Historical Narrative    Post-Civil War Development    Progress of the 20th Century

The following essay on Lewis County History was funded with a grant from Humanities Tennessee for the "Between Fences" exhibit.  Its focus gives particular emphasis to the mixture of races and cultures throughout the history of the county.


Native Americans

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first humans to make use of the abundant natural resources of present-day Lewis County were pre-Columbian Native Americans. Perhaps as far back as 10,000 BC, Native Americans hunted game and gathered food using seasonal/short-term campsites along the Big Swan Creek in the eastern portion of the county.  At one site along the Swan Creek, an archaeological investigation in 2000 unearthed a number of artifacts from a phase of the Woodland Period of Native American habitation (estimated 1000-500 BC). By this time, Native Americans began occupying the area for longer durations. Animals and plants consumed included turkey, fish, deer, beaver, turtle, walnuts, hazelnuts, grapes, and raspberries. Archaeologists uncovered remains of rectangular living quarters, clusters of storage pits, and rows of fire hearths dating from this period. Fiber-tempered stamped pottery shards found near Swan Creek dating from 950-80 BC are some of the oldest examples of pre-Columbian pottery discovered in Tennessee.

By the time Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto investigated the lands of present-day Tennessee in 1540-41, Native Americans known as the Chickasaw claimed hunting rights to West and portions of Middle Tennessee, including present-day Lewis County. Until the late 1700s, the Chickasaw avoided alliances with the competing early colonial powers of Great Britain, France, and Spain, thus contact with Europeans was minimal compared with that experienced by eastern tribes. But as Anglos moved farther west and established outposts such as Fort Nashborough (present-day Nashville) that intruded on their hunting lands, the Chickasaw began to fear American expansion and most sided with Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. The United States victory marked the beginning of the end of the Chickasaws’ land claims in Tennessee. Military pressure enforced by General Andrew Jackson gave the Chickasaw little choice but to relinquish the land that encompasses present-day Lewis County by 1816, and the loss of their claims to West Tennessee soon followed. By 1838, most full-blooded Chickasaw had crossed the Mississippi River and settled in Oklahoma.
American Settlement

To encourage western expansion, the newly created United States government compensated Revolutionary War soldiers with titles to land in the western territories for service rendered during the war. One such land grant was possibly issued to Revolutionary War soldier Ambrose Blackburn who settled near Swan Creek and established one of the earliest farms in the county. His log farmhouse, constructed between 1806 and 1810, still survives. Because of the shallow, flinty soil and hilly terrain in the area, much of present-day Lewis County was commonly known as “The Barrens.” The closest seat of government was the city of Columbia, which is located in Maury County.

Natchez Trace

The Natchez Trace ran through the area and was the primary transportation route from the port of Natchez on the Mississippi River to Nashville. Many people of mixed Native and Anglo descent owned and operated stands for food and lodging along the Trace. The Chickasaw entered into treaties allowing the federal government to construct a wagon road on the trace; however, they retained the right to operate inns for travelers. John McClish, a half Chickasaw, owned one such stand near Big Buffalo Creek. This mixture of lodgers and locals produced an area where people of all classes and ethnicities intermingled, and the Trace received its share of colorful characters. Thieves and murderers preyed on unsuspecting travelers on the road and while a very real danger, stories of notorious outlaws such as Joseph Thompson Hare (who claimed to be a mystic and to killing hundreds of innocent travelers) became a part of the early American imagination. According to tradition, a contingent of General Andrew Jackson’s army following its victory at the Battle of New Orleans bivouacked in the area. And perhaps most significantly from a national perspective, in 1809 the famous explorer Meriwether Lewis died from gunshot wounds while lodging at Grinder’s Stand along the Trace (speculation still persists as to whether his death was a homicide or suicide). The Trace declined as an important route by the late 1820s when steamboats made river transportation more efficient.

Early Industry

While the land was not well suited for agricultural production, it was rich in mineral deposits.  An important industry in early Middle Tennessee, iron production brought investors to present-day Lewis County and encouraged growth.  However, the work was hard and dirty and many times iron works used African American slaves for labor rather than employ whites.  Workers mined the ore by stripping iron ore outcrops close to the surface either by hand or with scrapers pulled by horses or mules.  Sometimes blasting was also used as a method for extracting the mineral.  By 1860, Tennessee ranked third nationally in iron ore production for which Lewis County was a significant contributor.

