Rhea County, Tennessee

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Rhea County
The Rhea County Courthouse, site of the Scopes Trial
Map of Tennessee highlighting Rhea County
Location within the U.S. state of Tennessee
Map of the United States highlighting Tennessee
Tennessee's location within the U.S.
Coordinates: 35°37′N 84°55′W / 35.61°N 84.92°W / 35.61; -84.92
Country United States
State Tennessee
Named forJohn Rhea[1]
Largest cityDayton
 • Total336 sq mi (870 km2)
 • Land315 sq mi (820 km2)
 • Water21 sq mi (50 km2)  6.3%%
 • Total32,870 Increase
 • Density101/sq mi (39/km2)
Time zoneUTC−5 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−4 (EDT)
Congressional district4th

Rhea County (pronounced "ray") is a county located in the U.S. state of Tennessee. As of the 2020 census, the population was 32,870.[2] Its county seat is Dayton.[3] Rhea County comprises the Dayton, TN Micropolitan Statistical Area, which is also included in the Chattanooga-Cleveland-Dalton, TN-GA-AL Combined Statistical Area.


Rhea County is named for the Tennessee politician and Revolutionary War veteran John Rhea.

A portion of the Trail of Tears ran through the county as part of the United States government's removal of the Cherokee in the 1830s.

During the American Civil War, Rhea County was one of the few counties in East Tennessee that was heavily sympathetic to the cause of the Confederate States of America. It was the only East Tennessee county that did not send a delegate to the pro-Union East Tennessee Convention in 1861. The county voted in favor of Tennessee's June 1861 Ordinance of Secession, 360 votes to 202.[4] Rhea raised seven companies for the Confederate Army, compared to just one company for the Union.

Rhea had the only female cavalry company on either side during the Civil War. It was made up of young women in their teens and their twenties from Rhea County and was formed in 1862. Their unit was named the Rhea County Spartans. Until 1863, the Spartans simply visited loved ones in the military and delivered the equivalent of modern-day care packages. After Union troops entered Rhea in 1863, the Spartans may have engaged in some spying for Confederate forces. The members of the Spartans were arrested in April 1865 under orders of a Rhea County Unionist and were forced to march to the Tennessee River. From there they were transported to Chattanooga aboard the USS Chattanooga. Once in Chattanooga, Union officers realized the women were not a threat and ordered them released and returned to Rhea County. They first were required to take the oath of allegiance to the United States government. The Spartans were not an officially recognized unit of the Confederate Army.[5]

In 1890, the county seat was moved from the Washington community to its present location in Dayton. This was a result of several causes such as the completion of the Cincinnati-Chattanooga Railroad in Smith's Crossroads, the rapid growth of Chattanooga, the detrimental effects of the American Civil War, and the emigration of its prominent citizens.

The Scopes Trial, which resulted from the teaching of evolution being banned in Tennessee public schools under the Butler Act, took place in Rhea County in 1925. The trial was one of the first to be referred to as the "Trial of the century". William Jennings Bryan played a role as prosecutor in trial, and he died in Dayton shortly after the trial ended. A statue of Bryan was recently erected on the grounds of the Rhea County Courthouse.

In 1956, the State Supreme Court upheld a "regular and customary practice among certain of the teachers, during the regular school hours and in the classrooms, to read, or have some pupil read from, the Bible; to ask questions of the pupils concerning the content of such passages; to repeat prayers, usually that prayer known as the Lord's Prayer as it appears in the sixth Chapter of the Book of Matthew in the King James version of the Bible; to sing hymns and other religious songs; and to inquire of the pupils as to their attendance or non-attendance at Sunday School," where Sunday School attendance remained compulsory in Tennessee at the time, though that law was apparently—to some teachers chagrin—no longer being enforced.[6] The court there held that precluding teachers from doing so violated the State Constitution, Article 1, § 3:

That all men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience; that no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or to maintain any minister against his consent; that no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.

