It was in the spring of the year in the dear long ago. There had been a long dry spell and the farmers were well up with their work, but, complaining as to the weather quite a number were gathered in town. A dark heavy cloud was seen rising in the west and about noon a nice refreshing shower fell to bless and benefit these sons of toil.
In the afternoon the village of Banner was filled with happy farmers. The postmaster, Esq. Brower, and myself were sitting in the post office looking at the throng around Frank Brantley’s grocery. The dingy old gallon pot was sitting on a stump in front of the grocery, well filled with red liquor and surrounded by a happy crowd, all in a merry mood and still partaking rather freely.
All at once a young man stepped into the post office and asked if there was any mail for John Martin. He was rather small, with light hair and a few strangling red hairs on his upper lip and chin. Brower, after a careful look, told him there was no mail for John Martin. He said then, “I am a stranger here. This is the first time I was ever in Banner. I am Fighting John Martin from Butta Hatchie creek; I am a fighter from the east. I have often heard of Banner and I have come over to-day to clean her up and paint Banner red. I understand you have some fighters here and I would like to meet them. I tell you I am a fighter.”
He pulled from his ponderous pocket an old-style, iron-barrel pistol, with tube and hammer on the top and said, “You see this. I am going to have some fun this evening. The first man that bristles up to me, I’m going to down him.”
He walked nimbly across the muddy street to the stump and gallon pot, introduced himself to the crowd and took a drink of the liquor. A dispute between the Van Winkles and the Hardins soon resulted in a general fight. The men were all in their shirt sleeves and most of the young men and boys were barefooted. The men engaged in the fighting were old Carter Van Winkle who had a small lumber stick in his hand and he knocking the Hardins right and left, when he was modestly confronted by John Martin who asked, “Who are you and which side are you fighting? I am Fighting John Martin from Butta Hatchie. Did you ever see me turn loose in Banner? If not, look out!”
He thrust his old pistol into Van Winkle’s face and pulled the trigger, but the pistol snapped and Van Winkle struck him over the head with his stick and brought him to his knees. Martin galloped across the muddy street on his all-fours with Van Winkle striking him with the lumber stick first on the right and then on the left side as he crawled across with his pistol in one hand and his hat in the other.
Just as he crossed the street Van Winkle left him and returned to the general fight. Martin dragged himself into the post office all covered with blood, handed his pistol and hat to Brower and called for a doctor. The little Banner doctor examined him and found that he had received a downward lick on the side of his head that pealed the scalp his forehead back beyond his ear.
“Fix it quick doctor I want to get away from here.” The doctor took two or stitches, brought the edges of the wound up together, tied a few bands across. Brower handed him his hat and pistol; remarking as he did so, “This is hell turned loose in Banner, is it not?”
“No,” said the little doctor, “he is the man that painted Banner red.”
“Let me out of here,” said Martin and he slipped out, took through the woods to the south of Banner and that was the last seen of Martin, the Fighter from Butta Hatchie that painted Banner red.
(Signed, The Rambler, The Calhoun Monitor, Pittsboro, MS, Aug. 18, 1904)
These place names were collected from the Mississippi Atlas &Gazetteer (DeLorme: 2004), pages 25 and 31; the text is from Keith Baca’s Native American Place Names in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi: 2007). Note that the gazetteer was my only source for the place names, and that I only referenced those in Calhoun County, Mississippi. If you want to know the interpretations of other Native American place names in other areas of the state, then you can probably find Baca’s book at your local library. The only place name I did not find is Oloucalofa Creek, which is crossed by County Roads 284 and 283 in the northwestern corner of the county. The references in the text refer to works that provided the translations/interpretations for specific words. Some of you might find this tedious and pedantic in addition to being predictably pretentious, but trust me I do know people who would jump on me like a duck on a June bug if I didn’t mind my scholastic Ps and Qs.
SW Pontotoc/NE Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 32 nine mi. NE of Bruce. Halbert (1899, p. 73), using Choctaw vocabulary, derives this name from kitti, “mortar” (a bowl-sha0ped container for pounding or grinding corn into meal), and hutta, “white”. Halbert offers no explanation for the adjective, but Seale (1939, pp. 109-10) speculates that it refers to a mortar made of white stone (white or bleached wood, more likely). It should benoted that this creek is located at least partially within historically Chickasaw territory, and while Chickasaw kitti’, “mortar” is very similar to the Choctaw word, the only recorded Chickasaw term for “white” is tobbi’. Also, the first two syllables of the name resemble not lonely kitti/kitti’, but Chickasaw/Choctaw kinta, “beaver” as well.