One of the earliest iron ore mining operations in the old Southwest Territory began in what is now Lewis County where the Natchez Trace crossed the Buffalo River.  It was operated by a man named Hed.  The iron works were sold to new operators around 1818. U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Nashville resident John Catron partnered with his brother George and Lucius J. Polk to take over management of the iron works in 1827. They leased 3,000 acres to provide timber needed to fire the furnaces.  African-American slaves were used for labor.  In 1834, George F. Napier and Felix Catron took over the works and constructed Napier furnace, which produced approximately ten tons of pig iron a day. Another early manufacturing venture of the region was the Rockdale Cotton Factory. It opened in 1825 and produced cotton yarn. It primarily employed female laborers who were likely widows or young single women who had few other employment opportunities in antebellum Tennessee.

Birth of Lewis County

Lewis County c. 1850 In 1843, the Tennessee General Assembly created Lewis County out of parts of Maury, Lawrence, Wayne, and Hickman counties. The Assembly chose the name “Lewis” because the land included the area on the Natchez Trace where the famous explorer Meriwether Lewis’ died from gunshot wounds. It also ordered that a monument be erected over the site of his grave. The first county seat was located near Swan Creek in the town of Gordon and the first circuit  court met at the John Blackburn house.  The jury deliberated in the “shucking barn” or corn crib of the Blackburn farm. However by 1849, the seat moved closer to the Natchez Trace to the small community of Newburg. This created a boom for Newburg as town lots were developed and a courthouse and jail were built. At its height, Newburg contained four stores, two saloons, two hotels, a livery stable for horses, and several mechanic shops. New roads led from the new county seat to the neighboring towns of Hampshire, Waynesboro, Swan and Cane Creek, and Perryville. Early Lewis County extended as far east as present-day Hampshire. 1850 marked the early highpoint of population in the county. Over 4,000 whites, a handful of free blacks, and over 700 African American slaves resided in Lewis County.   Most whites lived on small subsistence farms, but a few managed to own more than 20 slaves who likely labored in agriculture or mining. A lawsuit challenging creation of the county  led to a temporary dissolution of the county in 1853.  The legislature soon reinstated the county; however, its size was much reduced. According to local tradition, a series of poor years in farm production also led to a significant population decline.  

Civil War

U.S. veteran records indicate that a small yet significant number of Lewis County men rode north to join the Federal army that was forming to invade Tennessee.  Nonetheless, the majority of locals enlisted for the South.  It is estimated that more than 400 Lewis County men fought for the Confederacy in units that included Company H of the 3rd Tennessee Infantry, Company C of the 48th Tennessee Infantry, Biffle’s 19th Tennessee Calvary, and Company H of the 9th Tennessee Calvary.  Colonel W. M. Voorhies commanded Company C of the 48th, and the company took part in the 1862 Confederate defense of Fort Donelson near Nashville.  Many of its casualties occurred after its men were captured at the fort by the Federal army and became prisoners of war at Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois.  A direct descendant of Colonel W. M. Voorhies built a home in Hohenwald in 1915 that still exists today.  Casualties from the 3rd Tennessee infantry occurred during a battle in Hinds County, Mississippi in 1863.

While no major battles occurred in the county, a number of skirmishes were fought in the area and it was not immune from the social and economic upheavals experienced by those left on the home front.  Throughout the war years, residents found themselves in a virtual no-mans land with both sides taking turns occupying and foraging in the county.  With most men absent, women assumed new roles managing farms while trying to protect crops and livestock from foragers.   One local legend expresses the desperation of those times.  According to oral tradition, a detachment of General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee removed portions of the iron fence that surrounded Meriwether Lewis’ grave and melted it for horse shoes.



Meeting the Train in Hohenwald c. 1926 Railroad ticket. Riverside to Hohenwald.

