The Tennessee General Assembly created Wilson County on October 26, 1799. Its prehistoric heritage is rich. The Sellars temple mound on Spring Creek, for example, yielded an outstanding piece of pre-Columbian sculpture that has been the emblem of the Tennessee Archaeological Society. Europeans explored the land long before settlement: French trappers arrived as early as 1760, and the hunting party of Henry Scraggins passed through the area in 1765. John B. Walker led the first permanent settlers to Hickory Ridge, west of the present site of Lebanon, in 1794.
The county was named for Major David Wilson, a North Carolina hero of the American Revolution. Lebanon was named for the impressive stands of red cedar trees (actually Virginia juniper) that are characteristic of the region. In the late 1930s Tennessee and the federal government created the Cedars of Lebanon State Park in recognition of this botanical feature. Lebanon was chosen as the county seat in 1801, largely because of a large spring (still flowing) on what became the public square. The county has had five courthouses; the building of 1848-81 was designed by the noted architect William Strickland. Other towns and villages include Watertown, Green Hill, Mt. Juliet, Statesville, Gladesville, Baird’s Mill, Norene, Cherry Valley, Shop Springs, Tucker’s Cross Roads, Leeville, Martha, Bellwood, Commerce, Taylorsville, Centreville, Oakland, LaGuardo, and Maple Hill.
Although there were textile and flour mills and even a paper mill by the 1830s, the county remained predominantly agricultural. By 1875 most Wilson County farmers owned farms smaller than one hundred acres, but their county ranked first in the state in the production of wheat, sorghum, butter, and horses and second in cedar, lumber for export, grass seed, hay, barley, clover, hogs, sheep, and mules. When rail transportation came to the county in 1869, it increased the dollar value of exported forest products ten times. William Haskell Neal developed Neal’s Paymaster corn in Wilson County, button clover was discovered here, and Major M. B. Kittrell’s Tom Hal was a foundation sire of the Tennessee Walking Horse.
By 1908 industrial development reached Wilson County with the production of woolen blankets, cedar slats for pencils, denim clothing, and eventually shirts and men’s socks. In 1996 Hartmann Luggage Company, TRW (Commercial Steering Division), Texas Boot, Wynn’s Precision Rubber (O rings), Toshiba America, Georgia Pacific, and Bradley Candy accounted for the county’s industrial growth. Cracker Barrel Restaurants and K. O. Lester (Pocahontas) food distributors originated in Wilson County, where they maintain their corporate headquarters. Cracker Barrel represents a unique Tennessee contribution to the national tradition of roadside architecture and roadside food service. Health care (University Medical Center) provides another major economic interest.
The county emerged as a center of education in 1842, when the Cumberland Presbyterian Church established Cumberland University. The four-year institution now includes a school of nursing and a graduate school. Friendship Christian School is an expanding secondary school. In the early twentieth century, Lebanon became known as the “Little Athens of the South” because of the location there of Cumberland University, Castle Heights Military Academy, and Lebanon College for Young Ladies. From 1873 to 1939 the city was particularly well known for the one-year law course offered by Cumberland University which attracted students of law from every state and many foreign countries.
Major historical events in the county have included the start of Sam Houston’s political career as well as his disastrous courtship, which began at a ball at a house west of Lebanon; the “stump speaking” gubernatorial debates between James C. “Lean Jimmy” Jones and James K. Polk; and a Civil War cavalry engagement between General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederates and Union troops. Mussolini sent a contingent of Fascist cadets to Castle Heights in 1931. The Second Army Maneuvers director headquarters were located in Wilson County, from which eight hundred thousand troops were supervised during the Tennessee Maneuvers (1942-44) in preparation for service in Europe during World War II. Finally, the trial of Charles Sullins and Harry Kirkendoll for the shooting of Ed Collier was the first in the state to be televised (1953).
Noteworthy citizens of Wilson County who left their mark on the state and the nation include Governors Houston, Jones, William B. Campbell (the Mexican War hero for whom Fort Campbell was named), Robert L. Caruthers (judge, legal educator, Congressman, Confederate governor-elect), and Frank Clement. Layula, a Lumbee and wife of Lebanon’s first settler, Ned Jacobs, walked the Trail of Tears after her husband died. Alexander P. Stewart and Robert Hatton were Confederate generals. W. E. B. Du Bois, African American leader and writer, began his teaching career in rural Wilson County. Maggie Porter Cole and Thomas Rutling were original Fisk Jubilee singers. George Wharton Winston, named captain of the 366th Infantry in 1918, was one of the first African American officers in the U.S. Army. Dixon Lanier Merritt, author of “The Pelican” limerick, was a noted journalist.
The county’s 2000 population was 88,809, representing a 31 percent increase since 1990. Two recent major developments in the county include the Dell Computer facility (1999), which has fourteen hundred employees, and the Nashville Super Speedway (2001), the largest racetrack in Middle Tennessee and the second largest in the state. It hosts such NASCAR events as the Busch Grand National series and the Craftsman Truck series.
G. Frank Burns, Wilson County (1983)