N Calhoun County. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 32 five mi. NE of Bruce, and by Miss. Hwy 9 one mi. NE of Sarepta. Perhaps a corruption of Chickasaw/Choctaw lackna, “yellow”.
SE Lafayette/ NE Calhoun counties, local pronunciation unrecorded. Potlockney is a relatively recent corruption; this stream was formerly known as Pollocona, the derivation of which is uncertain. W.A. Read, using Choctaw vocabulary, suggested several possible sources of this name to Seale (1939, p. 153), but all are conjectural: poli, “flying squirrel” and yakni “country”; or poli, “flying squirrel” and okhina, “river; water course; stream”. (It should be noted that this stream is in historically Chickasaw territory; cf. Chickasaw lakna, “yellow”; yaakni, “country”; and pali, “flying squirrel”.
Sabougla Community and Creek
SW Calhoun/NW Webster counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 9 two mi. N of Bellefontaine, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven miles E of Gore Springs. Cushman (1999, p. 491) claims that this name is a shortened form of (Chickasaw) “Siboglahatcha… [o]riginal, Is-su-ba-ok-la-hu-cha, Horse River People, i.e. [p]eople living on horse river.” (Cf. Choctaw isuba, “horse”, okla, “people” and hocha, “river”.) However, Halbert (1899, p. 75) states that the name is from shohboli’, “smoke” (cf. Choctaw shoblhi, “smoke;smoky; smoking”.
Shuttispear Creek (SHOOT-uh-speer)
N Webster/S Calhoun Counties. Crossed by Miss Hwy. 9 fie mi. S of Calhoun City, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven mi. SW of Calhoun City. From Choctaw shuti, “earthen pot” and probably ista pika, “a scoop” i.e. “pot scoop” or “ladle” (Seale, 1939, p. 167). There is an erroneous local tradition regarding this stream resulting from folk etymology; I have been told that long ago, the creek was the scene of warfare between two tribes. According to this tale, the warriors occupied opposite sides of the stream, “shooting spears across the creek at each other”, hence the name.
Skuna Community and River
S Pontotoc (q.v.)/NW Chickasaw (q.v.)/Calhoun/Yalobusha (q.v.)/Grenada counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 9 on s. side of Bruce. Skuna is apparently from Choctaw iskuna, “entrails; guts” (cf. Halbert 1899, pp. 73-74).
Topashaw Creek (TOP-uh-shaw)
NE Webster/SW Chickasaw (q.v.)/S Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 8/9 two mi. S of Calhoun City,and by Miss. Hwy. 341 six mi. W of Woodland. Possibly a variant of Topisaw (cf.), although Seale (1939, p. 198) speculates that “it is highly probably that there is a connection between Sopashaw and Taposa, the latter being the name of a tribe which formerly lived on the Yazoo River.” The meaning of the tribal name Taposa is unknown (Swanson 1969, p. 192).
Yes, folks, for a mere $9,000 bucks you can buy a blues marker, which will place your patch of ground on the Blues Trail and attract those hypothetical hordes of tourists who come to Mississippi in search of musical roots. The criteria for acquiring a blues marker are delineated by the Mississippi Blues Commission in an online document that mentions the eligibility of people, places and events, specific locations (buildings, streets, highways, crossroads), themes (nightclubs and other venues, cotton agriculture, railroads), and there’s even a bit about out-of-state markers (!), but the bottom line explicitly spelled out in the second paragraph is a contract between the Blues Commission and the LGU (Local Government Unit) requiring the LGU to pay $9,000 for the marker, which guarantees its inclusion on collateral material associated with the Blues Trail such as the Commission’s website and publishing. Where this money goes is anyone’s guess, and a significant return on your investment in terms of tourist dollars is a remote possibility indeed.
Very few people would consider Calhoun County a focal point for blues music, so it might come as a surprise to some that Bruce is about to become a site on Mississippi’s celebrated Blues Trail. The musical heritage of Calhoun County, Mississippi is varied, encompassing bluegrass, country, gospel and rockabilly; the area is also well-known for its sacred harp singing. The blues certainly has its place in any roster of the area’s music, but it’s way down the list. The marker, “Calhoun County Blues”, will be unveiled on Oct. 8 at 1p at the Bruce Company Store. Local music artist Leo “Bud” Welch will be honored. I have it on good authority that the marker will also mention Ace Cannon, who is not, strictly speaking, a blues musician, and while it’s unclear if any other Calhoun music will be mentioned, the omission of our sacred harp tradition would be a grievous error compounding what is already a totally superfluous travesty.