The population of Lewis County reached an all-time low following the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. Residents practically deserted the county seat of Newberg leaving a virtual ghost town. The state agriculturalist who visited the county in the 1870's noted seeing miles of abandoned farmsteads. In the ensuing decades, railroads made the greatest impact on the county’s settlement patterns. They created new communities, isolated others, and defined the value and status of property throughout the county. In 1878, the Nashville and Tuscaloosa Railroad established a line that ran from Bon Aqua (near Nashville) through Lewis County. By 1883, the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad took over the line and completed the tracks to the Alabama border. Although iron production in the state had decreased significantly by 1870, railroad development was driven primarily by the desire to more efficiently remove the region’s rich mineral resources.

Hohenwald and New Switzerland

Hohenwald Main Street c. 1900
The Smith family was
Hohenwald’s founding family.

An influx of German immigrants combined with the promise of rail service in
the county helped create the small
community of Hohenwald. Established around 1878 by a German immigrant family headed by Warren and Augusta Graffameyer Smith, Hohenwald is located on the Western Highland Rim in an area surrounded by dense forests.  According to oral tradition, Augusta Smith chose the name “Hohenwald” (German for “high forest”) for the community.  The Smiths’ lumber operation and store provided the foundation for the growing town that provided business for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad.

State agriculturalist J.B. Killebrew examined the Lewis County soils and determined that it would support the creation of a wine industry. He encouraged The Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad to create a colony along its line in the county to produce wine. The railroad and the Smith family, which owned the Hohenwald land, encouraged the efforts of Swiss American J. G. Probst to establish a Swiss colony near Hohenwald. Probst and the Swiss Pioneer Union of Milwaukee, Wisconsin persuaded Swiss American farmers in the Midwest to purchase stock in the Union and relocate to Tennessee. In addition to the Swiss, settlers from France, Austria, and the Netherlands (including a small contingent of the Jewish faith) came to the area. Planners drew a city plat for the town, called New Switzerland, which featured perfect 90-degree plots.

New Switzerland may have existed on paper, but those who arrived in 1895 were stunned by the undeveloped woodland they encountered. An eighteen-room barracks constructed on present-day South Park Avenue provided shelter while suitable housing was being built. Once constructed, the town exhibited a European flavor that distinguished it from most neighboring communities. Agricultural pursuits included wine making and the town had its own orchestra, brass band, and literary society. Fine wood carvings graced many local houses and a two-story school house in the center provided rudimentary courses along with lessons in German and Latin. The Kursheedt Manufacturing Company of New York opened in 1903 and employed Swiss labor to produce Hamburg lace for baby clothes and other embroidery.

Ladies working at the loom at the Kursheedt embroidery factory.  The Smith family recruited the factory from New York.  It made fine Hamburg lace and during World War I, it produced patches for military uniforms.  Goodman Dry Goods building at the present location of the Strand Theatre in the Discovery Center.  Bricks from the Goodman building were re-used in the theatre.  Paint from the "Clothing & Furniture" sign is still visible on some bricks.

The close proximity of the old German community of Hohenwald and the new Swiss community of New Switzerland inevitably led to conflict. Only a single street separated the towns. Each had its own cultural activities and economic concerns, yet they shared a post office and railroad line. Local legend tells of residents changing the post office’s sign back and forth between “Hohenwald” and “New Switzerland.” To resolve the conflict, a judge determined that consolidation of the communities was the only answer. The post office was moved to the larger community of New Switzerland, but the name for the consolidated town became the more established “Hohenwald,” and it subsequently became the new county seat in 1897. By 1910, around 1,200 people lived in Hohenwald; a significant number considering only 2,555 people lived in the entire county prior to the arrival of the Swiss immigrants.

The Warren and Augusta Smith house (c.1878) survives in the old German community of Hohenwald. Numerous examples survive from New Switzerland, including the Swiss Reformed Church Parsonage (1902). The Lewis County Historical Society possesses an early twentieth century Hohenwald brass band uniform that represents the merger of these two cultures. 


Gordonsburg Executive Club House.

