Austin Peay, originally from Hopkinsville, Kentucky, was governor from 1923 to 1927. As such, he may have done more to reform state government than any other governor in Tennessee history. When Peay took office, Tennessee had only 244 miles of paved roads (most of which consisted of two so-called “Dixie Highways” that still run parallel to Interstates 24 and 75). Peay created the state highway department, and by the time he left office Tennessee had over 4,000 miles of paved road.
Peay reorganized state government from 64 bureaus to eight departments He greatly expanded the Department of Health. He created the schools now known as UT-Martin and Austin Peay University. He directed the legislature to purchase the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from lumber companies – a necessary step toward its becoming a national park. And in 1925, he passed what he thought was the biggest piece of legislation of his career – a bill that guaranteed an eight-month school year in most schools. Before that time, some public schools were in session for as little as seven months, some in session as much as ten months.
The most famous piece of legislation passed during Peay’s two terms, however, was one that he later came to regret. In 1925 the General Assembly passed a bill that made it illegal to teach evolution. This law soon became the subject of a nationally famous test case in Dayton, Tennessee, known as the Scopes trial.
Austin Peay was also the only governor to have died in office, on October 2, 1927.