It was in the heat of the summer when the air is thick with dust and the sun beats down so hard it feels like a burden that Jess would come home from the store in the mid- afternoons, sit on the front porch, take his hat off and holler at Ethel in the house to bring him buttermilk and cornbread. She would coarsely crumble the cornbread they always had on hand into a tall glass, pour in enough cold buttermilk to cover not all the way but almost, stick a teaspoon in it, bring it out, then go back to the kitchen where she always found something to do. Jess would sit on the porch overlooking his store, his corn field across the highway and his son’s house on the corner tumbling with children, think about this year, think about last year, think about next year and go back to the store, leaving a tall glass with streaks of buttermilk mixed with bits of cornbread making way to the bottom of the glass. No man has ever enjoyed a cocktail with as much contentment.
While no battles of any importance occurred in Calhoun County, Mississippi, Leon Burgess, in his M.D.L. Stevens and Calhoun County, Mississippi offers Stevens’ account of a December skirmish in the north of the county. The original story appeared in The Calhoun County Monitor on June 4, 1903.
In December, 1862, Gen. Grant’s army pressed back the Confederate army from Holly Springs to Coffeeville where after a sharp engagement Grant fell back to Water Valley, threw out a strong cordon of cavalry and encamped for the winter.
About Christmas a strong company of Kansas Jayhawkers invaded Calhoun County north of Schoona River, spending their fury in and about the village of Banner. They captured the few horses and mules remaining in the county, robbed every chicken roost and hen nest, stole turkeys, geese and ducks, and now and then they took a fat hog. In their rounds they confiscated a barrel of moonshine whiskey near the big rock at the head of Cowpen Creek. They drank freely, filled their canteens and came to Banner, where they took and destroyed everything in sight. In the afternoon they set out for Water Valley. Each marauder had his canteen full of “wild cat” and, tied in front and behind his saddle, a good lot of turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens, and a haversack full of eggs. They left Banner yelling like a mob of Hottentots, all full of wild cat whiskey; more than a hundred strong, the Federals insulted every old man they met and drove women and children from their homes.
A small squad of Willis’ Texas Cavalry was hanging around Grant’s army, watching every movement. They learned of the contemplated raid on Banner, followed in the of the Federal cavalry and kept a close eye on their movements. The Texans received into their ranks a few of the Calhoun boys at home on furloughs, armed with double-barreled shot guns and mounted on mules and horses. The company numbered about 20 of the battalion and 12 or 15 of the local boys. They saw from a distance the devastation of Banner and the surrounding country and saw that the Jayhawkers were tanking up on the “bust skull” whiskey and were preparing to leave for Water Valley. Willis, under the guidance of a friend, hosted his small band of braves in a narrow valley were the horses were tied and the boys were concealed on the crest of a narrow ridge about 60 yards from the road that ran up a narrow hollow west of Gore’s Branch 5 or 6 miles from Banner.
On came the drunken Federal mob, more than a hundred strong, singing, cursing and looting, all bent on reaching Water Valley with their booty. They crossed Gore’s Branch, the headwaters of Long Persimmon Creek, and moved up the road running parallel with the long ridge. When the Federal cavalry had filled the road at the foot of the ridge, Willis gave the command to fire. Sheet of flames leapt from 30 guns; volley after volley was poured into the panic-stricken Federal ranks. Horses and riders were piled promiscuously on the road.
The Rebel boys rushed down the hill and captured men, horses, turkeys, ducks, chickens and canteens half full of mountain dew. They mounted and followed in hot pursuit of the fleeing Federals. Down by Trusty’s and Tatum’s they charged the retreating Jayhawkers, killing and capturing men and horses; their charge to Tuckalofa Creek was a race for life. The next day a regiment of Federal cavalry came out and buried the dead and cared for the wounded. No estimate on killed or wounded.
The following article, written by Col. M.D.L. Stephens, appeared in Calhoun Monitor in 1900, was reprinted June 18, 1931 in The Monitor-Herald and again in July 6, 1972. It later appeared in the newsletter of the Calhoun County Historical Society MS, First Quarter, 2000.
In 1856, Old Dan Rice, the celebrated clown and circus showman, made a venture through Calhoun County, striking Benela first, next day at Pittsboro and thence over to Coffeeville. Being a man of extraordinary abilities and sagacious comprehension by nature as well as the experience of extensive travel, it took him no time to discover the prominent characteristics of the denizens of that inland county.
