Photo: J. Stephen Conn

Huntsville is a town steeped in history and culture, dating back to the days when Scott County’s forefathers first established the town and deemed it suitable for the county seat of the Cumberland Plateau’s newest county.

In December 1849, Tennessee’s state legislature created Scott County from portions of Campbell, Fentress and Morgan counties. Three areas were proposed for the county seat: farms along Buffalo Creek, Paint Rock Creek and modern-day Huntsville.

Huntsville was ultimately chosen for several reasons. While Scott County’s terrain is made rough by the Cumberland Mountains in the east and the South Fork of the Cumberland River gorge in the west, the terrain around Huntsville is relatively flat. The area is also centrally-located, and a natural spring served water needs for the town.

Twenty-five acres of land were purchased from George McDonald and Emanuel Phillips, and the new town was born. The property was laid out in 47 lots by surveyor Wayne White-Cotton, working with a committee that consisted of Circuit Court Clerk John L. Smith, County Court Clerk Allen McDonald, Sheriff John Lewallen, Trustee Isaac Reed and Registrar Riley Chambers, all of whom were elected in 1850. A courthouse and jail were built by 1851, and the Town of Huntsville was officially on the map.

The exact source of the town’s name is an unsettled matter. It was named in honor of long hunters who settled the land before it became a town. However, there was also said to be a hunter by the name of Hunt who lived in the community. Legend has it that he is the town’s namesake.

In 1850, the year Scott County was formed, the U.S. census listed the population at 350. Many of those lived in and around Huntsville.

By the early 1900s, Huntsville was a bustling little village. A frame building was constructed to replace the original brick courthouse. The county’s first fair was held in the Huntsville School. The town had three hotels, four stores, a feed store, two blacksmith shops, a woodworking shop, a meat market, a lumberyard, a bank and a small public park.

The bank, Scott County National Bank of Huntsville, was organized in 1908 and conducted business for 26 years before falling victim to the Great Depression in 1934.

In 1892, the first newspaper was published. The Cumberland Chronicle continued publishing until 1918 with James F. Baker as its publisher.

Huntsville was officially incorporated on June 29, 1965. The town’s first mayor was Carl G. Byrd. The first aldermen were J.R. Hembree, D.B. Walker, W.E. York and Jerry Willard Thompson Jr.

Several famous — and, sometimes, infamous — Americans have passed through Huntsville or made it their home over the years.

Center of the Universe

An example of the former is U.S. Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. Senator Baker served Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1967 to 1985. His time in office included a pivotal role in the Watergate investigation, with Baker famously asking, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”

Senator Baker was a Republican candidate for president in 1980, and later served as President Ronald Reagan’s White House Chief of Staff. Later still, he was appointed by President George W. Bush as the United States’ ambassador to Japan.

Senator Baker continued to make his home in Huntsville until his death in 2014. He often referred to the town as “the center of the universe.”

Senator Baker’s father, attorney Howard H. Baker Sr., was also an American statesman, serving in the United States Congress from 1951 to 1964.

A Hideaway for Jesse James

As for infamous Americans who have made their home in Huntsville, if only briefly, local native James W. Baker related the following story in H. Clay Smith’s Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past:

“They came to Huntsville about two years after the Civil War; four strangers rode into the county seat town of Huntsville, Tennessee. They boarded at the Sharp Hotel on the southeast corner of the Court Square and told people they were buyers and traders of livestock. They soon rented a small building next to the hotel from Uncle Billy Sharp and opened a small general store. Two of the group ran the business while the other two made frequent horseback trips presumably to locate and inspect cattle, hogs, horses and sheep that might be bought and driven to market the following summer. All four of them were owners of exceptionally fine quality saddle horses.

“All dealings with people in Huntsville and nearby area were open and in no way of a suspicious nature. They paid all their obligations in hard money; that is, gold or silver coin. At about this time there was a good deal of counterfeit money in circulation and paper money was suspected especially when offered by strangers.

“After staying some six months they closed their store and left no notice to local persons with whom they had been dealing. They just rode off.

“Uncle Billy Sharp became better acquainted with them and, years later, he told people he was sure that two of the men were the James boys, Jesse and Frank.

