The location of Scott County on the Cumberland Plateau abutting the Tennessee-Kentucky state line makes for beautiful landscape, poor soil for farming, and a small population. The region is blanketed with forests and parks, both in neighboring counties and Scott County’s westernmost section, where is found the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. This park extends into Morgan and Fentress Counties to the south and west and into McCreary County in Kentucky to the north. Attracting tourists, hikers, rafters, kayakers, and canoers, Big South Fork protects geological features of great age and prehistoric and historic resources as well as providing employment to local residents.
Scott County was created in 1849 by the Tennessee General Assembly out of parts of Anderson, Campbell, Fentress, and Morgan Counties and named for General Winfield Scott, whose military exploits in the Mexican War were fresh in the public’s mind. The county seat is Huntsville, named in honor of an early hunter. The first election was held in March 1850 and the first court in July of that year. The courthouse was erected in 1851, but later courthouses replaced it, first in 1874 and then in this century. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the old Scott County Jail is the oldest extant building in Huntsville, and its distinctive fortress design is the work of architect J. G. Barnwell of Chattanooga. Huntsville was incorporated in 1965.
The largest municipality in the county, Oneida, was incorporated in 1913. Oneida served as a way station on the Cincinnati Southern Railroad, built in the 1870s to connect Chattanooga and Cincinnati. Another line, between Oneida and Jamestown and called the Oneida and Western, prospered during the 1920s due to logging and mining work, but it and the county suffered greatly in the depression. The line was dismantled in 1953. Other towns in the county include Smoky Junction, Norma, Fairview, Winfield, Isham, Helenwood, Robbins, and Elgin. Robbins is home to Barton Chapel, which memorializes the social and humanitarian contributions of the Reverend William E. Barton, who established his ministry here in 1885.
Paleoindians during the last Ice Age visited the rock overhangs and shelters that wind and water erosion created from the area’s sandstone and shale. Later Native American peoples also used these resources. Settlers in the early nineteenth century carved out small, self-sufficient farms from the wilderness. Perhaps because of the poor farming conditions, blacks as slaves and freemen did not factor at more than 2 percent of the county’s antebellum population. In the mid-nineteenth century industry was limited to independent grist mills and whiskey production.
During the Civil War, Scott Countians were strongly Unionist in sentiment. U.S. Senator Andrew Johnson denounced secession at a courthouse speech in Huntsville on June 4, 1861, and the county voted against secession by the greatest percentage margin of any Tennessee county. In fact, local residents so opposed the Confederacy that later in 1861 the county court approved a protest resolution that announced the county’s secession from the State of Tennessee and the creation of a “Free and Independent State of Scott.” Guerrilla warfare occurred in the county during the Civil War, but no major battles occurred within the county’s boundaries.
After the war, the construction of the Cincinnati Southern in the early 1880s opened the county to timber, mining, and New South industrial development. Extraction of natural resources served as the foundation for local urban and economic development until the Great Depression. Oneida served as a shipping point for timber, coal, farm products, and livestock, while Huntsville’s chief activity was lumbering, and brick-making was the primary industry in Robbins. The construction of U.S. Highway 27 in the late 1920s opened new transportation alternatives for county residents.
In the 1990s the county government, its school system, and the ninety-nine-bed Scott County Hospital employed the largest numbers of nonmanufacturing workers. The county’s biggest employers include American Bag Corporation (automobile air bags); Hartco/Tibbals Flooring Company (wood flooring); Tennier Industries (military coats); Denim Processing, Inc.; and Wabash National Corporation (trailer platforms). The county’s population in 2000 was 21,127.
Perhaps the most recognized name from Scott County is that of Howard Baker Jr., who, like his father, represented his region and state in the United States Congress for many years. Howard Baker Sr. was in the House of Representatives for seven terms, and his wife Irene succeeded him. Baker Jr. was a Republican senator for Tennessee for more than twenty years and chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan. Other political leaders from Scott County include Millard Caldwell, a congressman who later was governor of Florida, and John Duncan, who served in Congress from 1964 until his death in 1988.