Decatur County TN

Written by the 8th Grade Class Decaturville 1939

Found at the Decatur Co Library

The purpose of the Eighth Grade pupils of the Decaturville School in writing this history of our county was to acquaint ourselves and others with the facts that have determined the advancement of Decatur County. Topics in which we were interested were discussed and written ont he board. Each pupil in the calss chose the topic listed in which he was most interested for individual investigation and study. An Editorial Committee, made up of the following pupils, was chosen; James Earl Mays, Chairman: Fred Scott and Frank Shipman. Joe Blount and Walbert Kennedy assisted this committee as copyists. We enjoyed this work very much and feel that we have been greatly benefited by this study. We obtained our information from old records, observation, interviews, and reading. Several trips of investigation were taken. Our teacher, Mr. Henry Evans, was a splendid guide. Miss Reba Broyles, elementary Supervisor of the county, also worked with us. The pupils of the Eighth Grade, the authors of htis study are as follows.

CURRY, Velma SMITH, Ernest
JONES, Oeda SMITH, John W.
KENNEDY, Walbert THOMPSON, Barbara
KINDLE, Riley TUCKER, Dwayne
LEISURE, Louise TOLLEY, Rushing
LINTON, Marjorie WHITE, Marie
MAYS, James Earl YARBRO, Marjorie

James Earl Mays: Chairman Editorial Committee

"Every teacher should participate in a study of the social characteristics, history, organizations and life of the various groups in the community where he teaches."
W.E. Kilpatrick


Encouraged by the interest and splendid work of the boys and girls of the Eighth Grade of the Decaturville School in their study on the history of Decatur County, I took their work when the study was completed, checked it for accuracy by the records available and through personal interviews with competent citizens, and edited it for mimeograhing; so the other upper grade boys and girls in the county might also receive benefit from this study, in that they increase their knowledge of their home county and that they too might contributed to this study, by taking those chapters as a beginning point and make further investigation and write up additional information regarding the history of Decatur County from the standpoint of their own immediate community.

Reba Broyes, Supervisor Decatur Co. Elementary Schools

Traces of the Chickasaws

The Chickasaw Indians claimed the western part of Tennessee, Decatur County which lies along the Tennessee River in the western section of the state, was a part oftheir hunting and fishing grounds. The Tennessee River is today the fisherman's paradise and iwthout a doubt it helped to feed the Chickasaws with the fine fish which made it their home. There are many traces of the Indians to be found in Decatur County today. On the hills and ridges along the river much chipped flint and many almost perfect Indian implements such as arrow heads, spear heds, pelters, etc., can be found.

There are several Indian mounds in the various sections of the county. Of particular interest is a ridge in the southeast part of the county, near Smith Bottom School, on which is located a group of mounds. This is known as Indian Mound Ridge. The ridge is near the river and runs parallel to it. There in a row stand three large mounds and off in the distance to the southwest, across a level stretch, is another. These mounds were used as tombs for the dead. All four mounds have been opened, and there lying on the top are numerous large flat, limestone rocks which perhaps served as a rock-lining for the graves. Large trees growing on the mounds give us some idea of how long the dead have been resting there. The mounds held solemnly the secrets of their charges and the trees growing on them seem to be guarding those traces of the "Vanishing American."

On the level stretch of land on top of the ridge there seems to have been no growth other than grass. This level space is believed to have been an Indian race track. In a small clump of trees just back of the Gumdale Schoolhouse are traces of Indian mounds. One of these was opened by a group of curious school boys in 1904. THey dug from the mound an Indian skeleton, Indian implements and ornaments. It being the custom, in those days, for the teacher to punish with a "hickory" these boys received a good "whipping" for intruding upon the reposes of the ancient dead.

Farther Still!

North Carolina and Virginia were settled before Tennessee. East Tennessee, which joins North Carolina and Virginia, was the first part of our state to be settled. Later settlers pushed their way into Middle and finally into West Tennessee. The pioneers who settled our county were an adventurous and hardy type. Many of them had pioneered before. When they began to feel the lack of "elbow room" back in North Carolina, Virginia, and East Tennessee, they hungered for the dense forests and freedom of the wildereness to the west.

