Campbell County- A look at the county from the beginning

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By Charlotte Underwood

Campbell County is a land full of historical learning opportunities.  But the funny thing about history is that it can easily be forgotten.  

People say they will never forget and they may even convince themselves traditions won’t die out, not on their watch.  But life has an odd way of providing just the right distraction at just the right time to induce a good case of amnesia.  

Raising kids, holding down a job, or just paying the bills and ensuring that food gets on the table can take the main stage.  People find themselves so busy worrying about the future they often forget about the past, their history and where they came from.

History and remembering our roots is important; because without them, we would be lost, doomed to a repetitive day-to-day existence.  There would be no ‘good old days’ to reminisce about, no pride in the heritage of our self-sustaining ancestors.  Without history to commemorate and archive our achievements both past and present, we would all just be dust in the wind.

Picture it: It’s the early 1800s and Campbell County doesn’t even exist yet.  Instead of a four-lane highway connecting to a main interstate, the whole area was largely wild and unsettled.

It was not until 1806 that Campbell County became the 26th county in the state.  The Tennessee General Assembly established it as a county on Sept. 11 of that year.  It was actually created from parts of Anderson and Claiborne Counties, according to Campbell County Museum Curator Jerry Sharp.

The county was named after Colonel Arthur Campbell, a member of the Virginia House of Burgess and an officer in the Revolutionary War. With 480 square miles of land and 18 square miles of water, Campbell County is a large area.  Comprised of four municipalities, Campbell County is made up of Jellico, Caryville, LaFollette, which is the only city, and Jacksboro, the county seat.

The 2005 census estimated the county’s population at around 40,686 people.  But it wasn’t always such a large and bustling area.  Because the area is so large, histories will be divided into sections by municipality.  Over two centuries of growth and economic development has made Campbell County what it is today; a land full of history and opportunity, rich in heritage and strong in its roots.

Jellico: The gem city of the mountains

One of the first areas settled in the region was the wild and mountainous region of Jellico. The area was originally known as Clear Fork, because of the Clear Fork River that ran through the area.  At this time it was mainly used as Cherokee hunting grounds, with few white settlers passing through, according to Sharp.  

Not being much in the way of permanent settlements in the area, the ravages of the Civil War did not affect the Jellico region very much.

Regiments did pass through the area, with the closest skirmishes taking place at Big Creek Gap, according to the war department’s records regarding the Confederate and Union Armies.  These records were referenced in Miller McDonald’s history of Campbell County.  McDonald is now deceased.

There was also a skirmish at Williamsburg, with the 7th Kentucky Volunteers fighting, none were killed or wounded, according to War documents.  Thankfully, Jellico remained unscarred by the War Between the States.

With its clear streams and cool mountain shades, the area seemed a prime settlement place to the Smith and Perkins families, who were the first to make the region a permanent home in the late 1800s, according to Sharp.  Josiah Smith and his brother Thomas D. Smith moved to the area from Whitley County Ky.  They decided they like the area, so they, along with Richard Perkins made up the original families to settle there.  The area became known as Smithburg, after the Smith families and by Oct. 1878, a United States post office had sprung up in the area called Pine Knot.  Formerly located on what is now South Main Street, the Post Office was run by Post Master Thomas M. Smith, according to a 1938 history of Jellico by James Hayden Siler, also now deceased.  

During this time, the area grew as a place of farming and trade.  Early farming families included Bratton Hackler from Va., Jess Walden from Ky., Anna Botlton from N.C., and Joseph Leach from Tn.  Joel Broyles, James Archer and Pryor Perkins, were also farmers in the area, all from Ky.

On Aug. 6 1883, the name of the office was changed to Jellico after the Jellico Mountains.  It is believed the mountains and creek in the area were named after the Angelica plant, which early settlers used to make an intoxicating drink, as well as medicine.   Former Jellico native and Pulitzer Prize winner Don Whitehead commented on how Jellico got its name in one of his many writings.

“Like the town, the Angelica plant is an unusual one.  The plant’s root has been described as one that can be used for flavoring, as an aromatic herb, as a fish lure, as a food, as a medicine and as a mash for whiskey.  In short, it can feed you, cure you, make you smell good, help you catch fish and make you drunk,” Whitehead wrote.

The Jellico of the late 1800s was largely a crossroad community existing on the old Kentucky Road.  This ancient route followed the present course of Newcomb and Elk Valley Road.  Originally the road came near the present traffic light of Main and Fifth Street, turned west and wound to Knoxville through the foothills of Pine Mountain, according to McDonald.  The families living in the town at this time consisted mainly of Smiths, Perkins, Archers, Douglas’s, Booths, Renfroes, Faulkners and a few others.  

