Princess Theatre old opera house 1885
Princess Theatre old opera house - 1885


The City of Columbia is the county seat for Maury County, Tennessee, found nestled along the banks of the Duck River. Without two important treaties with the Cherokee, the establishment of Columbia and Maury County would not have been possible. The first treaty (Treaty of Tellico, 1805) terminated Native American rights to the lands north of the Duck River. The second treaty (Treaty of Washington, 1806) opened the land south of the Duck River to white settlers. Although unpopular with the Native Americans, their displeasure did little to stop the influx of settlers to the area.

So many settlers came into the area that by 1807 they petitioned the Tennessee General Assembly in Knoxville to create a new county and on November 24, 1807, Maury County was established.1 The same act that established Maury County “designated Joshua Williams, William Frierson, Isaac Roberts, John Lindsey, and Joseph Brown to select the location for the county seat near the center of the County, to be known by the name of Columbia.”2 The committee above purchased 150 acres of land from Mr. John White and set about subdividing the land into lots with streets 100 feet wide.

Columbia was incorporated November 17, 1817 by the General Assembly. The town continued to grow from the wilderness that once surrounded it. By 1836, Columbia “was a very thrifty town with a population of 1,500, next in size in this section to Nashville with its 7,000 population.”3 And Columbia would only continue to grow in size and prominence.

In the years prior to the Civil War, Columbia could boast many businesses and hotels. There were also several churches and institutions of higher learning, including Jackson College for the males and the Columbia Institute and the Columbia Athenaeum for young ladies. Columbia was called by some the “Athens of the West.” Thanks to agriculture, there was money in Maury County and Columbia, being the county seat, reflected that wealth with brick mansions and plantations.

The Civil War, however, brought much suffering to the area. Columbia, being a crossroads, changed hands numerous times between the Confederate and Union armies. Each of the armies left their sick and wounded to be cared for and their dead to be buried. But, for everything they left, the armies took much more, including the food, livestock, and resources Columbia residents needed to survive. When the war was over, Columbia was a battered and drained town. Residents looked once more to the land.

The land, through agriculture, provided the sustenance they needed to survive and conquer rigors of Reconstruction. But, there was something else in the land that would help them not only survive, but prosper—Phosphate. William Shirley discovered phosphate on Gholston Hill in Columbia in 1888. “Very soon after the discovery of phosphate in Maury County phosphate companies were organized or moved into the area for the development of the fields.”4 The impact phosphate made on the local economy is still visible today. Columbia’s Union Station train depot, U.S. Post Office (Memorial Building), and County Courthouse were all built within the first decade of the 20th century.

Phosphate and chemical production—along with agriculture—powered the local economy for nearly 100 years. Then, one by one, the chemical companies began to close. Columbia’s economy was once again in a panic. Help came from an unexpected source—Detroit, Michigan. General Motors purchased land just north of Columbia to build a production facility for their Saturn brand. Built in 1990, this factory proved to be the shot in the arm the local economy needed.

General Motors still operates in Maury County today as do a variety of businesses and industries. True to its roots, agriculture is still one of the major industries in the area. Columbia is referred to as "The Mule capital of the world” and celebrates 'Mule Day' each April, highlighted by the Mule Day Parade —a weeklong celebration that salutes the past and the animal that helped build the town.

Columbia's crown jewel is the historic downtown district that exemplifies the classic Southern town complete with an iconic Courthouse Square surrounded by vibrant retail shops, local eats, boutiques, antique finds, and various businesses. Columbia is also the ancestral home of the 11th U.S. President James K. Polk.

1. Century Review of Maury County, Tennessee 1807-1907. (1980). Greenville, SC: Southern Historical Press, p12.
2. Turner, William Bruce (1955). History of Maury County, Tennessee. Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press, p43.
3. Turner, p60
4. Tolbert, Lisa C. (1999). Constructing Townscapes. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, p146.
5. Turner, p335