McMinn County History

(Goodspeed's History of Thirty East Tennessee Counties, 1887)

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Topography and Geology

McMinn County lies in lower East Tennessee between the counties of Monroe and Meigs. It embraces an area of 480 square miles and it is doubtful if any county in the State possesses resources of greater variety. Along the base of the Chilhowee Mountains, are found inexhaustible veins of brown hematite ore, yielding forty-eight per cent metallic iron, and beds of marble of the finest quality. Gold, silver, and lead are found in paying quantities. The surface of the county consists of a series of low parallel ridges separated by swift flowing streams, which furnish excellent waterpower. The principal creeks are Conasauga, Chestua, Cane, Estanelle, Mouse, Spring, and Rogers, all of which traverse the county from northeast to southwest and empty into the Hiwassee River.

Indian Chiefs

The territory now included in McMinn County formed part of the Hiwassee District, which the Cherokee Indians ceded to the United States by a treaty, consummated at Washington, DC on February 27, 1819, between John C. Calhoun, secretary of war, and the following chiefs: Hicks, John Ross, Lewis Ross, John Martin, James Brown, George Lowry, Gideon Morgan Jr., Cobbin Smith, Sleeping Rabbit, Small Wood, John Walker, and Carrohee Dick. By the terms of the treaty a reservation of 640 acres in fee was offered to all who chose to become citizens of the United State, and to a few, who were deemed capable of managing their own affairs intelligently, a grant of 640 acres in fee simple was made. Very few accepted the former privilege and the latter grants soon passed into the hands of speculators.

County Formation

The act for the organization of McMinn County was passed by the Legislature at Murfreesboro on November 13, 1819, and on the 6th of the following March the county was organized at the house of Major John Walker at Calhoun. The following were the justices present: George Colville, John Walker, Benjamin Griffith, Samuel Dickey, Hambright Black, Archibald Black, and Jacob Sharp. Young Colville was elected clerk, Spencer Beavers, sheriff; Arch R. Turk, trustee; Benjamin Hambright, register; Griffith Dickeson, ranger; and Jacob Work, coroner. A temporary log courthouse was erected art Calhoun, and was occupied until December 1823, when the courts were transferred to Athens. A building standing about where Robeson and Co.'s store is was then used as a courthouse for a time. Later a brick building 40x46 feet, two stories high, was erected on the public square. This was completed and received by the county court in June 1828. Previous to that time a substantial log jail had been completed. It was used until 1851, when the present brick building was erected. In 1873 preparations were made for the erection of a new courthouse, and a building committee consisting of M. L. Phillips, M. A. Helm, C. L. King, J.A. Turley, and J.S. Russell was appointed. They engaged A. C. Bruce of Knoxville, as architect, and the contract was let to W. C. Cleage. The building which cost about $30,000, was completed in 1875 and is one of the finest structures of the kind in the State.

Circuit Court

Judge Keith organized the circuit court at Calhoun in the spring of 1820 but as the early court records have been destroyed, nothing is known of its early transactions. Judge Keith was a native of Jefferson County, but removed to McMinn County upon his election to the bench. He was a quiet, unassuming man, of sound judgement, and had a good knowledge of the law; his decisions were rarely reversed by the Supreme Court. He continued on the bench until 1844, when John O. Cannon, who died before the expiration of his term, succeeded him. The latter's successor was J.C. Gaunt, who remained in the position until the reorganization of the court at the close of the war. George W. Bridges was then commissioned by the Governor and presided about a year. He began the practice of law at Athens, about 1848, and was soon after elected attorney general. In 1861 he was elected to Congress, but was arrested by the Confederate authorities before reaching Washington. He died in March 1873. The succeeding judges were W.L. Adams, 1866-70; John B. Hoyl, 1870-78; and D.C. Trewhitt, 1878-87.

Chancery Court

The act for the organization of the chancery court at Athens was passed January 20, 1844, and permission was given the folks of Polk and Meigs Counties to file bills in this court.


