This is another section (Chapter 3) of Mississippi governor and Calhoun County native David H. Murphree’s History of Calhoun County, which was published circa 1948. What’s riveting about this portion is an eye-witness account of the settlement of the land, descriptions now-vanished plants and animals, the people and provisions. Notes providing additional historical and genealogical information by James M. Young.
I wish that I might have had an opportunity to see the virgin country the greeted the eye of the first settlers in what is now Calhoun County, Mississippi. It must have been a beautiful sight. It was my privilege to have had a first-hand description of this land from Miss Elizabeth Enochs, who was the sister of my mother’s mother, and who came with a caravan from Tennessee as a girl of eighteen, not so awfully long after the Indians left. She said that it had been the practice of the Indians for many years to burn the woods each fall, so that there were few thickets; that therefore standing on one hilltop, you could see a man or a deer moving through the trees even to the next one; that the trees were all large in size and tall in the extreme. She described the time of their arrival in May, when the wild flowers were blooming everywhere in profusion and indescribably beautiful. “Switch” cane or short growth cane was to be found in all the valleys, and through these beautiful woods moved herds of deer, sometimes thirty or forty in a drove. Wild turkeys were everywhere and without much fear of man. Wild pigeons (passenger pigeons) according to “Aunt Bet” came at times in such immense droves as to absolutely darken the skies; when they alighted on the trees they did so in such great numbers that the branches often broke.
There was “bear sign” where these huge animals had reached high up on the tree trunks and scratched, sharpening their claws everywhere, and at night the wild scream of a panther sounding like a woman in keen distress was often heard, making the children hug the camp fires and their mothers shudder with uneasy fear. Small game like rabbits, quail, and squirrels were so numerous as to attract no attention whatever when sighted and so easily killed that the hunters refused to shoot at one single target, but waited to get two or more of the animals together so that they might be killed with one shot. The streams were all crystal-clear and huge fish could be easily seen drifting with the current or darting swiftly to seize some luckless worm or insect that had fallen in the water.
It was to such country that there came in the early 1830s a stream of pioneer men and women in covered mule or ox wagons, driving their cattle and other livestock, with a plow or so swung behind. These covered wagons were usually called “tarheel” wagons because the axles were wooden and must have every few miles an application of tar or some other kind of lubricant to keep them rolling. My father said you could hear them squeaking for miles. Bows of splits made from heart white oak were bent over the wagon high enough that a person could stand up inside and over the bows was stretched tightly a piece of tenting or “wagon sheet” treated to repel the rain. There was an opening at the front end and also the back, and inside these immigrants carried everything that they could store which they felt would be necessary in the wild new land. Of course, the “Tennessee Rifle” was a very necessary piece of equipment and most of them had in addition a long single barrel shotgun with which to keep the pot filled with the small game above mentioned.
Naturally here and there one of them brought with him his old time violin or “fiddle” as it was better known, and these instruments were from time to time brought into use at the “log rollings”, “corn shuckings” and “house raisings” which were so popular in the early days. Too, in addition to the well-worn copy of the family Bible, which each and every family brought and on whose pages were inscribed the names, date of birth, etc., of all the children as well as the dates of death of members of the family, a number of these folks brought with them copies of a peculiar book. It was the old “Sacred Harp” song book. These books were different in makeup from all other books, in that they were very wide in page width and narrow in page depth. The notes were differently shaped from other music notes. Singing in the Sacred Harp goes back for hundreds of years and even today many people who learned to love this music as they grew up feel that it is the most beautiful of all music.
