Road to Recovery: 1866-1890

G. Tillman Stewart

From Henderson County by G. Tillman Stewart, Tennessee County History Series, Joy Bailey Dunn, Editor, Charles W. Crawford, Associate Editor, 1979, Memphis State University Press.  Thanks to G. Tillman Stewart's son George Stewart for granting permission to publish this book.

The years that immediately followed the Civil War were those of hardship, strife, and gloom. Both sides in the county were defiant and felt mistreated. Two battles in Henderson County, grain and hay wasted, robbing of stores and residences, destruction of farming tools, and other deprivations of war left the people with little money, food, or clothing. The road to recovery for business, industry, and agriculture in the county was rough and rugged.

Both armies had confiscated virtually all good horses and mules in the county; consequently, it took nearly five years to replace stock to enable agriculture to begin again. Good breeding animals frequently were imported from the North to aid this effort: A. B. Cunningham purchased a first-class work stallion; Clark Diffee and Columbus Davis owned expensive mules; Davis' jack was imported from Spain; James Dodd, Euphrates Flake, and many other farmers purchased good breeding stock.

As work stock became plentiful, more ground was cleared for cultivation. Within a few years, many former slaves settled into a sharecropping pattern of living. Many even continued to live in the same houses in which they had lived before the war. Domestic services also were continued for landlords. This arrangement enabled many former slaves to accumulate enough money to purchase their own farms. These industrious sharecroppers are the ancestors of many fine families who still live in Henderson County.

By 1870 most cotton gins had reopened, and the market for cotton was good with seed cotton usually selling for about seven to ten cents per pound. Henderson County farmers were once again able to produce enough corn and wheat for consumption.

The first hay mowing machine was brought into the county by Ashley Cunningham in 1886. Auburn Powers described an incident of interest involving this machine and its owner:

Mr. Cunningham mowed a field of red top for W. M. Friendship, and it is reported that people came from far and near to see the machine work. The blade clicking a rapid rhythm, and a wide strip of red top being cut as fast as the horses could draw the machine were manifestations of a great step forward in the production of hay, for heretofore all hay had been cut by hand with a scythe or "cradle." And it was rare to find a man who could wield a cradle skillfully.

During the immediate postwar period numerous businesses were established in Lexington; among them were Boswell, Fielder and Company, W. F. Brooks, Dennison and Muse, T. Edwards, W. R. Elkins, G. W. Florence, J. H. Lofton, F. W. McHaney, John McHaney and Company, and Scott and Stanford. Two hotels, Scott House, near where the Lexington post office now stands, and the Kizer House, near the railway depot, were opened. Felix R. Bray established a successful general store at Lone Elm in 1876. In 1875 M. L. Galloway became a partner in the Galloway and Elkins Livery and Feed Stable. J. N. Hall of Lexington was a leading druggist in the town. F. Lafayette and W. C. McHaney were successful businessmen at Mifflin and Crucifer.

Each county community had blacksmith shops, but among the best known owners were J. A. Eller and H. E. Riley and Sons at Lexington; R. W. Phillips and George H. Richardson at Luray; J. F. Austin, A. Fanning, and W. A. White at Scotts Hill, and J. C. Austin, J. F. Edwards, J. H. Mayo, and Stanfill and Hanna at Sardis. A machine shop at Lexington operated by inventor Eli Jones also did good business.

The first telephone system in Henderson County was established during the summer of 1884, with the early lines running from Jackson to Lexington. The first telephone was installed in what is now known as the Timberlake and Buckley building. Although at first a novelty, telephones opened a new era in communication. The city of Jackson had benefited from the telegraph 30 years earlier, and the city was in direct connection with the rest of the county with the addition of the telephone. Lexington, however, had telephone service before it had telegraph service, since the telegraph came to the county with the construction of the railroads. The operator of the Lexington-to-Jackson line was Jennine Edwards, who received $10 per month for her services The first person to speak on the line is unknown, but it is believed that some of the first people to use that line were G. W. McCall and his brother.


During the difficult postwar period, the following Missionary Baptist churches were organized: Mazies Chapel in 1866 with 63 members, Mt. Ararat in 1867 with 88 members, New Fellowship in 1868 with 42 members, Piney Creek in 1872 with 48 members, and Mt. Gilead with 96 members and Rock Hill with 68 members, both in 1884. A Cumberland Presbyterian church was formed at Luray in 1890 with 37 members, and a Methodist church at Oak Grove in 1888 with 40 members. There was also a Methodist Church active at Sardis before 1890.