When this urge began to set them thinking, the family must have spent many evening hours in their cabin home in the clearing wondering about the adventure in store farther on. Being quick to make up his mind, the pioneer's longing for the freedom of the west soon turned into definite plans and then into action - and he with his family soon found themselves floating down the Tennessee River or trudging along on the wilderness trail - going farther still.

Those who followed the wilderness trail found it dim and very rough. The story goes that the first trails were made through the deep, dark forests by a stray calf,

"The calf was a good calf as a good calf would
And the calf came home as a good calf should."

The calf in going home made a trail which went by many springs where the calf stoped to drink. The Indians, then the settlers, followed this trail.

The settlers of Decatur County began to arrive soon after West Tennessee was purchased from the Indians in 1818. Uncle Jimmy Harris, supposedly the first settler in the county, came down the Tennessee River and landed at the mouth of a little stream which he named Cub Creek. He probably chose this name for the stream because he came in contact with and had to kill many young bears.

Ephraim Arnold settled near Mr. Harris a few years later. A part of Mr. Arnold's pioneer home is still standing on the property now owned by Bowden Arnold north of Bible Hill. The Whites, Yarbros, Rushings, Smith, Dennisons, Pettigrews, McMillans, Houstons, Rains, and others followed. These families have been known in the county form its early beginnings.

Before 1845 Decatur County was a part of Perry County. Berryville, now in Decatur County wsa the county seat of Perry County. Some difficulties developed over Perry Countians having to cross the river when in flood state to reach the county seat. Thus it was agreed to form a new county. The new county was named Decatur in honor of Lt. Stephen Decatur whose victory in the Harber of Tripoli, February 16, 1804 helped to establish the right of our vessels to sail on the high seas without being attacked and to clear the Mediterranean of Pirates.

The oldest deed now found recorded in Decatur County is that of Jesse Taylor to Edwin T. Cole, April 8, 1846. The oldest grant on record is, State of Tennessee to John A. Rains, July 31, 1846.

From Trees to Houses

When the early settlers arrived in Decatur County all their problems were not solved. In fact, it was just a beginning of puzzling things to be worked out. They hardly had time to rest from their journey before they had to start building houses. These pioneer houses were built of trees from the forest. Had you ever thought just how close kin a house is to a tree? The trees were cut and hewed down until the logs haf four flat sides. Then the logs were notched at the ends and placed one upon the other, in "pen" fashion, until the square was the desired height. Then the rectangle was ready for the roof and chimney. The fireplace and chimney was made of stones, sticks and clay. There were great cracks between the logs in the walls. These cracks were daubed with clay to make the house warm. The earliest pioneer homes had just one large room with a fireplace and an earth floor.

Later the "open hall" farmhouse developed. It grew out of the family's need for more room. So another house the size of the first one was built. The second house was in line with the first, but ten or twelve feet away from it. The two houses were joined together by a roof and a floor. A door opened from each house on to the "open hall" or "dog trot" as it is sometimes called. The "open hall" farmhouse is still characteristic in Decatur County. However, many of hte houses of htis type now have more than two rooms. It is not unusual to find a "leanto" built to the rear of one of the houses. There is always a breeze through the "open hall" in the summer, but in the winter it is the coldest passage imaginable.

The forest not only furnished material for dwellings, but also for schools and churches. When a settlement grew large enough a school house and church was built. These were also built of hewed logs and daubed with clay. Standing in the county at present are two such l andmarks, Mt. Tabor Schoolhouse and Old Liberty Campground Church. It is to the forest that our people have looked for shelter, for even to this day the forest is the chief source of building materials in Decatur County. Only a few buildings have been constructed of the native, pinkish limestone. They are beautiful; so beautiful that many will likely be built from it in the future.

For Pep

What makes us feel fine and have lots of pep? THis is not a riddle for we all know that the answer is plenty of good food. After the house was built, the pioneer had to keep up his work in the forest. This time it was to clear the trees away to plant a garden and a crop. We always planted plenty of corn in the clearing and plenty of beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkins and mustard in the garden. Nature also helped to feed the pioner and his family as it had before them helped to feed the Chickasaws. Many nuts, wild grapes, and huckleberries were to be had for the gathering. These still grow wild in the count, but ar not plentiful now.

