Van Buren County encompasses 274 square miles straddling the Cumberland Plateau and the eastern Highland Rim. The western 30 percent of the county stands 960 feet above sea level; its limestone outcroppings have resulted in numerous caves. The best known, Big Bone Cave, was important in the early settlement period. In 1811 the discovery of bones of a giant sloth in the cave provided its name; remnants of a Pleistocene jaguar were unearthed there as well. The U.S. Department of the Interior designated the 334-acre site a Pleistocene vertebrate fossil site. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places: in both the War of 1812 and the Civil War saltpeter was mined there, and the well-preserved vats, tramways, and ladders remain in place today.
The other 70 percent of Van Buren County, the Plateau region, rises 800-1,000 feet higher than the western section and is generally level except where streams have cut gorges (called gulfs) through the sandstone. The Caney Fork River and its tributaries drain all of Van Buren County except for the southeast corner, which is drained by the headwaters of Brush Creek. The Caney Fork also creates the northern border of the county, and the Rocky River serves as part of its western boundary.
Van Buren County was formed out of parts of White, Warren, and Bledsoe Counties in 1840 and named for the U.S. president at the time, Martin Van Buren. Andrew K. Parker gave fifty acres of land for a county seat, and the first county court was held at the home of William Worthington on April 6, 1840. The county seat was named Spencer in honor of Thomas Sharp Spencer, who had died nearby in 1794 on what became Spencer’s Hill. The township was officially formed in 1850 and incorporated in 1909.
Prior to that time, the settlement had become the home of Burritt College, founded in 1848 as the first coeducational college in the South. Named for Elihu Burritt of Worcester, Massachusetts, a prominent member in the peace movement, the school was situated in Spencer to insulate students from the vice and corruption of city life, though many of its graduates chose moving to cities over staying in rural Tennessee. Burned during the Civil War and rebuilt, Burritt College survived until the economic failures of the depression forced its closure in 1939.
In 1860 Van Buren County’s population of 2,337 included at least thirty-five slaveholders who owned 239 slaves. The county supported the Confederacy with four companies–one reason Spencer was burned when Union troops took the area in 1863. Earlier, Confederate General Braxton Bragg had marched the Army of Tennessee through the county on his way to Kentucky and the campaign that ended with Confederate defeat and the deaths of twelve Van Buren Countians at Perryville on October 8, 1862.
An artist who captured the throes of the Civil War in his paintings completed a half-century later was Gilbert Gaul. A native of New Jersey, Gaul inherited from an uncle a 5,000-acre farm located twelve miles south of Spencer and near Fall Creek Falls. He moved to the property in 1881 and did much of his painting there, including one piece from 1913-14 called Caney Fork Cabin (now at Vanderbilt University).
What was Gaul’s farm sits now within Fall Creek Falls State Park. The park, covering over 19,000 acres in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties, was proposed by James M. “Peckerwood” Taft of Van Buren County, and in 1936 construction began under the auspices of the National Park Service. The work involved the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and Resettlement Administration. In 1944 the Department of the Interior deeded the park to the state. A state natural area of 10,000 acres lies within its domain, and there are four major falls. The largest, Fall Creek Falls, drops 256 feet–a fall of ninety feet more than Niagra, making it the highest falls in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. The park also boasts thirty miles of trails and a public golf course ranked in the top twenty-five in the country, as well as virgin forest in the 300-foot gorge of Cane Creek Gulf.
Van Buren County’s population in 2000 was 5,508. The major road through the county, State Route 111, was paved first in 1920. Since its designation in 1973 as an Appalachian Development Highway, it has been improved and is soon to be a major connector between Chattanooga and the Kentucky border. There are two K-12 schools in the county.