Limestone County was created by an act of the Alabama Territorial General Assembly February 6, 1818. It was formed from land comprising of Elk County, previously a part of the Mississippi Territory. The county as named for Limestone Creek, which flows through it and has a bed made of hard Limestone. Encompassing approximately 607 square miles, Limestone is the third smallest county in the state. It lies west of Madison County, north of Morgan and Lawrence counties, east of Lauderdale county and south of the Tennessee state line. Limestone County consists of fertile agricultural land, scenic hills and waterways that include the Elk River running through the western side, and the Tennessee River on the south.
After the Cherokee Land Cession in 1806, settlers began moving into the area now known as Limestone County. The Cherokee cession included much of Limestone County, land that was also claimed by the Chickasaw Tribe. Unaware that they were venturing into Chickasaw territory, white settlers were moving west of the Congressional Reservation Line by 1808, leading to clashes between settlers, Indians, and soldiers. These settlers became known as The Intruders and suffered both at the hands of the native tribe and the U.S. Government.
The Intruders built cabins, planted crops and settled in during the winter of 1808-9. The Chickasaws, known for their fierce fighting ability, did not look kindly upon having settlers moving onto their land, and often made raids on unsuspecting residents. The Chickasaws obtained support from the U.S. Government in forcing the settlers out of their territory. The soldiers dealt harshly with the settlers by destroying their cabins and crops. In 1809, soldiers stationed at Ft. Hampton removed 166 settlers from the Chickasaw territory, 93 of which were from the Simms Settlement. Some of these families included widows with children who fled to neighboring Giles County, Tenn., and Madison County Ala. Land entries were made in northeast Limestone County as early as 1809; between 1809 and 1816, 11,001 acres of land were entered in the county.
In September 1816, after many years of fending off attacks from the Chickasaws and removal by the government, the settlers living west of the Congressional Reservation Line were finally allowed to stay. The Chickasaw Nation ceded to the United States all rights and titles to the lands on the north side of the Tennessee River as well as some land on the south side. Settlers flocked to the Huntsville land office to buy the land they had cleared and on which they had established homes. By 1820, there were 10,069 people living in the county, 2,919 of whom were slaves and 33 of them, free persons of color. The population continued to increase due to the fertile soil that was conducive to growing cotton and other crops. By 1860, the population had increased to 15, 306. Of that number, there were 7,215 whites and 8,085 slaves. The number of free persons of color had decreased to six.
In November 1819, Reuben Tillman, Thomas Redus, Jeremiah Tucker, Robert Pollock and Samuel Hundley were elected to serve as the first county commissioners, and in 1820, the first of four county courthouses were erected.
In May 1819, members were elected to the state constitutional convention. They were Nicholas Davis, Thomas Bibb, and Beverly Hughes. The same year William Wyatt Bibb was elected as governor of Alabama. Davis was elected as a state representative, and William R. King and John W. Walker were elected to the U.S. Senate.
The City of Athens, incorporated Nov. 18, 1818, became the county seat in 1819, beating out Cambridge, in the southeastern part of the county, and English’s Spring, in modern-day Tanner. Other towns once or currently located in Limestone County include:
- Mooresville, incorporated Nov. 16, 1818, is the oldest town in Limestone County. Tradition says the first settler was William Moore. Today, visitors to historic Mooresville find beautiful, well-maintained, antebellum homes.
- Cotton Port, located near the point that Limestone Creek flows into the Tennessee River, was incorporated Jan. 29, 1829, and flourished for a time.
- Bridgewater, another small town located 15 miles south of Elkton, Tenn., and 10 miles above Ft. Hampton at Simms Landing, was also a flourishing town in the early history of the county.
- Belle Mina grew around Thomas Bibb’s home, Belle Manor, built in 1826, and the railroad depot that was located there after the residence of nearby Mooresville opposed having the railroad come so close to their homes and businesses.
- Elkmont, named for the elk that flourished on the “mount” on which it sat, began to flourish with the completion of the Tennessee and Alabama Central Railroad in 1859. The name of the Fort Hampton post office, established in 1859, was changed to Elkmont in 1866, and Elkmont was incorporated on March 28, 1873.
- Ardmore sprang up as the village of Austin on the Alabama-Tennessee state line after the Louisville and Nashville Railroad began building a direct line between Nashville and Decatur in 1911. When the first railroad opened in Austin in 1914, the railroad named it Ardmore and the town changed its name to follow suit. The town was incorporated in 1922.
The first settlers in Limestone County were mostly Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Christian Church members. Later, the Episcopalians, Catholics and Lutherans established churches in the county. When German settlers moved into the county in the late 1800s, they established St. Paul Lutheran Church, which is now home to Sand Springs Baptist Church. Located in the Germantown community near Thach is the Germantown Cemetery where tombstone inscriptions attest to their Germanic background. Today many descendants of these settlers continue to call Limestone County home.
Many beautiful antebellum homes and buildings still grace the landscape, such as the 1835 Houston Museum and Library, home to Governor George Smith Houston; and the 1826 Beaty/Mason home, today the official residence of the Athens State University President.
Education was important to early settlers. Athens Female Academy was established in 1822, and after ownership of the school was transferred in 1842 to the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Church, Founders Hall was erected in 1843. Today the school is named Athens State University, and it is the oldest institution of higher learning in Alabama. The county’s oldest public high school is the former Limestone County High School, now Elkmont High School, built in 1912. W.R. Hanserd built the original school in Elkmont on that site in 1874. The roots of present-day Athens High School go back to the 1936 merger of Athens City High (dating back to 1886) and the Alabama Eighth District Agricultural School (established in 1891).
