A CITY OF DREAMS
by Greg Miller, Campbell County Historian
The City of LaFollette began as a dream in the minds of the city's founders, Harvey and Grant LaFollette. Like so many others who would travel from other states to this area, the LaFollettes were struck by the abundant resources and beauty of the Cumberland Mountains and Powell's valley and decided to make their home here. The LaFollette brothers were looking for business opportunities and arrived in the area about 1890. Upon surveying the area that is now the City of LaFollette, the brothers saw farmland and a few scattered dwellings nestled in the quiet gap through which Big Creek flowed. As the LaFollettes explored Big Creek Gap, as the area was then known; they observed iron deposits, timber stands and abundant coal and water resources located in close proximity. Recognizing a rare opportunity, the LaFollettes purchased over 37,000 acres and formed the LaFollette Coal, Iron and Railway Company.
Harvey and Grant LaFollette now had a company and abundant resources but the one thing they lacked was a town. As the LaFollette brothers stood upon the quiet rolling pasture that would become the City of LaFollette, they envisioned a planned community with wide streets and modern amenities. Harvey LaFollette, an engineer by trade and ever the perfectionist, wished to spare no expense to give birth to his great dream. To this end Harvey contacted John Fox Jr., who became a famous writer, to create the town of LaFollette. Mr. Fox created a small town that was modern in every way and prepared for growth. The main street was designed to be one hundred feet wide, which was quite unusual in that day. In 1897 the City of LaFollette was incorporated and people began to flood into the new city to work for the LaFollettes.
Growing quickly, LaFollette became a boom town as workers flooded into the new city. A population of about 300 in 1900 had grown to over 3000 by 1920. At its peak, the LaFollette blast furnace was one of the largest in the Southern United States and the LaFollettes employed some 1500 people from all cultures and backgrounds. To oversee his empire in grand style a house was constructed suitable for the charismatic visionary and founder of the city. The home was called Glen Oaks, a large Victorian home designed by the famous architect George Barber. The home is still the largest house in the LaFollette city limits and is located on Indiana Avenue, named for the Lafollette's home state of Indiana.
It is ironic that the business would fail at the height of the roaring twenties. Fortunately the City of LaFollette had grown to be not only Campbell County's largest city but a vibrant and self sustaining entity. LaFollette had benefited from enlightened leaders such as J. Will Taylor who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1918-1939. Under the guidance of such men, the city of LaFollette actually continued to grow and prosper during the great depression. The coal mines were developed and many small factories and businesses took up the slack left by the collapse of the LaFollette brother's fortunes. With the completion of Norris dam in 1936 and the resulting Norris Lake, LaFollette found itself located just a short distance from the new lake and served as a gateway to Campbell County's 600 miles of shoreline. Construction of US 25W, the famed Dixie Highway, opened LaFollette to tourists and travelers from all parts of the United States. Capitalizing on this flood of travelers, LaFollette began to attract large numbers of people interested in enjoying the abundant natural beauty and small town charm that LaFollette had to offer. Along with the new lake came inexpensive and abundant electricity supplied by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Throughout the 1940's and 1950's the City of LaFollette continued to grow adding both people and modern amenities such as new schools and a first rate modern hospital. In the 1970's LaFollette began to expand in size and a new boom of business growth began which continues until this day.
Today the City of LaFollette is a thriving community that combines growth with small town charm. The City of LaFollette offers such modern conveniences as a recently refurbished hospital, a new post office, new elementary school, and an extensive upgrade in city recreation. If you like the mountains, the lake, or just plain old fashioned small town charm, LaFollette, Tennessee is the place for you. Visitors are always welcome but we hope you will decide to stay.