Advanced 4: Counties

The Montgomery County Courthouse,
which is one of the finest in the state


Counties exist so that all people, no matter how far out in the country they live, can have access to basic government services.

After all, it would be a sorry state of affairs if everyone in Tennessee had to come to Nashville just to go to court, get a driver’s license or pay their property taxes!

Every county has a courthouse, which is where the government of that county is based. The town that contains the courthouse is known as the county seat.

Tennessee originally had only nine counties, but as the state expanded and grew west, it kept creating them — often by subdividing existing counties into smaller ones.

When the Civil War occurred, Tennessee had 65 counties. During the few decades after the war, 31 more were added as existing counties continued to divide, often because of feuds that remained from the Civil War.

Here are some interesting things about counties in Tennessee:

A common method of transportation when counties were formed. PHOTO: Tennessee: A Guide to our State (1939 book)

* Today, counties seem smaller than they need to be. After all, you can easily drive from one end of the state to the other in less than a day!

However, it wasn’t that easy to get around in the 1700s and 1800s, when most of Tennessee’s counties were formed. Back when the main method of transportation was horse, and most roads weren’t paved, counties were set up so that a farmer could milk his cows in the morning, ride a horse to the courthouse and transact some business, and get home in time to feed his animals in the afternoon.

The old Obion County Courthouse in Troy
PHOTO: Jane Powell

* When the main method of transportation shifted from the river to the railroad, many county seats were moved. Among the counties whose county seats have moved are Obion, Rhea and Perry.

The Dickson County Courthouse in Charlotte

* Having said that, many counties have resisted pressure to move their courthouse from its original site to a town that is growing faster.

This is why the county seat of Sullivan County is not Kingsport, but Blountville.

The Anderson County Courthouse is in Clinton (population 10,000) rather than Oak Ridge (population 30,000).

And the county seat of Dickson County is not Dickson, but the tiny community of Charlotte.

The Crockett County Courthouse around 1880

* Some counties (such as Rutherford, Williamson, Fayette and Wilson) are gaining population very fast. In these counties, they are building new schools all the time.

Meanwhile, some counties are stagnant when it comes to population. Crockett County contains almost the exact same number of people today as it did in 1880!

As a general rule, counties that lie close to Tennessee’s four largest cities (Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga) grow faster than those that do not. Also, counties that lie along interstates grow faster than those that do not.

The former James County Courthouse

* At one time, Tennessee had 96 counties.

James County went bankrupt and ceased to exist in 1919. Since that time Tennessee has had 95 counties.

Today the former James County Courthouse, in Ooltewah, is used as a wedding chapel!

Click here for the next chapter.