yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee


Henderson County Historical Society

When the thirteen colonies were fighting the Revolutionary War and Tennessee not yet a state, the land that is now Henderson County was the hunting grounds of the Chickasaw Indians. In the late 1800's, flatboatmen returning to their homes in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky travelled from Natchez, Mississippi through Henderson County on the western branch of. the Natchez Trace.

Permanent settlers began arriving in Henderson County soon after the treaty with the Chickasaw Indians in 1818. The first settler in the county was Joseph Reed, who settled on the Beech River in 1818. Parts of his original cabin are still standing today. Attracted by good springs and fertile land other settlers soon came by boat and by wagon train from the eastern states. The greatest number came from North Carolina.

Henderson County was named for James Henderson, a colonel of the Tennessee militia and a member of Andrew Jackson's staff during the War of 1812. The county was created in 1821 and formally organized a year later. The county seat of Lexington was built on lands donated by Samuel Wilson. The town was surveyed by John T. Harmon who showed remarkable vision in providing 80' wide streets. Lexington is the only county seat laid crossways to the compass points.

The population grew rapidly during the 1st decade. Towns like Juno, Pleasant Exchange. Red Mound, Scott's Hill, Mifflin, Jack's Creek, and others sprang up. ‘The population grew steadily until there were just over 14,000 people by the time of the Civil War.

Farming was the main occupation in the early days. The best land sold for $5.00 an acre. Cotton was the main crop but some corn was also grown. Most farms were small, about 180 acres.

With the settlers came water powered industry such as grist mills. One such mill was the Duncan Robert's mill located below what is now the spillway of Brown's Creek Lake at Natchez Trace State Park. Cotton gins of the treadmill type were also common.

Religion was an important part of the lives of the early settlers of Henderson County. Early ministers walked or rode horseback from one settlement to another. The first minister known to have preached in Henderson County was John Barrett of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1824. Other denominations represented in the early days were the Methodist Episcopal Church and Missionary and Primitive Baptist. Camp meetings were often held in brush arbors near large springs. One such place was Palestine 5 miles from Lexington.

The first schools in the county were known as subscription schools. The parents paid the teachers and built the log schools. The first school in the county was in Pleasant Exchange. Another early school was the Lexington Academy which was housed for a long time in the Lawler House.

Slaves had been brought into the county with the 1st settler but slavery was not widespread. Only 67 owned slaves and 3 was the average number owned. This unimportance of slavery helps to explain why Henderson County was one of the few West Tennessee counties to go with the Union during the Civil War. One distinguished Henderson Countian to serve in the Union army was Major Milton W. Hardy, at one time the youngest Union officer. Major Hardy died at age 26 as he attempted to capture Tennessee's rebel governor Isham B. Harris.

Like the United States and Tennessee, Henderson County was divided during the Civil War. A Confederate veteran was Wilery M. Crook, who enlisted at age 17 and fought in the Battle of Shiloh.

Two Civil War Battles were fought in Henderson County. The first was the Battle of Lexington December 17, 1862 when the Union Colonel Robert Ingersoll surrendered to the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Two weeks later General Forrest neatly escaped from superior Union forces at the Battle of Parker's Crossroads.

After the Civil War times were hard in Henderson County. Gradually the economy picked up with cotton and corn still the main crops. Henderson County ranked as one of the leading livestock counties in West Tennessee in 1870. New industries arrived. Distilleries took advantage of the good water. One such distillery was the Lexington Distillery. Saloons sprang up in Lexington.

The town of Lexington grew and added stores. The courthouse which had been burned during the Civil War was rebuilt in 1867. The courthouse mysteriously burned in 1896, again destroying many valuable records.

Although public schools were provided by an act of the legislature in 1872, subscription schools were still a way of education. Even after public education began the one room schoolhouse was a way of life.

The present county boundaries were finally established in 1882 after a considerable portion of the county was given to form Chester County. Henderson County also lost a small strip to Madison County and another to Decatur County.

One of the dramatic events of the late 19th century was the coming of the North Carolina and St. Louis Railroad to Henderson County. Old Wildersville moved to its present location in 1891 and became a boom town almost rivaling Lexington in population. Depots were built in Lexington and Luray. The Peavine Branch brought students to Lexington High School from Perryville, Darden, Chesterfield, and Beacon.

The automobile further revolutionized life in the 20th century. Jerry Pendergrass remembers the first automobile in Wildersville about 1905. Some of the stores shut down so everyone could Look at the black Model T Ford heading for Jackson.

In the early 20th century Henderson County was still largely agricultural with the addition of sawmills and the railroad crosstie industry.

World War 1 came and went with the loss of 24 men from the county. Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. Many businesses in the county shut down. Unemployment was high. The fertility of the farmland had declined, the soil was washing awayr, but the farmers had no money for improvements.

Then came President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. A Civilian Conservation Corps Camp was established in Lexington in August of 1935. The CCC's main job was planting pine trees at Natchez Trace and throughout the county. The Works Progress Administration, the W.P.A. was formed in 1935 employing over 700 people. Laborers received $19.20 per month and worked on roads, bridges, levees, and outdoor toilets.

The Resettlement Administration bought submarginal land, relocated farmers, worked on erosion control, and built most of the buildings and 3 lakes at Natchez Trace State Park.

World War II helped bring the country out of the depression but it meant a loss of 69 Henderson County men.

Industry has meant a big change for Henderson County in the past 40 years. The first industry to come was Slant and Slant in 1936. The railroads declined in the 50's but industry boomed with the coming of Harding Machine Screw Co., Panoply Corporation, Brown Shoe Company, Lexington Metal Products, and Scott's Hill Sportswear. Other industry such as Gould, Commodore Apparel, Columbus McKinnon, and Delavan Delta came in the 60's and 70's.

Although there is some industry, Henderson County is still basically an agricultural county. Soybeans, however, have replaced cotton as the main crop.

Today recreational opportunities abound. Natchez Trace State Park offers a variety of facilities and programs. TVA's Beech River Watershed created in 1961 provides 7 lakes for flood control and recreation. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has two managed lakes at Natchez Trace State Park.

Henderson County's past has been colorful and exciting. The future looks even brighter.

This program was developed by the Henderson County Historical Society. [1976]

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