The court then held that it exceeded the Equal Protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "to have their children taught what they desire ... subject to qualification that teachers and places must be reputable and things taught not immoral or inimical to public welfare,"[7] a reading of that Amendment that has since been overruled as to religious teaching in schools by both the Colorado court which provided the quotation, and by the U.S. Supreme Court. But at the time, the State Supreme Court reasoned: "complainants, we feel that they have taken a rather narrow and dogmatic view of these constitutional inhibitions. In their commendable zeal in behalf of liberty of conscience, and of religious worship, they have overlooked the broader concept that religion per se is something which transcends all man-made creeds."[8] On June 8, 2004, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling banning further Bible instructions as a violation of the First Amendment principle of "Separation of church and state".

On March 16, 2004, Rhea County commissioner J.C. Fugate prompted a vote on a ban on homosexuals in Tennessee, allowing the county to charge them with "crimes against nature". The measure passed, 8–0. Several of the commissioners who voted for the resolution chose not to run for reelection or were voted out of office. The resolution was withdrawn on March 18.[9] In protest, a "Gay Day in Rhea" was held on May 8, 2004, with about 400 participants.[10]


The cooling towers of Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station, with the Tennessee River in the foreground

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 336 square miles (870 km2), of which 315 square miles (820 km2) is land and 21 square miles (54 km2) (6.3%) is water.[11]

Walden Ridge, part of the Cumberland Plateau, provides Rhea County's border with Bledsoe County to the west. The Tennessee River forms Rhea's border with Meigs County to the east. Whites Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River, forms Rhea's border with Roane County to the north. Watts Bar Dam straddles the Tennessee River near Spring City. The section of the river upstream from the dam is part of Watts Bar Lake, and the section downstream is part of Chickamauga Lake. A nuclear power plant, Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station, is located near Watts Bar Dam.

The major north–south road in Rhea County is U.S. Route 27. Major east–west roads include State Route 30, which intersects US-27 in Dayton, and State Route 68, which connects Spring City with Madisonville and Crossville.

Adjacent counties[edit]

State protected areas[edit]

  • Chickamauga Wildlife Management Area (part)
  • Cumberland Trail (part)
  • Hiwassee Refuge (part)
  • Laurel-Snow State Natural Area
  • Piney Falls State Natural Area
  • Stringing Fork Falls State Natural Area
  • Yuchi Refuge


Historical population
Census Pop.
U.S. Decennial Census[12]
1790-1960[13] 1900-1990[14]
1990-2000[15] 2010-2014[2]
Age pyramid Rhea County[16]

2020 census[edit]

Rhea County racial composition[17]
Race Number Percentage
White (non-Hispanic) 28,641 87.13%
Black or African American (non-Hispanic) 598 1.82%
Native American 100 0.3%
Asian 195 0.59%
Pacific Islander 6 0.02%
Other/Mixed 1,370 4.17%
Hispanic or Latino 1,960 5.96%

As of the 2020 United States census, there were 32,870 people, 12,177 households, and 8,235 families residing in the county.

2000 census[edit]

As of the census[18] of 2000, there were 28,400 people, 11,184 households, and 8,108 families residing in the county. The population density was 90 people per square mile (35/km2). There were 12,565 housing units at an average density of 40 per square mile (15/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 95.41% White, 2.04% Black or African American, 0.39% Native American, 0.29% Asian, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 0.75% from other races, and 1.08% from two or more races. 1.67% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.

There were 11,184 households, out of which 31.20% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 57.40% were married couples living together, 11.20% had a female householder with no husband present, and 27.50% were non-families. 23.80% of all households were made up of individuals, and 9.90% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.46 and the average family size was 2.90.

In the county, the population was spread out, with 23.70% under the age of 18, 10.00% from 18 to 24, 27.50% from 25 to 44, 25.00% from 45 to 64, and 13.80% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 37 years. For every 100 females there were 94.30 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 91.70 males.

The median income for a household in Rhea County was $28,418, and the median income for a family was $33,580. Males had a median income of $21,066 versus $16,063 for females. The per capita income for the county was $15,672. About 34.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 19.00% of those under age 18 and 15.20% of those age 65 or over.