An old fashioned black wash pot, made of iron, standing on three short legs, was also part of the necessary equipment and this pot was used for many, many things. In it the clothes were boiled for the weekly wash. Soap was made in this pot; hominy was also made in it; likewise water for the Saturday night scrub was oftentimes heated in it. When the hogs were killed in the fall, the lard was cooked in this pot. There were few kitchen utensils. An old fashioned oven with a heavy lid was one. In it bread was often baked and potatoes too. It too had many uses. Beds were usually homemade after the immigrants arrived. The “corded” bedstead was most popular. It was a four poster bed, with rope or cords stretched back and forth across from one side to the other and from one end to the other. On this was laid the “corn shuck” mattress, which as its name implies, was made from the husks or shucks from corn. For real luxury a feather bed made from feathers or down plucked from live geese and stuffed into a “tick” was laid on top of the shuck mattress. People slept on feather beds in even hottest summer time. The women brought a few seeds of flowers, sometimes if the season was right, a shrub itself, to reset in their new homes in the wild new country. The old spinning wheel was another piece of standard equipment for without it there would have been no thread for knitting socks and stocking, and likewise no thread to be use on the old hand looms for weaving for the clothes for the entire family.
Notes: It is positive that almost all of the first inhabitants of what is now Calhoun County came down the famous old Natchez Trace. (1) They came from the Tennessee-Carolina country. Crossing the Tennessee River near Corinth, then on down the Natchez Trace to Old Houlka where the Indian Agency was formerly located, spreading out over the section to the west, along the various creeks which ran into the Schoona and the Yalobusha rivers. In the beginning, these settlers did not open and clear the river bottom lands very much. They cleared the rolling hill sides and the creek bottoms. Their dwellings were built on high hills, often just where a spring bubbled out from under the hill below.
Of course, a number of these first inhabitants came from Alabama and Georgia. These came by way of Aberdeen, Columbus etc. However, the great majority of these first settlers came as stated above from Tennessee and the Carolinas. Governor Murphree says “it is positive” that almost all of the first inhabitants came down the Natchez Trace. However (probably after someone proofread what he had written and provided him comments to the contrary), he retracted that a bit and said “Of course, a number of these first inhabitants came from Alabama and Georgia…” In fact, many of the first settlers of Calhoun County came from Alabama into north Mississippi. The Murphree family itself came over from Alabama. Martin Murphree, DHM’s grandfather and David Murphree, DHM’s great grandfather, came from Alabama. As the Murphree Genealogical Association data states: “David Murphree remained in Tennessee about a decade. By 1818, however, records show that he was a Justice of the Peace in Blount County, Alabama and the same in Walker County in 1820. The David Murphree family is enumerated in the 1830 census of Walker County where the families of his sons Roland J., Ransom, and Samuel M. Murphree are also enumerated along with his son-in-law William Barton.
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 opened Choctaw Nation land in north Mississippi and the Treaty of Pontotoc a few years later opened Chickasaw Nation land as well. For the next few years after the treaties, there was a great migration into the Yalobusha-Chickasaw area of north Mississippi. About 1835-1836 David Murphree and his wife Jemima, who were then about ages 72 and 63 gathered up their children, in-laws, and grandchildren, and with their neighbors — the Brashers, Collums, Lantrips, and Browns — made their way into Mississippi in a wagon train pulled by oxen, some 30 wagons all told. They apparently crossed the Tombigbee River at Cotton Gin Port near Amory and made their way into Chickasaw County and to the Indian agency at Old Houlka. From there, they spread out over the area to the west along the various creeks and rivers. Many of the early settlements were located on or near abandoned Indian villages.
According to one of David’s descendants, the late Jackson MS attorney Dale H. McKibben, the family first landed at Airmount, which was in the Choctaw Cession. When Chickasaw Cession lands became available about three years later, some of the families moved eastward from previous Choctaw lands to Chickasaw lands. Two of David’s sons’ families, Martin and Ransom Murphree, split off from the rest and moved eastward into the Rocky Mount/Oldtown area which was in Chickasaw County at first but became Calhoun County when that county was formed. Airmount and Rocky Mount are about 15 miles apart as the crow flies. Airmount is on the north side of the river which has come to be known as the “Skuna”, while Rocky Mount is on the south side. Travel between the two was arduous, especially during the winter time or in flood times, and remained so until relatively recent times. “ JMY
Southerners share an acute awareness that most of our fellow countrymen view us with disdain. This knowledge of ill regard is something we learn from an early age, and the message is compounded by a steady stream of negativity from every imaginable source: books, movies, television and other media, not to mention personal experiences garnered by traveling outside the region and meeting contempt face-to-face. A special sort of abhorrence seems reserved for Mississippians, who even among their fellows from other Southern states are often viewed as the lowest of the low. As powerful as this imprint is, still it can come as a shock for a Southerner, particularly a Mississippian such as me, to discover that a person you admire for his or her talent, wisdom and ostensible generosity of mind can be vehemently bigoted towards a region and people he or she has never encountered on the basis of incidents that happened decades ago. Such was my reaction to Bill Bryson’s account of a visit to Mississippi in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which Bryson chronicles a 13,978 mile trip around the United States in the autumn of 1987 and spring 1988.