The settlers brought hogs and cows with them. As there are still many hogs raised in the county, hog killing and lard rendering are ig events in the fall when the weather gets cold. Surely the pioneer boys and girls had much pep and "smacked" their lips over the fresh pork and "cracklin" bread which their mothers used to make. In those clearing days the fine trees in the forest were looked upon merely as obstacles. They had to be cleared in order to have land for planting. After they were cut down, all that were not used for building or for fuel were piled in large heaps and burned. The only thought was to get them out of the way. No one thought of the years and years it took for such trees to grow or that trees had any effect on flood control and on "keeping" our land. So the clearing went on and on. Today we have few such fine trees as they cut and burned. Our land has eroded and today it does not yield as much food as it used to yield. We have a different problem from the pioneer- but based on his too much thoughtless clearing. Our problem is to control erosion and to reforest our barren hills; so that our children, grandchildren and so on, can have plenty of food and plenty of pep.

Corn is the only grain now extensively grown in our county. Years ago much oats and wheat were grown, but this practice ceased something like 25 years ago, principally because the soil was worn until it lacked enough lime fo successful growing. In the days of wheat and corn there were several grist mills on the various streams. Among the well known ones were the Dixie, Buckner's Parson, Ward's and others.

For Warmth

When the wind goes wo-o-o-oh and we get so cold that chills run all up and down our spine, our teeth chatter and our skin all breaks out with "goose" pimples, we run to change to a warmer dress or suit or to get our sweater or coat. We think little about the process that our clothes go through before they reach us. We think only of getting them at a store or shop when we want something new to wear. It was not that simple a few generations ago and it is a long story from the type of clothes our great, great grandfathers and mothers wore when they were boys and girls, to our present type of clothes. When they were growing up they saw, knew and helped with every step that their clothes went through before they were ready for them to wear.

At that time the farmer with the help of his family, grew the sheep and cotton from which their clothes were made. If wool was used, it first had to be sheared from the sheep's body and cleaned. Then it was combed with a wire-toothed brush in order to untangle the fibers. This process was called carding. During these hand-spinning and hand-weaving days there wa a carding factory at Parsons. After the wool or cotton was carded it was next spun into yarn or thread. This was done on the new antique spinning wheel. When the fibers were spun it was then "hanked" up. This was done on a winding device called a reel.

After the yarn was reeled it was ready to be woven into cloth. This weaving was done on a frame called a loom. After the cloth was woven the garment had to be cut and sewed together by hand. It took a long time to get a dress or suit made, and since it did take so long and this hand woven material lasted so long, of course they couldn't have a great variety of clothes. Socks, sweaters, and mittens were knitted from wool with long, steel needles. Boys and girls then must have been very, very happy to get a new dress, suit, sweater, socks or mittens. Today very few sheep are raised in the county. Cotton is the main money crop of the county. Three gins, located at Decaturville, Parsons and Scotts Hill, gin and bale the cotton as the farmers haul it in after picking in the fall.

What Gifts and Wonders of Nature?

Decatur County is a long, narrow county. It has an area of 288 square miles. The assessed valuation of the county, in 1938 is as follows:

Real and personal property --- $1,755.518.00
Public Utilities ------------- $   112,811.43
Total --------------------- $1,868,329.43

The county is bounded on the east by the Tennessee River, on the south by Hardin County, on the west by Henderson and Carroll Counties and on the north by Benton Conty. The population of the county is 10,106; 8,079 of this number make their living by farming.

The land is mostly sandy, clay hills with some river and creek bottoms. The surface is broken by long, deep hollows without any order or system. The soil along the Tennessee River is dark and fertile, but the soil on the ridges is much lighter and sandy and erodes easily. The land slopes toward the Tennessee River into which the entire drainage of the county empties. Beech River flows across the county and empties into the River near the center of the county. Many small streams empty into Beech River. These streams were named by the early settlers. Many small streams empty directly into the Tennessee River. Yearly overflows of the Tennessee makes the land on its banks very productive, but the farmers suffer from the overflows. Perhaps the largest area of valuable land is on the Beech River. Many fine mill sites along Beech River were used by the early settlers.

