Sansing’s History of Calhoun County, Mississippi

David Sansing was—and remains—a towering figure among Mississippi historians. A native of Greenville, Sansing received his Bachelor and Masters degrees from Mississippi College and his PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi. He began teaching at Ole Miss in 1970. Sansing wrote about various aspects of the state’s history in eleven books. He wrote this history of Calhoun County in 1959 for his master’s thesis at MC.

Why Sansing, a Delta native (and of Greenville at that) chose Calhoun County, which is in the hill country of the state, for his thesis study presents something of a mystery to those of us familiar with Delta/hill contention, but he give us a clue: “Calhoun County has changed very little in the last fifty years.” Perhaps for Sansing, the county provided the opportunity to document a place thus far sheltered from the winds of change he saw coming swept through the state. We natives of Calhoun should take great pride in having our past documented by a giant of Mississippi history.

David Sansing: A History of Calhoun County

Photo by Robert Jordan

Hoover Lee Sauce

Hoover Lee is a grocer in Louise, Mississippi who makes a sauce for marinades and barbecue he formulated to replicate Cantonese duck. His concoction has a heavy soy background accented with garlic and ginger. These chicken leg quarters were marinated overnight and roasted in a slow oven for two hours. The skin is crisp and the flesh succulent, reminiscent of the character if not flavor of roast duck.

Luncheon Dish

Women in any given society will assemble to sip, nibble and talk about anything they want and anyone who isn’t there. Speaking as an ardent fan of my opposite sex, I’ll be the first to say that the world is a much better place due to distaff parliaments. Civilization itself depends on feminine attentions if not to say machinations, and it’s usually in these gaggles that the most uninhibited deliberations between our sisters take place. Men should understand and appreciate this phenomenon, since when it comes to gossip, the trickle-down theory actually works; you may not know that your boss is sleeping with your secretary, but it’s a fair bet that you have a better chance of finding out if your wife knows. And God help you if you’ve been shtupping her as well.

The food served at more formal klatches of this type is delicate, often to the point of fussy. This is no place for pork chops: small servings of carefully prepared, light offerings are the rule. You’ll find salads with cold seafood or chicken, pasta or seasonal vegetables alongside the obligatory crustless geometric sandwiches. Sweets, with the exception of a killer cake, are dainty and plentiful as are the drinks. I’ll not go so far as to swear that food is primarily intended to buffer the effects of a Bloody Mary luncheon—that would put my life in danger—but the theory has been broached. In the South, pimento and cheese, chicken salad, deviled eggs and pound cake (lemon or poppy seed particularly) at a ladies’ luncheon seem mandatory now, but it wasn’t so long ago that holding one without serving tomato aspic would imperil your membership in the 20th Century Club.

Because of recoil from the foods of the Sixties, congealed salads (like fondue) have become not only passé but proscribed. This reaction is somewhat justified; on any given month between say 1960 and 1975 in any magazine devoted to food, you’ll find tons of recipes for gelatin involving practically every ingredient in the kitchen, more often than not canned fruit, citrus Jell-O and mini marshmallows. But we shouldn’t abandon a good recipe because it’s showing its age, and this is a great dish: light, savory, easily prepared and attractive. Let’s hope tomato aspic is going through a trial period in popular tastes before it becomes not so much a novel legacy but a standard for our tables.

Tomato Aspic

3 cups tomato juice
2 packets unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons finely minced white onion
2 tablespoons finely minced celery
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce to taste

Warm tomato juice, add gelatin and dissolve. Stir in lemon juice, black pepper, Worcestershire and hot sauce (I like Crystal), add vegetables and chill until partially set, spoon or pour into individual (5 oz.) lightly oiled molds and chill until set. Unmold and serve with sides such as boiled eggs, green beans, or asparagus.

Ars Voces: Euphus Ruth – The Mind’s Eye

This is a scanned copy of an 11×14″ red glass ambrotype I made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in Calhoun County in April of 2012. I had been staying in Bruce at my parent’s and decided to go up to Poplar Springs where my great-grandparents (Starling Monroe and Nancy Ruth) are buried..

