The last county formed in Tennessee was Chester County, created by the Tennessee General Assembly from parts of neighboring Hardeman, Henderson, McNairy, and Madison Counties. In 1875 this land was used to create a county named Wisdom County, but Wisdom County was never organized, and in March 1879 the general assembly repealed this act and created Chester County out of the same land. Litigation brought on behalf of opponents of the new county delayed formal organization until 1882.
Chester County was named for Colonel Robert I. Chester, a quartermaster in the War of 1812, an early postmaster in Jackson, and a federal marshal for the Western District. The county seat, Henderson, was founded along the Mobile and Ohio Railroad line in the late 1850s and first known as Dayton. In 1860 Polk Bray opened the town’s first store. The town name was later changed to Henderson Station and then Henderson shortly after the Civil War to honor Colonel James Henderson, a veteran of the War of 1812. Incorporated in 1901, Henderson is home to two twentieth-century county landmarks: the Classical Revival-style Chester County Courthouse (1913), which was used in scenes in the movie Walking Tall about McNairy County sheriff Buford Pusser and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and Freed-Hardeman University. In 1907 local businessmen asked educators A. G. Freed and N. B. Hardeman, who had taught at the earlier Georgie Robertson Christian College, to head a new school named the National Teachers’ Normal and Business College. In 1919 the name changed to Freed-Hardeman College, and in 1990 this Church of Christ institution acquired university status.
Chester County villages include Mifflin, established in 1833 by Colonel John Purdy; Jacks Creek, which was established in the 1820s and was the home of J. M. Stone, later a governor of Mississippi; and Enville.
Scattered military activity took place in what is now Chester County during the Civil War. In October 1862 a Confederate force under the command of Major N. N. Cox attacked a Union occupying force in Henderson guarding the railroad line. Cox and his soldiers destroyed the train station, fired the railroad bridge, and tore up track. In December 1863 General Nathan B. Forrest’s cavalry fought an all-day engagement with Union forces at Jacks Creek. Chester County also was a stronghold for Unionists, often described as members of the “Hurst Nation,” under the loose command of Colonel Fielding Hurst of the Sixth Tennessee Calvary.
A survey of Tennessee in 1923 noted that public education had been established in Chester County; the Julius Rosenwald Fund supported the construction of modern African American schools in Henderson in 1921-22 and later at the Gibson community in 1927-28. The survey also described Chester County as a largely agricultural landscape, with 1,667 farms producing many types of crops and cotton as the largest cash crop. But hard use of the land and little practice of soil conservation left the county’s sandy soil in poor shape. During the New Deal era of the 1930s a large portion of the western end of Chester County became part of the Chickasaw State Park and Forest project of the Farm Security Administration. Originally, planners wanted to include 35,000 acres in the reclamation project but settled for a park and forest project of over 13,000 acres. The Civilian Conservation Corps performed initial work in 1934 before the project came under the control of the Resettlement Administration. The present Chickasaw State Park and Forest contains 1,280 acres for recreation and 13,104 acres of protected timberland.
Famous natives of Chester County include vocalist and television performer Eddy Arnold and women’s rights activist Sue Shelton White. In 2000 the county’s population was 15,540 and the largest employer was Grinnell Corporation, which manufactures metal stampings, at a 315-employee factory in Henderson.