When I was a graduate student studying English as a language, Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) captivated me. Witty, informative and often dazzlingly well-written, the author came across as a bluff, jovial professor of the sort one should hope to have in a subject that can be stupefying. His method of jamming facts together in a brilliant, entertaining hodge-podge seemed to be the perfect style of writing for any form of non-fiction, and I adopted many of his techniques in some of my own writings, with admittedly far less successful results. Many years later, when I came across Bryson’s account of his journey through Mississippi in The Lost Continent, I was stunned to discover him, a native Iowan now living in Britain, as full of bile as most American writers who venture south to my native land and dismayed to find his account packed with the usual shopworn stereotypes and clichés. Here’s some of what he wrote.
Just south of Grand Junction, Tennessee, I passed over the state line into Mississippi. A sign beside the highway said, WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI. WE SHOOT TO KILL. It didn’t really. I just made that up. This was only the second time I had ever been to the Deep South and I entered it with a sense of foreboding. It is surely no coincidence that all those films you have ever seen about the South – Easy Rider, In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, Deliverance – depict Southerners as murderous, incestuous, shitty-shoed rednecks. It really is another country.
I followed Highway 7 south towards Oxford. It took me along the western edge of the Holly Springs National Forest which seemed to be mostly swamp and scrub land. I was disappointed. I had half expected that as soon as I crossed into Mississippi there would be Spanish mosses (sic) hanging from the trees and women in billowy dresses twirling parasols and white-haired colonels with handlebar mustaches drinking mint juleps on the lawn while armies of slaves gathered the cotton and sang sweet hymns. But this landscape was just scrubby and hot and nondescript. Occasionally there would be a shack set up on bricks, with an old black man in a rocking chair on the porch, but precious little sign of life or movement elsewhere.
At the town of Holly Springs stood a sign for Senatobia, and I got briefly excited. Senatobia! What a great name for a Mississippi town! All that the old South stood for seemed to be encapsulated in those five golden syllables. Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was sweaty and overweight and sat low in his seat. I assume he was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I could feel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin’?” This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?”
“I said, how yew doin’?”
“I’m fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.”
“Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?”
I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m kind of slow, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I say” – and he repeated it more carefully – “how doo yew lack Mississippi?”
It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it’s wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn’t been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I signed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.”
I drove on to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as it’s known. The people named the town after Oxford in England in the hope that this would persuade the state to build the university there, and the state did. This tells you most of what you need to know about the workings of the Southern mind. Oxford appeared to be an agreeable town. It was built around a square, in the middle of which stood the Lafayette County Courthouse, with a tall clock tower and Doric columns, basking grandly in the Indian-summer Around the perimeter of the square were attractive stores and a tourist information office. I went into the tourist information office to get directions to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home.
Behind the desk sat a large, exceptionally well-dressed black woman. This surprised me a little, this being Mississippi. She wore a dark two-piece suit, which must have been awfully warm in the Mississippi heat. I asked her the way to Rowan Oak. “You parked on the square?” she said. Actually she said, “You pocked on the skwaya?”
“Okay, honey, you git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya. You goes out the other end, twoads the university, goes three blocks, turns rat at the traffic lats, goes down the hill and you there, un’stan?”
She sighed and started again. “You git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya–”
“What, I drive around the square?”