The early settlers found an abundance of fine timber suas as oak varieties, beech, cedar, etc. Conservation and reforestation are being stressed with the farmers and in our schools. Since the early days in our county, much timber has been cut for crossties. The ties have always been shipped by river.

There is considerable mineral wealth in the county. Deep ledges of light gray to pinkish limestone, suitable for building materials; phosphate, chart, manganese, lignite, chalk, and iron ore are found. Iron is the most valuable mineral deposit. Very little of this has been mined. Several years ago there were some iron furnaces in the county. The Brownsport Furnace was the outstanding one. It was built in 1848, ten miles northwest of Clifton. In 1854 its output of pig metal and castings was 2,109 tons. It was in blast for 11.5 months that year. It was discontinued about 1883. The Decatur Furnace, six miles west of Clifton was built in 1854. Steam power was used in both the Brownsport and Decatur Furnaces. There was also a furnace at Bob's Landing, six miles northwest of Clifton.

There being plenty of iron ore and plenty of limestone, these furnaces were operated successfully for a time. But most of the timber in the "cealing" section was cut for charcoal with which to smelt the iron. The great drawback in developing the iron ore is the lack of coal in this section. When it wsa found practical and economical to smelt iron ore with coke, the furnaces here found they had too much competition, from other southern sections where iron ore, limestone, and coal are found in the same locality, to operate profitably. According to a test made at the request of Superintendent K.K. Houston, by the State Geologist, Walter F. Pond in 1938, the iron ore in Decatur County is 50% pure iron.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority project is complete, coke can be floated down the Tennessee River from the East Tennessee coal fields to this section. In this there is a possibility that the iron ore in Decatur County will someday be profitably developed. Deposits of phosphate rock occur in several localities, but none of them are now being exploited. The type of phosphate found here is the white rock phosphate. It is formed by percolating waters. It is generally associated with the top of the Decatur Limestone, though in the White's Creek section, in southern Decatur COunty it is found in the older Beech River limestone. According to C.W> Hayes, it is likely a replacement of or a filling of caverns in the limestone.

The white rock phosphates have been prospected along Beech River and White Creek. The Beech River Phosphate Company was the owner of phosphate lands and leases of phosphate lands in Decatur County. This company operated mines in the county and established a plant near Parsons in 1902. Where there is limestone formation and running water, caves are usually found. This is the case in Decatur County. Some well-known caves are Baughas, Lady's Bluff on the Tennessee River; Little Spring near Mt. Carmel; Cody near Bath Springs and Baby Cave near Large.

The River Road and Other Roads

Before the days of good roads in Decatur County, the Tennessee River and rought wagon roads were the routes of transportation.The sound of the steamboat whistle on the Tennessee River has caused many boys and girls, in past years, to rush out of doors or to stop their work in the field and with hand-shaded eyes, look up and down the river for the boat. Perhaps they were expecting some relative or friend on the boat or maybe their father had ordered some goods which they were looking for the boat to dump at the landing.

The river landings, in the days of extensive river transportation, were the business centers. There was always a thriving store at the landing. There was also a warehouse in which the freight coming in on the boats was stored until called for. The river captain, as well as the storekeeper, was usually a jolly sort of fellow who always had plenty of news to talk about or a good story to tell. The captain carried the news from the neighboring landings.

Some landings were built up more than others. Perryville for instance, had several stores, warehouses, a hotel and was athriving river port. Inland towns and villages hauled their freight by wagon from the river ports. Lexington and even Jackson hauled much of their freight, by wagons, from Perryville. Many of the old landings are still called by their original names today, but are not centers except for the cross-tie industry, fishing, and recreational beating. Some of these landings are Bob's Fishers Brownssport, Perryville, Brodie's and Bonhannan's.

Passengers as well as freight, were carreid by river. The steamboat companies on the Tennessee used to put on excursions just as the railroads do today. Almost every May 30th and July 4th there was an excursion to Shiloh National Park up the Tennessee.

