The Site That Became Spencer, TN

Baptismal pool at the town spring in Spencer, TN in about 1915-17. The woman is Inez Woodlee Isom. -Photo provided by Marr Temples

Original Name of the Site that Became Spencer, Tennessee

On Monday, April 6, 1840, Van Buren County Court met for the first time.  At that time, no location had been designated for the county seat, so the meeting was held in the home of William Worthington in the Laurel Cove community near the border of Warren County. 

On April 30, 1840, a county-wide election was conducted “for the purpose of electing a suitable site for the county seat of Van Buren County, with Elijah Drakes and Cummings Springs as the two options.  

In the June 1, 1840 county court session, which again met at William Worthington’s house, David Haston and son Isham B. Haston became members of the Van Buren County Court.  Laurel Cove was “over the mountain” (southwest of where the Hastons lived) and very inconvenient to them and others from the northern part of the county.  David made the motion that they move the county court meetings to Cummings Springs (later named Spencer), but his motion was overruled 10 to 4.  Apparently, the April 30 election results had not yet been tabulated.  

One month later, in the July 6, 1840 session, the election results were presented and Cummings Springs won by a majority vote.  From the court record from this session, it appears the county seat was already named Spencer, even though the location of this named county seat town had not yet been determined.  

July 6, 1840 Van Buren County Court Minutes

The Spencer Town Spring in March 2024

This historic site deserves a historical marker on Sparta Street in Spencer.  And wouldn’t it be great to have it restored to its original pump-less pool condition, with a road down to it and a clearing around it?

Getting a Drink in Spencer, TN, But Not What You Might Think

A Town Well Story by Hoyte Cook

The little town of Spencer, Tennessee lies atop the Cumberland Plateau, around 1800 feet above sea level, at the intersection of Highways 30 and 111. Those steep and, in some cases, crooked roads enable views of some spectacular scenery.

Spencer is an old town, small, and quiet. Just about everybody who lives there knows just about everybody else, along with at least a century of their genealogy and the skeletons in their closets.

Many of the citizens can remember when there were only two telephones in Spencer, one at Doc Yack’s drug store and one at the sheriff’s office. But folks made do. If you wanted to talk by telephone with somebody in Spencer, you could call the sheriff’s office, state the name of the person you wanted to speak with and the sheriff would go get them and bring them to the phone.

There is not a single traffic light in Spencer, but there are speed limit signs that one would be well advised to heed. The LAW in this place has a reputation for prompt action, especially for pouncing on speeding drivers, purveyors of illegal whiskey, and, in recent years, possessors of illegal drugs.

And speaking of illegal whiskey, the said LAW has established a legendary record of confiscating it, beginning in the Prohibition era and continuing right up through the 1940s and 50s. Bad whiskey, commonly referred to as “rot-gut,” was usually poured out by the sheriff’s department and/or revenue agents soon following its seizure. Sheriff Claud Baker once said he kept some of the rot-gut on hand to wash his feet in.  But all the seized whiskey was not bad stuff; some of it was good stuff which was retained by the sheriff’s department as “evidence” (or “medicine”). Not many people outside the sheriff’s department knew about this retained evidence.  And plenty of people can remember “making do” with outhouses and unreliable private wells before Spencer finally got public water and sewer service. However, if the well went dry or its water became foul there was the well-known fall-back option–haul water from the Town Spring. At the county courthouse, with its public offices and usual number of visitors, the lack of ready drinking water had been a long-standing nagging problem. The complete history of coping with this nagging problem was not recorded, but it appears that in the 1930s the county court authorized a well to be hand-dug in the courthouse yard. The fellow who got the handshake contract to dig the well was a former deputy sheriff, who also just happened to be aware of certain retained evidence.