The history of African American education in Limestone County goes all the way back to 1865, with the establishment of the American Missionary Association-supported Trinity School, which for the next 105 years would be Limestone County’s high school for African Americans. More than two dozen rural elementary schools fed into Trinity, as did Miller Public School, the city’s only elementary school for African Americans.
Until the 1850s, wagon roads and riverways were the only means of transportation in the county. This changed, however, when the Tennessee and Central Alabama Railroad was built through central Alabama. The old Elkmont depot still stands as a reminder of those times when goods and passengers traveled through the state by rail. Today the depot is used as a senior center, and a modern Rails to Trails walking and riding path has replaced the old train tracks from Hays Mill to the Giles County, Tenn., state line.
Because the rail system throughout the south was vital to the movement of the troops and supplies during the Civil War, towns along the path, including Athens and Elkmont, were scenes of fighting. In May 1862, Union Colonel John B. Turchin and his soldiers sacked Athens and occupied the city, looting, burning and destroying property there. The east side of the square was burned, and the Presbyterian Church was extensively damaged while it was used to quarter Union troops, animals and a warehouse. The 1835 the county courthouse also was burned.
In Elkmont, a notable battle was fought at Sulphur Creek Trestle, where the Union Army had established a hillside fort. In September 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest in an 8-hour battle captured the fort, the trestle, two blockhouses, and the Union garrison, along with weapons and horses. The war brought hard times to families in the area, but more was to come during Reconstruction.
After the war, Confederate soldiers released from Union prisons and from duty returned home to find the county occupied by Union soldiers, some of whom were former slaves. Many found their property destroyed and their homes in ashes. These former soldiers were disenfranchised and required to take the oath of loyalty, and it was almost impossible to regain economic stability without equipment, horses, or money. In order to rebuild the state’s infrastructure and to pay for the war, the government imposed high taxes, forcing many farmers to sell their land. Among the properties sold at auction was that of James W. S. Donnell of Athens and Jonesboro. His 240-acre Athens property, which included the Donnell home located on what is now Athens Middle School property, was part of that auction.
The physical ravages of war were almost healed by May of 1869. By then the courthouse had been rebuilt and programs such as the Freedman’s Bureau had been set in place to ease the newly-emancipated slaves’ transition to freedom. However, hardships continued to plague the local businesses and farmers who needed money to operate. Farmers relied on the furnishing system where supplies needed for crops were bought by pledging the crop itself as security. The farmer paid exorbitant interest rates for those supplies and many were never out of debt from one year to the next. This continued throughout the next two decades as farmers worked to reestablish themselves and gain some form of security for their families.
The 20th Century brought new prosperity to Limestone County. By 1900, there were 22,687 residents in the county. Athens, with a population of 1,010, was the largest town, and it more than doubled in size to 3,323 by 1920. Cotton was still the main crop in the county, and in 1900 a cotton mill was established. Telephones also came to Athens and a telegraph office was built. In 1907, the need for electricity had increased, and the city of Athens contracted with Westinghouse to provide a 140-kilowatt electric plant and 30 new street lights for $4,025. The L&N Railroad built a new passenger depot in 1905, and then a new freight depot in 1914, and in 1916 the county began construction on the current Limestone County Courthouse.
The economic boom was short-lived due to shockwaves spreading out from the 1929 Great Depression. The local banks failed, and a number of homes and farms were lost to mortgage foreclosures. Despite the loss of jobs and hardships, county residents survived the depression, and in some respects were better off than people in other areas of the country.
The Tennessee Valley Authority was established in the 1930s and hydroelectric dams were built on the Tennessee River to produce electricity. Approximately 50,000 acres of land were taken from Limestone County to create Wheeler Lake and a dam of the same name. Many county residents were employed by TVA to clear trees and remove houses, farm buildings and cemeteries from the soon-to-be flooded lands. In 1934, Athens became the second city to sign a contract with TVA to purchase electricity, 30 days after Tupelo, Miss. By 1936, the city of Athens began extending electric lines into rural areas of the county by borrowing money from the Rural Electrification Administration.
Government jobs were important in rebuilding Limestone County after the Great Depression. TVA and the Works Progress Administration provided needed jobs for local residents. By the 1930s, money was finally available to build the current system of roads in the county. Today Limestone County has an excellent road system that is continually being upgraded and maintained by a capable engineering department and crews in the four districts.
Following World War II, agriculture boomed in Limestone County with bumper crops of cotton. While the sharecropper had been an institution since the Civil War, by the 1960s he had been displaced by mechanical pickers. Today, Limestone County is one of the largest cotton producers in the state, planting approximately 60,000 acres each year.
The two world wars, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War and later conflicts found many Limestone County youth the first to volunteer for duty. Today all veterans from the Revolutionary War to the current war in Iraq are honored by the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives, located on Pryor Street in the old freight depot. The museum, established in 2000, is dedicated to honoring the memory of all veterans.
In May 1967, TVA constructed the largest nuclear power generating plant in the country on a 920-acre reservation acquired from the Glaze family. Today the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is in full operation providing electricity to county residents.
Since Limestone County is only a short drive from the Redstone Arsenal, NASA, and Research Park in Huntsville, many of its residents are employed by the Army, NASA, and private tech companies. Local companies in Limestone County also supply contract work for the space and defense industries. At the Welcome Center on I-65, a Saturn rocket stands as evidence of the strong connection between Limestone County and the defense programs. In addition, the county is home to numerous businesses and industries.
As the county continues to grow, the strength and work ethic of the early pioneers will continue to make Limestone County a favorite place to live, work, worship and educate future generations.
Written By: Loretta Merrell Ekis