When I go somewhere to photograph I sort of have something in mind but it has to feel right or speak to me for me to actually make a wet collodion photograph. I may shoot some snapshots on film or take some documentary shots of things I am recording over time but for the plates it has to be that feeling; that feeling of time and place, of past and present of connection. After walking around the cemetery for a long while, reading the gravestones and making a few snapshots with a hand-held camera I decided I would not set up the wet collodion. I got in the car to back out of the cemetery entrance for some reason instead of driving through. That is when I saw this image. It hit me: there it was the old fence I had noticed and not noticed my entire life of visiting there. I could see my relatives’ gravestones in the background but what grabbed me was the fence, the plants, the foliage: that feeling.

I pulled back in and proceeded to set up the portable darkbox, get the chemicals ready and mount the camera on the tripod. In about 30 minutes I was looking through the camera’s ground glass at this image. In another 15 minutes I was washing the chemicals from the glass and feeling good about the plate. In 2014 the cemetery caretakers in their infinite wisdom of cleaning up have totally removed the fence and cleaned the bank off, forever destroying some of the visual reminders of 50 plus years of visiting this cemetery.

Nothing lasts forever; that is one of the reasons I photograph. This plate is not for sale.

11′ X 14″ red glass ambrotype made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in the Reid Community near Bruce, Ms., (Calhoun County) in April of 2012.

Home to the Flowers

The most evocative personal memoir to come out of Calhoun County, Mississippi, Home to the Flowers is described as an “anecdotal history” in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967, and though it’s certainly populated with folk tales—some of them quite “earthy”—Smith’s account of his life in the area during the first two decades of the 20th century is lyrical and poignant, the detailed observations of an educated man living in a quasi-frontier setting.

Tilmon Henry Smith, son of Tilmon Holley and Fannie Hawkins Smith, was born in 1883 in Water Valley, Mississippi, and received his M.D. from the University of Tennessee in 1915. He began practicing medicine in Banner, Mississippi in 1915. He moved to New London, Ohio in 1922 where he remained until his death in 1969. His memoir, Home to the Flowers was published privately in 1964.

When Smith was six, the family moved to Pittsboro, where his father was postmaster before becoming pastor of a church in Ellzey, where they built a home, he remembers his mother surrounded with flowers, particularly roses. Young Smith attended the school there, which was established by brothers W.T. and B.G. Lowery and T.C. Lowery, who later founded Blue Mountain College. When still a boy, he and his brother started a brick manufacturing business and built the J.D. Richards store in Vardaman, which is still standing. Smith moved to Vardaman in 1901 after his father’s death. He was still in the brick business, but he also worked on Mississippi river barges and as a logger in Yazoo County to help support the family. He attended Meridian Medical College, and graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School after a short stint in the Chicago School of Medicine. He served as the health inspector for Calhoun County throughout World War I and beyond.

Here he recounts the struggles of the people of Calhoun in the early decades of the 20th century against typhoid and the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918:

“One must realize the primitiveness of our existence to understand. These people had no indoor water supply or toilet facilities. Water was secured from a well in the yard, or a spring or a creed–often a quarter of a mile away. Toilet facilities were at best an outdoor privy in the back yard. Many times, during this period, my first duty upon arriving at the patient’s home was to bring buckets of water from the spring and remove the offal from another bucket beside the bed.

This time of trial and ordeal gave me an abiding faith in people. They exhibited gallantry far beyond the call of duty. Some people had a mysterious resistance to the flue germ. A dozen people would be stricken down around them and they would nurse and care for them all. When this group was reasonably comfortable and cared for, they would walk to miles to minister to other friends or relatives who had no well person to look after them. Some people cut and ran. They used all sorts of low excuses, but it came down to the fact that they were overwhelmed by the solid fear of death. I was continuously amazed by those who really had the sand, as well as those who did not. There were so many heroes and heroines in this terrible tragedy that all cannot possibly be mentioned, but some of my expected friends let me and themselves down, as well as their dependents. I do not remember this with bitterness or condemnation, but with pity.

