Located on the Eastern Highland Rim of the Upper Cumberland and bordering Kentucky is Macon County, formed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1842 from parts of Smith and Sumner Counties. It was named in honor of Nathaniel Macon, a North Carolina Revolutionary War soldier, U.S. senator, and Speaker of the House of Representatives. Lafayette, the largest community in the county and the county seat, was named for the French general and hero of the American Revolution, Marie Joseph Gilbert de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette has had four courthouses: an 1844 two-story brick courthouse that burned in 1860; a two-story brick courthouse begun in 1861 and finished in 1866 that burned in 1901; a 1901 two-story brick and stone structure with a domed clock tower that burned in 1932; and the present two-story brick courthouse, completed in 1933 and renovated in 1972.
Macon County encompasses 307 square miles, and the 2000 federal census reported a population of 20,386. It is one of the few Tennessee counties that has never contained a rail line. A municipal airport is located west of Lafayette.
Macon County's economy has depended largely on agriculture. For most of the twentieth century, burley tobacco was the most common cash crop. In 1995 the county's 35,777 acres under production included 25,000 acres in hay, 3,800 acres in soybeans, 3,750 acres in burley tobacco, 2,800 acres in corn, 350 acres in wheat, 61 acres in fruits and vegetables, and 16 acres in dark tobacco. The American Greeting Card Company is the county's largest industrial employer, with 300 employees, while Fleetwood Homes of Tennessee, a builder of mobile homes, ranks second with 250 employees.
Red Boiling Springs is the county's second largest community. In the 1840s Samuel Hare recognized the commercial potential and medicinal value of the area's unusual boiling springs. He fenced the springs, built cabins, and developed the area as a “watering place.” Though Red Boiling Springs was a thriving community in the 1850s, the Civil War and land disputes halted development and resulted in the demolition of most of the community's original buildings. In the 1880s New York businessman James F. O. Shaughnesy purchased 200 acres, including the boiling springs, and began to develop the area as a summer resort, which became famous for its mineral springs. At its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, the resort boasted nine hotels and more than a dozen boarding houses. In addition to the mineral springs treatments, the resort featured horseback riding, tennis, a dammed lake that served as a swimming pool, bowling alleys, and a dance hall. Three of the historic hotels remain and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Spring houses still feature five kinds of mineral water: white, red, black, double and twist, and free-stone. Each has a distinctly different mineral composition related to rock formations in the Highland Rim area, and each is considered a cure for different ailments. Red Boiling Springs hosts an annual Folk Medicine Festival on the last weekend in July.
Other notable Macon County landmarks include what is reputedly the world's largest sundial near Pleasant Valley, a large concrete structure that Elmer White built about 1920. The Morrison House, a one-story brick residence built in about 1829, is probably the only pre-Civil War brick building in the county and the oldest building located on its original site. Macon County also boasts an increasingly rare artifact of the automobile culture, the Macon Drive-in Theater, on State Route 10 north of Lafayette. Built in 1950, the drive-in is open nine months a year, seven nights a week. Three early twentieth-century frame schoolhouses are listed on the National Register. One of these, the Galen Elementary School northeast of Lafayette, houses the county's Heritage Museum.
One of the county's most famous residents is Nera White, who set various amateur and professional basketball records beginning in the 1950s. She received numerous national and international awards, and in 1992 became the first female basketball player inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.