One of Tennessee's few immigrant communities, Hohenwald began as a crossroads store and house owned by Warren and Augusta Smith. Augusta Smith, a German immigrant, named the community Hohenwald, which means “high forest,” a reflection of the surrounding countryside and its location on the Western Highland Rim.
In the 1890s, as the community developed and gained railroad access, it attracted the interest of officials of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, who recognized opportunities to establish immigrant agricultural communities and develop mineral resources. Swiss-American J. G. Probst advanced a scheme to establish two Swiss colonies, one in Middle Tennessee and one in Arkansas. Probst purchased thirteen thousand acres in Lewis County for his colony and founded the Swiss Pioneer Union to attract potential immigrant settlers. He drew attention to his scheme through advertisements in German-language newspapers. Railroads distributed pamphlets extolling Middle Tennessee farmland to midwestern passengers. The venture attracted considerable attention, and a number of Swiss immigrants sold their midwestern farms and bought stock in the Pioneer Union.
The first Swiss settlers arrived by train on November 17, 1895, expecting to find a well-developed town and established farms. When the train stopped at the boxcar depot, many would-be settlers despaired at the sight before them and remained on the train, returning to the farms they had abandoned. Those who stayed barely survived the winter in tents and makeshift barracks.
The settlers laid out a new town, which they called New Switzerland. Immediately adjacent to Hohenwald, it was platted in perfect squares with wide streets. Conflict quickly developed between the original citizens of Hohenwald and the immigrant settlers of New Switzerland. Language, customs, and economic expectations fueled the escalating tensions and soon produced a courtroom battle which resulted in the merger of the two towns under the name of Hohenwald. In 1897 Hohenwald became the county seat of Lewis County. Its population totaled twelve hundred inhabitants in 1910, over half of whom claimed Swiss heritage.
Well into the twentieth century, Hohenwald retained its Swiss distinctiveness. The Swiss settlers founded a singing group called Alpenroesli (Little Alpine Rose) and a band, Echoes of Switzerland, which played for the general assembly. The women organized the Frauerein, an organization similar to home demonstration clubs. During World War I anti-German sentiment forced the abandonment of the German language and cultural identification. Within a few years, most of Hohenwald's Swiss families no longer spoke German-Swiss. Only in recent years have descendants returned to their heritage.