During the epidemic the community drunk, faced with adversity, found himself and became one of the noblest men of my acquaintance. He sobered up for the first time in years and walked the roads giving help to all in need. It was not unusual to find him carrying water to the sick in one community, and a day later he would be ten miles away cutting wood to warm another family, both of which had probably ignored him in the past. It was just as astounding to find a logging camp lady of the evening bending over the sickbed, tending the sick with all the tenderness of a Florence Nightingale. My dear old mother always referred to her in a disdainful manner as a scarlet woman. I thanked God for this scarlet woman, and learned again that nobility of the soul is sometimes lodged in strange places.”

Fannie Hawkins Smith

Eudora on the Rocks

The muse of fiction is a thirsty bawd, particularly in the South where the icon of a hard-drinking writer unjustly brushes even us most humble wordsmiths with a tar of dissolution. Eudora Welty, every inch a lady, certainly did not fall into this rough-hewn category. Nonetheless, I have it on good authority that Welty and her friend Charlotte Capers, a Jackson historian, wit and essayist, were often to be found ensconced in Eudora’s home on Pinehurst with a bottle of Old Crow, and other guests are rumored.  (The same authority relays that Welty later became a convert to Maker’s Mark, which she took it on the rocks with a splash of water.)

Eudora lived to a ripe old age, garnering laurels all the way. In her youth, she worked for the short-lived (1935-39) Federal Writer’s Project. Thousands worked on the project, including several well-known authors, many of them women. Fieldworkers such as Welty made about $80 a month, working 20 to 30 hours a week, collecting stories, local histories and taking photographs. They also collected recipes for a project entitled “America Eats”, and most of these recipes and recollections of foods have been gathered together by Mark Kurlansky in his splendid Food of a Younger Nation. Welty’s contributions to “America Eats” are somewhat substantial, and from all over the state: stuffed apples, stuffed eggs, lye hominy, barbecue sauce, a seafood and an okra gumbo, court bouillon, beaten biscuit, Spanish rice, potato salad and, last but not least, a mint julep. Welty writes:

A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magic ingredient, the mint julep. In the fine old City of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in Whitehall, the home of Mr. and Mrs. T.C. Billups. “The drink is refreshing,’ Mrs. Billups says, needlessly enough, “and carries with it all the charm of the Old South when life was less strenuous than it is today; when brave men and beautiful women loved and laughed and danced the hours away, but in their serious moments, which were many, aspired to develop minds and souls that made them among the finest people this old world has known.’ The Whitehall recipe is as follows:

Have silver goblet thoroughly chilled.
Take half lump sugar and dissolve in tablespoon water.
Take single leaf mint and bruise it between fingers, dropping into dissolved sugar.
Strain after stirring.
Fill the goblet with crushed ice, to capacity.
Pour in all the bourbon whiskey the goblet will hold.
Put a spring of mint in the top of the goblet, for bouquet.
Let goblet stand until FROSTED.
Serve rapidly.

“Who could ask for anything more?” she adds.

WPA History of Calhoun County

You can find a print resolution of this document in the Mississippi Library Commission’s Online Resources. It is a formidable file, 1.7 G, but I’d encourage everyone with an interest or–as in my case–love for this place, this land, these skies, to download the copy at MLC just to have it. Dennis Murphree’s introduction is a testament of devotion from the heart of a man who loved his home, his people, and the land he grew up in; the rolling, wooded foothills of the Appalachians.

From the Forward:

“This volume of historical data is one of a series of eighty-two, assembled by the W. P. A. Mississippi Historical Research Project, under the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, Miss Ethel Payne, Director. In 1935, under the New Deal, funds were allocated to the Works Progress administration for that purpose. The project was set up on a state-wide basis, February 19, 19236, with a unit in each county, and employing about 400 persons of work relief status. The plan was unique in that it provided for the writing of eighty-two county histories instead of one state history. Each volume purports to set forth the background of social, economic, and political history of its respective county.

The original Project Proposal, which has been closely followed, succinctly states the objectives and character of the work: “Historical research and compilation of historic data: Work to consist of (1) searching city, county and official records, (2) interviewing old inhabitants, (3) collecting date, (4) compiling data pertaining to historic, civic and cultural development of locality. Index and condense into handy volumes for educational and reference purposes.

