Located along Tennessee’s northern border with Kentucky, Pickett County lies in the picturesque Cumberland Plateau region of upper Middle Tennessee. In 1878 Lem Wright and Howell L. Pickett, legislators from Wilson County, led the move to organize Pickett County. The county was established in 1879 from sections of Overton and Fentress Counties.
The county seat is Byrdstown, where the Pickett County Courthouse, designed in Crab Orchard stone by the Nashville firm of Marr and Holman, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Originally the county seat was to be named Wrightsville after Lem Wright, but at the last minute support went to Colonel Richard Byrd of Kingston, and the county seat was named Byrdstown. During the Civil War, Byrd had struggled to keep Tennessee in the Union and when Tennessee seceded, he joined the Union army. Byrdstown was incorporated in 1917.
The county encompasses 240 square miles with the Obey and Wolf Rivers flowing through the western half of the county. Though hilly, the landscape has supported farming with corn, wheat, oats, grass, and livestock as the primary products. In 1943 Pickett County lost most of its best farmland, as well as a fourth of its population, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Obey River, creating the Dale Hollow Reservoir. The county continues to be rather sparsely populated, its 2000 population numbering 4,945 residents.
In addition to farming, many Pickett Countians were employed in the logging-rafting industry from the 1870s to 1930s. Pickett County farmers harvested trees from remote sections of the county, hauled them to the riverbank with mules or oxen, then floated them downstream to larger river towns. Rafting companies, such as the Kyle family’s rafting business in Celina in Clay County, employed dozens of men from Pickett County who rafted the logs along the Cumberland River to Nashville, where the lumber was finally processed. In addition to rafting, steamboating on the Cumberland River allowed towns as far east as Byrdstown to transport goods to and from larger markets to the west. In the early twentieth century, timber companies also acquired large tracts of land to clear-cut forests and ship the trees to sawmills in Tennessee and Kentucky.
With the end of the rafting and steamboat eras, Pickett County lost a valuable transportation link to the rest of Middle Tennessee, especially since no railroads traverse the county. The emergence of the trucking industry after World War I and state highway construction provided more efficient routes to transport goods to and from the Upper Cumberland region. These conditions, along with the large female work force, the absence of labor unions, and low-cost electricity provided by Dale Hollow Dam, led to the construction of several clothing factories such as OshKosh B’Gosh Children’s Apparel and Dale Hollow Apparel.
Pickett County’s scenic beauty may be enjoyed at two outdoor recreational areas, Dale Hollow Lake and Pickett State Park. Periodic floods devastated the Upper Cumberland region until 1943, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Dale Hollow Dam. Dale Hollow Lake spreads over much of the western end of the county and provides area residents with both electricity and recreation. Pickett State Park and Forest in eastern Pickett County adjoins the Big South Fork National Recreation Area. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) largely completed the reclamation of the forest and the park’s development during the 1930s and today the park is considered one of most extant CCC-designed landscapes in the state.
Pickett County’s most famous son is Cordell Hull, U.S. congressman and senator and secretary of state under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Born in a small log cabin in Pickett County, Hull initiated the founding of the United Nations and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945. The Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum is located near Byrdstown. The Pickett County area also was home to Tennessee Lead, a black and tan hound of the 1850s acquired by George W. Maupin of Madison County, Kentucky; this breeder turned Tennessee Lead into the foundation sire of all Walker, Trigg, and Goodman foxhounds.