United States presidential election results for Rhea County, Tennessee[19]
Year Republican Democratic Third party
No.  % No.  % No.  %
2020 11,050 81.03% 2,369 17.37% 218 1.60%
2016 8,660 78.29% 1,942 17.56% 460 4.16%
2012 7,802 73.67% 2,628 24.82% 160 1.51%
2008 8,042 72.41% 2,907 26.18% 157 1.41%
2004 7,301 66.05% 3,665 33.16% 88 0.80%
2000 5,900 60.38% 3,722 38.09% 150 1.53%
1996 4,476 48.72% 3,969 43.20% 743 8.09%
1992 4,860 46.97% 4,289 41.45% 1,199 11.59%
1988 5,144 66.15% 2,595 33.37% 37 0.48%
1984 5,692 66.29% 2,804 32.65% 91 1.06%
1980 4,689 59.44% 3,070 38.91% 130 1.65%
1976 3,449 47.63% 3,735 51.58% 57 0.79%
1972 3,842 72.50% 1,312 24.76% 145 2.74%
1968 2,428 40.70% 1,301 21.81% 2,237 37.50%
1964 2,730 50.87% 2,637 49.13% 0 0.00%
1960 2,721 59.78% 1,761 38.69% 70 1.54%
1956 2,516 55.70% 1,930 42.73% 71 1.57%
1952 2,520 54.46% 2,090 45.17% 17 0.37%
1948 2,077 50.04% 1,897 45.70% 177 4.26%
1944 1,880 54.32% 1,581 45.68% 0 0.00%
1940 1,956 45.11% 2,364 54.52% 16 0.37%
1936 1,964 46.75% 2,199 52.34% 38 0.90%
1932 1,448 47.69% 1,550 51.05% 38 1.25%
1928 1,585 65.23% 842 34.65% 3 0.12%
1924 1,168 48.59% 1,169 48.63% 67 2.79%
1920 1,341 55.57% 1,051 43.56% 21 0.87%
1916 768 52.60% 661 45.27% 31 2.12%
1912 253 16.59% 692 45.38% 580 38.03%

Rhea County uses the county commission form of local government. There are nine seats on the county commission, each representing a geographical area of the county. Members of the commission and the county mayor are elected to four year terms.

Rhea County is part of the 3rd Congressional District of Tennessee. Until 2003, Rhea County was part of the 4th Congressional District, and was represented by Rhea County native Van Hilleary. Hilleary ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002. Beginning in 2013, Rhea County again became part of the 4th District.

At the state level, Rhea County is part of the 31st district of the Tennessee House of Representatives. The 31st is made up of Rhea County and the northern portion of Hamilton County. The county is part of the 12th district in the Tennessee Senate.

Rhea County is generally a Republican-leaning county in Presidential elections and in congressional elections. The county voted for John McCain in 2008. The last Democrat to win a majority in the county was Jimmy Carter in 1976. On account of the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, the Republican candidate received less than fifty percent in the 1992 and in 1996. Ross Perot drew 11.2% and 7.6% of the vote in 1992 and 1996, respectively.


Rhea County Schools, the county-administered public school system, serves most Rhea County students.[20] The system operates three elementary schools, two middle schools, two K-8 schools, one high school (Rhea County High School), and one alternative school. The K-8 school, Rhea Central Elementary, is currently the largest K-8 school in the state of Tennessee in terms of number of students.[21]

The City of Dayton operates a K-8 school, Dayton City School, that serves the children who live within the city limits. All public school students in the county, however, attend Rhea County High School, in Evensville, upon leaving the eighth grade, as the city does not have a high school.[22] The high school has an enrollment of approximately 1,500 students.

Rhea County Academy is a private, not-for-profit K4-12 school located in Dayton. The school was started in 2003 and currently enrolls approximately 150 students.[23]

Bryan College, a four-year Christian liberal arts college, has its campus in Dayton. The college is named for William Jennings Bryan. Chattanooga State Community College also has a small satellite campus in Dayton. Additionally, Oxford Graduate School, an international graduate level Christian college serving working adults has its campus in Dayton.