On a warm summer day, the contractor (a former deputy that I’ll refer to as “Rocky”) and two men he had hired broke ground and went about the task of digging the courthouse well, two men digging and the third man operating the cradle hoist to haul dirt out of the hole. The work went on for several days. Spectators naturally stopped by to monitor the project, one being the county sheriff who, ever eager to be helpful, saw to it that jars of drinking water from the Town Spring were periodically lowered down to the diggers via the cradle hoist.  If the diggers happened to look up they frequently saw the sheriff peering down at them, obviously admiring their work, and eager to be helpful.  The contractor (Rocky) eventually hollered up at the sheriff, and said, to effect: “If you are gonna be sending these fruit jars down to us, how about filling a couple of of them with some of that good evidence you store over at the jail.”  The sheriff pondered the request, considered the former deputy’s likely knowledge of the evidence, and, ever eager to be helpful, walked across the street to the jail complex, and filled Rocky’s order.  The two diggers, having adapted to the nice cool atmosphere down in the hole, leisurely consumed the evidence and continued digging.  When they were finally hoisted out of the nice cool hole and encountered the warm summer air, both well diggers strangely settled to the grass and fell sound asleep.  The assembled spectators were baffled.  It was likely reasoned and agreed upon that they were dead tired from the hard work.  

The hand-dug well appears to have sufficed for a few years, but it eventually went dry or foul.  The county court in due time authorized the installation of a pipeline and pump to deliver water to an outdoor hydrant at the courthouse from the Spencer Town Spring.  And Rocky, the former deputy sheriff, ever eager to be helpful, was awarded another handshake contract to carry out the mission.  

The distance from the Town Spring to the proposed hydrant at the courthouse was stepped off at about two hundred and fifty yards. From the Town Spring the pipeline route would run through some woods, up an old dirt road, passing the jail complex, crossing the street, and crossing a piece of the courthouse yard to stub up at the hydrant. Rocky had determined that mechanized trenching equipment was both costly and hard to find, so he went looking for help to hand-dig the trench for the pipeline.  Good help was also costly and hard to find.  There was one fellow, who, although usually booked solid to do farm labor, was known to rearrange his schedule and make himself available if the money was right and if some whiskey could also be made available.  (Good whiskey was harder to find than trenching machinery. You had to go to Nashville or Chattanooga to get it legally.)  Anyway, Rocky hired the fellow and they went about digging the trench, cutting through roots, breaking up big rocks, and cutting the asphalt to cross the street.  On about the third day of hard digging, the trench was almost ready to pass by the sheriff’s quarters and jail complex, which was directly across the street from the courthouse.  The hired man, having seen none of the promised whiskey, began to ask about it.  Rocky did not yet have the whiskey, but he had a plan.

As the trench digging progressed past the jail complex, the sheriff (not the same sheriff that was always eager to be helpful a few years prior) came out of his quarters to observe the work. The sheriff soon figured out that the contractor’s intent was to run the water line directly to the courthouse without branching it to also serve the sheriff’s quarters and jail complex. He approached Rocky and said, “Look-a-here Rocky, I thought the jail was supposed to get water too. Ain’t you gonna run a pipeline up to the jail?” Rocky replied, “Well Sheriff, nobody said squat to me about running water to the jail. If you want water for the jail, then I guess we need to stop work right here and talk to the county court, and see if they will vote on spending some more money and adding to my contract.”

The idea of going to the county court and asking for more money gave the sheriff heartburn and caused him to look very depressed. But, ever eager to be helpful, Rocky said, “Tell you what Sheriff, you give us two gallons of that good evidence that you keep in storage and we will run you a water line and we won’t bother the county court with petty details.”

The following day the sheriff approached Rocky and said, “When I get out of sight, check out what’s under that tarpaulin over there.”  Two gallons of good evidence were discretely removed from under the tarpaulin. The jail got a water line. Spencer carried on business as usual, and eventually became a modern city with public water and sewer service, along with a lot more telephones.

And the Town Spring, that natural resource that gave Spencer, Tennessee reason to begin existence back in the 1840s, is now quietly standing by and available to serve if needed.  Its cool clear water flows down the hill and disappears into the woods. 

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