The most commonly asked question about Bell Buckle is the origin of its name. Stories vary, but some believe the name came from a bell and buckle tied around a tree close to a free flowing creek. Others believe the Native Americans carved a bell and buckle into a tree to discourage settlers, while still others believe the bell and the buckle symbol was used by surveyors to signify the usefulness of the land for pasture. Whatever the facts, Bell Buckle is one of the oldest names in the country.
A.D. Fugitt, considered the town’s founder, was its first merchant and gave the land for the railroad and depot. The depot was built in Bell Buckle in 1853 and the town was incorporated in 1856. With the coming of the railroad, Bell Buckle became the major stockyard between Nashville and Chattanooga and grew to a population of more than 1,000. A thriving community with banks, groceries, physicians, pharmacies, mercantile establishments and other businesses sprang up.
During the late 1880’s, William R. “Sawney” Webb, a Civil War veteran and North Carolina educator, arrived in Tennessee to build a preparatory school. First located in Culleoka, Tennessee, “Sawney” later moved his students to Bell Buckle. The Webb School contributed to growth and development of Bell Buckle and continues to be a prestigious private boarding and day school with an international student body.
The Great Depression of the 1920’s devastated the Bell Buckle railroad trade, and the town declined and by the 1960’s the row of one-story businesses which comprised the downtown had suffered the dilapidation of many railroad stops. Long unoccupied, many were boarding up until a quickening of appreciation for its quaint heritage started a wave of rentals, purchases and renovations that has made Bell Buckle a center for arts and crafts and a favorite destination for antiques shopping.
In 1976, during the nation’s Bicentennial, an area including the Bell Buckle downtown and continuing to the Webb School property, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1979, Eugene Strobel, mayor at that time, was able to get a historical restoration grant for a large building in the center of downtown that became the city hall.
One unexpected result of the economic decline was that many of the Victorian and Arts and Crafts style homes were not replaced with more modern structures. There are a great many of these homes that have been restored or renovated, not only in the Historic District, but throughout the town.
Trains do not stop here anymore but visitors, thousands of them, do. Drawn by the charming downtown row of eclectic shops and eateries and the colorful down home festivals throughout the year, Bell Buckle is host to many delighted tourists and travelers who return again and again.