The Tennessee General Assembly created Carroll County on November 7, 1821, and named it for the governor, William Carroll. The area from which the county was taken had been part of the Western District, which was controlled by the Chickasaws until ceded in the Jackson Purchase of 1818. Settlers began to move into the area in 1820, where they found abundant game, fertile land, and large forests. Grass-covered areas known as “barrens” provided pasturage for livestock and easy cultivation. Realizing that the temperate climate and natural resources offered a bright future, the settlers established firm roots in the county and founded a number of communities and towns that continue today, including McKenzie, Trezevant, Bruceton, Atwood, McLemoresville, Clarksburg, and Huntingdon.
Agriculture provided the economic base for Carroll County for most of its history. In 1920 the county contained over four thousand farms producing corn, cotton, wheat, fruits, and livestock. Fruit and poultry raising were especially important then. In more recent years, the economy has shifted toward manufacturing and commercial enterprises, and today Carroll County offers a healthy balance between agriculture, industry, and services. In 1999 four of its top ten employers were textile manufacturers, the largest being Bruceton's Henry I. Siegel Company, a producer of women's jeans. Other companies manufactured upholstered furniture, ammunition, aluminum foil, steel doors and frames, dishwashers racks, lawnmowers and garden equipment, molded rubber products, pet food, and lighting fixtures.
Good transportation systems account for much of Carroll County's industrial growth. In the early 1930s the Memphis-to-Bristol Highway passed through the center of Huntingdon and led to rebuilding and economic realignment. The town built a new courthouse and post office and added gas stations and the Court Theater to take advantage of the changes brought by highway traffic. Today, the county is served by Interstate 40, three U.S. highways, and ten state highways. Located at the junction of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad and the Memphis branch of the Louisville and Nashville, McKenzie is a classic example of a West Tennessee railroad town. Today, CSX serves the county's rail needs. In addition, Carroll County has a county airport with a 5,500-foot runway.
Carroll County has a long history in education. In 1843 Bethel Seminary was established in the rural village of McLemoresville under the auspices of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church; in 1847 the state granted the school a charter. In 1872 Bethel College moved into three new buildings at McKenzie, where it remains. More than five hundred students attend this fully accredited college, which is the only four-year institution sponsored by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
After the Civil War, the Methodist Church sponsored another private school in Carroll County, the McTyeire Preparatory School at McKenzie. Attended by a number of well-known men and women, this boarding school offered a Christian education to prepare students to enter Vanderbilt University. The school remained in operation until the Great Depression, when the costs of maintaining the facility forced it to close in 1931.
In 1920 more than eight thousand children attended ten high schools and ninety elementary schools. By the end of the century Carroll County operated seven four-year high schools as independent school districts across the county. In 1965 McKenzie received one of the first State Area Vo-Tech schools; it provides post-secondary training in order to expand the pool of local skilled labor.
Carroll County enjoys the benefits of recreational and health facilities. The county has two hospitals and three nursing homes. In the 1930s the U.S. Department of Agriculture acquired some forty-two thousand acres of eroded and abused land as part of the federal reclamation project. In 1939 Tennessee leased the reforested land to create the Natchez Trace State Park. Located in Carroll, Henderson, and Benton Counties, the Natchez Trace State Park offers a variety of recreational opportunities to local residents and visitors, including camping, hiking, swimming, and fishing. Its 2000 population was 29,425.
Carroll County was the home of two Tennessee governors: Alvin Hawkins and Gordon Browning. Hawkins, the only Republican governor from 1871 to 1911, served one term from 1881 to 1883. Gordon Browning, a Democrat, served three terms, 1937-39 and 1949-53. Browning's memory lives on in the Browning Museum and Genealogical Library in McKenzie.