Prehistoric Ring of Fire
Long before settlers came to the Ring of Fire, prehistoric people made their lives here-evidence of Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian cultures tell us that the abundant game and favorable climate made this land a place where native peoples made homes and built lives. Like much of the state, the towns we see here today can be traced back to trails made by hungry and thirsty animals heading through the wilderness for food, water and salt licks.
Native Americans made use of those same worn-down paths through the wilderness; later white settlers used the ancient trails as they explored the land and used the rivers for transportation. Known as "long hunters," after the long stretches of time they’d spend away from home, these early settlers included Isaac Bledsoe, Kaspar Mansker, and even Daniel Boone himself. In 1770, John Donelson and James Robertson established one of the Ring Fire's first Cumberland River settlements, Fort Nashborough, which in time became Nashville, the state capitol. After Donelson and Robertson came more hunters and settlers, who built cabins for shelter and protection against attacks by the Native Americans, who were not interested in sharing their trails or their game.
1700-1800s: Settling In
When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, many soldiers were paid for their service with land grants, to be claimed in what was known as the Western Territory-present-day Tennessee. Following the long hunters' example, the soldiers made their way into the area along the wilderness paths and began staking their claims. As the settlements began to thrive, they quickly grew into villages, like Captain James Trousdale's 640 acres that we now know as the town of Gallatin. By the late 1700s, proper towns were planned and lots sold for around $7 or $8 apiece; churches and schools were established, and true communities began to form.
Life in Tennessee was not easy-illness, periodic Native American attacks, and the remoteness of the farms and villages created struggle for the settlers. New settlers soon had official routes to follow through the Ring of Fire: Following the same ancient buffalo and Native American trails, the 1787 Avery's Trace and quickly following Walton Road were developed to bring more settlers to the area from North Carolina. Stops like Fort Blount, Bledsoe's Fort, Manskers Station, and Fort Nashborough provided shelter and protection for the settlers on as they journeyed west, and laid the foundation for the towns we know today. Despite hardships, the towns grew rapidly, and the settlers began to grow crops and establish farms, including growing tobacco for personal use and sale.
Tobacco became a key factor in the region's agricultural economy. Slaves working at massive plantations like Cragont and Wessyngton grew and cured the crop, and as the industry began to boom, it became more dependent on large numbers of slaves. The Ring of Fire also yielded thousands of bales of cotton, prized livestock, and barrels of distilled spirits. In many ways, it was a farmer’s paradise.
1800s: Towns Become Cities
Distilleries thrived in this area in the early 1800s, fueled by easy access to corn and river transport. River towns like Carthage, Celina and Granville were flourishing with the commerce brought by the water: riverboats carried passengers, merchandise, produce, lumber and more. In 1817 the legend of the Bell Witch haunting gripped the area with spooky suspense. The railroads came in the 1850s and ushered in new opportunity; Nashville became a leading southern city. It was the height of prosperity for the Ring of Fire.
1861 began a rapid descent for the Ring of Fire as four years of Civil War cost the area thousands of lives and occupying armies plundered the farms of their wealth in food and livestock. Townspeople were recruited on the spot as troops moved through the area; residents took in sick and wounded soldiers, and many schools and churches became makeshift hospitals, sometimes accepting sick and wounded patients from minor skirmishes 40 miles or more away. African Americans, however, celebrated freedom and sought safety behind Union lines where they started new lives and built new communities.
After the war, Red Boiling Springs enhanced its early reputation as a resort town, touting the healing powers and medicinal value of its unusual rolling springs and developing into a famous summer resort.
By the end of the century, agricultural prosperity had returned and the countryside was dotted with little rural businesses stores like Thomas Drugs and TB Sutton General Store, where families could acquire the latest in fashion or farm machinery, courtesy of the mail-order catalog companies and Rural Free Delivery (RFD), which began in 1896.
1900s: Boom, Bust, and Boom Again
In the early part of the 20th century, the towns along the Ring of Fire flourished with ample railroad and river access. Railroad and river transport continued to feed the area’s economy, including Springfield’s tobacco and distillery traffic and Celina's timber industry, floating logs to Nashville during the spring high water.
In the early 1900s, the northwestern section of the Ring of Fire became embroiled in one of the most violent and serious domestic threats since the Civil War as it was swept into Kentucky's "Black Patch War" over price-fixing the area's signature dark-fire tobacco.
The depression of the 1930s hit the Ring of Fire hard. The timber resources were depleted, jobs were scarce, and much of the river and rail traffic had been replaced by automobile routes that bypassed these small towns. The New Deal revitalized almost every town, building new courthouses, post offices, parks, schools, and public utilities. Even as the nation's economic recovery began to take hold, new automobile highways continued to lure business and visitors away from what had once been thriving centers of commerce, offering visitors and industries access to a wider variety of attractions and options.
In 1943, the U.S. Corps of Engineers realized a long-term plan to dam the Obey River, creating Dale Hollow Lake and Dam. Because the river frequently swelled out of its banks and flooded the surrounding towns and farmland, the massive project was intended to control the flooding and generate electrical power. Little towns like Willow Grove were evacuated and were soon under water.
In 1954, Hendersonville was transformed from sleepy rural community to bustling lake town when the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Old Hickory Lock and Dam, creating 400 miles of beautiful shoreline. In 1963, the Corps built Cordell Hull Dam on the Cumberland River, creating Cordell Hull Lake. As well, deepwater port was opened in the 1980s near Gainesboro, and the river has once again become a crucial part of commerce on the Ring of Fire. The lakes in particular have become a part of the region's signature, as popular spots for outdoor activities and recreation. They continue to attract new residents and bring visitors and tourists to the area every season.
In the 1970s, the Ring of Fire became a haven for country music stars seeking solace from the bright lights of Music City – many of whom made their homes on Hendersonville’s Old Hickory Lake. Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Conway Twitty, Taylor Swift, Barbara Mandrell, Roy Acuff, Roy Orbison, Marty Stewart, Ricky Skaggs and the Oak Ridge Boys have all settled here, to name a few.
Today, the towns along the Ring of Fire remain in many ways as they were a century ago, with preserved shops, general stores, close-knit communities, beautiful rolling hills and picturesque plateau views. Still a primarily agricultural area, tobacco farming remains a vital crop, with Macon County producing more burley tobacco than any other county in the U.S.