Established by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1839, Polk County was named to honor newly elected Governor James K. Polk. It is located in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, bounded by North Carolina and Georgia. Most of the county’s 436 square miles lie within the Chilhowee and Unaka mountain ranges and contain some of the most scenic beauty in the country, including Parksville, the Ocoee, Conasauga, and Hiwassee Rivers and 150,865 acres of Cherokee National Forest. The rapids of the Ocoee River are internationally known to white-water enthusiasts as the scene of the Twenty-fifth Olympic kayaking events.
Polk County’s known Indian heritage extends back at least two thousand years to the early Woodland Indians. In 1540 the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto camped near Columbus, a thriving trading post on the banks of the Hiwassee River. The Treaty of 1819 opened the territory north of the Hiwassee to white settlement, and the 1835 Treaty of Removal forced the Cherokees to give up their final land claims in Tennessee.
Acting on the petition of some 100 citizens, the Tennessee State Legislature created Polk County from parts of Bradley and McMinn counties on November 28, 1839. David Ragen, as acting sheriff, was authorized to hold the first election after the commissioners divided the county into seven civil districts. In the February 4, 1840, election, McKamy’s stock stand, located on the Old Federal Road, was chosen for the permanent county seat and named Benton in honor of Thomas Hart Benton, U.S. senator from Missouri. The new town was surveyed and laid out by James McKamy and John F. Hannah into 223 lots, which were sold at auction for a total of $11,386, much of which was never collected.
Copper was first discovered at Ducktown in 1843, and within four years mule teams were carrying casks of ore south to a forge at Dalton, Georgia. Sustained development of the Copper Basin began in the late 1850s after transportation improvements and company consolidation. Julius E. Raht combined many individual mining claims into the Union Consolidated Mining Company and became superintendent of both the Polk County Copper Company and the Burra Burra Copper Company. From 1865 to 1878, 24 million pounds of copper were taken from the underground mines, and 50 square miles of the Copper Basin area were stripped of its timber to fuel smelters and build mines. After 1891 production by the open-roasting process of removing copper from the ore, an environmentally disastrous method, killed vegetation for miles and left the landscape open to erosion. By the early twentieth century, a barren moonscape of red hills surrounded Ducktown and Copperhill.
During the Civil War, Polk County provided five companies for the Confederacy and two for the Union army, as well as 90 percent of the copper for the Southern cause. No battles were fought within the county; however, a November 29, 1864 raid by the notorious bushwhacker and guerrilla John P. Gatewood resulted in at least sixteen deaths.
Polk County’s remote Sylco Mountains became the site of Vineland, a unique experiment in social living by Rosine Parmentier. In the 1840s, with the aid of a New York associate, Parmentier purchased 50,000 acres of land and encouraged French, German, Italian, and Austrian colonization of the area. Their grandiose plans for a profitable winemaking industry apparently failed to materialize, and most of the colonists migrated elsewhere. Those who remained were quickly integrated into the local community, but the family names of Becklers, Miolin, Nocarina, Genollic, Sholtz, Pace, and Chable are indicators of this vanished settlement.
In 1858 W. P. Collins edited the county’s first newspaper, the Ducktown Eagle. The Polk County News, edited and owned by Ingrid and Randolph Buehler, has served the county for over one hundred years. A recently reorganized Historical and Genealogical Society publishes a quarterly and oversees the preservation of the county’s historic sites and heritage.
According to the 2000 federal census, Polk County had a population of 16,050. There are approximately fifty churches of Protestant denominations in the county. The largest denomination is Baptist, followed by Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of God, and Episcopal.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) operates three hydroelectric plants on the Ocoee River and one on the Hiwassee River; the TVA owns more than 3,000 acres of land in Polk County. The U.S. Forest Service controls in excess of 150,000 acres and operates several recreational sites which provide picnicking, camping, and swimming facilities for local citizens and thousands of visitors each year.
Agriculture continues to be a major factor in the economy of Polk County. The leading agricultural products include poultry, dairy products, cattle, hogs, soybeans, forestry products, and corn. Several small industries, employing approximately 400 people, produce clothing, furniture, lumber, and automobile mats.