With historic homes like Rock Castle and Monthaven that date back centuries, many are surprised to learn that the city of Hendersonville itself is just a half century old.
Even more surprising is the unique way in which the city was incorporated.
“We’re the only city I know in the state of Tennessee that was authorized by a Tennessee Supreme Court decision,” said City Attorney John Bradley.
Bradley, who first started working for the city in 1987, is often asked to speak about the city’s formation – and the court case that sealed its fate.
“It’s such an important part of annexation law in Tennessee,” he said. “It really is a fascinating history.”
A city is born
By the time 39 voters and residents of Hendersonville’s Shivel Drive area petitioned the Sumner County Election Commission in October of 1967 to hold an election to decide if their area could be incorporated, an attempt to incorporate another area of town had already failed.
But this time the roughly 18/100’s of a square mile, or 115 acres – was comprised of a close-knit group of friends and relatives who thought they knew best how to steer the city’s future.
The area, just a few blocks in what was then the center of the growing area, had a population of 251 people. Just 62 of those were registered voters at the time the petition was filed.
The election to decide the question of incorporation was held June 11, 1968. Fifty-three residents voted for incorporation, and 26 residents voted against it. On July 9, 1968, in a second ballot, L. W. Oliver, Sr., W. E. Sisco and L. H. “Dink” Newman were elected the city’s first commissioners.
A month later, Bill Cole of the Hendersonville Utility District filed an injunction against the city alleging the area incorporated was just a tiny portion of the densely populated area known as Hendersonville, and was not representative of the nearly 14,000 people who lived in that area. The utility district also alleged the incorporation wasn’t within the meaning or intent of the state law that allowed municipal incorporations in Tennessee.
Tennessee law at the time made no restrictions based on minimum size.
After the utility district, which feared a take-over if the city incorporated, won an initial ruling, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled 3 to 2 in favor of the city’s appeal. On July 25, 1969 the state’s high court refused to grant a petition to rehear the case.
The three commissioners were sworn in quickly thereafter. Not long after that, the new city of 251 was annexed in the surrounding 14,000 residents.
“And that’s the city you have today,” said Bradley. “Hendersonville is the reason for so many annexation and incorporation laws we have in Tennessee. They don’t let you do anything the way Hendersonville did any more.”
Currently cities are no longer allowed to annex more than 25 percent of an area at one time. Also, residents must request to be annexed into a city and the city must agree to provide certain services.
‘A tumultuous time’
Louis Oliver III, now a chancery court judge, was 21 at the time his father and grandfather were instrumental in the city’s incorporation.
Oliver said that his father, Louis Oliver, Jr.; Newman, Hendersonville High School’s first graduate; and Howard Boone met often to discuss incorporation.
Oliver, who grew up on Shivel Drive next door to his grandfather, recalls a tight-knit community of friends, neighbors and relatives in what had become the city’s center.
“A lot of people who came from Davidson County were opposed to a municipal government,” said Oliver. “But to a core group, the county was controlling all the zoning – the county was controlling what was going on.”
Hendersonville was represented by just two of 40 county magistrates, he noted.
“You can see how that was a detriment. There was no planning that went on for a long time. That was one reason – also there were no services.”
At the time there was a privately owned fire department and no police.
Oliver’s grandfather, Louis Oliver, Sr., ran as a city commissioner because his father, the city’s postmaster, was prohibited by the Hatch Act from running for office.
“So they recruited my grandfather to run,” said Oliver.
After the commissioners were sworn in they moved for Oliver’s grandfather to be the first mayor since he received the most votes in the first city election.
“He said I’m a carpenter. I’m not a politician,” said his grandson.
Sisco, an electrician was the second choice.
“He said he didn’t want to be mayor either,” Oliver notes.
Newman, a local business and land owner, agreed to be the city’s first mayor.
“It was a tumultuous time in a lot of ways,” said Oliver who later served as city manager for 10 years beginning in 1973.
Mayor Jamie Clary knows the history well. He wrote the book on it. In his “City By the Lake: A History of Hendersonville, Tennessee 1968-1988,” Clary writes about the unique way in which the city formed.
“I think what strikes me the most is how insignificant the July 1969 date was to so many at the time,” said Clary. “Most people didn’t understand that they would soon be annexed into the city. Most people didn’t have a clue about how they would be affected that day.”