“That’s rat, honey. You makes the skwaya.” She was talking to me the way I would talk to a French person. She gave me the rest of the instructions and I pretended to understand, though they meant nothing to me. All I kept thinking was what funny sounds they were to be emerging from such an elegant-looking woman. As I went out the door she called out, “Hit doan really matter anyhow cust hit be’s closed now.” She really said hit; she really said be’s.
I said, “Pardon?”
“Hit be’s closed now. You kin look around the grounz if you woan, but you cain’t go insod.”
I wint outsod thinking that Miss Hippy was goan be hard work.
There’s more; some worse, some better. Bryson visited Tupelo and Columbus as well, but in the final analysis I must admit that he left Mississippi with relief, and his impressions of the state were, I’m disappointed to say, rather much what we have come to expect of most people who visit with baggage consisting of preconceived prejudices and with no desire to do anything more than capitalize upon the surety that their condescension would be well-received by the world at large.
Dennis Herron Murphree (1886-1949) of Pittsboro, Mississippi had the singular distinction of serving twice as governor of Mississippi without ever being elected to office. He was twice elected to the lieutenant governorship, once in 1923 and again in 1939. In each instance, he succeeded the governor who died in office and completed the term of his predecessor. In March 1927, he became Governor of Mississippi after the death of incumbent Henry L. Whitfield and served for about ten months until Theodore G. Bilbo, who defeated Murphree in the Democratic Party primary by 10,000 votes, was sworn into office in January 1928. With the death of Gov. Paul B. Johnson, Sr. in December 1943, Murphree finished out the three weeks left in Johnson’s term, serving until the swearing in of Thomas L. Bailey in January 1944.
According to historian James M. Young, Murphree wrote/compiled his county history in 1928 but that it wasn’t actually published until sometime later. “Some references I’ve seen show the publication date as ‘unknown’ and some show 1948. I remember that The Monitor-Herald published it (in installments, I think) at least two times, and I suspect that the first time was in 1948 and that copies in the form of a book were also made at that time. The last chapter of Murphree’s history deals with the organization of Bruce and the last paragraph in the history is the one I sent you (the following text; jly) concerning the roads out of the new town of Bruce. Murphree’s version consists of 16 chapters. The first 5 or so (short chapters) were written by him, and then a section covering 1852-1876 which had been written by Judge J.S. Ryan was inserted. This was followed by a section consisting of a long letter covering the legislative creation of the county, written by Judge J.A. Orr (who introduced the bill in the legislature). A section covering the period 1875-1900 was written by Thomas Martin Murphree (Dennis Herron Murphree’s father) followed that, and the final section was written by Dennis Murphree and was titled “History of Calhoun County from 1900 to 1928”. The Orr, Ryan, and T.M, Murphree sections are heavy with who got elected to office. Dennis Murphree’s section has some of that as well but also lots of more interesting stuff; for example, he has a fairly detailed account of the murder of Robert Lee Crawford, Papaw Young’s brother-in-law, in the yard of the T.W. Young house across from the church at Ellzey. The section written by Thomas Martin Murphree was published by The Calhoun Monitor (in Pittsboro) at the end of the summer of 1904. 500 copies of the “booklets” (as Dennis Murphree called them) were printed and sold for 25 cents each.”
In order to tell the story of the “Skuna Valley Railroad” and the new town of Bruce, in Calhoun County, Mississippi, it will be necessary for me to go a long way back as to make the proper beginning.
It was, I think, in the year 1901, that a very smart, shrewd old Michigan lawyer first came into Calhoun County. His name was Roger W. Butterfield. Mr. Butterfield had watched the huge white pine forests of Northern Michigan fall relentlessly under the lumbermen’s saws and axes, and he realized that timber would sometime be a real item of value, and so having some money to invest, he looked about over the country for some places where timber could be bought cheaply and in bountiful supply. Somehow, he chose the South and Calhoun County, Mississippi as the base for his operations and investments. He sent several men of his own force into the county seeking to buy land and timber, employed Attorney J. L. Johnson at Pittsboro as his local attorney and then hired Andy J. Bounds of the Bounds neighborhood and one of the county’s best citizens to represent him as land buyer and local representative.