Before 1889, Henry Myracle owned a large, flat piece of land, the present site of Parsons. In order to get a town started on his land, Mr. Myracle deeded 143 acres of land to the Tennessee Midland Railroad Company April 11, 1889. The land was divided into lots, Mr. Myracle keeping every other row of lots. By doing this he ont only made money for himself, but also promoted the growth of the new town of Parsons.

In 1889 the Railroad Company constructed a line from Lexington in Henderson County to Perryville on the Tennessee River. After the railroad was built the inland freight was carried by rail to places convenient to the railroad.

It is interesting to note that the first automobile in Decatur County was bought by Mr. Lesley Rains of Parsons, 1909. The next one owned in the county was in 1911 by Mr. Clyde Smith of Decaturville. There are now 517 automobiles and 142 farm and commercial trucks in the county.

As progress was achieved in methods of transportation there was a demand for better roads. Today the county has a good system of county supported graveled roads and three State Highways; Numbers 20, 69 and 100. Number 20 crosses the county from east to west; number 69 crosses from north to south and number 100 is the route from Decaturville to Scotts Hill. Due to the competition of automobiles, trucks and buses, the railroad, from Lexington to Perryville was taken up in 1936; leaving Decatur County with no railroad.

The Alvin C. York Bridge, across the Tennessee River at Perryville, was built so travelers, business men and the general public might have an easier, more convenient, and safer way of crossing the River. This bridge was built in 1930 being opened on July 4th 1930. This bridge cost $665,000.00. It is operated as a toll bridge to defray the cost of construction. It was named in honor of Alvin C. York, Tennessee's famous World War hero.

1. Robert H. White, "First People to Live in the Country that Became Tennessee" Tennessee Its Growth and Progress (1936)
2. Gentry R. McGee, "Indians" History of Tennessee (1930)
3. Observation Tour: Henry Evans, James Earl Mays, John Wesley Smith, Frank Shiman and Reba Broyles (Nov. 12, 1937)
4. Observation Tour: Joe Blount, Fred Scott, James Earl Mays, Frank Berry & Reba Broyles (April 3, 1938)
5. D.D. Simms personal interview with above group April 3, 1938
6. Ibid April 3, 1938
7. Gentry R. McGee, "Administrations of Joseph McMinn - History of Tennessee (1930)
8. Mrs. Nola Ivy, personal interview with Reba Broyles September 19, 1938
9. K.K. Houston, personal interview with James Earl Mays Dec. 9, 1937
10.World Book Encyclopedia, Stephen Decatur (1937)
11.Decatur County Records Register Book I
12.Grant No. 3002 pg. 144
13.Observation & general knowledge of the 8th grade - verified by Henry Evans
14.Felix Houston, personal interview ith Oeda Jones March 18, 1938 verified by Henry Evans.
15.K.K. Houston, personal interview with James Earl Mays March 21, 1938 verified by Mrs. Emma Long
16.H.C. Amick & L.H. Rollins, "The Geography of Tennessee"
17.Guy Butler, COunty Court Clerk, Tax Duplicate 1938-1939 Pg 114
18.L.J. Thompson, Trustee, Tax Book 1937-1938 Pg 220
19.U.S. Dept. of Commerce, 15th Census of the US Census 1930, Composition and Characteristics of Population.
20.Carl A. Dunbar, Stratigraphy & Correlation of the Devonlan of W. TN, Nashville.
21.Walter F. Pond, The Brown Iron Ores of the Western Highland Rim.
22.Decatur County Records, Deed Book XVI Pg 73
23.Will Smith, personal interview with Reba Broyles Feb. 25, 1938
24.Otto Milan, personal interview with James Earl Mays Feb. 21, 1938
25.Decatur Co. Records Deed Book XI Pg 85-86
26.Luther Jones, personal interview with Oeda Jones Feb. 6, 1938 verified by Henry Evans
27.Guy Butler, personal interview with Reba Broyles Sep. 27, 1938
28.Tom Dees, personal interview with James Earl Mays Feb. 23, 1938 verified by Henry Evans