Clay County

Some of the longtime residents of the Free Hill community


In Clay County you will find the community of Free Hill, which has a unique history.

In 1830 a woman named Virginia Hill decided to free her slaves. She bought 2.000 acres in what is now Clay County and gave it to them.

Some of Free Hill’s residents in the 1950s
PHOTO: Community of Free Hill

It wasn’t easy for these former slaves to survive. They had to grow crops on rocky, hilly land. The community was occasionally the target of terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

However, many of these former slaves thrived. Some of their descendants remain today.

Today the community of Free Hill holds annual reunions and is now raising money to restore its old school building.

Willow Grove before it was flooded PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives

Another story: How would you feel if you came home one day and found that your entire hometown had been covered with a lake? Some of the residents of Clay County experienced this.

There used to be a small town here called Willow Grove. Seventy-four families lived there. The town had churches, stores and schools just like any other town. A native of the community, Cordell Hull, even grew up to become U.S. Secretary of State under President Franklin Roosevelt.

Dale Hollow Dam, in Clay County

But in 1940 the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was going to build Dale Hollow Dam, and flood Willow Grove. The town held meetings to try to stop it, but in those days it was close to impossible to stop the government when it decided to build a dam.

During the next two years, everyone in Willow Grove was forced to sell their homes and move to higher ground. They even dug up their cemeteries and moved the bodies. After the dam was built, it took about a year for the waters of Dale Hollow Lake to rise to the level that the Corps of Engineers wanted. By 1944, the lake was full, and Willow Grove was underwater.


Here’s a picture of the courthouse in Clay County.