The History of Bell Buckle, Tennessee
Bell Buckle is located in the heart of Tennessee. A variety of legends offer explanations of the origin of the name and no one of these theories has been documented but there is one that seems plausible. According to this tradition, the first white man to traverse the area now known as Bell Buckle discovered carvings in the shape of a cowbell and buckle on a tree near a free-flowing creek. This carving was interpreted as a warning from Indians that the domesticated animals of white civilization were intruding upon their lands. Thereafter the creek was referred to as Bell Buckle Creek and, logically enough, the town, which grew up on the banks of that creek, adopted its name.
A settlement thrived in the area during the early 1800's but it was not until 1856 that the population increased enough to incorporate a town. Location of a main line of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad through Bedford County in 1852 stimulated growth in many small settlements near its right of way. A.D. Fuggitt, generally credited as being the founder of Bell Buckle, donated land for the railroad and the depot in 1852 and opened the community's first general store the same year.
Bell Buckle flourished with the growing popularity of rail transportation and enjoyed its greatest period of prosperity beginning around 1870. The railroad was the center of business and Bell Buckle became the major stockyard between Nashville and Chattanooga. The comings and goings of the trains were of great interest and the depot was a hub of activity. The population grew to more than 1,000. A thriving community with a hotel, two banks, groceries, physicians, pharmacies, mercantile establishments, a private school and a public school, granaries and other businesses sprang up.
During the late 1880's, William R. "Sawney" Webb, a Civil War veteran and North Carolina educator, arrived in Tennessee to build a preparatory school. First located in Culleoka, Tennessee, "Sawney" later moved his students to Bell Buckle. They came with $12,000 to invest in education. Of their original investment, $2,600 was expended for buildings and $8,000 was used to purchase books. Originally the school had no dormitories and students were boarded in homes all over town. The Webb School contributed to the growth and development of Bell Buckle and continues to be a prestigious private boarding and day school with an international student body.
The Great Depression of the 1920's devastated the Bell Buckle railroad trade. The advent of the automobile and the decline of the railroad created enormous adversity and the row of one-story businesses, which comprised the downtown, began to suffer the dilapidation of many other railroad stops. Long unoccupied, most stores were boarded up until the 1960's quickening of appreciation for its quaint heritage started a wave of rentals, purchases and renovations that has made Bell Buckle a center for arts and crafts and a favorite destination for antiques shopping. The festivals throughout the year draw hundreds of visitors who discover the Bell Buckle charm for the first time.
One unexpected result of the economic decline was that many of the Victorian and Arts and Crafts style homes were not replaced with more modern structures. In 1976, during the nation's Bicentennial, an area including the Bell Buckle downtown and continuing to the Webb School property, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. There are a great many of these homes that have been restored or renovated, not only in the officially designated historic district but also all through the town.
This little town of Bell Buckle is now known far and wide as the destination for antiques, quilts, handmade crafts, country music, home-cooking and Southern hospitality. Thousands of visitors are drawn each year to visit the charming downtown with its shops and eateries and participate in the annual festivals.