Located in the northwest corner of Tennessee, Lake County is bounded by Kentucky on the north, Reelfoot Lake and Obion County on the east, the Mississippi River on the west, and Dyer County on the south. The smallest county in the state, Lake County covers 210 square miles. Its flat terrain contains some of the richest soil in the state. The county was named for Reelfoot Lake, which was formed by a series of earthquakes that jolted the region from December 1811 to mid-March 1812. Despite popular legends that attribute the name of the lake to “Chief Reelfoot and his Indian Bride,” the lake was named for Bill Jones, whose clubfoot gained him the nickname “Reelfoot Jones.” Jones died in March 1839, when he slipped from a foot log, fell into Spring Creek, and drowned. Thereafter the creek was known as “Reelfoot Creek,” and since it fed the lake, the shallow body of water acquired the name Reelfoot also.
The Tennessee General Assembly organized Lake County in June 1870, and Tiptonville was designated as the county seat. The first session of court was held on September 5, 1870. Settlers established homesteads along the river and the lake as early as 1827. Until the organization of Lake County, area residents were part of Obion County and traveled to Troy to conduct county business. In recognition of the difficulty associated with crossing the “scatters of the Lake” (a swampy area extending south from the lake to the Obion River), a special Circuit Court was established in 1858 for the portion of Obion County lying west of Reelfoot Lake. The first term of this court was held in June 1858 in the Masonic Hall in Cronanville, the largest village. The men living in this area were exempted from militia duty in Troy. The scatters of the lake were brought under control by digging a dredge ditch from the lake to the Obion River along the boundary line between Lake and Obion Counties. Bridges crossing the ditch replaced the earlier ferry boats.
Lake County's economy is based on agriculture, with cotton and soybeans the chief crops. Farmland has remained in the same families for generations, and Lake County has several Tennessee Century Farms, including the Ed Sumara Farm, the Wynn Farm, and the Carter Farm. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, cotton gins operated alongside the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad, ginning as much as forty bales per day. Located on a spur of the railroad, the community of Ridgely was once the site of several cotton gins, whose abandoned operations are still visible. In 1997, however, only one gin still operated in the county, turning out a bale of cotton every five minutes. Continental Grain Company ships corn, wheat, and soybeans by river and has replaced several earlier soybean companies. Lake County Seed Company, which operated a cottonseed oil mill in Tiptonville from 1906 to 1971, now stands abandoned.
In 1861 the last major Confederate fort on the Mississippi River fell in the battle of Island #10, which lies in the great river bend near Tiptonville. The Confederate loss at Island #10 opened the Mississippi River to Union forces and assured the occupation of Memphis in June 1862.
Lake County and Reelfoot Lake returned to national prominence in 1907, when lake residents waged a violent battle against the West Tennessee Land Company for control of the lake. In a series of slick legal moves, the land company acquired title to the lake and developed plans for draining the lake for cotton production. Local commercial fishermen and lake residents fought back, and the conflict escalated into a series of night rider attacks in which armed and masked men terrorized the company and its supporters. The attacks resulted in the kidnapping and death of company attorney Quinton Rankin of Trenton and the arrest of three hundred men accused of being nightriders. The cases against the men were eventually dropped, and the state acquired the lake for public use in 1914.
Lake County has 7,954 residents in 2000. It contains twenty-two villages, including the communities of Ridgely, Tiptonville, and Wynnburg. In the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, Ridgely became the site of one of the 154 emergency relief camps established by the American Red Cross. Today the community operates two schools for students in the south end of the county; one school contains kindergarten through sixth grade, and the other is a junior high school.
Wynnburg was created by Samuel F. Wynn, when he divided his farm in 1907 to accommodate the construction of a branch line of the Illinois Central from Dyersburg to Tiptonville. Wynn donated land for a depot, schools, and churches, and the town acquired its name from the family.
Tiptonville, the county seat, dates from 1857 but was not incorporated until 1900. Located on a small rise known as the Tiptonville Dome, the town also served as an emergency relief camp during the flood of 1927 and again during the flood of 1937. Tiptonville serves the educational needs of the northern end of the county with kindergarten through sixth grade and the county high school. The Lake County High School football team won the state championship in 1980 and 1985, and has been runner-up in 1977, 1979, and 1994.
Today Lake County has several factories, including Georgia Gulf, which produces PVC, a vinyl compound. The Illinois Central Railroad still plays an important role in the county's economy. Formerly, the county was served by trains making two round trips daily for passengers and freight. Today, it makes one trip daily for freight.
General Clifton Bledsoe Cates, a four-star general and nineteenth commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, was born at Cates Landing in 1898. He was raised in the county, attended elementary school here, and called the county “home.” Cates died in 1970. Tiptonville also was the early home of Carl Perkins, whose combination hillbilly music and rhythm and blues influenced early rock-n-roll.