These people immediately entered on a land and timber buying campaign which lasted several years. They took their time, looked about, located land which was not expensive and which was covered with fine timber and then made the purchase. They did not seek to link up all the tracts, although naturally they preferred to buy in a block as much as possible. In the main, however, they avoided buying any in cultivation. They bought large acreage in the Schoona River Valley, and they bought many tracts in the hills. Most of their purchases, however, were north of a line which might have been drawn east and west through the center of the county. When finished the Butterfields owned some twenty-five thousand acres of timbered lands in Calhoun County and some three thousand in Yalobusha with a small amount in Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties. The average price paid for these lands was approximately $2.50 per acre.
It would be a real treat for members of the younger generation to see today the giant trees which made up a large part of the growth on these Butterfield lands. In the river and creek valleys the huge forked leaf white oak trees grew often fifty feet from the root to where the first limb appeared, and several feet across the base. Other hardwoods grew in like size and great abundance. In the hills, the old “virgin” pines dotted the hillsides and they too were a sight to behold, because they grew so tall, so straight, so uniform and with only a small cluster of limbs in the very top. On the hillsides too as in the valleys, grew every specie of hardwood likewise in great abundance. Until the coming of the Butterfields, these trees were valueless on the market. In fact, the first time in my life I ever knew about timber of any kind being sold was when some stave workers came into Schoona Valley near where we lived at Oldtown and paid $1.00 per tree for huge over cup and white oak trees several feet through, provided these trees would “split” after being cut down, meaning that provided they could easily be split up into staves six feet long. If the tree did not split well, they simply abandoned the log and went away leaving these huge logs, the kind which became almost priceless in later years, to rot where they fell.
I well remember that during the winter of 1902-3, Mr. Butterfield sent a young lawyer and a young lady who was an expert clerk, though not a lawyer, down from Michigan and they spent the winter in the old courthouse making abstracts of the land which Butterfield had up to that time purchased. These two people were a source of much amusement to the young people of that date, with their, to us, Northern accent, quaint expressions, unusual customs, etc. I am sure that on their part, they found us even more amusing. Time passed, and Roger W. Butterfield went the way of all mankind, but his heirs held on to the Calhoun County lands and timber and each year paid their taxes regularly, while from time to time, a few more acres were bought and added to their holdings. Along about 1920, however, these owners began to feel the urge to sell and dispose of their property. This was probably because timber prices had advanced to such an extent that they could secure a huge profit on their original investment; and, second, because with the cutting of canals in the rivers and creeks and the issuance of bonds for roads, schools, etc., their Calhoun county taxes, which in the beginning had been practically nothing, began to be a heavy burden.
I have related how that over all the long years, it had been the dream of the people in Pittsboro and the Northern section of the county that someday they would see the building of a railroad into that section. Along about 1921, it became known that the Butterfield interests would sell their holdings in Calhoun, and hope began to be revived as to the possibilities of a railroad being built out into our section in order to carry the timber. It will be remembered that this was in the days when the huge log trucks powered by gasoline and used over concrete roads were utterly unknown in our section. Much discussion was had between various citizens and firms seeking some plan to accomplish the result desired. Acting on instructions from an organization of Calhoun County business men, a meeting was arranged whereby representatives would go to Chicago and there meet with Mr. Markham, President of the Illinois Central Railroad, and seek to interest him and his railroad in the idea of building a short line of railroad either from Coffeeville or Bryant out to Pittsboro. Mr. H. H. Creekmore of Water Valley, a native Calhoun citizen, Mr. Jim L. Johnson and I were chosen by our people as their representatives on the proposed trip. This I remember it was in 1922.