This compiled data will be made a permanent record. One volume of the historical data will be given to the State Department of Archives and History, one volume to the county library, and other volumes to other designated public institutions. Particular consideration will be given to the making of photographs and sketches of public institutions, municipal halls, schools, churches, and all historic sites and places of interest as well as photographs of old portraits of pioneer citizens and famous men and women who have been instrumental in building and developing Mississippi.”

WPA History of Calhoun County

Cathead Biscuits

Take two cups of self-rising flour and sift in dry a scant teaspoon of baking soda. Work thoroughly into this about 1/3 a cup of cold vegetable shortening. Mix with the fingers until it has an almost granular texture. Then, working quickly, stir in enough buttermilk to make a sticky dough. Throw this dough out on a generously-floured surface, sprinkle with a scant more flour and knead once or twice, only enough to make it manageable mass, then roll out thick, about half an inch, and cut into large rounds, at least 3″. Be sure to cut them with a sharp edge that won’t pinch the dough: a Mason jar just won’t do it. Again, work quickly so that the dough doesn’t get warm; the soda has to work in the oven. Place the biscuits together, just touching, in a lightly greased skillet (or a thick metal pan); the light oiling ensures a nice bottom crust. Pop them in a very hot oven for about a quarter an hour. You want them golden-brown and fragrant; brush lightly with butter while hot.

Hot Dip from Café Olé

Café Olé on University Avenue in Oxford was a popular eatery in the 1990s. I worked there briefly when I returned to Ole Miss and finished my degree after several years in Florida. The dip was served as a complimentary side with a basket of warm tortilla chips. We made gallons and gallons of it.

Converting a restaurant recipe to one easily made at home presents problems both with the scaling-down process and the ingredients. Bear in  mind also that this recipe is my adaptation of the one I copied down some twenty years ago. Make a batch of this dip according to these directions and then modify it as you see fit. I have scaled down the more distinctive ingredients (lime juice, vinegar, jalapeno “juice”, onion, garlic and cilantro) in this version, because once these are added, you can’t very well remove them. If you want more, you can add it later. The dip should be on the thin side, very spicy and redolent of garlic, cilantro and lime.

1 12-oz. can tomato puree
1 cup water
1 12-oz. can whole tomatoes (with juice)
1/2 cup lime juice
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup canned jalapeno juice (or any hot pepper vinegar)
1 cup jalapenos (half that if you’re using fresh)
1 large white onion, chopped
1/4 cup granulated garlic (I recommend dried/minced as a substitute)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Process until smooth

The Battle of Jackson: May 14, 1863

In the spring of 1863, the war dividing the nation focused on Vicksburg. Lincoln told his civilian and military leaders, “Vicksburg is the key!” Confederate President Davis was of the same mind: “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” In Confederate hands, Vicksburg blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi and allowed communications and reinforcements from Confederates to the west. The natural defenses of the city were ideal, earning its nickname of the Gibraltar of the South.

Frustrated in his former attempts to take Vicksburg, the Battle of Port Gibson (May 1) gave Union General Ulysses S. Grant a much-needed foothold on the eastern bank of the Mississippi south of the city, but Grant felt that he needed a base north of Vicksburg that could be supplied via the river from Memphis and Port Hudson to subdue the stronghold.

Grant’s Confederate opponent in the campaign, General John C. Pemberton, was of the same mind: “To take Vicksburg, to control the valley of the Mississippi, to sever the Confederacy, to ruin our cause, a base upon the eastern bank immediately above (Vicksburg) was absolutely necessary.” Pemberton admitted that such a move on the part of Federal troops “might destroy Jackson and ravage the country”, but “that was a comparatively small matter.” Though Jackson had the only secure railhead east of Vicksburg, a vital connection to the rest of the Confederacy, Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian who had taken up rebel arms, thought little of Mississippi’s capital city on the Pearl in comparison to his vital command on the Mississippi.

