Celina carves out another identity while keeping its charm
CELINA-This town of about 1,400 may be best known for being one of the gateways to Dale Hollow Lake, but there’s a lot more than that going on in this heritage-rich community.
This town, like many others, has seen its share of change through the decades. At different times, it’s been a bustling river town, and the home of a highly-respected boarding school. It’s also been the center of a heavy concentration of industry, and the gateway to the pristine lake nearby.
Today, it’s carving out another identity of sorts, adjusting to the demands of an ever-changing economy linked to all parts of the globe, while keeping its folksy charm.
“Times change, sometimes dramatically, so towns big and small have to adjust and find their niche,” said Kevin Donaldson. He serves as executive director of the Clay County Partnership Chamber of Commerce. “Celina and Clay County are already a great place to live. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve our quality of life. We aim to make the best use of what we have to offer both our residents and visitors.”
How it began
Clay County, formed from parts of Overton and Jackson counties in 1870, is named after Kentucky statesman Henry Clay, called by one historian the central figure in the United States between the “Founding Fathers” era and Abraham Lincoln.
Following the formation of Clay County, Celina wasn’t officially incorporated until after 1900, but was a “town” long before that. It was the site of Civil War fighting, and named after Celina Fisk, the daughter of Middle Tennessee pioneer Moses Fisk. Fisk was something of a renaissance man, founding the Fisk Female Academy at nearby Hilham in 1806. It was said to be the first such institution in the South.
Celina is an old-time river town, and was once one of the main stops between Kentucky and Nashville on the Cumberland River in the steamboat era. Lumber, livestock and crops were among the cargo that most often found its way south and west, with Nashville a common destination. Butler’s Landing, an unincorporated community downstream from Celina, was also another much-used Cumberland River port.
The City of Celina was once located on the banks of the confluence of the Cumberland and Obey Rivers, just west of today’s downtown area. The Obey River was impounded to create Dale Hollow Lake.
Courthouse a hub of activity
“Downtown” gradually made its way east, being centered around the original Clay County courthouse, which still stands today. Despite not being the “main” courthouse now, it holds the distinction of being the second-oldest “working” courthouse in the state. County offices have been moved to a newer complex, but it’s still used for official purposes from time to time.
That doesn’t mean the building, built in 1871 for a price tag of $9,999, isn’t heavily used. Volunteer efforts have turned the nostalgic building into something of a cultural center. A weekly talk radio show is broadcast there, and holiday events are held. The grand old structure serves as the center for a wide variety of community celebrations and events.
Celina once served as the home of Montvale Academy (founded in 1882). Montvale was an outstanding private school that offered a liberal arts curriculum. The boarding school attracted students from a wide area around Celina. Among the students were former Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who served in that capacity under U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hull won the Nobel Peace Prize and was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the United Nations. In addition, former Tennessee Governor Benton McMillan was also a Montvale student.
The Polymath Academy was located in the Tinsley’s Bottom area just a few miles away. John Gore, Tennessee’s first federal judge, was among its graduates.
Heavy industrial presence
The garment industry came to town in the mid-1950’s, greatly changing the local economy. Farming and other traditional means of making a living had been the backbone of the local economy (and are still significant today). But the garment industry offered another way residents could make a living, as it did across the Upper Cumberland.
Times changed in the mid-1990’s. The worldwide economy affected even small towns like Celina and others across the nation. The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eventually sent millions of “light” industrial jobs to other parts of the world, and it hit Clay County hard. Hundreds of garment industry jobs slowly trickled away. As a result, Celina and Clay County had to undergo another identity change.
The town, county and its residents underwent some serious changes after the mass exodus of the garment industry, and is still changing today. Despite the many changes through the years, the town has held onto what you might call a bit of “Mayberry” charm.
Donaldson, a native of Clay County, says there’s no better place to be.
“I was able to go to Tennessee Tech University, get a degree and come back home to work. I married a local girl and we raised a family,” Donaldson said. “I’m grateful for that opportunity and I just love being a part of Clay County. As we like to say, it’s a great place to live, work and play,” he said.
“Our goal is to make Clay County an even better place to live, and to attract as many jobs and visitors as we possibly can,” Donaldson said. “I think Celina and Clay County has the absolute best in what people think of as small-town America.”
The downtown area has seen the beginning stages of a facelift, with help from local government and the local Three-Star Committee.
“The Clay County Three-Star Initiative is a volunteer program sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development along with local government and the Chamber of Commerce,” said Dr. Doug Young, director of the local Three-Star program. “Our primary purpose is to build our infrastructure, so we can become a ‘job ready’ county. We’ve had a tremendous outpouring of volunteer help in recent years that’s made this effort possible.”
The local Three-Star Committee has a “Downtown” sub-committee that has secured grants to help local businesses improve their storefronts in recent years. “We’ve made substantial progress in recent years. We hope to continue to improve the appearance of our downtown area,” Young said. “We know that’s very important for our residents and visitors alike, so the efforts from our city and county governments are very crucial.”
In addition, the downtown area has become something of an antique district in recent years. Several businesses specialize in antiques, primitives, collectibles and other items, so there’s plenty for antique buyers to look at.
The chamber, community clubs and leaders, and volunteers have teamed up to bring a wide variety of festivals and events to Celina and Clay County.
After a long absence, the Clay County Fair has been revived with great success. The fairground and recreational complex is located just a few hundred yards from the downtown area on the west side of the Cumberland River. The fairground complex was built through a combined effort of the local Lions Club, volunteers and local government. The Clay County Fair is the first one held each year in the Upper Cumberland area.
Other events, mostly centered around the Courthouse square, are:
• Homecoming Days – which features a wide variety of events and vendors from crafts to food. The festival is held at the end of July/first of August.
• Fall Festival and Chili Cookoff – held in October, the event is attracting a wider range of entrants in the chili cookoff each year.
In addition, other events held in Celina and the surrounding area throughout the year include tractor pulls, musical events, fishing tournaments, and car “cruise-ins,” among others.
The Chamber also offers a self-guided driving tour of the county.
A lot to offer
“We believe Celina and Clay County has a lot to offer to our residents, visitors and potential residents,” Donaldson said. “We invite everyone to come visit us here to find out more about what we have to offer in terms of relocating here to live or establish a business, becoming a part of our industrial community (which will be covered in a future issue), or just visiting.
“You’ll like what you see, and you’ll find out what makes our area special. It’s our goal at the Chamber to be the link between our residents and businesses and all the agencies that can help them succeed,” Donaldson said.