A History of Polk County

by Marian Presswood, Polk County Historian

Polk County, Tennessee's 72nd county, so named to honor newly-elected Governor James K. Polk, is located in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, bounded by both North Carolina and Georgia. Its 436 square miles contains some of the most scenic beauty in the country, with beautiful Parksville Lake, the Ocoee, Conasauga, and Hiwassee Rivers and 50,865 acres of Cherokee National Forest along the lower Unaka Mountain range.

Polk County's known Indian heritage goes back at least 2,000 years to the early woodland Indians. DeSoto, in 1540, camped near Columbus, a thriving trading post on the banks of the Hiwassee River. The treaty of 1819 opened the territory north of the Hiwassee to white settlement and the 1835 Treaty of Removal forced the Cherokees to give up their final portion of land in Tennessee.

By the petition of some 100 citizens, Polk County was created by an act of the legislature on November 28, 1839, from parts of Bradley and McMinn. David Ragen, as Sheriff pro-tem was authorized to hold the first electction, while commissioners James McKamy, William Shields, Samuel Parks, Abraham Lillard and Jacob Moore were to lay off the county into seven civil districts.

The county seat was to be named Benton in hononor of Thomas Hart Benton, Senator from Missouri. In the February 4, 1840, election, McKamy's stock stand, located on the Old Federal Road, was the site chosen for the permanent county seat. The new town was surveyed and laid by James McKamy and John F. Hannah into 223 lots, which were sold in 1840 for a total of $11,386 -- much of which was never collected.

New officers were duly elected and included John Shamblin, Sheriff; Abraham Lillard, trustee; James Parks, county clerk; W.M. Biggs, circuit court clerk; Sam Kennedy, registrar; with the following Justices of Peace: R.H. McConnell, Sylvester Blackwell, Zachariah Rose, (first chairman), John Williams, Stephen Blankenship, Riley Horn, Andrew Stephenson, W.H. Henry, William Wiggins, Abe McKissac, Alfred Taylor, Ben Ellis, J.W. Witt, James Ainsworth, and L.L. Trewitt.

During the War Between the States, Polk County provided five companies for the Confederacy and two for the Union Army, as well as 90% of the copper for the Southern cause. There were no battles fought within the county; however, the November 29, 1864, raid by notorious bushwhacker and guerilla John P. Gatewood, resulted in at least sixteen murders.

Polk County's remote Sylco Mountains was the site of an unique experiment in social living by Rosine Parmentier and some of the New York friends in the1840's. Purchasing around 50,000 acres of land, they encouraged the colonizing of the area by a mixture of French, German, Italian, Austrian and others. Their grandiose idea of profitable winemaking apparently found no market, and most of the colonist left. Those who remained were the Becklers, Miolin, Nocarina, Genollic, Sholtz, Pace and Chable families, who soon were integrated into the local community.

Polk County, with a 1990 census population of 13,643, presently has four elementary and two high schools within its boundaries: Polk County High School, Benton and South Polk Elementary schools in West Polk; Copper Basin, Ducktown and Turtletown in East Polk. There are approximately 50 churches in the county, all Protestant: mainly Baptist; the remainder Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of God, and Episcopal. The oldest church in the county is Friendship Baptist Church, organized around 1826 in the Linsdale area north of the Hiwassee, which was opened to white settlers by a 1819 Treaty.

The Tennessee Valley Authority operates three hydroelectric plants on the Ocoee (one on the Hiwassee) and owns more than 3,000 acres of land. The U.S. Forest Service owns in excess of 150,000 acres and operates several recreational sites which provide picnicking, camping and swimming facilities for local citizens and thousands of visitors each year.

The Ocoee River was the site of the 1996 Centennial Olympic canoe/kayak slalom competition, bringing thousands of visitors to our door. Besides the specially constructed race course and its 300 ft. scale model in new Sugarloaf Mountain State Park, a new Ocoee Whitewater Center administration building remains as visible and economic reminders of our part in this historic event.
Agriculture continues to be a major factor in the economy of Polk County, with leading products including poultry, dairy products, cattle, hogs, soybeans, forestry products and corn. A half-dozen small industries employing around 400 people produce clothing, furniture, lumber and car mats.