Politics and Government

In July of 1866 the Henderson County Court appointed H. G. Treadgill as chairman, and A. H. Rhodes, J. P. Fuller, J. R. Teague, and Samuel Howard as the committee responsible for the contracting and construction of a new courthouse. The building contract was let to Robert Dyer for $7450. Completed on schedule on October 1, 1867, the county court held session in the new building on the first Monday of October. The county offices were located on the ground floor with the large courtroom upstairs. The courtroom served as the location for political conventions and other programs in addition to serving the needs of the various courts--county, circuit, chancery, and magistrate. This building burned in 1895.

On February 25, 1869, Governor Brownlow resigned to assume duties as a U.S. senator, an office he had been elected to by his own legislature. In 1869, Republicans in the state were divided into Conservatives and Radicals. The Conservatives favored restoration of voting rights which the Radicals opposed, even though President Johnson had pardoned all former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers at the 1869 Republican convention. The Conservatives nominated Dewitt Clinton Senter, and the Radicals nominated W. B. Stokes. The enfranchised Democrats, voting for the first time in ten years, supported Senter, thus classifying him as a Democrat. The vote in Henderson County was 1151 votes for Senter and 724 votes for Stokes. The majority of the Republicans in the county aligned with the Conservative faction of the party and has remained so.


Henderson County Courthouse that burned in 1895

Although the majority of the Whigs supported the Republican Party after the Civil War, the Republican margin over that of the Democrats was not as large as the Whig majority had been. The following returns recorded for the presidential elections from 1868 through 1880 indicate the Republican strength in the county, since only the elections of 1872 and 1876 were carried by the Democratic candidates: (1886) Seymore-105, Grant (R)-644; (1872) Greeley-849, Grant (R)-768; (1876) Tilden-1357, Hayes (R)-999; (1880) Hancock-1274, Garfield (R)- 1355; (1884) Cleveland-1478, Blaine (R)-1629; (1888) Cleveland-1123, Harrison (R)-1642. Horace Greeley had been a strong Union supporter, and many Republicans voted with the newly enfranchised Democrats.

A constitutional convention convened at Nashville in 1870 to rewrite the state constitution. The one drawn by that convention was adopted and is the current constitution, with the exception of a few amendments. The Honorable John M. Taylor represented the county at that convention and participated in drafting the actual constitution.

In 1882, nearly 100 square miles were taken from the southwest portion of the county to create Chester County. The remainder of that county came from Madison and McNairy counties. An unsuccessful lawsuit attempted to prevent the partition, since many Henderson Countians considered that portion of the county to contain some of its best land. The thriving small towns of Jack's Creek and Mifflin were placed in the new county. From a political standpoint, the Republican Party in Henderson County benefited from the loss of the large numbers of Democrats transferred to Chester County. Two years later another effort was made to apportion another section of Henderson County into Chester County; however, a successful lawsuit prevented this action. The state constitution did not permit the creation of a county from the land of another county when the county line to be created was closer than 11 miles to the county seat of the county being partitioned. The Chester County line is actually 11 miles from Lexington.

The brickjail located on Purdy Street, now Monroe, was sold in 1887 to E. Flake for $480. It was later sold to the prominent Elkins family and then passed on to Mrs. Walter Sweatt. The building again changed hands and became the property of John Sullivan, a popular political and civic leader. This two-story building was razed in 1972.


All educational activities came almost to a standstill during the war years, and public schools were virtually nonexistent. Local taxes collected for schools were small, and no records indicate that any tax money was spent for education during the war. The once prosperous Lexington Female Academy was closed, and, for a time, the building was occupied by Federal troops. Like the courthouse, it also burned in 1863, with Federal troops again accused in the incident. Only a few subscription schools remained open when teachers were available.

The immediate rebirth of education after the Civil War spurred the re-establishment of subscription and state-supported schools. Governor Brownlow supported public education and, in 1867, the Brownlow legislature passed a progressive education law that reinstated the office of state superintendent of schools that had been abolished in 1844, created the office of county superintendent of schools, provided for the examination of teachers, and created schools for black children. Money to help operate these schools was raised by a tax of two mills on each dollar of taxable property and a poll tax of 25 cents on each male citizen over the age of 21 and under the age of 50.

The Federal Census of 1870 showed that illiteracy had increased to 50 percent within the state, since it was the first time all blacks had been included in the count. Heretofore, only three out of every five slaves had been counted. During this same time, the white population had increased by only 13 percent. The illiteracy in Henderson County had increased only 30 percent.

The Parent Act or Law of 1873 provided that all schools should be free to all persons between the ages of six and 18, for a permanent school fund of $2,512,500 on which yearly interest was to be paid by the state for school support, and for a poll tax of $1 to be levied for school revenue on each male voter under 50 years of age. From this poll tax Henderson County received approximately $11,000 per year for 20 years. This amounted to $110 for 107 teachers in the county, or an average salary of $34.33 per month for three months, marking a considerable improvement on previous conditions.