To secure this hypothetically crucial base above Vicksburg, Grant, along with his trusted lieutenant William T. Sherman, moved the Army of the Tennessee to the northeast, and on May 12 headquartered his troops at Dillon Plantation some 6 miles west of Raymond. About sundown, as the camp was settling in to its evening routine, an excited courier drove his lathered horse into camp and poured out the news that Federal troops under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps had encountered a large Confederate force commanded by Brig. Gen John Gregg at Raymond, defeating it after a savage battle. “When the news reached me of McPherson’s victory at Raymond,” Grant later wrote, “I decided at once to turn the whole column towards Jackson and capture that place without delay.”

Beforehand little more than a dot on a map in the mind of the great Union captain, Jackson now came into focus for Grant as a military objective. He had become convinced that Confederate forces assembling in or near Jackson might be stronger than he had initially supposed, and he had reports of reinforcements pouring into the city, including Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander of the Department of Tennessee and Mississippi. Johnston was widely respected by his troops, fellow officers and even President Davis, with whom he had an acrimonious relationship.

These reports put at risk Grant’s proposed crossing of the Big Black near Edwards, a move designed to bring his troops north of Vicksburg, since it would leave a potentially strong army commanded by a reputedly able general on his rear flank. He now saw more clearly the city’s value as a communication and transport center through which supplies of men and war materials could be funneled to Vicksburg. In addition, destroying Jackson, which also had some importance as a manufacturing center (mostly of cloth), would cripple the state’s ability to supply the rebel army. It’s reasonable to assume that Grant would also be aware of the impact on morale that the capture of the capital city of Mississippi, the home state of President Jefferson Davis, would have on the Confederacy as a whole.

Grant was confident that he could take Jackson then swing his forces back to the west before Pemberton took notice. It was an audacious ploy; by this move to the northeast of Port Gibson, Grant had cut himself loose from his base, but the Northern general had learned to provision his troops as they marched, taking what they needed from the farms and villages they encountered, and the Union army found plenty to sustain their progress. Because the city was reputedly heavily fortified, he decided to strike with his entire army, 10 divisions, some 40,000 men. Grant positioned McPherson to the north and Sherman to the south of his eastern advance towards Jackson, positioning Gen. John A. McClernand on the western flank, facing any possible attack from Pemberton’s troops in Vicksburg.

Jackson, at the outbreak of the war, had a population of 3,191 (Vicksburg had 4,591 and Natchez, the most prosperous city in the state, 6,612.) The city’s arsenal had been destroyed in a disastrous explosion the previous November; Confederate troops stationed there for its defense numbered some 6,000. Well before the final advance of Federal forces, the city seemed to have resigned itself to subjugation. As early as May 2, Pemberton (ever the fatalist) telegraphed Governor J.J. Pettus, advising him to remove the state archives from the capital. By May 6, people began leaving Jackson. The Mobile Register and Advertiser reported, “The trains for the interior are crowded with non-combatants, and the sidewalks blocked up with cases, barrels, old fashioned trunks and chests, which look antiquated enough to have come out of Noah’s Ark.”

By the time Johnston arrived to take command of the city’s defense on the 13th, all who had the means to escape the city had done so, and the Confederate commander’s assessment of his chances to save Jackson could not have been buoyed by the then funereal aspect of the beleaguered capital. Johnston knew his situation was dire; Pemberton had refused his request for reinforcements from Vicksburg the previous week, and the additional troops promised by his superiors had yet to arrive. Johnston was met in Jackson by Gen. Gregg, who was forced to retreat to Jackson with his 3,000 soldiers after the fierce encounter at Raymond. Faced with a two-pronged Union attack by able commanders leading some 25,000 troops and with no time to organize any reasonable defense, Johnston, a seasoned general and career solider, retreated to the northeast.

On May 14, Union forces advanced towards Jackson in a deluge turning roads that had choked them with dust for weeks into trenches of shin-deep mud. After two short skirmishes lasting less than four hours, Grant’s troops entered a silent Jackson under a pouring rain. The Battle of Jackson, such as it was, had ended. Rails and bridges were destroyed, factories put to fire. Vicksburg’s artery to the east was cut; in less than two months, the Confederate Gibraltar would fall into Union hands. Jackson, abandoned by its defenders and occupied by a hostile army, was looted and burned by soldiers and civilians alike for the first of four times, bitterly earning its nickname: Chimneyville.