henderson county was made by Joseph Reed near [what is now known as] Bird's Bridge on Beech River. The house, though remodeled, still stands and is occupied by the Reed family. This settlement was perhaps about the year 1818, just after the treaty with the Chickasaw Indians, who occupied this territory prior to that treaty.

The county was organized in 1822, and Lexington was soon thereafter selected as the county site. The site selected was on the farm of Samuel Wilson, who owned more than seven hundred acres in his tract.

The first jail was built on the square of logs at the same time at a cost of $83.00 and this served the county until 1827 when a new brick jail was erected, it being the house where John Sullivan now lives, the Sweat home. This was used as a jail until 1881 when the present jail was erected, and the Sullivan house and all that lot sold for $480.00

The first court house was erected about 1823 of logs and at the cost of $142.00 at about the present location. A new brick courthouse was erected in 1827, which was remodeled two or three times and finally destroyed accidentally by the Federal soldiers during the war who were then occupying it. A new courthouse was then erected and again destroyed in 1895, after which the present house was erected.

The first school was the Lexington Academy and was established in 1832. This was a private institution, and students attended from all this section of the state. In the course of its existence, it became the owner of considerable property scattered over the country. The county later had a public school system of a kind, and its terms originated with the general school bill of 1873. S.A. Mynders, later State Superintendent, was for a time head of the Lexington Academy, and many of the educators of this section owe their training to him. At a later date and while the Lexington Academy was still operating, the Baptists established the Baptist College here. Both schools were strong schools here for a number of years, both giving college training. While the county has been far short of what would be desired, it has been well in the front ranks in an educational way. While I was county superintendent, I had the first law passed requiring the establishment of a county high school applicable only to this county. It has since been extended to the entire state. There are now one first class high school and several lower grade high schools; and many consolidated schools, with ample bus transportation for the pupils.

The Methodists and Baptists constitute the dominant churches of the county, and have since its organization, though there are a great many members of the Church of Christ, and still fewer of the holiness, Primitive Baptists, Presbyterian and a very few Catholics.

The county is drained by Beech River, the largest stream in the county, and its tributaries in the east; Big Sandy in the northeast, Forked Deer in the northwest and southwest and White Oak and Middleton's Creek in the south. All of these streams and practically all of their tributaries have been drained by canals and all of the bottom land of the county has access to drainage canals, though much of it is unimproved. There are about fourteen drainage districts in the county, which have been of varied degrees of success.

There is one high class hard surfaced road, No. 20, and nearly all of No. 22 to the north is or soon will be high classed road. No. 22 to the south and 104 across the county are graveled and state maintained, and usually in good condition. No. 100, leading from Henderson, Tenn., to Decaturville is a good state highway with gravel surface, and is now in course of improvement. Nearly all sections of the county can be reached by gravel road; and every community not otherwise provided for, can be reached by a good graded dirt road regularly cared for.

This county, as above indicated was formerly occupied by the Chickasaw Indians. The county was a vast wilderness, covered with forest with but little undergrowth. Grass and wild peas were abundant, and game plentiful. Only a few years ago, I was on a tract of land then owned by me in the northeast part of the county and came upon a lot of these wild peas. The vines covered trees as much as thirty feet high. The stump indicated that they were perenial, and part were black and part speckled like our common black and speckled peas. Without question a part of Jackson's Army on its return from New Orleans came along the watershed in this county as we have a road that runs by my old home place known as the "Notchy Trace Road." This watershed was an Indian trail and a buffalo trail. Many Indian relics may be found in this county.

As indicated above, this county was a very fertile county to begin with, but the forest gave way to the woodman's ax, and the fertility of the soil was soon depleted by improper farming practices. For the past years, though much improvement has been made. Farmers are raising more stock and using more of their ground for hay and pastures, and less for clean cultivated crops, besides taking better care of the hill lands.