A county school report in 1885 showed a scholastic population of 5152, 4514 whites and 638 blacks. By the end of that year, there were 87 white and ten black teachers. Under the 1873 act, Levi Woods became the first county superintendent of schools.

The Lexington Academy reopened between 1869 and 1870 as a public school. In 1885, the building was sold to the trustees of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Academy trustees realized $250 from the sale, which when added to almost $300 on hand and to additional subscriptions raised a total of $1500. With this money a site was purchased and a new building was completed in 1886. The new location was in south Lexington near the former location of the NC&StL depot.

The academy trustees were reoganized with C. A. Scott as president, P. J. Dennison as treasurer, and W. F. Brooks, J. N. Hall, and L. A. Stanford as members. Seymour A. Mynders was the academy's first principal, who became a state superintendent of instruction. The academy later was known as the Methodist Academy since it received some financial support from the Methodists, and still later it was recognized as the county high school. The Goodspeed history described the academy as follows:

The course of study embraces English language and its literature, pure and applied mathematics, natural sciences, ancient and modern languages, and bookkeeping, with a special course for teachers. About forty public school teachers have been in attendance the present year, and the whole number enrolled is about ninety-five. Diplomas were awarded those who completed the course.

Basic civil engineering was taught as part of the math course, and land surveying also was taught. The late J. W. Ballard and E. L. "Uncle Fayette" Fesmire both were trained at this school and later became county surveyors.


James Hanna settled on his land grant about 1825 in the area that became Sardis. Daniel, Elijah, James, and Malinda Story also settled on land grants there sometime prior to 1830. What is now known as the John Story farm is one of the few farms in the county to have remained in the possession of descendants of the original owners.

Thirty years prior to the Civil War a popular campground was located south of the present Sardis business district, where the cemetery is now located. Isaac W. Hassell, who is generally considered to be the actual founder of Sardis, built a store and also became the first postmaster. Some early settlers in the area included the Blantons, Crabbs, Craigs, Dyers, Englands, Faggs, Hannas, Hamms, Johnsons, Littles, McNatts, Medlins, Phillips, Presleys, Smiths, Stanfills, Wilburns, Wilhites, and Williams.

Of the early Sardis residents, William Dyer later became circuit court clerk; William McBride became sheriff, and R. A. Lewis was a circuit court clerk and later became an official of the Central State Bank at Lexington.

Local Legends

According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the world's largest man lived, died, and was buried in Henderson County. This man was Mills Darden, frequently called "Miles." Born in 1798, Darden left his native North Carolina in 1821 and settled near the village of Mifflin. There he cleared the land, built a house, married, and raised five children. It was said that Darden's coat could be buttoned around three normal men, that his hat was as large as a beehive, and that his trousers, if the cuffs were tied together, could hold ten bushels of corn.

Darden's continually increasing size prevented his doing the manual labor required by his farm, so he moved to Lexington and opened a tavern and inn on the present site of Stewart's Drug Store. Darden's business prospered since he was an intelligent man with good business sense, who not only provided excellent food but good service too. His size also attracted people who came hundreds of miles to see him and to visit the tavern and inn. Again, his continued growth made it difficult for him to carry on his business, so he sold it and moved to what is now known as the Dunnivant farm, eight miles southwest of Lexington.

At the time of his death on January 23, 1857, Darden's weight was estimated between 1020-1080 pounds, and his height was seven feet, ten inches. The coffin constructed for his body used 520 feet of lumber and measured eight feet, four inches long and 40 inches wide at the shoulder. He was buried near his farm in Chapel Hill Community. Darden's 90-pound wife died shortly after his death and was buried next to him. Due to the interest of W. L. Barry and the Tennessee Historical Society, markers have been placed on their graves and a historical marker has been placed on the Life and Garnertown Road where the intersection leads to the grave sites.

On the last Sunday in April of 1886 a strange man appeared in what was then known as Warrens Bluff Community. The man claimed to be a minister ordained by Jesus Christ. At this appearance he stated that he would again appear at Lexington on a particular Saturday, and on that day he predicted that a roar of thunder would fill the air even though the sky would be clear of clouds. As predicted, a roaring noise like thunder was heard for several miles when he made his appearance at Lexington.

