The Creation of a Refuge...
Big Sandy Unit
In the areas comprising the present-day Big Sandy Unit of the Tennessee NWR, agriculture was the economic mainstay along with raw material-processing industries. Farms of the region were small but prosperous with a mixture of cash and subsistence crops. Corn, tobacco, cotton, and wheat were the most important crops. Since the land proved more suitable for tobacco than for cotton, it soon came to dominate the cash crops. Tobacco growing began about 1826 and peaked about 1860. Several tobacco factories were established in the area and they produced plug tobacco and cigars. The earlier importance of cotton is illustrated by the three cotton gins that operated in Henry County by 1827. Additionally, a number of cotton manufacturing plants were also established early in the region, but most failed during the post Civil War depression. In the earliest years, goods were transported by flatboat and keelboat, but regular steamboat traffic was established along the river by 1821-1822. Steamboats soon became the primary source of transportation, communication, and entertainment for people living along the Tennessee River. Landings for the steamboats soon sprang up everywhere along the Tennessee River banks. Several landings with historic interest still exist on the current Tennessee NWR, such as the Iron Bridge Landing on the Big Sandy Unit.
One of the earliest settlements on the present-day refuge began on the land between the Big Sandy and Tennessee Rivers, known as the “Old 23rd District”. Establishing settlements in the early 1820’s, these people were isolated from the rest of Henry County and the only means of access was by ferry at the Mouth of Sandy. The people here developed their own community, living and working together to survive the best they could. A focal point in this community was the Mount Zion Church. Established in 1853, Mount Zion was the only church serving the area for a long time. In the early days, people came from miles around on horseback, in wagons or buggies, or on foot to attend the church services. When TVA bought this land between the rivers in the 1940’s, they allowed Mount Zion Church to remain standing. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and an annual reunion service is still held on the Fourth of July. Another center of community spirit was Lashlee Springs, a stopping place for thirsty and tired travelers. A general store, a sawmill, a molasses mill, and a warehouse existed in the area up until the Great Depression. One other cultural feature in the current Big Sandy Unit was the Sulphur Well Resort. The resort was located on the west bank of the Big Sandy River near the Benton-Henry County line. The sulphur water found there was considered to be healthful and the resort was created soon after the Chickasaw had relinquished these lands. The area continued to be a popular resort with local residents and tourists alike until the site was inundated by the rising waters of Kentucky Lake.
Duck River Unit
A piece of land considered to be one of the most productive in the nation lay between the Tennessee and Duck Rivers. Nicknamed “Big Bottom”, it was a 33,000-acre stretch of rich bottomland. Extensive settlement took place on the land in the 1840’s and it soon became the most densely populated portion of Humphreys County. The owners of this land didn’t use fences but instead used rocks and/or iron rods to mark their boundaries. For the most part, farms were small and the farmers practiced subsistence farming. Corn was the principal crop grown since it was well adapted to virgin land, quick to mature, and easy to harvest. Vegetables, small grains, and cotton were also produced for home use, and a small amount of tobacco was produced for home and market. One of the most famous residents of Big Bottom was Jesse Woodson James, the famous outlaw. After robbing a bank in Minnesota, James came south looking for a hideout. He came to Big Bottom in August 1877, and rented a farm from W. H. Link. James was locally known as J. D. Howard and lived unsuspected among the people. James left for Nashville one cold winter night, supposedly running from a debt owed to a local. He had farmed what is today Refuge land and lived on the ridge overlooking his piece of Big Bottom. His house has since burned, but behind where it once stood are two markers indicating the burial places of the twin children Jesse and his wife had to bury while they lived in Humphreys County. Other important industries in these southern sections included livestock raising, mussel harvesting, and timbering.
The area now known as Duck River Bottoms was dewatered by TVA with pumping until 1965 for mosquito control. Farming was the primary management tool used on the unit until 1983, when refuge staff under the direction of Refuge Manager Carrell Ryan constructed a series of 12 sub-impoundments to enhance natural food production for waterfowl. In 1992, the refuge in partnership with TVA and E. I. Dupont Company, restored the pumping capability of the unit. Through a balance mix of providing agricultural and natural foods and sanctuary, Duck River Bottoms continues to be one of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl and eagles in the region.
An existing landing is Sycamore Landing, located near the confluence of the Tennessee and Duck Rivers. This landing served the counties of Benton and Humphreys and was one of the most important landings on the east bank of the Tennessee in the latter part of the 19 th Century. Yet another landing, Cuba Landing, named after a Cuban who decided the scenery looked much like his native Cuba, did well and served the Blue Creek area of Humphreys County, part of the present-day Duck River Unit.
Uncle Jimmy Harris was the first settler of the land currently located in the Busseltown Unit of the Refuge. Harris floated down the Tennessee and landed at the mouth of a little stream he later named Cub Creek, after the young bears he killed there. Johnse Bussell arrived in this area as well, prior to the Civil War where he established Bussell’s Landing, consisting of a warehouse at the water’s edge. The community that developed nearby was later named Busseltown where Bussell also had a store. Johnse built a house sometime around 1857, which once stood on refuge land but currently stands on the U.S. Forest Service’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area as one of the few remaining pioneer structures in the region. It is a double-pen and dogtrot poplar-log house covered with board and batten and can be seen as the main log cabin at "The Homeplace". John and Jim Bussell, sons of Johnse, operated the store and warehouse into the early 20 th Century, but the business ended with their deaths.