The early bar of Athens was one of exceptional ability, numbering among its members, Return J. Meigs, Spencer Jarnagain, and Thomas J. Campbell. Campbell located in Athens soon after the town was established and remained until about 1845 when he was elected clerk of the National House of Representatives. He was a man of superior attainments and one of the best lawyers in East Tennessee. T. Nixon Van Dyke, for more than half a century one of the prominent members of the profession in Tennessee located in Athens about 1829. He had been licensed to practice in Pennsylvania, and had for a time resided in Alabama, where he was a clerk of the House of Representatives for two terms. He served for about ten years a chancellor, and although somewhat inclined to be arbitrary and dictatorial in his manner, his rulings were generally satisfactory. He now resides at Rome, Georgia. Among other prominent members of the Athens bar from 1830 to 1860 were James F. Bradford, A. D. Keyes, W. F. Keith, J. W. M. Brezeale, M. P. Jarnagain, J. B. Cooke, and D. W. Ballew. Bradford was brother in law and partner of Spencer Jarnagain, and a lawyer of moderate ability. Keyes began practice in Athens about 1830. He was an excellent office lawyer, but never attained very high rank as an advocate. For about five years he was president of the Hiwassee Railroad Company. Keith was a fine speaker and a good advocate, but died before reaching maturity. Ballew was a native of McMinn County and served one term in the State Senate. Cooke was also a native of the county, and was engaged in practice in Athens from about 1845 until the war. He is now one of the leading members of the Chattanooga bar. M. P. Jarnagain is a nephew of Spencer Jarnagain. He remained at Athens until the close of the war, and is now a resident of Mossy Creek. Among other attorneys who practiced in Athens for a time before the war were: A. Caldwell, William H. Briant, William Lowry, W. P. H. McDermott, William G. Blackwell, J.S. Matthews, and Frank S. Hale. The present members of the bar named in order of seniority are: Col. A. Blizard, W.L. Harbison, T.M. Burkett, W.S. Gaston, W.D. Henderson, C.B. Davis, Virgil Turner, and J.W.A. Sanford.


Calhoun, the first town was laid out by Major John Walker and named in honor of John C. Calhoun. Walker was part Cherokee and had been allowed a large reservation on the north bank of the Hiwassee, and upon this reservation he established the town. Among the first settlers of the town were James and A. R. Turk, E. P. Owen, John Cowan, George Colville, Young Colville, Benjamin Hambright, and Eli Sharp. A Presbyterian Church was erected in 1823 and in the yard adjoining this church lies the body of Governor Joseph McMinn, who at the time of his death was in charge of the Cherokee agency on the opposite side of the river. Previous to the removal of the Indians the town attained considerable importance as a trading point and in the late 1880 was a thriving village. At that time business men were: Graves and McKamy, I.H. Bond, J.B. Porter, J.F. Green, A. A. Farrington, and W.T. Hays. A Masonic Institute furnished the town with good educational facilities.


In 1823 the seat of justice was permanently located upon land donated for the purpose by William Lowry. Cedar Springs two miles to the south was first considered, but Martin Cassidy, who owned the land, refused to donate the site for a town. The commissioners appointed to lay off the town were Isaac Rice, A. C. Robeson, Samuel McConnell, John Walker, Thomas Armstrong, George Colville, William H. Cooke, John B. Flanagin, and Elijah Hurst. At the next session of the legislature and act was passed establishing the town, and appointing Benjamin C. Stout, John K. Farmer, James W. McCartney, James McKamy, A. Matthews, I. W. Fyffe, and R. J. Meigs commissioners for its government.


James and Isaac Fyffe and Matthew and William Smith opened the first stores in the town. Among others who soon followed were O.G. Murrell, John Crawford, Alexander and David Cleage, Solomon Bogard, McKelden and Brobson, Lane and Jackson, W.W. Anderson, Francis Boyd, and George Morgan. Joel K. Brown had a tailor shop; Peter Kinder was hatter; Dempsey Casey, a saddler; George Sehorn, a silversmith; James Gettys and Squire Jackson, tanners; and Julius Blackwell, a coppersmith. The first doctors were Benjamin C. Stout, John K. Farmer, Samuel H. Jordan, and Horace Hickox. In 1835 a branch of the Planter's Bank was opened in Athens, and in 1838 a branch of the State Bank was established there. V.M Campbell was first cashier of the latter institution. His successors were Thomas J. Campbell, Col. A. Blizard, W.C. Witt, and Thomas A. Cleage. Both banks continued until the beginning of the war and did a large business. During the 1850's Athens was at the height of its prosperity. Among the businessmen of that period were: A. McKelden, John McGaughey, S.K. Reeder, George W. Ross, McEwin and Gillespie, George Horne, William Burns, King and Crutchfield, Grubb and Engledow, Moss and Jackson, William H. Ballew, J. M. Henderson, Robeson, Sartain and Co., Sehorn and Hornsby, W.C. Witt and Co., and A. Cleage and Co.