A serialized article, "Mysterious Preacher" written by Hyrum BeInap, was published in the Mormon publication Juvenile Instructor at Salt Lake City in 1886 and dealt with this appearance of the strange preacher. It summarized the event as follows:

On the afternoon of the same day there appeared near Lexington the county seat, a strange man, of spare build, medium height, fair skin, dark brown curly hair, and a light beard of reddish cast. He was poorly clad. His appearance indicated that he was about thirty years of age. He announced a religious meeting to be held in the neighborhood that evening. Because of the unusual nature of his arrival, his apparent knowledge of the roads and even paths in the fields, the meeting was well attended. He conducted the meeting alone, sang and preached in manner unlike that of evangelistic preaching current at the time. At the conclusion of the meeting, when plied with questions, he said that his name was Robert Edge, and that he belonged to the Church of God. He refused to reveal whence he had come. At the solicitation of the congregation he appointed other meetings to be held in the vicinity, and soon his fame as a preacher had spread far and near. In due time, by an exchange of notes and gossip, it was discovered that no one had ever seen him any distance from a place of worship, and that he was never seen until he arrived in the crowd or had assumed his place in the pulpit. Persons appointed to watch him lost track of him before he had proceeded far. He never inquired directions from one place to another, and yet always arrived according to appointment.

The preacher disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared, leaving behind numerous rumors and speculations. Many residents believed the man to be the mythical "Wandering Jew," often chronicled in the lore of European Middle Ages.


The Tennessee River continued to be the most frequent carrier of freight for Henderson County with Saltillo and Perryville as ports serving the county. Stagecoaches offered the only public means of transportation until the late 1880s, carrying both mail and passengers. Merchants with business in the western and northern parts of the county went to Jackson for their merchandise since that city had a rail service. The most popular stagecoach route was that from Jackson to Clifton, by way of Mifflin, Lexington, and Scotts Hill. At Clifton it made connections with steamboats that carried passengers as well as freight and continued enroute to such cities as Nashville, Paducah, and Memphis.

On Tuesday, August 14, 1888, a grading and construction contractor, named Maddox, lifted the first shovel of dirt to begin building the railroad that would revolutionize the economy of Henderson County. The county court pledged the sum of $75,000 to the Tennessee Middlin Company for the construction of the railroad through the county to the Decatur County line; there other arrangements were made to continue the railroad to Perryville. The company intended to build a bridge at Perryville and continue the railroad to Nashville.

The grading and construction of the railroad furnished employment for over 100 residents. A farmer with a good team of mules could make as much as $3.50 per day working on railroad construction. The railroad reached completion within six months and the first run from Perryville to Memphis and back occurred on February 4, 1889; that date was the first Monday in the month-mule and horse trading day. A large crowd gathered to see the train and mingled with passengers who made the trip to Memphis out of curiosity Initially, there was only one passenger train each day. In Henderson County the railroad company located stations or depots at Chesterfield, Darden, Huron, Lexington, Life, Luray, Warrens Bluff, and in Decatur County at Beacon, Parsons, and Perryville. A table was constructed at Perryville to turn the locomotive around.

The first engine used was a small two-wheeler weighing approximately 50 tons that could haul approximately 200 tons. Although the Westinghouse airbrake had been invented in 1869, it was not in full use on all trains. This brake enabled the engineer to apply the brakes on all passenger or freight cars at the same time. Without the air brakes each car had to be individually braked by brakemen who would turn the breaking wheels at the end of the cars.

For 30 years the railroad was the only utility of any consequence in the county and was by far its biggest taxpayer. About 1891, the railroad line was completed to the Carroll County line and then on to Hollow Rock junction where connections could be made to such cities as Nashville, and Paducah and Hickman, Kentucky. Henderson County was then connected with outside communities. Extension to Hollow Rock junction was by the Paducah, Tennessee, and Alabama Railroad Company. Later the entire system became known as the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. The stations located between Lexington and Hollow Rock junction were Timberlake and Wildersville in Henderson County and Buna, Westport, Yuma, and Vista in Carroll County.

Cotton and other farm products soon began to be transported by rail. Lexington became the center of the Memphis and Paducah division, and over one-half of the employees, approximately 500 in number, lived in the city. Terminals were later located there, and until they were moved in 1922, as many as 15 locomotives could be repaired and maintained on the Lexington yard. The payroll of the railroad boosted the economy of the county. Railroad employees and their families provided a constant market where local farmers could peddle their products. Railroad salaries were considered "big money" with engineers receiving $5 a day, and section hands earning as much as $1.10 a day.

Railroads also brought the cross tie industry to the county. After local farmers harvested their crops, they made cross ties and hauled them by wagon to the nearest depot, where there was always a ready market to supplement their income. Martin Youngerman of Shady Hill managed a team of mules and made and hauled cross ties for the railroad. By hard work and frugality, he prospered and became a successful man.

Stave mills and lumber mills also appeared in the area and furnished jobs for many men. Saw mills were operated at Pipkin (Cedar Grove) between Sardis and Scotts Hill. The largest lumber operation was the Edwards, Oakley, and Utley Planing Mill located at Wildersville, which included a saw mill. Sometimes as many as 15 men worked at this mill. After the lumber was made at the saw mill, it was planed and shipped by carload.