The Tennessee General Assembly established Warren County on November 26, 1807; it was the thirtieth county created in Tennessee. Settlers came to the area as early as 1800, and the new county was originally that portion of White County (created in 1806) lying south of the Caney Fork River along the Highland Rim with portions on the Cumberland Plateau on the east and in the Central Basin on the west. Warren County was organized in February 1808, and in March 1810 the county court appointed commissioners to purchase a site for a county seat to be called McMinnville.
Warren County was named for General Joseph Warren, the first general killed in the War of Independence. McMinnville was named for Joseph McMinn, who was speaker of the Tennessee State Senate at the time the county was formed; later he served as one of the state’s outstanding governors. Settlement continued at a rapid pace, and in 1810 Warren County contained 5,725 people; by 1830 it had grown to 15,351.
At the time of its creation, the county contained some 900 square miles, but this area was reduced to approximately 433 square miles from 1836 to 1844 by the creation of Cannon, Coffee, DeKalb, Van Buren, and Grundy Counties. The Tennessee State Constitution of 1834 provided that, in the formation of new counties, no county boundary could be closer than twelve miles from the county seat of the former county from which the new county was to be formed. Each of the new counties established their boundaries exactly twelve miles from McMinnville, with the result that by 1844 Warren County had acquired its distinctive round shape and its nickname, “the round county.”
From its earliest days, the population was dependent upon an agricultural economy, although the terrain was not conducive to large plantations or large tillable fields. While some cotton was produced, it never dominated the county’s economy. The presence of many oak, chestnut, beech, and other nut trees encouraged the raising of hogs, and settlers coupled this with the breeding of horsestock and mules. Their success in these endeavors earned Warren County the reputation as a prime source of pork and mules for the great plantations further south. A thriving orchard industry, especially apples, blossomed before the Civil War, and apple brandy became one of the major cash crops during Reconstruction. The diverse agriculture was not geared to slave labor, and only 10 percent of the population was slave; fewer than 10 percent of Warren County families owned slaves.
During the county’s first fifty years, the construction of the Manchester and McMinnville Railroad, organized in 1850 and operational in 1856, represented the most important economic advancement. The establishment of the Cumberland Female College in 1850, coupled with the development of the Central Cotton factory at Faulkner’s Springs, also contributed to local growth.
In 1861 Warren County initially voted against secession, but a strong anti-Lincoln sentiment quickly developed and produced a pro-secession vote in a June referendum. Warren County contributed nearly 2,000 citizens to the Southern cause during the four-year conflict. A Confederate conscription center, Camp Smartt, was located south of McMinnville. As a railroad terminus to north central Tennessee, Warren County became a primary target for Northern, as well as, Southern armies. Repeated military activities left the area in shambles at the war’s end.
After the Civil War, industrialists developed the area’s mineral and timber resources. Beginning with the organization of the Caney Fork Iron and Coal Company in 1885 and continuing through the days of the Rocky River Coal and Lumber Company, a flourishing lumber business emerged, and numerous lumber manufactures, beginning with the T. F. Burrough Lumber Company, provided work and income to many area residents. Local investors in the booming George C. Brown Lumber Company accumulated substantial wealth during the early years of the twentieth century, earning for McMinnville a reputation as the “wealthiest little town in the South.”
After World War I the textile and lumber industries remained the principal sources of employment. The people of Warren County soon felt the effects of economic hard times, however, and during the 1920s and 1930s many people migrated north after the failure of the Tennessee Woolen Mills, Read Hosiery Mill, Menzies Shoe Company, and Fly Overall Company.
Industry in Warren County grew after World War II. The formation of a chamber of commerce in 1950, coupled with the development of countywide electrical, telephone, and water distribution, provided incentives for the establishment or relocation of industrial plants. General Shoe Corporation built the first modern plant in Warren County in 1946 and was followed by Oster in 1957, Century Electric (Magnatek) in 1960, DeZurik in 1963, and Carrier Corporation in 1968. Oster’s training of tool and die personnel attracted other companies as well, including Bridgestone, Calsonic, and Gardener Manufacturing.
A unified school system, branches of Motlow State Community College and Tennessee Technological University, and a well-staffed vocational school provide the people of Warren County with a wide variety of educational opportunities. Many major Christian denominations have local congregations. An eighteen-hole golf course and a modern civic center have become the focus of recreational activities. A four-lane highway through McMinnville from Manchester to Cookeville displays the scenic beauty of the area’s mountains and rivers. A temperate climate and adequate rainfall make the county increasingly attractive to retirees. The 2000 population was 38,276.
Four notable Warren Countians have left their mark in American and Tennessee culture: folklorist and composer Charles F. Bryan, country music star Dottie West, journalist Carl Rowan, and writer Lucy Virginia French. The Southern School of Photography (1904-28), established by W. S. Lively in McMinnville, was one of the first such schools in the country. Local photographers Anthia Brady Hughes and Willie Hughes left an invaluable record through their thirty-five thousand photographs of people and everyday life in Warren County.