The collections on display at the Macon County Historical Museum predate the existence of Macon County itself – but those pieces are vital in understanding the Macon County we know and love today.
Macon County was officially formed in 1828 and named in honor of Nathaniel Macon of Warren County. Nathaniel Macon served thirty-six years in Congress from 1791 to 1828 and died in 1837. The land that makes up the Macon County border was made from pieces of Cherokee, Jackson and Clay Counties. The actual county government of Macon County was not formed until March 1829.
The land that is now Macon County was originally part of the vast territory of the Cherokee Indians, who shared a sophisticated culture and an organized tribal government. The Spanish were the first of the European explorers to come, under Hernando DeSoto in 1540, and later, under Juan Pardo and probably others seeking gold. No evidence survives of the Spaniards in Macon County, although it is said that Spanish artifacts were one recovered from sites along the Little Tennessee River.
European nations competing for dominance in the New World recognized the importance of the powerful Cherokees. Several major contacts, councils, and battles took place in the county. One of the more colorful early episodes involved Sir Alexander Cuming, a diplomat with questionable credentials. In 1730, Cuming called a council among the Cherokees at the council house on the Nikwasi Mound (still standing on Main Street, Franklin) winning their allegiance to the British King. He took some of their young men back to England with him, including Attakullakulla, the Little Carpenter, destined to become one of the greatest of the Cherokee Indian Chiefs.
In June 1760, British and Colonial forces under Colonel James Montgomery lost to the Cherokee at Nikwasi. The following year the Indians suffered a major defeat under Colonel James Grant, at the Village of Etchoe, near present day Franklin.
Scars of the battle were still visible when Thomas Griffiths arrived in 1767, to dig the Cherokee clay, a pure white kaolin, for Josiah Wedgewood. In one of the great industrial stories of the time, Wedgewood went to enormous expense and effort to obtain the kaolin, which is essential for the production of porcelain. The first of the famous Queensware was made from clay Griffiths brought back from the Village of Lotia, north of what is now Franklin.
The town of Franklin was formally incorporated in 1855. However, the development as the county seat predates even the county’s origin. The town was named for Jesse Franklin, one of two state commissioners who surveyed and organized the town in 1820 as the county seat for what would become Macon County in 1828. Jesse Franklin served North Carolina as a senator and as its 20th governor.
By the time of its incorporation, the town could boast both a boys’ and a girls’ academy. By 1860, it had a weekly newspaper, “The Franklin Observer,” published by L.F. Siler. Evidence of the bustling community's growth is found in the census figures. In 1890 the population was only 281, now it is 3,989. Census figures for each decade show a steady increase.
Twenty years after Franklin was incorporated, two men from Kansas set their sights on the mountain tops in Highlands.
Legend has it, Samuel Truman Kelsey and Clinton Carter Hutchinson drew lines from Chicago to Savannah and from New Orleans to New York City. They felt that the place where these lines intersected would eventually become a great trading center and commercial crossroads – which lead to the establishment of Highlands in 1875 -- named for its lofty elevation.
As Highlands grew, the town’s vision evolved from a trade route epicenter into a summer resort and vacation destination.
By 1883, nearly 300 immigrants from the eastern states were calling Highlands home. In the early 1880’s the town contained eight country stores specializing in groceries, hardware, and general merchandise, a post office, a hotel and boarding house for summer guests, a public library, four churches, and a first class school.
Very little changed over the years in Highlands – but in the 1920s when the Cullasaja River was dammed forming Lake Sequoyah to provide hydroelectric power, new life flowed into the mountain town. A spectacularly scenic road to Franklin was carved into the rock walls of the Cullasaja Gorge. The muddy roads in and out of town were reinforced with crushed stone. By the time the Chamber of Commerce was established in 1931, the town’s population had increased to 500 with 2,500 to 3,000 summer guests. There were now 25 businesses.
From the 1920s well into the 70s, Highlands grew steadily, with little change until multi-family homes and shopping centers became the norm.
Since its creation in 1875, the demographic mixture of Highlands has been remarkably unique. Founded by hardy pioneers from all over the nation, sober industrious tradesmen from the north, Scotch-Irish laborers and craftsmen from the surrounding mountains and valleys, and wealthy aristocratic planters and professionals from the south, the town has served as a cultural center for well-known artists, musicians, actors, authors, photographers, scholars, and scientists who have thrived in its natural setting.