Agreeable to plan, we three went to Chicago and had a lengthy and friendly session with Mr. Markham. We found him very sympathetic to the proposal. Naturally so, since it would mean an immense amount of tonnage to be hauled by the Illinois Central Railroad after it had been brought out to their main line. However, Mr. Markham would not agree to undertake the building of the short line. He promised that IF we could get some timber manufacturer or sawmill company to buy the Butterfield tract and the railroad right of way and do the grading for the new railway, the Illinois Central would furnish the steel rails for the road and when finished would also furnish the locomotives and box cars to use on the new railway on a very long time sale plan with a low interest rate. Our people were very well pleased with the report of the Committee, and then began an effort to try to interest some timber company or manufacturer in buying the timber and building the railway. This kind of effort went along over a period of two or three years. I remember that on my own personal expense and with the consent of the Butterfield folks, I placed an advertisement costing a neat sum in the Manufacturers Record of Baltimore, briefly outlining this situation. I had a number of replies and furnished each with quite a bit of information. I had nothing to do with the making of the deal between the Bruce Company and the Butterfield heirs when the timber we have been talking about finally passed out of the Butterfield hands. I have always thought, however, that it was easily possible that all the planning, talking, advertising and publicity which I and others in Calhoun County had been doing, had something to do with bringing this matter to the attention of the Bruce Company folks and therefore the ultimate result.
Anyway, about 1924 or early 1925, the Bruce Company of Memphis, Tenn., purchased outright all of the Butterfield holdings in Calhoun and adjoining counties. Soon thereafter it began to noised around that their plans included the building of a standard gauge, common carrier railroad, from Bryant’s Spur, located four miles south of Coffeeville on the Illinois Central Railroad, up the Schoona Valley to the neighborhood of the old town of Pittsboro. In my service as Lieutenant Governor, I was often called on to serve as Acting Governor on those occasions when the Governor left the state. On one of these occasions, for me a very happy coincidence, Attorneys H. H. Creekmore and N. I. Stone, came to the Governor’s office, bringing with them the proposed Charter of Incorporation of the “Schoona Valley Railroad.”
The Attorney General of the state, who was Hon. Rush Knox, himself a native son of Calhoun county, but at that time a citizen of Chickasaw, approved this charter and at ten o’clock A.M. on the 1st day of June 1925, as Acting Governor of Mississippi, it was my sincere pleasure to sign the Charter for this railroad for which along with many other Calhoun folks I had worked for and hoped for so long. I pause long enough to say that later on, by amendment, the name of the railroad was changed from “Schoona Valley” to “Skuna Valley”. This, I think came as a result of effort made by Will C. Bryant, who had always claimed that “Skuna” was the proper way to spell the name of the Valley. Personally, I think “Schoona” is correct, because all of the old records, manuscripts, etc., which I ever saw in Calhoun County spelled it that way. Slowly the new railroad was built, and during the year 1926, progress was made in laying off and planning the new town. The name decided upon for it was “Bruce” because of the fact that the Bruce Lumber Company of Memphis, Tenn., was the force behind the plan.
Governor Whitfield became ill during the summer of 1926 and spent almost all the rest of the year in a hospital in Memphis. So I was very busily engaged during the period acting as Governor during his absence. It is my recollection that in such capacity I also signed the Charter for the new town, but of this I am not positive. Anyway they named one of the streets in the new town for me, for which I have always been grateful. Governor Whitfield returned to Jackson in February, but rapidly grew worse and died on the 18th day of March 1927. After the Constitution, I succeeded him, and on taking the oath of office became the 35th man in our state’s history to be Governor of Mississippi. It has not been my intention at any time to clutter up these pages with stories of my various political campaigns. I will say again, however, that Calhoun County people have never failed me, and I have carried the county by a large majority in each and every race that I made. This has always been a source of much pride and gratitude to me. By force of circumstances, I was “pitchforked” into the race for Governor in 1927. I had not planned to run, and felt always that I would be defeated but after Governor Whitfield’s death, it became necessary that I run or forever be branded as one who was afraid to try. In July 1927 my Calhoun County Campaign Committee planned a huge barbecue and political picnic for me and chose as the spot for this great gathering the location of the brand new town of Bruce. I think that it was on July 4 1927. The location was what is now the public square at Bruce, which at that time was only an old field with only one or two houses. Thousands of people from all over the state attended, and it was truly an enthusiastic and heartwarming affair. This was the very first public gathering ever held in Bruce, Mississippi.
