Named for Judge John Haywood, Haywood County was part of Madison County when the Tennessee General Assembly created it in 1823-24. Later, part of Haywood County was taken to create Lauderdale and Crockett Counties. The state legislature designated Brownsville as the county seat, and in 1823 Thomas M. Johnson sold the county fifty acres of land for the county seat for one dollar and a town lot. The county court met in the home of Richard Nixon, the first settler in the area, until 1825, when the first log courthouse was completed. A second courthouse was built in 1826; in 1845 it was rebuilt with brick. In 1868 the county added a west wing to accommodate the convening of the Supreme Court for West Tennessee. The courthouse underwent complete renovation in 1989. The first jail was built in 1825; in 1872 it was replaced with a brick and iron jail. In 1974 a new jail was located four miles east of Brownsville.
Cotton agriculture provided the basis for the Haywood County economy for much of its history. Early settlers soon established a plantation system based on slave labor. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the cotton economy returned, although tenant farmers and sharecroppers now worked the fields. In 1828 James Bond settled in Haywood County and built one of the largest fortunes in the state through the cultivation of cotton.
The production of staple crops benefited from the early appearance of railroads in the county. Trains first came to Tennessee in 1846. Both the Holly Springs and Brownsville Railroad and the Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (later the Louisville and Nashville) served Brownsville. Passenger service through Brownsville ended in 1968. Today, Interstate 40 parallels the old Louisville and Nashville track to Memphis.
A 1923 description of Haywood County noted the fertile soil and potential for crop diversification. It listed cotton, corn, fruit, grass, and livestock as the most important agricultural products. Today, these crops remain important, together with soybeans. In 1939-40, the federal Farm Security Administration established the Haywood County Farm Project near Stanton to provide small farms for African American residents, which they could rent with an option to buy. Some thirty-nine local families participated in the program. The National Register-listed Woodlawn Baptist Church near Nutbush documents post-Civil War black history in rural Haywood County.
Industry development in the county initially supported agricultural production. In 1828 Hiram Bradford began operation of the county's first cotton gin. Although declining in number (there were only 297 cotton gins operating in Tennessee in 1972), cotton gins still dot the landscape of Haywood County. In 1829 a horse-propelled grist mill began operation, and by 1874 the county had a cotton mill. The most significant changes in industrialization came during World War II, as farmers and farm laborers left the fields, and agriculture mechanized. Today, several manufacturers employ local residents in industries ranging from the production of riding lawn mowers to the manufacture of vinyl garden hoses, PVC pipe fittings, and powdered ball bearings.
The county's first newspaper, the Phoenix, began publication in 1833. Nine other papers appeared during the next century and a half. The States Graphic issued its first publication in 1900 and continues publication today.
The county's first Sunday school opened in Brownsville in 1831. During the first decade of settlement, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians established congregations. The Episcopal Church arrived in 1834, and the Catholics and Cumberland Presbyterians built churches circa 1870. Temple Adas Israel (1882) stands as a reminder of the migration of Jews into rural communities in the nineteenth century.
Haywood County's first school was built by Howell Taylor in the Tabernacle neighborhood in 1827. Early schools were subscription schools, and public schools were not available until 1897. Among the county's many historic schools were Union Academy, Brownsville Male Academy, Brownsville Female Institute, Dancyville Female Institute, Brownsville Seminary, Cageville Male and Female Academy, and Wesleyan Female College. The Dunbar School for African American children became Haywood County Training School around 1920, then Carver High School in 1950. Brownsville Baptist Female College (1850, later a high school) became the nucleus for the National Register-listed College Hill Historic District. The former college's Center Building now houses a comprehensive Lincoln Collection and the Haywood County Museum. Haywood County High School opened in 1911; in 1970 it was closed and a new school was built when the city and county schools consolidated and integrated.
Brownsville residents have enjoyed a variety of services throughout the history of the community. The Brownsville Savings Bank, organized in 1869 (reputedly the second oldest continuously operating bank in the state), became the Brownsville Bank in 1899. Since 1997 it has operated as part of the In-South Bank system. Brownsville received telegraph service in 1848; Bell Telephone opened an office in 1895. County residents began to receive rural free mail delivery in 1903. In 1872 a gas works came to Brownsville, and the city received natural gas in 1934. Rural electrification reached the county in 1936. In 1909, $7,500 from Andrew Carnegie's library program built a free public library, which was replaced in 1992 with the Elma Ross Library. In 1909 Brownsville built a public Ladies Rest Room, the first such known facility in Tennessee, to accommodate the needs of farmwives as they shopped in town. Ridley and Mann Wills established the Haywood County Memorial Hospital in 1930; Methodist Hospital Systems now provides medical services.
Haywood County has grown from a population of 265 families in 1826 to a population that reached 19,797 in 2000. A county executive and county court governs the county. Brownsville's population rose from 400 in 1832 to 10,748 in 2000. The town is governed by a mayor and five aldermen.