Situated next to the Tennessee River on the western edge of Middle Tennessee, Humphreys County has a history intimately linked to its location and natural resources. It contains fertile agricultural land along its major waterways–the Tennessee, Duck, and Buffalo Rivers–and in the creek-lined lands of its innumerable rolling hills. A strong agricultural tradition and proximity to the Tennessee River have been the county's mainstay since its 1809 creation from parts of Stewart County.
Prior to white settlement Native Americans lived and hunted on the land that eventually became Humphreys County. Of these indigenous groups, Woodland and Mississippian groups left the most visible remains. Many mound sites are located in the western section of the county, with the most prominent being the Link and Slayden sites situated near Hurricane Mills on the Duck River. Partially excavated in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, the Slayden site revealed a small circular village with two community houses and a nearby cemetery. The Link site contained six mounds and several cemeteries.
In 1811 the county established its first seat, Reynoldsburg, on the Tennessee River, where a stage line to Nashville crossed. Reynoldsburg thrived as an important transportation center until 1835, when the county was divided and Waverly became the new county seat. Selected for its central location and access to the stage line, by 1838 Waverly included a courthouse, jail, businesses, and many log dwellings.
Humphreys County grew steadily and by 1860 claimed a population of 9,096 whites, 1,463 slaves, and 14 free blacks. Most residents were farmers. In addition to livestock, farms situated along the rich river bottoms and fertile valleys yielded wheat, rye, oats, tobacco, and cotton, with Indian corn the major cash crop.
Although Humphreys County lies in the once-rich iron ore area of the Western Highland Rim, only two iron operations existed. The Fairchance Furnace produced pig iron from circa 1832 to 1835, while the iron forge at Hurricane Mills operated sporadically from circa 1814 into the early 1850s.
The 1860 census shows 1,118 people in Humphreys County employed in the construction of the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad. Mostly Irish immigrants, the workers later settled the town of McEwen. The Civil War and the Union capture of Forts Henry and Donelson temporarily interrupted railroad construction. In January 1863 General William S. Rosecrans ordered the completion of the railroad from White Bluff to Johnsonville and the stationing of Union troops along the railroad line at the Hurricane Creek stockade and at both Fort Hills in Waverly and Johnsonville.
Humphreys County was the scene of occasional skirmishes and one Civil War battle. On November 4, 1864, General Nathan Bedford Forrest commanded the bombardment of Johnsonville, which served as a Federal supply center on the Tennessee River. After forty minutes of cannon and gun fire, the Union troops set fire to the remaining boats and retreated to Waverly and Nashville. The battle destroyed three gunboats, eight steamboats, eighteen barges, and all the warehouses.
In the decades following the war, Humphreys County grew steadily; by 1890 it had a population of 11,720 and nearly 1,400 farms. Most of the best farmland had been claimed before the war, and new growth occurred in the hilly, marginally fertile areas. Unsuitable for commercial crop farming, the land was good for timber and livestock grazing. The timber industry flourished, meeting new demands for board lumber, local stave mills, and railroad crossties. While corn continued to be an important crop, the peanut industry had the greatest impact on the county's economic development from the 1880s into the first decades of the twentieth century. At the height of the crop's production in 1910, the county supplied one-third of the state's peanuts, with approximately 6,126 acres devoted to the legume. Peanut farming required a great deal of hand labor and supported the tenancy system as well as the small hill farmer. Large peanut warehouses in Waverly and Johnsonville stored the crop until it was shipped on Tennessee River barges. The peanut industry and the general agriculture market experienced a sharp decline around 1920, however, as a result of post-World War I deflation. The agricultural stagnation that followed haunted Humphreys County throughout the 1920s, reducing the county's population.
The New Deal brought progressive agricultural programs to demonstrate soil conservation, crop diversification, crop rotation, mechanization, and promotion of livestock raising and dairying. Federal involvement helped stabilize the eroding agricultural environment and promote industrial growth. As early as 1934 the Public Works Administration constructed a city water works in McEwen, which helped bring Kraft Cheese Company to the area. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built new roads, bridges, streets, a gymnasium, and other recreation and conservation projects. From 1935 to 1938 the WPA spent $432,360 in Humphreys County; in 1940 the WPA employed 441 people in the county.
In 1937 the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) began surveying the western, Tennessee River side of the county to establish the zone that would be inundated by the creation of Kentucky Lake and Dam. From 1938 to 1942 the TVA purchased 36,160 acres of the richest agricultural land in the county, displacing people, businesses, industries, and whole towns. The TVA became the greatest vehicle for change in the history of the county, diverting the economic character from agricultural dependency to industrialization. The new potential for hydroelectric power gave the county a great advantage in the post-World War II period. By the early 1950s the recently created river town of New Johnsonville claimed the TVA's first steam power plant, a large chemical plant, a manganese factory, and an aluminum reduction plant. Today Humphreys County relies upon both its industrial and agricultural heritage, while also enjoying the immensely popular recreational attractions and wetland preserves created by the TVA's legacy. A major tourist site is the Hurricane Mills estate of country music legend Loretta Lynn. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Lynn significantly influenced a generation of women performers in her songs about women trying to make their way and keep their families together in a modern world. Lynn is a native of Kentucky, a story she tells well in her autobiography Coal Miner's Daughter (1976). But she has lived most of her life in Tennessee and considers Hurricane Mills as her adopted home. The Hurricane Mills Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. In that same year, the county’s population totaled 17,929.
Jill K. Garrett, A History of Humphreys County, Tennessee (1963); Wayne C. Moore, “Farm Communities and Economic Growth in the Lower Tennessee Valley, Humphreys County, Tennessee, 1785-1980” (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1990)