Really he did not expect to find so far out in the interior a class of people so intelligent and independent. Calhoun’s citizenship made no pretensions in those days at style rather on the
grotesque order. Such a combination, Old Dan, in all of his travels, had never struck before. Evidently their mark made its impression upon his mind as the independent sovereignty he had ever come across in all of his travels, so much so that at his next performance in Coffeeville the next day, he got off some laughable jokes at their expense, which were heartily enjoyed and applauded by her sister county-men attending the circus that day.
The first one the writer remembers was by Old Dan on his little trick mule in the grand entry, which always captivates the audience into an enchanted trance. I may say as they emerge from the dressing tent, indeed there is a charm about the “Grand Entry” of a circus; irresistible, even with the most stable-minded—the beautiful horses of varied colors, the riders in their dazzling costumes, will surely product the same effect that it did upon St. Peter, when that panorama of four-footed beasts descended to earth from the heavens.
After this parade, leaving the ring-master with his four-in-hand whip in hand, Dan Rice and his mule made possession of the ring to round up this initial act with something ludicrous. He made many circuits around the ring, imitating each round some laughable incident real or imaginary. Finally to close the scene, he humped himself as awkwardly as he could, at the same time remarking, “This is the way the Schoonerites rode into Pittsboro yesterday, coming to see Old Dan.”
Of course this brought forth a yelling applause from the Yalobusians. About the same time, however, the little mule was nearing the exit gap in the ring, apparently tired of the game all at once as if imitating his rider, got a vigorous hump in his own back, and just at the gateway, made a sudden stop, sending the clown forward like a flying squirrel, spreading him out in good shape in the dirt, instantly darting in to the dressing tent.
After a few seconds of suspense, Dan rose, hobbling about as though he was disjointed and a fit subject for the hospital for several weeks at least. At this juncture, the ringmaster in way of reproof said, “Oh, yes, my laddie, see what you get by making invidious comparisons?” To which the clown said pathetically, “Master, do you reckon that dang little mule was taking up for them hossiers in Calhoun County?”
“Why, sir, of course he is; he knew every word you said, besides he has relatives over there,
didn’t you see them?”
“Dad drat it, them was the fellows I saw riding that way?”
“Yes, sir,” said the ringmaster.
Cogitating a moment, Old Dan came back to his master, “Say, Mr. Ringmaster, if you wanted to get out of this world without dying, where would you go to?”
“That, sir, is an impossibility; no man can get out of this world unless he dies.”
“No! I know where to get out of this world without dying,” said Dan.
“And where would you go, sir?”
“Why, just over the Schooner, into the Free State of Calhoun!”
The rebel yell followed this enunciation. Many Schoonerites present and their generous natures added in the eclat of that day. In this tour of Dan Rice of Mississippi, The Memphis Appeal had accompanied the show, and reporter and solicitor, and this joke upon Calhoun County seemed to be enjoyed and relished with such tenacity that this reporter sent it to the office and a few days after I read in the humorous column of that paper a verbatim account of Dan’s act in Coffeeville. Afterwards, I heard Old Dan kept the joke all through North Mississippi, which gave the county that notoriety as “The Free State of Calhoun”, and will no doubt follow her through the decades to come. Thus Calhoun County bears that name and is amply able to take care of herself amid exigencies of any sort.
Every child has a Radley house, a place that makes them walk a little faster, that makes a tingling sensation creep up the back when twigs drop and leaves rattle, a Boo around the corner teaching them that the world doesn’t always work the way they think it should or will.
Old Rain stalked my smaller steps; some said he was a freakish child abandoned by a troupe of carnies, others said he was a baby Bigfoot come south. When he wasn’t brooding in a boarded-up house in Pittsboro, he haunted the woods and hollows feeding the creeks and streams that feed the Skuna River. I don’t know why we called him Old Rain, but what else is the Skuna or any other river for that matter except rain that’s found its way from hills to the bottoms, rain over-wintered in pools of owl-haunted sloughs and steeped in the character of the land itself, that has in the ways of God Almighty distilled and aged, as strong as bourbon, an engine of the earth itself.
Most monsters are lost under the baggage of adulthood, and I tucked away my fears of Old Rain when I found that there are more frightening things than scattered noises on lonely pathways. Now I believe he was a vestige of the deep virgin forests of north Mississippi, a faunus of the little river bottoms and low wooded hills that my Choctaw ancestors knew and loved. They would call him a bopoli, one of the little people who threw sticks, cones and stones to make noise around us in the woods.