“Some twenty-five years later Frank James came to the town of Hustonville in southeastern Kentucky to visit the Weatherford brothers, the Jameses and Weatherford family having been neighbors near St. Joseph, Missouri, years before when all four had been young boys.

“In the meantime, Jesse had been killed and Frank had surrendered to the law, been sent to the penitentiary and, later, been given a full pardon by the governor of Missouri.

“The Weatherfords were merchants and, during Frank James’ visit with them, they told him that a partner of their business was a James F. Baker of Huntsville, Tennessee.

“Frank James then told them that he was well acquainted with Huntsville, Tennessee, that he and Jesse had stayed in Huntsville several months under assumed names while ‘scouting’ or ‘laying low’ from officers of the law. He described thet own and several persons he remembered well.”

Free & Independent State of Scott

Scott County was also the site of an historic vote in 1861. Despite voting overwhelmingly against recession, Scott Countians watched helplessly as Tennessee seceded from the Union. In protest, Scott County Court later met in Huntsville and voted to secede from the State of Tennessee, forming the Free and Independent State of Scott.

The vote was precipitated by Scott Countians’ vote against secession. In fact, Scott County voted against seceding from the Union by the highest percentage of any Tennessee county. More than 95 percent of Scott County were opposed to seceding from the Union to join the Confederate States of America. There were few slave-owners in Scott County and only 61 slaves in the entire county. (Scott County was one of only two counties in Tennessee with fewer than 100 slaves.)

On June 4, 1861, future president Andrew Johnson stood on the courthouse steps in Huntsville and delivered a fiery speech against secession. Scott Countians listened. The final tally was 521-19.

The result was not the same across the state. Spurred by heavy Confederate loyalties in Middle and West Tennessee, the state voted to officially secede from the Union. East Tennessee political leaders objected that the vote was tainted by fraud. A convention in Greenville, Tennessee attempted to thwart the secession bid. When it failed, Scott County Court met in special session and passed a proclamation declaring itself a free and independent state. It is written that one old farmer stood up during the court meeting and said, “If the g*dd**n State of Tennessee can secede from the Union, then Scott County can secede from the state of Tennessee!”

Tennessee Governor Isham Harris responded by sending a contingent of 1,700 soldiers to Scott County to arrest and hang all members of the county court. However, they retreated after encountering resistance just south of town. None of the members of county court were ever captured.

A plaque in Huntsville today recognizes that early court’s vote of defiance and independence and pledge of loyalty to the union.

Huntsville’s Role in the Civil War

When the Union Army captured pro-Union East Tennessee from the Confederacy in 1863, it was through Huntsville that Union General Ambrose Burnside marched his troops.

By way of the Monticello Road and Chitwood’s, Burnside’s troops marched through Huntsville and Montgomery en route to Knoxville to wrest control of the region from the Confederacy. Citizens lined the route to cheer on the arrival of Burnside’s men.

While there were no major battles fought in Huntsville, there were two minor skirmishes. In the Spring of 1862, a local regiment under the command of Chattanooga millionaire William Clift was attacked by Confederate forces after fortifying the base of Huntsville Mountain on the north side of town. The Battle of Huntsville resulted in a defeat for the Union forces, which retreated. Confederate soldiers spent time raiding the town, looking for members of County Court who had voted to secede from the State of Tennessee.

Two weeks earlier, there was a smaller skirmish along Brimstone Creek on the south side of town. A group of Confederate soldiers under the command of Captain John C. Vaughn surrounded the home of Union Captain W.H.H. Robbins. However, Robbins counter-attacked from the ridge top above his home, eventually forcing the Confederates to retreat the following day.

The following January, a Union detachment under  the command of Captain Thomas Butler was attacked along New River just south of town. Confederate Captain Noah Doherty had learned that the Union regiment was encamped at New River and set out in search of them. When he found the small Union camp, he demanded their surrender. The response was gunfire, and the ensuing skirmish saw six Union soldiers killed. The remainder fled into the forest. Doherty took as his victory spoils more than 2,000 pounds of bacon, a similar amount of flour, a dozen horses and several Belgian rifles. The conflict was later labeled by newspapers as the “Battle for the Bacon.”