The sixth largest city in Tennessee, with 68,816 citizens, Murfreesboro is located in Rutherford County, thirty-five miles southeast of Nashville. Adjacent to the west fork of the Stones River, it marks the geographical center of Tennessee.
Following over twenty years of earlier settlements in the 1780s and 1790s, land owner and Revolutionary veteran Colonel William Lytle gave land to establish the Public Square, a community cemetery, and its adjacent First Presbyterian Church. The town was initially named Cannonsburgh after Newton Cannon, a political dignitary in the area, for thirty some days, but Lytle then specified, for reasons unknown, that the new community be renamed Murfreesborough in honor of a Revolutionary War friend, Colonel Hardy Murfree. In 1811 Murfreesboro was chartered by the Tennessee legislature and also designated as the county seat of Rutherford County (chartered 1803), replacing Jefferson (designated in 1803) due to its more concentrated population. The city would function under the 1811 charter until it was replaced by a more up-to-date charter in 1931. The first courthouse was completed in 1813 and served as the capitol of Tennessee from 1818 to 1826. In the 1840s Murfreesboro could have become the permanent capital, but local public officials undercut state Democrats hoping to achieve the relocation by refusing to pay the one hundred dollars necessary to move the official records of Tennessee from Nashville to Murfreesboro. Initially connected to markets by riverboat, wagon, and stage for purposes of trade and transportation, the city received railroad service in 1851.
A half-century after its founding, Murfreesboro became a household word during the Civil War. In the summer of 1862, the Union army occupied the city only to be driven out shortly afterward by Confederate forces under Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest from neighboring Marshall County. In December 1862 two major armies collided. The Union forces of General William S. Rosecrans and the Confederates under General Braxton Bragg fought for three days in early winter (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863) with casualties exceeding twenty-four thousand. A national cemetery was established as a burial ground for the Union dead. Confederate casualties were later exhumed and the mostly unidentified bodies were reinterred at the Confederate Memorial Circle in the city's new Evergreen Cemetery. Following the battle, Union forces constructed the massive Fortress Rosecrans as a base and supply depot for the planned drive against Chattanooga and Atlanta. In the late 1920s the federal government designated the Stones River National Military Park, and today the National Park Service administers the battlefield and various remnants of Fortress Rosecrans. The city's rapid growth in the 1990s, however, has made Stones River one of the most threatened national parks in the country.
After the end of the war in 1865, Murfreesboro became an early market center with a bustling retail trade on its Public Square while continuing its earlier role in agriculture. One noteworthy planter and businessman, a local physician from Tidewater North Carolina, Dr. James Maney, built a landmark property beginning in the 1810s. The home today is preserved by the Oaklands Association and functions as a Civil War-era museum. The Rutherford County Courthouse, constructed between 1857 and 1859 and bearing a strong resemblance to the recently completed Tennessee State Capitol designed by Philadelphia architect William Strickland, is the community's most prominent landmark. The building's distinctive first cupola was replaced near the turn of the century with a cupola of Victorian design, and in 1997 the interior restoration of the National Register-listed courthouse was completed.
Education has always been a prominent interest of Murfreesboro citizens. As early as 1806 a first academy was founded. Later (1840s) the successor building apparently bore the name of an early headmaster named Bradley. One of the most distinguished early graduates of Bradley Academy was future president James Knox Polk, who also married a Murfreesboro woman he met while a student, Sarah Childress. Bradley later merged with local Union University, and after the Civil War the building became a center of black education and a black community center. In 1999 the Bradley Academy was restored by the city as a heritage center. Other prominent natives of Murfreesboro include novelist Mary Noailles Murfree (writing as “Charles Egbert Craddock”), legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, astronaut Rhea Seddon, and Jean Faircloth MacArthur, wife of the late General Douglas MacArthur. The Murfreesboro City Schools have been early leaders in education reform. One K-8 school is the first in Tennessee to combine a year-round normal calendar and the Paidea teaching method. Another school was one of first two in the state offering a dual calendar, one traditional and the other year-round. Earlier, the city schools system had received national attention for the development of its Extended School Program (ESP).
Modern higher education came to Murfreesboro in 1906 with the founding of the Tennessee College for Women. Following enabling legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly to create regional colleges in each of the three grand divisions of Tennessee in 1909, Middle Tennessee State Normal School at Murfreesboro was founded in 1911. In 1997 Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) became the second largest university in Tennessee.
The presence of the colleges and an activist Red Cross program led by Simeon Christy encouraged the Commonwealth Fund of New York to launch an innovative rural health program in Murfreesboro during the 1920s. Eventually the project produced both the Rutherford Health Center, an early national training center in public health, and the Rutherford Hospital. The sale of the Rutherford Hospital in the 1980s has since produced a modern medical center, the Middle Tennessee Medical Center, and a key foundation, the Christy-Houston Foundation, which supports the city's quality of life through annual donations to institutions ranging from the Oaklands Association to MTSU.
In the late 1930s the Public Works Administration, the Veterans Administration, and other federal agencies built a modern VA hospital on the town's northern outskirts. Now named the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center, the hospital serves veterans from throughout Middle Tennessee, southern Kentucky, and northern Alabama.
After World War II Murfreesboro leaders witnessed a decline in agriculture in the area and began to seek a more diversified economic base. The State Farm Insurance Company regional office in Murfreesboro was the first step in that direction.
Municipal government services are the ultimate responsibility of the City Council, six members elected at large and an elected mayor as chair. Policies are implemented by an appointed city manager. Recently, the city has begun linking its major historic sites by riverside greenways, and over five miles along Stones River and Lytle Creek had been completed by 1997. Construction plans and fundraising are also underway for the new Children's Discovery Museum and education center at a former city waterworks site. In 1976 Murfreesboro was recognized as one of the national leaders by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration for its “Cannonsburgh: A Living History Museum of Early Southern Life” project, which today is administered by the city.
The city also brought together the needs of both the local Linebaugh Library and the city government for new facilities. Its Civic Plaza project provided space for these needs as well as underground parking for almost nine hundred cars and a garden area with substantial outdoor assembly space.
In the late 1990s Murfreesboro was named the “Most Livable Town in Tennessee,” and its government was recognized as one of the 1 percent “best performing” in the United States.