The first newspaper published in Athens was the Valley Freeman established in 1834 by John B. Hood. It continued for about ten years and was succeeded by the Tennessee Journal which was published by J.W.M. Brazeale, the author of "Life as it is". The Hiwassee Patriot, a Whig sheet, was the next newspaper established. Its publication was begun about 1837 by A.W. Elder; it continued only a short time. The Athens Courier, a bitter Democratic paper, was founded at nearly the same time by Frazier and Gibbs. Rev. Robert Frazier was editor until about 1841. From then until its suspension in 1853, it changed owners several times, the last proprietor being J.R. McNelly. In 1848 S.P. Ivins founded the Athens Post which continued with the exception of the period form September 1863 to December 1867. From the first it has ranked as one of the best country papers in the State, and before the war it reached a circulation of 1400. It exerted considerable influence in securing the construction of Eat Tennessee and Georgia and until 1861 was an advocate of the Whig party. It then gave its support to the Southern Confederacy, and since its re-establishment has been Democratic in politics. The other papers are the Athenian, established in 1882 by Frank K. Houghton and edited and published by W.F. McCarron and the McMinn Citizen established in 1886 and published by J.N. Hood. The former is Republican and the latter Democratic in politics.


The first church in Athens was a log house built by the Baptists on the lot now occupied by the cemetery. It was erected soon after the town was laid out. At about the same time the Methodists built a home on the site of the present Methodist Episcopal Church. The Presbyterians established a camp ground just south of town, and later erected a brick house near the old Forest Hill Academy, in which they occasionally held services. Among the earliest ministers were David Buckner, of the Baptist Church; David Ware, Fielding Pope, Robert McCoppin and William and Elijah Eagleton, Presbyterians; and Robert and John Tate, Samuel Aston, and C.C. Porter, Cumberland Presbyterian. About 1837 the Presbyterians erected the church known as Mars Hill, which is still occupied by them, but has been repaired and remodeled two or three times. About 1841 the Cumberland Presbyterians began the erection of a church which was never entirely completed. At nearly the same time, the Methodist Church South erected the house, which was recently torn down and rebuilt. The Methodist Episcopal Church, which was organized at the close of the war, worshipped in the college chapel until 1884, when the present brick house was completed. In 1867 the Episcopalians erected a church which is now unoccupied.


The first school in the town was taught in a house standing on a lot adjoining the Presbyterian Cemetery. The first teacher was probably John G. Lockins, a Presbyterian preacher. In 1826 the following trustees were appointed for a county academy, known as Forest Hill Academy, which was soon after established about one mile northeast of town: Charles F. Keith, I. Holt, A. P. Fore, Tidence Lane, Nathaniel Smith, Horace Hickox, R. J. Meigs, Jesse Mayfield, Thomas J. Campbell, John H. Porter, James McKamy, John Miller, Isaac W. Fyffe, and Elijah Hurst. About 1832 Rev. Charles P. Samuels became the principal of the school, and continued in that position for many years. He was a most excellent teacher, and several men who have since attained prominence received their early education under him. About 1853 the old building was abandoned and a new one erected in the town. The first teacher in the new building was A. C. Carnes. This school was continued as the county academy until the war, and since that time both private and public schools have occupied the house. Some time in the twenties a female academy was erected at the same site and a school conducted there until 1852, when the house burned. Soon after that a large three story brick building was erected by McMinn Lodge No. 54, I.O.O.F., for a female college, but having become involved in debt, the institution was transferred to the Methodist Episcopal Church South, under whose auspices it was conducted until the close of the war. In 1867 the Methodist Episcopal Church obtained possession of the property, and the institution was chartered as the East Tennessee Wesleyan College. By a subsequent act it was given university privileges and in 1885 the name was changed to the Grant Memorial University. It was one of the most popular schools in the State, and now has an attendance of about 300. The first president was P.C. Wilson, but since 1875 it has been under the management of Rev. John F. Spence.


In 1887 Athens had a population of about 1500, and is one of the most prosperous towns in East Tennessee. Its manufacturing interests consist of a woolen mill, operating sixty four looms, owned by an incorporated company, of which W. N. Nixon is president; a furniture factory, owned by George Bros., employing eight or ten hands; a foundry, operated by J. H. Smith and Son, employing about eight men; and a flouring mill, with a capacity of about twenty five barrels per day. The mercantile business is represented by the following individuals and firms: Robeson and Co., McKelden and Nixon, J. H. Hornsby and F. Brigham dry goods and groceries; G. F. Carter and Co., M. H. Patterson, E. Daniels, drugs; J. L. Crow, A. Wickersham, C. F. Gibson, Will Brooks and A. L. Moore and Co., groceries; T. F. Gibson, hardware; J. C. Schorn, jewelry; and the Misses Fisher, millinery. In 1872 J. W. Lillard, president, and M. A. Helm, cashier organized the Franklin Association Bank. It subsequently became the Bank of Athens, which in May 1885, was succeeded by the First National Bank with capital stock of $50,000; of this institution J.M. Henderson is president and R. J. Fisher, cashier. It is one of the designated State depositories, and no bank in Tennessee has a better standing in business circles.

Transcribed by: Harold "Mitch" Mitchell

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