Project Description

Agriculture & Industry

Agricultural History

By: Linda Long

The vast majority of immigrants who settled West Tennessee in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries sought to create new and productive lives for themselves, their immediate families, and their heirs by exploiting areas rich farming potential. Many acres in Madison county were cleared of trees for wood and the raising of crops and livestock. Everyone had a vegetable garden! Prior to the Civil War, most agricultural production in West Tennessee was subsistence farming, producing food for the family and for trade within the local communities. However, cotton was already an important commodity being exported to urban centers in the U.S. and Europe. The first railroad appeared in Madison County in 1858, quickly spawning the Bemis Brothers Bag Company, and Bemis, and a burgeoning rail system solidified Jackson as a hub for cotton trade and other industrial development.

The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 set aside federal lands to create colleges to “benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts”, ultimately elevating East Tennessee University to land-grant college status (and ultimately becoming the University of Tennessee). Later amendments to this legislation in 1890 established Tennessee State University as a second, historically black, land-grant college in Tennessee. The Hatch Experiment Station Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1885, enacted legislation that founded the Experiment Station system under the guidance of the University of Tennessee; and for universities in other states. The West Tennessee Experiment Station, currently known as the West Tennessee Research and Education Center, established in 1907, is one of now ten experiment stations in Tennessee. The recent introduction of the boll weevil into the United States and the “worn-out condition” of many fields in West Tennessee were concerns that drove the State to purchase land for the station. The Experiment Station became a focal point in Jackson for agricultural research on the production of major crops including cotton, soybean, vegetables, as well as research on horticultural crops and livestock. The Center continues its research and outreach, now focusing on row crops, forestry, and horticultural production. The Smith-Lever Act in 1914 formalized the Agricultural Extension Service, resulting in the establishment of the UT-TSU Madison County Extension Office in Jackson. These legislative acts were important to Jackson and Madison County by advancing the professionalism of the agricultural production within the area.

Agriculture in Jackson and Madison County has changed dramatically in the last century. The city remains a hub for an array of industries, including agriculture, but there are fewer farmers while farms have gotten bigger with the help of larger and sophisticated farming equipment. Farmers are more diversified, growing cotton, corn, soybean and wheat. Plowing has gone by the wayside to protect our soil from erosion. Yields have skyrocketed along with technologies like GPS-guided planting and application fertilizer and pesticides, using better and safer pesticides, and improved crop genetics.

On October 9th, 2021, the West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center will be hosting a Bicentennial Heritage Festival celebrating Madison County’s 200th year as a county in Tennessee. It also commemorates the City of Jackson Bicentennial. This family friendly event will provide a glimpse into rural life in West Tennessee, from the past and into the present. Old-timey skills will be featured including blacksmithing, leatherworking, beekeeping, and more. Our exhibits will include a quilting contest, a tractor show, a petting zoo, and live music. Come listen as guest speakers take a walk around the farm 200 hundred years ago, learn about Native American culture in West Tennessee, and hear about the life and times of Davy Crockett. Take a wagon tour of our modern agricultural research station and glimpse the future in the Mobile Energy Classroom. The celebration begins at 10:00 AM and ends at 4:00 PM. A $5 per person, 18 & over, entrance fee is required. Many exhibitors will have items for sale, and several food options will be available from our vendors. Come out and enjoy what’s sure to be a fine fall day!


By: Julie Daniels

Known as the Hub City, Jackson, Tennessee’s industrial revolution was fueled by the railroad. Jackson became a main connection, or ‘hub,’ to link central locations north, south, east and west in the United States. Many leading rail lines crossed paths in the city with several operated and established by Jackson resident I. B. Tigrett.

“The presence of the railroad created an enormous labor base that was highly sophisticated with a strong work ethic. It began creating a pattern of Jackson as the Hub City,” says Harbert Alexander, Madison County historian, in an article from The Jackson Sun newspaper celebrating Jackson’s sesquicentennial anniversary.

Industries and businesses began to pop up around the railroads to repair steam engines, provide refrigerant to keep goods cold and more. One of the first manufacturers was Sherman Manufacturing Company, created in 1874 to repair steam engines in Jackson-Madison County. It was sold in 1884, and the name changed to Southern Engine and Boiler Works, producing gasoline engines and boilers. It became one of the largest mechanic shops of its kind in the U.S. in 1904.

