Clay County

Clay County was created on June 16, 1870, and was named in honor of the Kentucky statesman Henry Clay.

Historical Narrative

Like Pickett County to its east, Clay County also lost a great deal of its most valuable agricultural land to the 1943 construction of Dale Hollow Dam and its massive reservoir. The taming of the Obey River brought an end to frequent, devastating floods and the beginning of a tourism industry in the county, with inundated bottomlands giving way to vacation properties along a new lakeshore. The county was created on June 16, 1870, from parts of Overton and Jackson Counties and was named in honor of the Kentucky statesman Henry Clay.

From its creation in 1870 until the early part of the 20th century, logging was Clay County’s principal industry. In 1890, for example, more than twenty sawmills processed millions of feet of cut board, with rafters floating great quantities of logs down the Cumberland River to markets in Nashville. Unsustainable timber practices precipitated the industry’s demise, as by 1930 the trees were gone.

The county seat of Celina was established near the confluence of the Cumberland and Obey Rivers. As it was situated in such a geographically important position, Celina quickly became an essential stopover point for the steamboat and logging trade. Businesses catered to river transporters’ needs, supplying goods and lodging until the 1920s, when road transportation began to replace water transport. One rafting business, operated by the Kyle family, employed approximately 100 men at its peak and remained in business from the 1870s until 1931.

Clay County features two National Register-listed properties: the Clay County Courthouse and the Free Hills Rosenwald School. In addition, 89 architectural resources are located within the Byway’s one-mile buffer, which were originally surveyed by Tennessee Tech University in 1991. Tennessee Historical Commission historical markers located along the Cumberland Historic Byway include: 

1. Hugh Roberts – The marker is located in Celina and identifies the location of a house constructed by Hugh Roberts between 1780 and 1782. Roberts was a Pennsylvania Quaker who emigrated to the area to avoid military service. 

2. Free Hills Community – Located off SR 53 on Neely Creek Road the marker identifies the historic African-American community of Free Hills, which was established by former slaves of Virginia Hill. 

The Clay County Courthouse in Celina was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 for its architectural significance as a local interpretation of the Italianate style. In addition, the building is historically significant for its association with the governmental history of Clay County. The rectangular, two-story brick building is topped by a square cupola and was constructed in 1873 by D.L. Dow of Cookeville. The Clay County Courthouse has stood as the center of county politics and government for over 130 years. 

Celina and Cumberland Gap mark both ends of the Cumberland Historic Byway. This historically rich corridor traces the path of Tennessee’s pioneer settlers across the Appalachian Mountains to homesteads in the west. Indeed, much of the Cumberland Plateau region retains its late 18th century appearance. To traverse its meandering course along scenic, modern highways is to be reminded of the Plateau’s age-old traditions and, like the pioneers who came before, the expectation of even better days to come.