For a time beginning in 1989, Fort Payne held the world record for "Largest Cake Ever Baked," for a cake of 128,238 pounds (58,290 kg) baked to commemorate the city's centennial.
A magnitude 4.9 earthquake occurred here in 2003.
The site of Fort Payne was originally the important Cherokee village of Willstown, which for a time was the home of the famous Cherokee Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee alphabet. During the Indian removal (or Trail of Tears) during the 1830s a fort was built in the town by forces commanded by Major John Payne and used as a stockade in which to place the Cherokee until they could be removed to Oklahoma. The settlement was commonly called Willstown, after its headman, a red-headed mixed-race man named Will, but that was not its real name. According to Major John Norton, son of a Cherokee adoptee of the Mohawk, who travelled extensively throughout the region in the early 19th century and stayed there several times, the actual name of the town would transliterate as "Titsohili".
Perhaps because Fort Payne and the surrounding area were sparsely settled in the 1860's, and contained no strategic targets, the area was only the scene of minor skirmishes between Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. Around the time of the Second Battle of Chattanooga, a large Union force briefly entered the county, but it did not engage substantial Confederate forces.
Fort Payne became the county seat in 1878, before it was incorporated in 1889. The community of Lebanon had previously served as the county seat since 1850. However, the completion of the rail lines between Birmingham and Chattanooga had caused Fort Payne to grow, and there was sentiment that the county seat should be in a community served by the railroad, which Lebanon was not.
Fort Payne experienced explosive growth in the late 1880s, as investors from New England and elsewhere flooded into the region to take advantage of coal and iron deposits that had been discovered a few years earlier. The period is today known as the "Boom Days," or simply as the "Boom." Many of the notable and historic buildings in Fort Payne today date from this period, including the state's oldest standing theatre, the Fort Payne Opera House; the former factory of the Hardware Manufacturing Company (today known as the W.B. Davis Mill Building, and home to an antiques mall and deli), and the Fort Payne Depot Museum, formerly the passenger station for what is today the Norfolk Southern Railway, and which serves today as a museum for local history.
When the iron and coal deposits on which the Boom was based turned out to be much smaller than expected, many of the Boom promoters returned to New England, and Fort Payne experienced a period of economic decline. That downturn came to an end beginning in 1907, when the W.B. Davis Hosiery Mill began operations, marking the beginning of Fort Payne's long running identification with the hosiery industry. By the beginning of the 21st Century, the hosiery industry in Fort Payne employed over 7,000 people in over 100 mills, and accounted for the manufacture of over half the socks made in the United States. Beginning in the 1990's, the ratification of international trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement lowered tariffs on textile products imported into the United States, resulting in large increases in sock imports. Many in Fort Payne accused foreign manufacturers, particularly those from China, of engaging in dumping of socks below cost, to force American companies out of the sock business. By 2005, hosiery mill employment in Fort Payne had declined to around 5,500, and several mills had closed. The federal government responded in late 2005 by reaching an agreement with the Chinese government to slow the schedule for the removal of tariffs, delaying their full removal until 2008.
Unlike at the end of the Boom, Fort Payne began in the 1990's to take steps to diversify its economy. These efforts resulted in the development of several new commercial and industrial projects, the largest of which was the 2006 construction of a distribution center for The Children's Place stores, a facility that will employ 600 people in its first phase of operation.
Although Fort Payne's location between Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain leaves it served by only a small stream, Wills Creek, the city is within a 30 minute drive of substantial water recreational areas, notably Guntersville Lake, and Lake Weiss, an artificial lake on the Coosa River. Fort Payne is also near Mentone, a popular mountain resort area known for summer children's camps and rustic hotels, restaurants and cabins.
Near Fort Payne is Akins Furniture, a business centered in an old country store building which bills itself as the largest furniture store in Alabama.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 56.0 square miles (144.9 km²), of which, 55.9 square miles (144.7 km²) of it is land and 0.1 square miles (0.2 km²) of it (0.14%) is water.
The town lies in a narrow valley in the Cumberland Plateau region immediately west of Lookout Mountain, with Sand Mountain somewhat more removed to the west. Drainage is through Big Wills Creek to the Coosa River.
Elevation: 899 feet
| Average high|
|50 (10)||53 (12)||60 (16)||69 (21)||78 (26)||86 (30)||87 (31)||87 (31)||82 (28)||73 (23)||60 (16)||51 (11)||69 (21)|
| Average low|
|30 (-1)||30 (-1)||35 (2)||42 (6)||51 (11)||60 (16)||64 (18)||62 (17)||57 (14)||44 (7)||35 (2)||30 (-1)||44 (7)|
|Average rainfall: inches/mm|| 5.3 /|
| 5.3 /|
| 54.6 /|
There were 5,046 households out of which 31.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 53.9% were married couples living together, 11.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.5% were non-families. 26.9% of all households were made up of individuals and 12.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.49 and the average family size was 2.97.
In the city the population was spread out with 23.4% under the age of 18, 10.2% from 18 to 24, 29.3% from 25 to 44, 21.6% from 45 to 64, and 15.6% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 92.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.5 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $33,560, and the median income for a family was $40,200. Males had a median income of $29,731 versus $20,135 for females. The per capita income for the city was $19,690. About 8.3% of families and 12.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 15.0% of those under age 18 and 17.6% of those age 65 or over.
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