Clay County Tennessee Museum, Inc.
Historic downtown Celina may be best known for being one of the gateways to Dale Hollow Lake. although there’s a lot more than that going on here.
This town 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 located nearby.
Today, it’s carving out another identity of sorts, while keeping its folksy charm in the process.
Celina and Clay County are already a great place to live, and we’ve always been looking for ways to improve our quality of life here. We want to make the best use of what we have to offer both our residents and visitors.
How It Began
Clay County 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. He founded the Fisk Female Academy at nearby Hilham in 1806 (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. Lumber, livestock and crops were among the cargo shipped 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.
“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, holiday events are held there, and 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, an outstanding private school that offered a liberal arts curriculum. Subjects offered were as wide-ranging as elocution and pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching). The boarding school attracted students from a wide area around Celina, and boasted students like former Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Hull 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. Former Tennessee Governor Benton McMillan was also a Montvale student.
The Polymath Academy (similar to Montvale) 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 OshKosh B’Gosh clothing company came to town in the mid-1950’s, greatly changing the local economy. Farming and other traditional, rural means of making a living had been the backbone of the local economy (and are still a significant presence today). The garment industry, though, offered another way residents could make a living, as it did across the Upper Cumberland. OshKosh kept a heavy presence in Celina and Clay County for about 40 years.
Despite the many changes through the years, the town has held onto what you might call a bit of “Mayberry” charm. 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. We think Celina and Clay County have the absolute best in what people think of as "small-town America.”
In recent years, the downtown area has seen the beginning stages of a facelift, with help from county and city government and the local Three-Star Committee.