Weakley County is located on the Plateau Slope of West Tennessee. The north, middle, and south forks of the Obion River and its tributaries drain the land westward to the Mississippi River. It is bounded on the north by the state of Kentucky, on the east by Henry County, on the south by Carroll and Gibson counties, and on the west by Obion County. Weakley County covers 576 square miles, having lost some of its land to Gibson County in 1837 and to Obion County in 1870.
Weakley County was established October 23, 1823, and named for Robert Weakley II, Speaker of the Tennessee Senate. By early 1825 the organization of the county was completed, and the town of Dresden had been surveyed and platted by Mears Warner to contain a public square and ninety lots. In 1835 the general assembly divided the county into twelve voting districts to elect justices of the peace and constables. By 1843 two new districts had been added.
The first circuit court was held in a log house on the courtyard. It was replaced in 1827 by a brick courthouse. When that structure became too small, it was replaced by a two-story brick structure in 1852. This building was destroyed by fire in 1948 and replaced in 1950 with a four-story building, including basement, constructed of Alabama limestone, designed by the Nashville firm Marr and Holman.
Weakley County’s first agricultural crop was corn, and by 1880 it was the state’s largest corn-producing county. An abundance of corn led to increased production of cattle and hogs. Pioneer farmers engaged in cotton production as soon as the land was cleared, but county farmers steadily reduced the cotton acreage in the late nineteenth century. Since 1960 soybeans have taken the place of cotton in agricultural production and now rank as the county’s leading crop. The first tobacco crop was planted in 1832. In 1980 Weakley County farmers planted 138 acres of type-22 western dark-fired tobacco. Sweet potatoes had become a major crop by 1850, with 45,180 bushels produced. Almost a century later, in 1944, Weakley County ranked tenth in national production. In the early settlement of the county, farmers grew enough wheat, rye, and oats to supply their family and livestock needs. Today farmers grow more wheat in a three way rotation between wheat, soybeans, and corn. By the 1950s, modern dairying had become one of the major agricultural activities, but pressure on pasture land as it is converted to soybean production has resulted in the decline of dairying, although the county continues to be one of the top swine producers in the state.
Weakley County has five incorporated towns: Dresden, Martin, Greenfield, Sharon, and Gleason. Dresden, the county seat, was incorporated in 1827 and reported a 2000 population of 2,855. The town’s first major industries were Bay Bee Shoe Company, established in 1948, and Dresden Manufacturing Company (1949). Dresden is the home of the forty-sixth governor of Tennessee, the Honorable Ned R. McWherter.
Martin recorded a 2000 population of 10,515. It was incorporated in 1874, and has long sustained a reputation for its educational facilities. In addition to public schools, the town was the home to two denominational academies, McFerrin and Hall-Moody, the latter evolving into the University of Tennessee at Martin by 1967. Fifteen industries have manufacturing plants in Martin, including MTD Products, Hubbell Lighting Company, Martin Manufacturing Company, and Martin Brothers Container and Timber Corporation.
Incorporated in 1880, Greenfield had a 1990 population of 2,208. It presently has twelve industries, the largest employers being Kellwood Company, Parker Hannifin Corporation, and Greenfield Products Company. Sharon was incorporated in 1901 and now has a population of over 1,000 residents. Nine industries operate in Sharon, the largest of which is WSW Company, a manufacturer of children’s wear.
Gleason, incorporated in 1871, reported a 2000 population of 1,463. It has eleven industries, the largest employers being H. C. Spinks Clay Company and Gleason Brick Company. Known as “Tater Town” because of the large shipments of sweet potatoes that once originated there, the town post office has a New Deal period mural depicting the sweet potato industry. The town is now the ball clay mining center of the world. Five major companies ship clay used for china, brick, and tile.
In addition to the five incorporated towns, several unincorporated towns are scattered across the county, including Dukedom, Hyndsver, Mt. Pelia, Gardner, Latham, Ore Springs, Palmersville, Ralston, and Terrell.
In 1857 the Nashville and Northwestern became the first railroad to cross the county. In 1872 the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis took over the east-west line and in 1880 it merged with the Louisville and Nashville. Today the remnants of this line, now CSX, still serve Dresden and Gleason. Most of the tracks have been abandoned or removed. The first north-south railroad that crossed the county was the Mississippi Central in 1872. It was soon bought by the Illinois Central Railroad, which merged with GM&O in 1972, forming the Illinois Central-Gulf. Today the railroad belongs to the Norfolk-Southern Railroad Company.
Notable citizens, in addition to former governor McWherter, include U.S. Congressman and State Senator Emerson Etheridge (1819-1902) and Finis J. Garrett (1875-1956), editor, educator, congressman, and chief justice of U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. Another native of Weakley County is Mike Snider, a country humorist, Grand Ole Opry member, and star of the television series Hee Haw, who often invokes scenes and stories from Gleason in his routines.