The early iron works at Napier continued to prosper after the Civil War and was chartered in 1890. In addition, the Southern Iron Company operated iron furnaces at mines located at Allen’s Creek. With iron ore mining beginning to decline during this period, the discovery of phosphates in the region brought new life to the mining industry. The blue phosphate rock was used primarily in fertilizers. In 1894, the Charleston Mining Company began mining phosphate in the eastern portion of Lewis County, creating a population boom for the community of Gordonsburg for as many as 2000 workers and their families. Mining executives lived in the company clubhouse, which had a two-hole golf course.  The town was incorporated in 1908. A large brick water holding tank was built to supply running water to the mines. A large number of African Americans worked in the mines. The work was dangerous because of the possibility that the mine tunnels would collapse. African American workers lived on a hill known as “Stoney Lonesome.” White workers, who processed the phosphate outside the mine, lived on an adjoining hill known as “Rabbit Knob.” All workers were paid low wages in company script to be used in the company-owned store, which kept workers totally dependent on the mining company. Workers also lived in company- owned houses. The early twentieth century was a violent period for race relations in the United States. Lewis County’s only two recorded lynchings have a connection to the Gordonsburg Mine. Two African American miners, who were being held at the Lewis County Jail on suspicion of murdering a mining supervisor, were seized and lynched by a group of local men. Most of the county’s mining operations ceased by the 1930s, after the best reserves had been mined.


World War I

America’s entrance into World War I in 1917 had a dual effect on the City of Hohenwald and Lewis County.  Anti-German propaganda during the war discouraged displays of Swiss-German heritage. Residents spoke less German and Swiss organizations disbanded. The Kursheedt Manufacturing Company shifted from producing delicate embroidered fabric to embroidered military uniform emblems. Some descendants of the original Swiss colonists trace the decline of their native culture in the city to this period. On the other hand, however, the war brought renewed economic growth to the area. Increased demand for iron ore and forest products made the war years the busiest period for the railroad in Hohenwald. Around fourteen freight trains and three passenger trains served the city and other communities on the line. The county also contributed soldiers to the war effort. Fred Erymn Lomax, a Marine who died defending Paris, was the first casualty to hail from the county. His funeral was held in a house built by his father that later became Lewis County’s first hospital, Boyce Clinic in Hohenwald.

Education Improvements

Hohenwald High School c. 1910
Meriwether Lewis High School under construction. c. 1928.

Despite this growth during the war, Lewis County remained one of Tennessee’s most sparely populated counties.  Residents primarily worked for mining companies or on area farms. Most children attended school in one-room school houses scattered throughout the county. Students from first grade through eighth grade were provided instruction in the same room, and often older students assisted the younger in learning their lessons. About 1905, Swiss settlers constructed the Hohenwald High School on the site of the present-day court house. The two-story building contained six classrooms, a library, study hall and office. Elementary students were taught in a separate one-story building known as the “chicken coop.” Many Lewis County young people living outside Hohenwald boarded with families in town and paid to attend the schools. Overseen by S. Houston Proffitt, the curriculum taught by its professors included classical studies and Latin. Musical instruction was provided by Mrs. Yavrumus, a Greek immigrant, who had performed with the New York Symphony Orchestra. Among the Progressive and civic reforms of the 1920s, the citizens of the county voted for a school bond issue that led to the construction of the county’s first public high school in Hohenwald. The Meriwether Lewis Memorial High School boasted over 30 graduates its inaugural year. With the exception of mining plants, the impressive classical building was the largest in the county at the time and it reflected the optimistic ideals of a new generation of town leaders. W. J. Edwards served as its first principal. While this school exclusively served whites, the Julius Rosenwald Fund created through the initiative of Booker T. Washington and established to improve education for African Americans in the rural South, funded construction of a new school for blacks. The Hohenwald Rosenwald School had two classrooms, indoor restrooms and a kitchen. The school’s only teacher, Mrs. Eula Gray Allison, taught classes through eighth grade and remained with the school for over 40 years. Many African American students continued their education at other county high schools and achieved graduation. When Lewis County schools were integrated during the 1960s, the Rosenwald School served as Hohenwald’s first integrated kindergarten. The building today serves as the Senior Citizens Center.

New Deal Era

In 1929, the Tennessee state government began road improvements in the county. State highways 20 and 48 were extended to reach Hohenwald. New Deal initiatives of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, which sought to curb rampant unemployment caused by the Great Depression, continued road improvements in the county during the 1930s and 1940s including authorization of the Natchez Trace Parkway (construction did not begin until the late 1950s) and paving of streets in Hohenwald. Perhaps the New Deal’s most lasting contribution to the county was improvements to the Meriwether Lewis National Monument on the Trace. Designated as a national monument by the Federal government in 1925, the site housed Civilian Conservation Corps workers who erected a cabin typical of the Grinder Stand period and laid stonework throughout the park. In 1939, a grant from the Federal Public Works Administration provided funds for a new court house in Hohenwald. It was the last New Deal court house constructed in Tennessee and it is the only court house designed by renowned architects Hart & Russell that utilized red brick.