The new town of Bruce grew rapidly. Besides the huge Bruce Company mill, several other timber manufacturing plants were established there. A number of people from over the county moved in and set up various lines of business. Too, there was in influx of immigration from several of the northeastern counties of the state, particularly from Tishomingo and Alcorn counties. These new people settled largely in the Bruce area and many of them still remain in that section. Another thing which contributed to the growth of the new town was the policy adopted by the Bruce Company of selling off its valley lands as soon as they cut the timber. The land bought at a reasonable price was immediately opened up for cultivation so that now, for miles up and down the Schoona Valley, where I had as a boy hunted for squirrels, turkeys, etc., there flourished the finest farms in the country. New roads began to be projected: one going east toward Houlka out of Bruce, another west down the Schoona valley toward Coffeeville; another toward Water Valley. Neither of these roads has been fully improved as deserved, but all hope that they will be in good time. Laying out of these roads had an odd effect on the old time traveler who returned to view the section. Oftentimes he found himself “lost” in a neighborhood or area where in former years he was absolutely familiar.
(Photos courtesy of the Calhoun County Mississippi Historical and Genealogical Society, Timber: A Photographic History of Mississippi Forestry, by James E. Fickle, and msrailroads.com)
In February 1944 Laura Z. Hobson, a 43-year-old, divorced Jewish mother in Manhattan, read an article in Time magazine about Mississippi Rep. John Rankin, a noisome racist and anti-Semite who served in Congress from 1921-53, calling Walter Winchell a “kike,” Hobson was outraged, even more so to read that nobody in Congress protested. Hobson wrote about the Rankin incident in her first draft of Gentleman’s Agreement, the story of a Gentile reporter who pretends to be Jewish to investigate anti-Semitism. That someone as all-American as the reporter, played by Gregory Peck, succeeded with such a masquerade was a twist on the traditional “passing” story by implying that Jews really are just like Christians. The novel was serialized by Cosmopolitan in 1946 and published by Simon & Schuster in 1947. In 1948 the cinematic version, produced by (gentile) Darryl Zanuck, received the Oscar for best picture.
We had a little oyster bar at Parlor Market. That’s how I met Craig Noone; we worked at an oyster bar in Stephan Pyles’ flagship, so with the tiny oyster bar in Parlor Market I got to see how Jackson feels about seafood and oysters. That planted a seed, and when I was leaving City Grocery in Oxford, I decided that Jackson would be a good spot for an oyster bar.
Since the oyster bar is the heart of Saltine, we keep the rest of the menu very seafood-centric, and being in the South, we keep the menu Southern-rooted. Then again being who I am, I like to keep things fresh and creative, to push the envelope. It’s a challenge with this concept because being in Jackson I think we get a little more of the old school mentality here towards Southern seafood, whereas at the Parlor Market, even though it was very much Southern-rooted, it was from the get-go known as a place where you could go and get an off-the-cuff creative meal. Here there’s a bit of resistance to that, so catfish, po’boys, the oysters, the wood-fired oysters, the redfish on the half shell are our top-selling dishes. The more creative dishes are harder to sell. We have an Asian influence in the calamari dishes, which is an ode to Paul Qui, who I got the opportunity to work with while I was at culinary school at the Le Cordon Bleu in Austin. He does a Brussels sprouts dish he’s very famous for that has the same kind of sauce with herbs, mint, cilantro and cabbage. The oysters Lafitte I would say is the most New Orleans-style dish we have, and we put that together while on a trip to Lafitte, Louisiana to fish for redfish, using what we had around us. We went into a little crawfish shack, ordered a couple of pounds, peeled them ourselves and put some on the oysters we had on the grill at the fishing camp. Then we have the white Alabama barbecue sauce, once again playing up Southern dishes. The citrus butter with coriander is a nod to a lot of the garlic butter oysters you’ll find at places such as Drago’s, but a lot brighter and more floral.
