The First Charter

The First Charter (1873)

What year was the town of Dickson established?

I get asked this question a lot when teaching local history. While the answer is sort of complicated, the story behind it is quite interesting.

Dickson started off as a railroad stop during the Civil War, but quickly grew into a settlement just after it was over. The town's first charter was granted in 1873, but about ten years later it was abolished and Dickson was reincorporated in 1899. If you visit downtown Dickson you’ll see the year 1899 displayed prominently as the town’s establishment date.

There are different theories on why the town lost its first charter, but after doing some research I believe I’ve narrowed it down to one main cause: alcohol.

In the late 1800’s America had a drinking problem. People drank way too much and a movement was sweeping across the nation to outlaw alcohol. It was known as the ‘temperance movement.’

The south was in a state of depression and still recovering in the aftermath of the Civil War. Dickson was formed in the years just after the war during the reconstruction era.

Some of the town's citizens had fought in the war, including one of the first mayors of the town, W.W. ‘Old Hickory’ Smith. He lived in a two story house on Main Street where the First United Methodist Church is located today. He was a former Confederate soldier who had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. He survived the battle and was taken prisoner. His wife thought he was dead, but after the war he returned home.

The railroad brought a lot of new people to the area from other places and the people who showed up had money to start new businesses. There were several general stores, a drug store, a hotel, a hardware store, and several saloons that sold liquor. There was at least one doctor and a dentist also practicing in town.

But by the 1880’s the town's growth had come with problems. Main Street had begun to resemble a scene from the Wild West. There was a lot of drinking and illegal activities taking place. Dickson had developed a reputation as a town where crime and violence reigned supreme and there was little regard for law and order.

The saloons brought revenue to the town, but they also brought unintended consequences. The town's government was taken over by corrupt leaders. The new mayor J.W. Clark was not only a politician, but he was also a liquor dealer and so were the other town officials. They made decisions in the best interest of the liquor business.

A group of citizens who were concerned about the corruption began meeting to discuss ways to stop it. Everyone agreed that the only way to clean up the town was to get rid of the saloons, and the only way to get rid of the saloons was to ban liquor, but how?

At the time, there was a state law that banned the sale of alcohol outside of incorporated towns. Without a charter, the saloons could no longer operate in Dickson. The group began thinking of ways to get the town's charter abolished. Because of this, they became known as the ‘anti-corporationists’ or ‘anti-corps’ for short.

The anti-corps had a plan. Knowing that the town was badly in debt and needing money to continue operating, they refused to pay their taxes. They wanted to bankrupt the town. Instead, the mayor sued them for unpaid taxes, but the anti-corps counter sued claiming that the mayor had misspent the tax money and accused him of fraud. After a long court battle with dueling lawsuits, the anti-corps won.

They alleged that the town of Dickson had become too corrupt to continue as an incorporated town. They petitioned the Sheriff to hold an election to allow the people to vote to abolish the charter, and the Sheriff agreed.

In November of 1882, the citizens of Dickson voted and the town's charter was officially abolished by the state legislature in March of 1883.

Some people thought that surrendering the charter would destroy the town. But predictions that the town would see its demise were wrong. Instead, Dickson grew considerably as an unincorporated town and soon it would be the largest town in Dickson County.