Grainger County holds the distinction as the only Tennessee county named for a woman, Mary Grainger Blount, the wife of Territorial Governor William Blount. The state legislature formed the county in 1796 from parts of Hawkins and Knox Counties, and it once included parts of Campbell, Claiborne, Hamblen, and Union Counties. The county seat rotated meeting places until 1801, when a courthouse was built in Rutledge.
Nestled between the Holston and Clinch Rivers, Grainger County retains much of its rural nature. Rutledge, the county seat, has a population approaching 2,500. Founded in 1798, the town was named in honor of General George Rutledge of Sullivan County. Blaine, now a suburb of Knoxville, traces its origins to the 1700s, when it was known as Blaine's Crossroads because of its proximity to the residence of Robert Blaine. George Bean Sr., goldsmith, jeweler, and gun maker, settled Bean Station, the county's most recently chartered town (1997). Bean Station served as a crossroads along the Old Kentucky Road (Highway 25E) and the New Orleans to Washington Road (Highway 11W). These towns lie to the south of Clinch Mountain, which splits the county into two geographical sections. Communities north of the mountain include Thorn Hill, Washburn, and Powder Springs.
Agriculture still accounts for a significant portion of the county economy, with tobacco the major money crop, though cattle raising continues to make important gains. Grainger County tomatoes have become a national trademark.
Small businesses represented a second source of economic development. Grist mills, hatters, saddle makers, tailors, lawyers, and dry goods merchants supplied the necessities for isolated agricultural communities. Taverns such as the nationally renowned Bean Station Hotel along the New Orleans to Washington Road provided accommodations and refreshments to weary travelers.
By the late 1800s a tourism industry had developed around the mineral springs flowing from Clinch Mountain. The most famous, Tate's Springs, flourished until the Great Depression. It included mineral baths and waters, an enormous hotel, cabins, and a golf course. The resort declined and closed following the Great Depression and a major fire. Today a gazebo is the most important reminder of its former grandeur. More recently, the Tennessee Valley Authority's construction of lakes of both sides of the county, Cherokee Lake to the south and Norris Lake to the north, has revived the recreational industry. Fishing, camping, water sports, and development of lakefront property continue to contribute to the county's economy.
Grainger County's industrial growth has been marginal. The Shields family operated Holston Paper Mill, one of the earliest local industries. The Knoxville and Bristol Railway, which once ran through the Richland Creek Valley, succumbed to flooding. The vegetable canneries of the 1910s closed after a tomato blight destroyed their primary produce. Locally owned Clinchdale Lumber Company logged the county's timber in the early part of the century. Later, timbering gave way to knitting mills and zinc mining. Black marble is quarried in Thorn Hill. In 1974 the county built an industrial park to spark economic growth with mixed results. Almost half the people of the county now travel to surrounding towns for employment. Overall, the county remains one of small businesses and agriculture, although a 1999 count identified 3,643 residents employed in the industrial sector.
During the Civil War a state of near-guerrilla warfare brought economic, political, and social chaos. A major skirmish occurred near Blaine around Christmas of 1862. A year later the battle of Bean's Station pitted the forces of Confederate General James Longstreet against a Union army under General J. M. Shackleford in a planned surprise attack that failed through the blunders of Longstreet's staff.
Grainger County claims a number of notable citizens. James Ore, pioneer Indian fighter and Knoxville merchant, was one of the county's first settlers. Several members of the Cocke family served in the state and national legislatures, including John Cocke (1796-1801, 1807-13, 1843-45), Sterling Cocke (1815-19), William Cocke (1813-15), and William Michael Cocke (1855-57). Members of the Lea family associated with Sam Houston, founded a city in Texas, surveyed the Iowa territory, and taught at the University of Tennessee. Andrew Johnson operated a tailor's shop in Rutledge. DeWitt Clinton Senter, successor to Governor William G. Brownlow, grew up in Grainger County, as did Spencer Jarnagin, a U.S. senator (1843-47). John K. Shields held posts as Tennessee Supreme Court chief justice and U.S. senator (1913-25). His brother, Knoxville banker W. S. Shields, provided the land for the University of Tennessee football stadium. John Williams served as U.S. minister to Turkey. Dr. Herbert Acuff achieved national recognition as a surgeon. Roy H. Beeler became attorney general of Tennessee. Theo Tate was U.S. treasurer, and Bob Taylor Jones served as governor of Arizona.
The strength of the county lies in its people. Independent and hardworking, they retain strong family and community ties. According to the 2000 census, 20,659 people lived in Grainger County.