Union County was formed in 1850 from portions of Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne, Grainger, and Knox Counties. The enabling legislation was initially passed January 3, 1850, but due to legal challenges and complications the county was not formally created until January 23, 1856. Shortly thereafter, Union County began functioning as a county, and county court minutes and records have been kept from that time.
The county name derives from two possible sources. Dr. Robert H. White, Tennessee state historian from 1955 to 1970, believed that Union County was so named because it was a union of five segments of adjoining counties. Former Union County Schools Superintendent William H. Thomas suggested in 1961, however, that the name reflected the area’s support for the federal union in the political debates of the period of the county’s creation.
In 1850 a small community called Liberty was near the center of the proposed new county and became the county seat. Due to the willingness of a young, brilliant lawyer named Horace Maynard to successfully defend the county in the litigation opposing the county formation, the town was renamed Maynardville. The county high school bears the name Horace Maynard High School in his honor.
Union County is bordered to the west by Anderson and Campbell Counties, to the north by Claiborne County, to the east by Grainger County, and to the south by Knox County. The county is approximately 223.6 square miles in size and has three county census divisions–Luttrell, Maynardville, and Sharps Chapel–as well as three municipalities–Luttrell, Maynardville, and Plainview.
The Norris Dam project and the impoundment of Norris Reservoir had a tremendous impact on Union County. The project created jobs, trained people, and improved living conditions; at the same time, however, it displaced many people whose homes and property were lying below pool level or in the floodplain. Former Norris Reservoir residents still meet annually and make pilgrimages to former homesites, cemeteries, and landmarks that can be visited when the lake level is down.
Since the construction of Norris Dam, the population and economic conditions have changed significantly. In 1930 most of the people lived and worked on farms; most were subsistence operations that barely supported the operating family. Over the next twenty years large numbers of people left the farms for nonfarm jobs outside the county. The last twenty years have brought even greater change as the county became more closely tied to the Knoxville metropolitan area. New businesses brought new nonfarm jobs into the county, and more and more people commuted to the Knoxville job market. For example, in 1990 ten new manufacturing plants located in Union County. At present about 85 percent of the work force commutes to jobs outside the county. The growth of these nonfarm jobs has produced a substantial population growth; the county grew from 13,694 in 1990 to 17,808 in 2000–an increase of 30 percent.
The county is enriched by 263.6 miles of shoreline on Norris Lake. Big Ridge State Park, one of TVA’s initial tourism demonstration projects, is within the county’s borders. Tourism and recreation continue to strengthen the economy of the county, yet the county remains poorer than most in Tennessee. The county per capita income in 1999 was $14,796, ranking it ninety-first out of ninety-five counties. In 1990 the proportion of the county’s adult population that had attended less than nine years of school was 37 percent–more than twice the state average of 16 percent. During the 1990s, though, the number of high school graduates increased from 106 in 1994 to 180 in 1998. The county’s 1999 unemployment rate was 3.6 percent.
Union has given the United States Congress two members: Lafayette Ledgerwood and J. Will Taylor. Additionally, Union County is noted for its musical heritage; four of its sons are now known throughout the world–Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Carl Smith, and Kenny Chesney. Lois Johnson, Hilda Kitts Harrill, and Melba Kitts Greene are among its best known women entertainers.
Community organizations such as the Union County Business and Professional Association with more than one hundred members, Optimist Club, Friends of Maynardville Library, Family Community Education Group, Boy and Girl Scouts, and Four-H clubs have been formed in recent years and are bringing about affirmative change in Union County.
Winnie P. McDonald, Our Union County Families (1992); Bonnie H. Peters, Union County Faces of War (1995); William G. Tharpe and Norman L. Collins, eds., From Hearth and Hoe: Union County, Tennessee, 1910-1940 (1985)