Created on October 8, 1823, McNairy County was formed from a part of Hardin County and named in honor of John McNairy, whom President George Washington had appointed as one of the three judges of the Southwest Territory. The first courts were held in the home of Abel V. Maury until a log courthouse could be constructed. The first county seat was named Purdy in honor of John Purdy, the government surveyor who laid out the town lots. Located on the stage road that ran from Nashville to Mississippi, Purdy developed a reputation as a beautiful town. Benjamin Wright, a veteran of the Creek Indian Wars, soon emerged as the driving force behind the economic development of Purdy. In 1831 the county built a new courthouse, where both Davy Crockett and James K. Polk made political speeches.
In 1855 the citizens of Purdy refused to raise the one hundred thousand dollars in subscriptions for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to route its line through the town. The decision resulted in the gradual decline of Purdy, and in 1870 an effort began to move the county seat to a location near the rail line. In 1890, when P. H. Thrasher, an Alabama investor, built a courthouse and donated it to the county at Selmer, voters agreed to move the county seat to the railroad town, where it remains. In addition to Purdy and Selmer, McNairy County has eight other incorporated towns: Adamsville, Bethel Springs, Michie, Milledgeville, Finger, Ramer, Eastview, Stantonville, and Guys.
During the 1861 secession crisis, McNairy County divided along political lines, with some one thousand voting for secession and eight hundred against. McNairy Countians living north of an invisible line running east to west remained pro-Union (and later supported the Republican Party), while those living south of the line supported secession, the Confederacy, and the Democratic Party. Military Governor Andrew Johnson chose McNairy County slaveholder Fielding Hurst to head up the Sixth Cavalry of the Army of the Tennessee (Union). McNairy County was the scene of looting and burning throughout the war years.
In the postwar years, McNairy Countians returned to agriculture, producing cotton, corn, and hogs. By 1920 the county population totaled 18,350 people, most of whom tilled the 3,263 farms. Selmer had a population of 546, three banks, a newspaper, and various commercial establishments. The county had six high schools and 109 elementary schools.
Cheap power from the Tennessee Valley Authority promoted McNairy County’s economic growth in the mid-twentieth century. In 1945 Brown Shoe Company and Myrna Mills, a textile manufacturer, became the first industries to locate in the county. These industries encouraged other textile manufacturers to build plants in McNairy County and utilize the female work force. In the 1970s E. B. Blasingame founded Aqua Glass, which quickly emerged as the county’s largest employer, with approximately 1,100 employees. The next three largest manufacturers were the General Electric Corporation (350 workers), Diversified Refrigeration (225 workers), and Reitter & Schefenacker USA (200 workers).
McNairy County’s Adamsville was the home of Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton (1975-79). McNairy County sheriff Buford Pusser’s career in combating lawlessness and illegal whiskey was chronicled in three best-selling books by W. R. Morris, three blockbuster movies, and a short-lived television series. A museum in his hometown of Adamsville recognizes his law enforcement career. Other famous residents of McNairy County include Marcus J. Wright and his brother John V. Wright, both of whom served as Confederate generals. Marcus Wright also served as military governor of Columbus, Kentucky, early in the Civil War. After the war the U.S. government hired him to compile the “Official Records of the Rebellion,” an effort that required thirty-three years and resulted in the creation of the most important single primary document about the war. Dew Wilson, a former Confederate army officer, served under President Grover Cleveland as commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Oklahoma Territory. T. Wash Scott was counsel general to Mexico in the 1850s.
Today, McNairy County’s 560 square miles of rolling hills and flatlands are dotted with homes, pastures, fields, and well-groomed towns. The Indian trail that became Davy Crockett Highway (U.S. Highway 64) is undergoing transformation into a four-lane scenic highway that will traverse the Volunteer State. The county’s 2000 population was 24,653.