Clay County, Tennessee, is located on the western edge of the Upper Cumberland area of Tennessee. The county seat of Celina sits on the banks of the confluence of the Cumberland and Obey Rivers, both of which have had a big impact on the city and county.
About 7,800 people reside in Clay County, with just under 1,500 of those people living in Celina. The county has five civil districts. Each of those districts is represented by two members of the county legislative body (commissioners) and two school board members. Celina has a mayor and board of aldermen-type government.
Farming and the timber industry have been large components of the Clay County economy since its inception. The garment industry was the dominant economic force for the better part of 40 years, until the mid-1990’s. Today, Cumberland River Hospital and the Clay County Board of Education are the largest employers in the county.
Clay County has been a part of three states: North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It’s also been a part of six counties – Davidson, Sumner, Smith, Jackson, Overton, and Cumberland County, Kentucky.
Clay County was formed in 1870 from sections of Jackson and Overton counties. Henry Clay, a Kentucky statesman and U.S. Secretary of State, is its namesake. The county has a very distinguished history, with several notable regional and national figures playing a part in it.
“Between Washington’s time and Lincoln’s, it is probable that no American was more influential than Clay — and certainly no one who did not occupy the White House,” writes David S. Broder. That is certainly high praise.
Clay wanted to be President. He ran unsuccessfully for President three times and sought his party’s nomination for the presidency two more times. Clay was known as “The Great Compromiser.” Clay was a bitter political enemy of former President Andrew Jackson, for whom a neighboring county is named.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s first law office was located in Clay County. That building is now a part of the popular Clay County Museum in Celina.
Hull, the longest serving Secretary of State in the history of the United States, not only practiced law in Celina, but served as a Circuit Judge for the area. He also attended Montvale Academy in Celina. Hull represented the Upper Cumberland area in Congress for over two decades. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. He resigned that seat to become Secretary of State for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hull was known as the “Father of the United Nations.” He received the 1945 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in forming that organization.
Clay County a river community
The Cumberland River runs through the middle of the county, and has played an instrumental role in the history of Celina and Clay County. Celina was once a major stop on the Cumberland River, as was the Butler’s Landing community. Goods were brought to Celina from Kentucky (and points south), and many products found their way downstream to Nashville.
The Obey River, which was impounded to form Dale Hollow Lake, joins the Cumberland at the western edge of the Celina city limits. The Cumberland River was the major artery for moving goods (and sometimes people) to Nashville.
The river was also a major influence in the Civil War for both the Union and Confederacy. Civil War allegiance was split in what is now the county. It was still parts of Overton and Jackson counties at the time.