This summer when we opened the oyster market was very bad. It certainly wasn’t the prime season for Gulf oysters by any means, and due to different regulations in Louisiana that seek to control the quality of oysters, the only ones that could leave the state were those harvested on refrigerated boats. The oysters go straight from the water into refrigeration and from those boats into a refrigerated facility or on a refrigerated truck to Jackson. That’s a huge expense. There aren’t a lot of people who do that, so we had many customers who were upset because we didn’t have Gulf oysters. When we opened, our oysters were sourced from Virginia other places on the east coast. They were very inconsistent in size, people only wanted the big ones, so it was a struggle. But as the temperatures went down, the oysters have become more available, and we no longer have that issue. We have them coming in literally every single day. I probably get anywhere from eight to twelve sacks of Gulf oysters a day, almost a thousand oysters that we go through, and we get probably another twelve to eighteen hundred from other parts of the country: the Pacific Northwest, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, all over.
Almost all oysters these days are farm-raised, but oysters out of out of the Gulf are still wild. Even though most of the wild oysters along the east coast were eradicated back in the 1800s, and they introduced new species, some of which were invasive and killed off the native populations, you can still get wild oysters from the Gulf. I’ve heard of some great oyster farm programs in the Gulf as well. Derek Emerson was sharing some great stuff with me the other day; he and Chris Hastings were talking about these oysters off Dauphin Island that are grown in baskets that tumble in the surf, which give the oysters a great shape and salinity, and have almost no mud or dirt because they aren’t on the bottom. The other day a supplier out of Birmingham offered me some oysters called “Bama Beauties”. They were sold out at the time, and they were expensive; they were (my cost) a dollar an oyster, and I’d have to be selling them at almost $3.50, the same price I’d ask for a really high-end Pacific oyster. More gourmet Gulf oysters are starting to pop up, but the challenge will be getting people who are used to $1 or $1.50 oysters from Mississippi or Alabama to buy them.
I never considered opening anywhere but Fondren. This is where I spend all of my free time; this is where my friends seem to gather, where I run into people I love. I thought with all the other great restaurants, we could create a wonderful restaurant scene here. Of course, there already was, but I wanted to jump into the middle of it. Duling Hall wasn’t my first choice, though when I first moved to Jackson, before the Parlor Market opened, Craig took us to Duling Hall, and I walked over to the space that is now Joan Hawkins Interiors and thought it would make an awesome restaurant. Fast-forward to last year when I was looking for spaces, I was actually looking for a house, so I looked on State Street and Mitchell Avenue, but we just couldn’t make anything work. I talked to realtor Mike Peters and told him I wasn’t totally committed to a house, and he walked me through this space. With all the original brick, windows and floors, it just came together, I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine it anywhere else.
I put this restaurant in the hipster capitol of Jackson, and I anticipated my friends and younger people, but I have more of an older demographic. It’s really mixed. I do get some people from out-of-town due to the great articles in “Southern Living” and “Garden & Guns”, but for the most part it’s really different from my expectations. I’ve thought about how the restaurant will evolve a lot. Things are still up in the air as we try to keep the house packed and discover what will drive people in to build our lunch business and early weekend business. The craft beers have really picked up more than I thought it would before we opened. It was always going to be a bar that focused on craft beers. We have thirty-one draughts. At first wine and cocktails were ahead in the mix, but soon the craft beers began outselling them. So we’re pushing that envelope and advocating the craft beer scene in Mississippi, which has growth spurts as well as growing pains.
The creative food is where I feed myself, it’s what I enjoy doing and why I love being a chef, but I have to ask myself if it’s right for here. Whereas I used to be able to put anything I wanted in front of people at Parlor Market, people would try it because it sounded interesting and love it and embrace it, that’s a struggle here. It’s a learning curve on the floor and in the kitchen, and though because of the long hours I work it feels like I’ve been here for five years already, we’ve only been open for six months. I have to keep reminding myself that.