The Tennessee General Assembly first created Putnam County in 1842 from Jackson, Overton, Fentress, and White Counties, but an 1844 injunction charged that it violated state constitutional requirements. In 1854 the general assembly reestablished the county, although it was harried by boundary disputes for decades. The new county seat, Cookeville, was named after Richard F. Cooke, whose efforts were critical to the county’s second attempt at creation. Putnam County’s name honors Revolutionary War general Israel Putnam.
Putnam County is located in the Upper Cumberland region. It spreads across three major geographic divisions of Tennessee: the Cumberland Plateau, the Highland Rim, and the Central Basin. Most of the county falls in the Highland Rim. A principal early nineteenth-century east-west migration route, the Walton Road, passes through the length of Putnam County. Many families stopped at this point about midway between Knoxville and Nashville on their journey along the Walton Road. There they established small subsistence farms, growing corn and other crops in the generally poor soil. By 1860 the population had risen to 8,591, including 718 blacks and 33 Native Americans. Settlement halted during the Civil War, when Putnam County civilians were harassed by both Confederate and Unionist guerrilla attacks that destroyed farmland and homes.
Between 1865 and 1910 the county population tripled. Part of the growth was due to the railroads that reached Putnam in the 1890s. The Nashville and Knoxville reached Cookeville from the west in 1890, and the Tennessee Central connected the Southern Railroad at Harriman to the new town of Monterey in Putnam County, founded when the tracks reached it in 1893. Other new villages were created in the wake of the railroad, including Buffalo Valley, Silver Point, Boma, Baxter, Algood, and Brotherton. Eventually the Tennessee Central ran all the way to Knoxville, and in 1902 its proprietor, Jere Baxter, bought the Nashville and Knoxville. The National Register-listed Tennessee Central depot in Cookeville contains an excellent local museum on the railroad days in Putnam County. Three years later Baxter moved the TC engine service facilities and crew change stop from Cookeville to Monterey, which became an important railroad-promoted resort area around the turn of the century. Industrialist John Wilder maintained a home and office there in the early 1900s.
Railroads brought prosperity to Putnam County farmers who finally gained access to urban markets. Railroads also served industry like the Cumberland Mountain Coal Company, the executives of which had organized Monterey, lumbering in the county’s rich forests, and manufacturing. Education also grew during Putnam County’s railroad years. The University of Dixie, known as Dixie College, was chartered by the general assembly in 1909 and opened in 1912. Organized through the efforts of the Church of Christ, this school merged with the new Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (TPI), which was created in 1915. TPI included three divisions: a two-year college, a four-year technical high school, and Putnam County’s Central High School.
As the twentieth century progressed, Putnam County’s agriculture suffered the setbacks being felt around the country in the 1920s. More farmers turned to poultry, egg, and dairy production as corn, tobacco, and hogs declined with decreasing profits. However, county leaders were optimistic about the prosperity that industrialization and commerce might bring. By 1928 Cookeville was calling itself the “Hub City–The Hub of the Upper Cumberland.”
Roads helped deliver some of the growth that Putnam Countians awaited. Although the Memphis-to-Bristol Highway bypassed Cookeville to pass through Sparta to the south, U.S. Highway 70 North, the first modern highway in the Upper Cumberland, was completed through Putnam County in 1930. The county’s transportation network also benefited from New Deal programs. The Cookeville airport was built in 1934 with matching Civil Works Administration and city funds.
With only modest industrialization, the county economy suffered in the postwar period because of persistent unemployment and low wages, causing many workers to leave Putnam during World War II through the 1950s. The next decade, though, saw expansion and increasing prosperity thanks to the construction of Interstate 40, rapid industrialization, the growth of Tennessee Technological University, and federal aid. Tennessee Polytechnic Institute changed its name to Tennessee Technological University in 1965 during the massive growth of the state higher education system. Today it is the county’s largest nonmanufacturing employer and boasts an enrollment over 8,400. Tennessee Tech administers the Joe L. Evins Appalachian Center for Crafts, located near Center Hill Lake, which supports the modern practice of traditional crafts. The completion of I-40 through the county in the mid-1960s attracted manufacturing jobs as well. Today Putnam County has a 2000 population of 62,315 and is a fast-growing center for the Upper Cumberland region.
Mary Jean DeLozier, Putnam County, Tennessee, 1850-1970 (1979)