Signs near the city limits of LaFollette welcome drivers to "the gateway to Norris Lake." While the picturesque waters are one of today's popular attractions, for decades the main draw to this area was in the rich soil.
"This area started out being known as Big Creek Gap in the early 1800s," said Jerry Sharp, curator of the Campbell County Historical Society Museum and Library. "There were just a few houses and farmland. The main landowners were John Myers and Laban Sharp, which they got through land grants from service in the Revolutionary War. Laban Sharp was my great-great-grandfather."
Laban Sharp carved a life into the pioneer wilderness and predicted the area around Big Creek Gap would someday be home to a town or city. Sharp would not live long enough to see the drastic transformation that occurred in the 1890s when a wealthy and brilliant man in Indiana took an interest in blast furnaces for iron production.
"Harvey LaFollette was a very intelligent person. He could speak nine languages and read 17 languages," said Sharp. "He wrote to every scientist in the world who knew anything about blast furnaces and really researched the entire process."
What led Harvey LaFollette to Tennessee was a game of chance in Illinois.
"Harvey liked to gamble. He would go to Chicago to gamble and he ran into a man there who told Harvey, 'If you're wanting to build a blast furnace, why don't you come to Big Creek Gap, Tennessee? They've got ore in the ground, all the coal and timber you need, and limestone to get the impurities out.' Harvey visited the area and bought 55,000 acres of land."
The natural resources in Big Creek Gap would fuel plans for the new LaFollette Coal, Iron, and Railway Company in the 1890s.
Harvey LaFollette enlisted the help his friend John Fox Jr. to design a new state-of-the-art town from scratch. Fox is best known today as a famous author of the early 20th century, but his imagination and vision were also on display when drafting the plans for what is now known as the City of LaFollette.
"John Fox told Harvey that they needed to build the streets extra-wide," said Sharp. "He said everybody in town is eventually going to have two buggies and two wagons someday and they're going to need enough room. We still have planners with the state tell us this is one of the most well-designed towns as they expanded the highways without having to tear down a bunch of buildings."
Like the trademark wide streets, seemingly everything built in LaFollette was bigger and arguably better than many towns in the region. The LaFollette family built an enormous 27-room Victorian Style home known as Glen Oaks as a centerpiece of town. By 1900 the city already had power lines and telephones. LaFollette's company built the largest blast furnace in the south.
Harvey LaFollette also went big to recruit workers with expertise to his new company and city.
"Harvey advertised in magazines in Europe for miners, stone-cutters, and iron workers. Places like Germany had people with lots of technical expertise and experience with iron furnaces," said Sharp.
More than 1,500 people worked for LaFollette's company. The town that was economically centered around blast furnaces quickly became a melting pot of cultures from across the globe. The influx of international workers was also adamant about maintaining their lifestyles when it came to alcohol.
"There were 23 saloons in LaFollette. This was during a time when alcohol was prohibited in most of the state. At one time Nashville, Chattanooga, and LaFollette were the only cities in Tennessee where you could buy liquor," laughed Sharp.
The diverse boom town was also gave African Americans opportunities for jobs and education. The eclectic mix of cultural and musical influences in the city fostered the prodigious talents of a young black man named Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong.
"Howard was such a jolly person and could do almost anything. He was a painter, a poet, and could play all these different instruments. Everywhere he went, in every country, he would say, 'I am from a little town in East Tennessee called LaFollette.' We try to honor his memory and this year more than 5,000 people came to our annual Louie Bluie Festival," said Sharp.
A street and a bridge in LaFollette are named in honor of Armstrong. The name of the city itself pays homage to Harvey LaFollette, the man with the vision and means to forge a bustling town and company out of farmland at Big Creek Gap.
"My great-great-grandfather wanted this place to be something and it certainly came to fruition. I have enjoyed giving something back to this community with the historical society and other types of public service. From visitors to LaFollette, I have always heard we've always been friendly in this town. There are just a lot of good people here and we have a great history," said Sharp.
The Space Between LaFollette
The City of LaFollette is commonly misspelled by even the most official of authorities.
"A lot of folks put a space after the 'La" in LaFollette. It is all one word," said Sharp. "The other thing people will do is forget to capitalize the 'F' in LaFollette."
Some official state records list the city's name as La Follette. The search function on Garmin GPS navigation units will not find the city if LaFollette is spelled correctly. Garmin and other map services incorrectly spell the city as La Follette.
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