Now Old Rain in memory and mind has become my partner in places I cherish: bright spring hills, close summer woods and frosty winter fields. Embrace your fears and love them.
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)
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.
Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a timber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great barrels that held the finest wines of the 1925 Exposition of Paris. But after the lumber was gone, farmers in the area turned to the sweet potato and their intuitions were crowned with success. Vardaman is now the (admittedly self-proclaimed) Sweet Potato Capital of the World.
The distaff side of my family is from Vardaman, and I’ve been eating sweet potatoes my whole life, so for a long time I’ve been sailing along considering myself of an expert on the subject. Then here comes this McGreger girl who blows my dinghy out of the water. April McGreger has chops; whereas my father was a lawyer from Sarepta (sue me), she is a sweet potato farmer’s daughter from Vardaman proper. In her introduction to Sweet Potatoes, the tenth installment in the University of North Carolina Press’ “Savor the South” series, McGreger says, “By the time I was a teenager, I had worked at pulling slips, the shoots that densely bedded ‘seed’ sweet potatoes send up, and had spent a couple of summers riding the ‘setter’ that plants those sweet potato slips in expansive fields. I learned firsthand how eyes and ears and noses fill with dust from the warm, just-plowed earth and how the modern farmer’s schedule is set by nature and financial demands, often at odds with each other.”
People you have no idea how refreshing, how delightful it is to find a book about food written by a genuine human being who has a fundamental knowledge of “farm to table” and not by one of these pompous foodways pundits who don’t know a roux from a rutabaga or a kitchen flim-flam aristo whose closest connection to the earth is trying to grow weed on his daddy’s back forty before flunking out of college and entering culinary school. McGreger is a very fine writer (as we expect of Mississippi’s children) and a scholar to boot, so she takes an appropriately schoolmarmish tone when it comes to sweet potatoes. In her own rhetoric, she poses the question “Is there any food more central to our southern identity than sweet potatoes?” The short answer is no, and perhaps for that very reason the sweet potato demands definition, particularly as a botanical and linguistic entity. I’ll leave that explanation to April, who does a thorough job of sorting out the Latin as well as the vernacular. She spends some time on the history of this important foodstuff, pointing out the antiquity of its use and cultivation in the New World as well as its introduction to the Old. Central to her narrative is the role of the sweet potato in the culinary history of the American South where it’s been keeping body and soul together throughout the region’s tumultuous history.
Before getting to the recipes proper, McGreger includes a crucial section concerning the selection, storage and preparation of sweet potatoes as well as a description of a few of the most essential culinary varieties (some have been developed as a garden ornamental) and what sorts of dishes they are best suited. Granted most of us have access only to the traditional “moist, orange-fleshed, and sweet” types, but it’s worth knowing other varieties are out there, and if the trend to greater diversity in the marketplace and the proliferation of farmers’ markets continues, finding whites, yellows, purples and heirloom varieties is something to look forward to. Equally important is her section on selection and storage, since while she recommends buying sweet potatoes “dirty by the bushel, directly from a farmer”, the roots must be cured in a warm, humid environment for a few weeks in order to fully develop their flavor. Most essential is McGreger’s advice on the preparation of sweet potatoes, and since she is clearly the final court of authority when it comes to cooking these vegetables (roots and leaves, it’s worth noting), this section is the heart of her work.
McGreger chafes at being restricted to only fifty recipes, but to her credit she offers a spectacular variety “aimed to help you refine techniques to develop your own repertoire.” These are arranged in four categories: “Breakfast: Morning Pastries, Grits, Gravy, and Hash”; “Sides and Salads: Vintage Classics and Fresh, Modern Twists”; “Mains, Soups, Stews, and In-Betweens: A World of Flavor”; and “Desserts: A Little Something Sweet”. Early on she laments, “Once such a prominent food in the southern diet, the sweet potato is now eaten by many only on Thanksgiving in the form of sweet potato casserole or sweet potato pie”, and her selection of recipes is designed to illustrate the versatility of the sweet potato and to provide cooks at every level of proficiency with a means of making them more of a staple in the kitchen”, as well they should be.
April wryly regrets never winning the Little Miss Sweet Potato crown, but a lot of thought, a lot of time, and a lot of love went into this wonderful work, and in my less-than-humble opinion it establishes April McGreger as not merely a Little Miss, nor even a Queen, but as the Empress of Sweet Potatoes.