Farming was the sole occupation until 1881 when the railroads came.  A prize was offered to the railroad running the first train into town and interest in the contest was high, according to McDonald’s book.  The Southern Railroad was apparently given the odds to win against the Louisville & Nashville Railroads, but when the first train was within a mile of the town, a small bridge collapsed.  The delay was enough for the L & N to win.   The coming of the trains truly dawned a new era in the tiny mountain town, resulting in an economic boom of industry.  With the trains also came a means to ship the coal and the lumber, which the Jellico Mountains were full of.

The coal and lumber business brought expansion to Jellico.  The Jellico Coal Company, later the Woolridge Jellico Coal Company was actively developing the Jellico seam of coal in 1882.  The Jellico Coal Company shipped its first cars of coal in 1883.  As the mines in the immediate vicinity of Jellico reached exhaustion, the railroad expanded its tracks through the mountain to Pruden and new coalfields were opened for development.  Jellico coal quickly grew in popularity, as it was known for being coal of the finest rank, being largely free from an excess of ash and sulfur.

With the coal and the trains also came the saloons, which dominated Jellico in the late 1800s, according to McDonald’s writings.

The first mayor, noted only as Mr. McGuire, was elected in 1881 and was allegedly a saloonkeeper.  There are many stories about the lawlessness of early Jellico.  

One interesting legends tells of a man named Perkins who built his house on the state line and did a thriving liquor business.  According to legend, when law officers from Kentucky or Tennessee would attempt to arrest him, he would go over into the other side of his house, out of that particular state’s jurisdiction where he would chew his tobacco in peace.  The two agencies apparently never worked in conjunction with one another, leaving Perkins to his liquor business.  This legend was taken from McDonald’s History of Campbell County.

The incorporation of Jellico in March of 1883 came about when a majority of 34 qualified voters approved the notion.  There was speculation, a few years after the town was incorporated, that the only reason for officially organizing Smithburg into Jellico was to permit the legal selling of whiskey, according to McDonald.  State law at that time prohibited the sale of liquor within four miles of a schoolhouse, except in an incorporated town.   This reason for incorporation was even printed in the October 1912 edition of the Advance Sentinel.

The saloons and general lawlessness led to the apparent urgent need for a church and a school system.  It was Thomas M. Smith, an ordained minister, landowner and merchant who saw this need and therefore donated land for a Baptist church to be built at a cost of $400.  The church was dedicated on Aug. 24, 1884 with 16 charter members.

Schooling in the early days was often spotty at best.  Apart from being self-taught or the family teaching the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, there wasn’t much opportunity for learning.  Children had to work the land and help with the household chores right along side their parents.

The earliest schools were subscription schools where scholars would come into the area and set up a school for a two or three month period of time.  These scholars would charge the families that sent their children to be educated.  Students would attend from miles around, providing their families could afford it of course.  The Congregational Church founded the earliest subscription school in Jellico and classes were held in a blacksmith’s shop, according to McDonald’s records.

It was later as the mining camps became more prominent in the area that some coal companies began providing schools for children of the miners and others who wanted to attend.  The Main Jellico Mountain Mines established an example of this type of school in Kensee, KY, which was a short distance away from Jellico.   The school operated on a budget of $3,000 per year, which was a sizable amount of money to be spent on education in the 1890s.  Funding for the school was provided by a tax of 40-cents a month from each employee regardless of how many children he had enrolled.  The company would contribute a similar amount and the state also provided a grant of around $600 each year.  It was also around this time that the first public free school was established in the Tannery Hollow School House.  Opened in 1890, the building was used until 1897, when it was replaced with a new building.  The Jellico City School was regarded as one of the best in public education for a city its size and had many advantages over other contemporary schools of that era, according to McDonald.  It was maintained for 10 months out of the year with a curriculum comparable to college prep schools of that time.

As the turn of the century approached, Jellico continued to thrive as an industrial hub.  The town was alive with businesses besides lumber and coal.  Other companies such as the Elk Valley Tannery, and Nelson Carbonating Works also prospered in the area.  Elk Valley Tannery was one of the largest in the South by the turn of the century, with the capacity to handle 8,400 hides a month.  The tannery employed over 100 people with work, according to a 1906 edition of the Advance Sentinel.  The only thing left of the tannery is the name of a road, Tannery Hollow.  Nelson’s Carbonating Works dated back to 1892 and it manufactured all flavors of soda pop, as well as seltzer water.  Yes, Jellico was quickly becoming a bustling town.  

With two train lines operating terminals out of the small mountain town, and more coal being mined everyday, Jellico could do nothing but grow.

Look for the second installment of Jellico’s history in next week’s LaFollette Press to see what happened to Jellico after the turn of the century.

Editor’s note: The historical information and facts were researched at the Campbell County Historical Society and Museum.