View of Dayton from Cedar Glen Lane



Unincorporated communities[edit]

Former community[edit]

Notable people[edit]

  • Archie Butler (actor), an actor, stunt man, and crewman in numerous films and television shows, was born here on September 27, 1911.[24][25][26][27]
  • Hargus "Pig" Robbins (musician), an American session keyboard and piano player was born here on January 18, 1938.[28][29]
  • Arnim LeRoy Fox, better known as Curly Fox, was an American old-time and country fiddler, singer, and country musician that was born here on November 9, 1910.[30]
  • John Randolph Neal Jr. was an American attorney, law professor, politician, and activist who was born here on September 17, 1876.[31][32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bettye Broyles, "Rhea County," Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Retrieved: 20 March 2013.
  2. ^ a b "State & County QuickFacts". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on June 7, 2011. Retrieved December 7, 2013.
  3. ^ "Find a County". National Association of Counties. Retrieved June 7, 2011.
  4. ^ Oliver Perry Temple, East Tennessee and the Civil War (R. Clarke Company, 1899), p. 199.
  5. ^ Rice, Charles. Begun as a Lark, the All-Girl Rhea County Spartans Soon Attracted the Attention of Unamused Union Officers. America's Civil War, July 1996: pages 8, 77-79.
  6. ^ Carden v. Bland, 199 Tenn. 665, 668–69, 288 S.W.2d 718, 720 (1956)
  7. ^ People ex rel. Vollmar v. Stanley, 81 Colo. 276, 255 P. 610 (1927) overruled by Conrad v. City & Cty. of Denver, 656 P.2d 662 (Colo. 1982)
  8. ^ Carden v. Bland at 677.
  9. ^ "Rhea County Commission Rescinds Gay Ban", The Chattanoogan, March 19, 2004. Retrieved: March 20, 2013.
  10. ^ Lisa Neff, "Together in Tennessee", The Advocate, June 22, 2004, p. 80.
  11. ^ "2010 Census Gazetteer Files". United States Census Bureau. August 22, 2012. Retrieved April 14, 2015.
  12. ^ "U.S. Decennial Census". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved April 14, 2015.
  13. ^ "Historical Census Browser". University of Virginia Library. Retrieved April 14, 2015.
  14. ^ Forstall, Richard L., ed. (March 27, 1995). "Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved April 14, 2015.
  15. ^ "Census 2000 PHC-T-4. Ranking Tables for Counties: 1990 and 2000" (PDF). United States Census Bureau. April 2, 2001. Retrieved April 14, 2015.
  16. ^ Based on 2000 census data
  17. ^ "Explore Census Data". data.census.gov. Retrieved December 27, 2021.
  18. ^ "U.S. Census website". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved May 14, 2011.
  19. ^ Leip, David. "Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections". uselectionatlas.org. Retrieved March 12, 2018.
  20. ^ Rhea County Department of Education
  21. ^ "Schools | Rhea County, Tennessee". rheacountytn.com. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  22. ^ "2020 CENSUS - SCHOOL DISTRICT REFERENCE MAP: Rhea County, TN" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved June 7, 2022. - Rhea County High School is not indicated on this map, but it is the sole high school of Rhea County Schools, and therefore students from Dayton would go there.
  23. ^ "News". rheacountyacademy.org. Retrieved December 9, 2019.
  24. ^ "Secrets Of TV's The Rifleman: More Than Just Guns And Good Times: Stuntman Archie Butler". Trend-Chaser.com. Retrieved March 7, 2017.
  25. ^ "Archie Butler (1911-1977)". IMDb.
  26. ^ "Archie Butler: Celebrity Interview and Paparazzi". OV Guide. Archived from the original on March 8, 2017. Retrieved March 7, 2017.
  27. ^ "Who Was Archie Butler?". Biographies & History. Retrieved March 7, 2017.
  28. ^ Huey, Steve. ""Hargus "Pig" Robbins biography"". Allmusic. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  29. ^ ""Profile"". Australian Broadcasting Corporation The Backyard Saturday Night Country. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  30. ^ Brennan, Sandra. "Curly Fox biography". Allmusic. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  31. ^ "Finding Aid for the John R. Neal Papers". Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  32. ^ Howell, Alice; Deaderick, Lucile (1976). Heart of the Valley: A History of Knoxville, Tennessee. East Tennessee Historical Society. pp. 582–583.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 35°37′N 84°55′W / 35.61°N 84.92°W / 35.61; -84.92