VAN BUREN COUNTY


County Seat: Spencer

Spencer once made national news, thanks to the elderly ladies of the town.


Photo Courtesy of Tom Miller

In the late 1930s, the mayor of Spencer died, and for a while no one in the town took the initiative to call an election to replace him. It looked like the town of Spencer would vanish from the map.

The women of the Better Homes and Garden Club took action. They went to see a lawyer in McMinnville, who explained what they needed to do. Then the women called an election (which most of the men didn’t notice). Next thing you know, the town had an all-female council, a female recorder, a female chief of police and a female mayor, Mrs. J. M. Gordon.

“It was all perfectly legal and we didn’t deceive anyone,” Gordon said. “We gave the men plenty of chances to elect an administration and they didn’t do a thing.” What made this so amazing is that this was a time when, in all parts of the United States, women generally didn’t run governments.


The Van Buren County Courthouse

The all-female government made it illegal to sell beer there. They also “abolished taxes and, to raise revenue, started giving pie suppers, old fiddlers’ contests, amateur theatricals and other forms of entertainment,” according to the New York Times, which published a story about this on March 15, 1942. They also encouraged the citizens of the town to plant flower and shrubbery plots.


The old Burritt College building, still standing
Van Buren County also contains an abandoned college campus. Burritt College was founded here in 1848 under the auspices of the Church of Christ and shortly thereafter became coeducational, which means men and women could both go there.

For more than three-quarters of a century it was one of Tennessee's few institutions of higher learning. But after the emergence of public colleges it was hard to get students to go there. And Burritt College found it difficult to raise money and compete with other Church of Christ colleges (most notably, David Lipscomb College in Nashville).

A Bible class at Burritt College in 1921
PHOTO: Van Buren County Historical Society
Burritt College became a high school in 1917 and closed entirely in 1939. Today the campus is abandoned and partly owned by the county. Kinda sad, isn't it?