McMinn County, located in southeast Tennessee, was established by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1819. Named for Governor Joseph McMinn, the county was created from lands ceded by the Cherokees in the Hiwassee Purchase.
Calhoun, the first town and county seat, was established in 1820 across the Hiwassee River from the Cherokee Indian Agency. The need for a more centrally located seat of government led to the county seat’s removal in 1823 to Athens, fifteen miles north. Athens was chartered in 1822. By 1830 McMinn County had a population of over 14,000, including 1,250 slaves.
The Hiwassee Railroad began construction of one of Tennessee’s first railroads in McMinn County in 1837. Plans called for a line from Dalton, Georgia, through McMinn County to Knoxville, a distance of ninety-eight miles. Financial problems and a general economic depression statewide halted construction in 1839 after the completion of sixty-six miles of graded roadbed and a bridge at Calhoun. Work was resumed in 1849 by the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. Athens served as the railroad’s headquarters until 1855, when the central office was moved to Knoxville.
With the arrival of the railroad came the new towns of Riceville, Sanford, and Mouse Creek (now Niota), which developed along the line. During the Civil War, the railroad gained added significance, serving as a vital link for transporting troops and supplies between the Lower and Upper South.
Like most East Tennesseans, McMinn Countians experienced divided loyalties during the Civil War. Although Tennessee joined the Confederacy in 1861, the county furnished troops to both Confederate and Union armies. While no major battles were fought within the county, thousands of troops passed through, and the area suffered severe economic hardships.
Following the war, lack of capital hampered growth and development, but by the late nineteenth century, recovery, spurred by the railroad, was well under way. Two new towns, Jellico Junction (later Englewood) and Etowah, were established along railway lines. Etowah came into existence in 1905 as a railroad town, the Atlanta Division headquarters of the Louisville and Nashville (L&N). By the 1920s employment reached over two thousand, and some twenty trains passed through Etowah daily.
In 1920 McMinn County’s young representative to the Tennessee legislature, Harry T. Burn of Niota, cast the deciding vote approving the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women the right to vote. The Senate had passed the measure, but a tie vote occurred twice in the House. Having previously voted with the opposition, Burn switched his vote, breaking the tie, and making Tennessee the required thirty-sixth state to approve ratification
In 1921 McMinn County became the site of the construction of the first concrete highway in Tennessee, a fourteen-mile stretch of the Lee Highway (U.S. 11) from Athens to Calhoun. A small section of this road is still in use today.
McMinn County suffered severe economic hardship during the Great Depression. Etowah was most affected since its economic base was tied to a single industry. When repair shops were closed and the division headquarters of the L&N moved to Knoxville, employment in the county fell to fewer than one hundred. To aid in recovery, the National Youth Administration built a scout lodge in Etowah. While World War II brought a temporary revival, the boom days of the railroad town were over.
Perhaps the most notable event in McMinn’s history occurred on August 1, 1946, when returning GIs overthrew a corrupt political machine with ties to Ed “Boss” Crump. A large number of armed deputies took ballot boxes to the county jail to be “counted” behind barricaded doors, refusing requests for GI observers to witness the counting. After several hours of a raging gunfire battle, those inside the jail were dynamited into surrendering. This “Battle of Athens,” in which, miraculously, no one was killed, resulted in governmental reform. The county court system of government was replaced by a county council-manager system, the first in Tennessee.
Following World War II, McMinn County experienced rapid growth and economic development as existing industries and businesses expanded and several corporations, including Bowaters, the world’s largest newsprint producer, established major plants in the area. Educational opportunities increased with the expansion of programs at Tennessee Wesleyan College and the opening of Cleveland State Community College. Also, dairy farming increased during the first three decades following the war. The presence of Mayfield Dairy Farms, one of the largest dairy processors in the Southeast, was a major factor in stimulating the growth in dairying.
McMinn County’s primary historical attractions are the exhibits at the L&N Depot, Etowah; the Englewood Textile Museum; and the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum, Athens, which interprets the county’s history from the days of the Cherokees to the economic transformations of the 1940s through thirty exhibits. Antebellum landmark buildings include the Old College of Tennessee Wesleyan College and the Cleague Building, both in Athens. The county’s 2000 population was 49,015.