World War II and Industrial Development

By the time of America’s involvement in World War II in 1941, the population of Lewis County had stabilized at around 6,000 persons. Most mining operations in the area had ceased and the Great Depression had crippled agriculture. The movement of industry from the north to the south in search of less expensive and non-union labor created the next transformation of the county’s economic base. Shifting from agriculture to manufacturing meant that workers encountered a schedule governed by the factory time clock rather than ruled by the seasons, thus altering the culture of the area. In 1939, the county passed a bond resolution to build a 50,000 square foot building as a memorial to the county war veterans, believed to be the only legal purpose for a county to issue bonds at the time. General Shoe opened an operation in the county in 1939 and began production in the building as soon as it was completed. It soon supported three full shifts of workers. Henry I. Seiglel, a clothing manufacturer, built a plant in Hohenwald in the 1950s, and Boston Industrial Products, maker of industrial hoses, followed soon after. By the end of the 1960s, most people in Lewis County worked in one of these three industrial plants.

Baby Boom Era

In 1970, a caravan of brightly painted school buses and vans rolled into Lewis County bringing the area’s next wave of settlers with cultural beliefs different from long-term residents. Led by Stephen Gaskin, a former English professor at San Francisco State College, these “hippies” purchased 1,764 acres of land near Hohenwald to create an “intentional religious collective community.” Called the Farm Community, it advocated a philosophy of complete self-sufficiency (for example, residents owned and operated their own phone system). They earned income together and owned everything collectively. Although not originally welcomed by the residents of Lewis County, the Farm’s occupants gained respect through their work ethics and abilities to co-exist peacefully with the county’s older inhabitants. In addition, the Farm’s Midwifery Center gained national recognition as a center for natural childbirth information and services. While its population peaked at around 1,500 residents in 1982, healthcare costs and other factors made the collective impossible to maintain. Today the Farm only averages 200 residents that partially hold expenses in common, but members operate businesses that range from publishing to satellite technology.

The most recent “arrivals” to Lewis County are perhaps the most unique, and are not even human. The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, founded in 1995, is the nation’s largest natural habitat refuge developed specifically for endangered African and Asian elephants. On 2700 acres of land, it provides a haven for old, sick, or needy circus and zoo elephants. A 200-acre cable and post fence and 222-acre chain link fence keeps the elephants corralled and safe from intruders. In 1999, the Sanctuary added a 9000-square-foot elephant barn, and the organization has 70,000 members worldwide. A planned welcome center and educational facility is part of the Sanctuary’s continued expansion.

Historical Narrative    Post-Civil War Development    Progress of the 20th Century


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• Goodspeed, Westin A.  Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee.  1886.
• Graves, Marjorie.  Lewis County.  Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.  Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.
• Hoffschwelle, Mary Sara.  Rebuilding the Rural Southern Community:  Reformers, Schools, and Homes in Tennessee, 1900-1930.  University of Tennessee
   Press, 1998.
• Lester, Connie L.  Hohenwald.  Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.  Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.
• Middle Tennessee Center for Historic Preservation.  Historical and Architectural Survey of South Maple and South Park Streets:  Hohenwald, Lewis
   County, Tennessee.
• Quin, Richard.  Blackburn, Ambrose, Farmstead.  National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.  United States Department of the Interior, 1985.
• Satz, Ronald N.  Chickasaws.  Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.  Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.
• TNGenWeb Project.  Lewis County, Tennessee. Accessed 18 January, 2008.
• United States Department of the Interior.  Census Bureau, Population Division
   Decennial Census for Lewis County, Tennessee
• Weaver and Associates.  Archaeological Report on Lewis County Sites 40LS20, 40LS21, and 40LS22.  2000
• West, Carroll Van.  Tennessee’s New Deal Landscape.  University of Tennessee Press, 2001.

*Most text for the Explore the Past page was made possible through a grant from Humanities Tennessee.