In 1906, Southern Engine and Boiler Works’ chief engineer William Collier created a gasoline-powered engine and automobile called the Southerner, and by 1910 approximately six hundred cars were made in Jackson and sold as Southerns. In 1909, the automobile was renamed the Marathon after discovering another vehicle was being manufactured elsewhere under that name. Thus, the motor vehicle division of Southern Engine and Boiler Works gave birth to the automobile company Marathon Motor Works. It is said to be one of the first automobile manufacturers to base operations in the South, with the first automobile produced in Jackson, Tennessee.

As industrialization increased in Madison County, the successful Bemis Brothers Bag Company of St. Louis took note. Bemis Brothers wanted to build a cotton mill in the South, close to the cotton fields, with a good labor source and rail lines that could easily ship the finished product to New Orleans, St. Louis and other markets. Madison County checked all of the boxes. Three hundred acres were purchased and turned over to the Bemis Bag Company, which constructed a 20,000-spindle cotton mill.

The community and Jackson Fiber Company broke ground in 1900, with the first mill completed and spinning by June 1, 1901. The town of Bemis rose from these cotton fields as a model company town. Created from the vision of Judson Moss Bemis and his son, Albert Farwell Bemis, nationally known urban planners and architects designed the town and the company. Bemis provided community facilities such as a company store, recreation facilities, schools, fire protection, wide streets, sidewalks, and well-built houses for the employees and their families.

The Bemis Company had a great relationship with its workers for more than a half-century, only closing once for a brief strike in the 1950’s. In later years, company profits diminished, and by the late 1960’s it had sold most of the company-owned houses. The City of Jackson annexed Bemis in 1975. The Bemis Company sold the mill in 1980, and in 1991 it was officially closed as a cotton mill.

At one time, Jackson-Madison County was primarily agriculturally based. But over the years, the economy changed to rely on a diversified industrial and commercial base.

In 2021, Jackson-Madison County boasts around 72 manufacturing companies with the three largest including Delta Faucet Company, The Kellogg Company and Stanley Black & Decker.

Some of the longest existing companies in Jackson-Madison County include The Jackson Sun newspaper, the Coca Cola Company of Jackson and ADM Milling Company, Inc. The Jackson Sun came into existence in 1848, moved to West LaFayette Street in 1957, and then moved its printing facilities on February 1, 2021, to Jackson, Mississippi. The Coca-Cola Company of Jackson has been distributing beverages since 1907, and ADM Milling Company has been operational since 1923, making cornmeal, grits and flour.

Jackson-Madison County is home to seven Japanese manufacturers, like TBDN Tennessee Company, which was the first to establish roots here in 1990. We are proud of the relationships with these companies, also including Green Metals; MOST, Inc.; Pacific Manufacturing Tennessee; Toyota Boshoku Tennessee; Toyota Motor Manufacturing Tennessee; and UGN, Inc.

Chances are, the engine in your vehicle, the snacks you eat and drink, to products in your bathroom and kitchen sink are created in Jackson-Madison County. Every engine block of every Toyota in North America is produced in Jackson, Tennessee. Pringles have been made in Jackson since 1971. Handheld breakfast and snack sandwiches and frozen foods like Van de Kamp’s fish, Mrs. Paul’s fish, and Tennessee Pride sandwiches are made in Jackson as well.

Jackson-Madison County is the perfect location for manufacturers to plant roots. It is still known as the “Hub City” because of its excellent logistics to connect leading cities north, south, east and west in the U.S. It supplies some of the best drinking water in the nation with a fresh underground aquifer and boasts the fastest fiber-optic internet connectivity that makes Jackson a Gig City. Our forward-thinking leaders continue to invest and grow a qualified workforce. They have adopted an environmental, energy-efficient conscious by adding solar farms, battery-operated vehicles to some government services and encouraging public solar charging stations for vehicles. Jackson continues to add attractive walkability features in the downtown area. Healthy options are also being provided with greenway project developments in north and south Jackson. With everything offered, Jackson-Madison County should continue to thrive, grow, attract and sustain manufacturing.


Southern Engine and Boiler, Marathon Motors: – author – Philip Thomason;,

Bemis Mill: , authors – John Linn Hopkins and Marsha R. Oates

(The Jackson Sun 150 Year Issue and Farm Collector magazine – which credits Jack Wood of the Madison County Library in Jackson, TN with research on Southern Engine & Boiler Works; and Walter Porter, Robert L. Johnson and Jesse Livingston for contributing material for this article.)

Other sources: Jackson Chamber archives