I would say that John A. McCall is the outstanding community leader as far as banking interests and operations are concerned. Since 1923, he has organized a small bank with $25000.00 to an institution having four or five times its capital in surplus, and with more than a half million in assets. I would say that Fleetwood Ball is the outstanding person from a religious standpoint for he has married more people, preached more funerals , cared for more churches at a time, been pastor of four churches in the country, while at the same time preaching full time a the First Church here, besides editing a section of a church paper, been at the head of a district association, secretary of a state organization and local correspondent for several dailies of the state, all at one time. From a purely educational standpoint, I would say J.O. Brown has been the outstanding school man of the county for the past years; and as a newspaperman, W.V. Barry has been the leader. I have not always agreed with Mr. Barry, but he has always taken his stand and an active interest in every movement in the county, and on the side which he thought right, and fought for it. (Just between you and me, I am of the opinion that your mother and Mrs. Willa Stewart have done their part, and the part of several others when you combine educational and religious activities.) When you consider the record, it is my opinion that Dr. George A. Brandon has been outstanding in his line. He served through one world emergency, the World War, and is now serving through another, on a draft board which requires a great deal of time and subjects him to blame for doing his duty in such a place, without flinching, and without pay.

There are very few in this county of German or Latin ancestry. They are practically all English, Irish and Scotch origin. There is a little French. Your mother, as I understand it, has a little French, and I am of the three dominant nationalities mentioned above. Your mother has considerable Scotch too.

Henderson County has increased materially in population for the past years; I do not recall the per cent increase during the last decade, but for Lexington alone, nearly 39%. There has been a steady increase for a number of years.

Besides farming, we now have some saw milling, logging, mining (sand), railroading, garment manufacturing, and merchandising.

Two battles of the Civil War were fought in this county, the Battle of Parker's Crossroads, and the battle of Lexington, both of considerable interest locally. In the latter, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll was captured. The county was nearly evenly divided between the north and south, it and Weakley County being among the few counties in West Tennessee failing to vote out of the Union. This county seat [furnished] many soldiers to both armies.

In tracing my ancestry, I am informed by my father that Robert Denison was a soldier with the Army of the Potomac during the Revolution; that he was the father of Stephen and Robert; that Stephen married Elizabeth Ingram in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, in 1813 and while there left his Virginia home and joined his brother Robert then in East Tennessee and went with Andy Jackson to New Orleans. [When] the war was over, he returned to his wife in Virginia, and they came by way of East Tennessee and settled in Decatur, then Perry County, Tennessee, and there raised a large family. The oldest boy Robert married Nancy Walker, who had come to this county with her father Philip Walker about 1820. Robert and his new wife settled in Henderson County, and became the parents of 16 children. One of these boys, Watt., married Martha J. Fuller, second daughter of James H. Fuller, and Eleanor McCall, daughter of Andrew McCall and Betsy Todd, who were married in South Carolina; and Andrew McCall being the son of Capt. John McCall who are "taters" [sic] from Hickory bark with Marian in South Carolina and his wife, Mollie Proctor. Watt Denison and Martha Jane Fuller had twelve children, a son, Watt, Jr., who married Katherine B. Gaston of Bedford County, Tennessee, a daughter of Rev. Benjamin Gaston and Elizabeth Evans of that county. Her grandfather Evans was a large slave holder and was one of the wealthiest men in Bedford County. Your mother's people on her father's side came from Alabama. Of course you recall that one of her ancestors had a Commission to survey South Carolina.

To Watt. Denison, Jr., and Katherine Gaston were born two children, a daughter, Katherine, and a son, Watt, so named to keep the names in the family. I could trace the Fullers and Walkers too but not quite so far back. To say the least, the Denisons, the Fullers, the McCalls and the Walkers have been active factors of the county since its beginning….

Relative to the Commission mentioned above, Ben sent it to Ben., Jr., as it has been handed from father to son through several generations. However, I have a copy of it, but don't know whether or not you would want it. We have always felt that it was quite an honor.

[Notes from Brenda Kirk Fiddler: W. H. Denison served the Court of Civil Appeals, and as Chancellor and Circuit Judge. He was County Superintendent of schools for ten years (1907-1917). Son Watt was in college at the time (UT Martin). He graduated as valedictorian from Lexington High School in 1939. Daughter Katherine is still living (1998).]

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