A Brief History of Magnolia

“South of McComb, only five miles from the Louisiana line, is Magnolia, one of my favorite little towns in Mississippi, and aptly named because of the beautiful lanes of our state’s Magnolia grandiflora on the banks of a stream running near the Pike County Courthouse. If a town in Mississippi is named Magnolia, I surmise, it had better be pretty.” Willie Morris, from My Mississippi, page 15.

Long before the influx of black and white Americans, the Choctaws had populated the thick virgin pine and hardwood forests overlooking the Little Tangipahoa River and Minnehaha Creek. In the early 1800’s, the Choctaws ceded this area to the United States and soon migrated north. Arrowheads are often uncovered in freshly disked farmland just outside the Magnolia city limits, and several Indian mounds remain in the area. The Choctaw names still cling like bark to present day maps, and names such as Tangipahoa and Bogue Chitto are every testimony of the early Choctaw presence. (Tangipahoa is Native American for “cornstalk gatherers”, although Minnehaha is a later day offering, inspired by the writings of Longfellow.)

Early Settlers

Magnolia is the political, geographic, and industrial center of Pike County. Pike County was established in December 1815, two years before statehood, largely by North and South Carolinians, who settled on the Bogue Chitto and the Tangipahoa, and their tributaries. Old Pike County, a large square county, consisted of present Pike County and the western two thirds of present Walthall County. Settlement in the area around present-day Magnolia began several years before the county was created. Early maps reveal George and Rachel Hartzog, James Ballard, John Felder and others on property in the Magnolia area as early as 1812. Oral tradition maintains that the Felder family of South Carolina settled in the area in 1810 on the Tangipahoa River, about a mile and a half from town. These ardent Methodists soon held a camp meeting in Magnolia. And over the next forty years, scattered farming settlements grew around local churches and crossroads. Ballard would lend his name, for a period, to Minnehaha Creek, although local settlers renamed the picturesque stream after a fictional one in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha.

Prewett, the Railroad, and Magnolia’s birth

Critical to the birth and development of Magnolia was the coming of the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad (later the Illinois Central Railroad), which was built through the western edge of Pike County from 1853-1857, bypassing the more populated Bogue Chitto and Magee’s Creek areas. This route was chosen to reduce the number of bridges needed by the railroad: the path constituted the dividing ridge between the Pearl River watershed to the east and the Mississippi River watershed to the west. This railroad’s arrival signaled the shift of Pike County’s population centers from rivers to railroads and saw the rise of the railroad towns of Magnolia, Summit, and Osyka, and the inevitable demise of the old county seat Holmesville.

In 1854, Ansel H. Prewett donated the right of way through present-day Magnolia to the railroad and hired Mr. George Clarke to lay out the streets of a town next to his right of way, using such street names as Cherry, Laurel, Magnolia, and Bay Streets. (For a few streets, Prewett strayed from this “tree” pattern, utilizing his own name and that of his surveyor, as well as and those of several prominent in the railroad, including directors James Robb and W. H. Garland. Stations on the line were established at 10 mile intervals on the route measuring north from New Orleans, with Ponchatoula, 48 miles; Tickfaw, 58; Amite, 68; Tangipahoa, 78; Osyka, 88; Magnolia, 98; Summit, 108; and then with slight variation, Bogue Chitto, 119; Brookhaven, 129; Beauregard, 139; and Hazlehurst, 149. The first 88 miles of the track arrived in Osyka from New Orleans in August 1854 and by the spring of 1855, work was well underway in Magnolia. Prewett began to sell town lots and the grading of the railroad was complete to Magnolia by 1856. An early resident, Mrs. Nick Sinnott, offered the name “Magnolia Town” for the new village, naming it for huge old Magnolias lining Minnehaha Creek. The name was accepted by Prewett, and soon the name was shortened to just Magnolia. As the railroad was progressing north from Magnolia, the line was progressing south from Canton and Jackson. By March 31, 1858, the lines met, with a “golden spike” being driven at a point twenty-three miles north of Brookhaven and twenty-three miles south of Jackson, near present-day Hazlehurst (which had been named after the chief engineer of the railroad). Among the names of the earliest locomotives of the line were “Osyka” and “Magnolia.”

For a period until the War for Southern Independence erupted, Magnolia experienced an economic boom, displacing Osyka as the “central point” between Jackson and New Orleans, filling with summer residents of New Orleans seeking a “resort” to escape yellow fever. The railroad changed the economy of the area, allowing the transport of cotton and other goods to the New Orleans or Jackson market. The erection of the grand old Central House in 1858, on the eastern side of the railroad, spoke to this early prominence. The hotel was built with 144 rooms, two parlors, a ballroom, a bowling alley, skating rink, and an enchanting island in the Little Tangipahoa behind it. Utilization of the town as a “yellow fever resort” proved wise, for the town never suffered a case of yellow fever in its history, although nearby communities of McComb, Summit, Chatawa, and Osyka were decimated by the epidemic of 1878. Excursion trains were frequent out of New Orleans for Magnolia, and New Orleans newspapers of the late 1850s promote the absence of mosquitoes as one of the reasons to resort there.

By June 1860, the city’s first newspaper, the “Grand Trunk Magnolian,” was established, and its quality garnered the notice of sister newspapers around the state. The Oxford Intelligencer of June 27 noted: “It is with great pleasure that we place upon our exchange list the above named paper, published at Magnolia, Pike County, in this State.” Editor Howard Falconer added, “The Magnolian presents a very neat typographical appearance, and is ably edited by John C. Waddill, Esq. We wish it success.” (June 27, 1860) The Canton Commonwealth of August 2, 1861 reported the following news : “A duel was fought near Osyka, Miss., on the 10th, between two gentlemen from Livingston Parish, La., with double-barreled guns, loaded with ball, distance thirty-five paces. There was but one fire, and neither party was injured. The Grand Trunk Magnolian, from which we learn these facts, does not give the names of the parties.” The Magnolian was the first newspaper established outside of Holmesville and the first established along the railroad, the county’s economic artery. The Grand Trunk continued to publish despite the eruption of Civil War, with copies found dating at least until October 11, 1862.

Civil War in Magnolia

In no uncertain terms, the tragic Civil War ended the boom period of Magnolia’s development. Although no battles were fought in Magnolia, its presence on the railroad and proximity to Jackson and New Orleans made it an important town for both sides. Early in the war, the Central House Hotel was converted into the Coney Hospital, administered by Confederate physicians Achilles Sparkman and Charles B. Talbott. As New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Port Hudson, and Vicksburg became Union targets, the hotel reached official government status as a “wayside hospital” until the war’s end. More than 200 soldiers died there from wounds or disease, and they are buried in the Magnolia Cemetery in a large plot. Magnolia was also the location of an important Confederate tannery during the war. As well, Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s famous raid across Mississippi in late April, early May 1863 came to Magnolia’s doorstep at the end of the raid. Soon after his men burned Confederate supplies at Summit, Grierson headed south along the road to Magnolia, and just north of Magnolia made his dash to the southwest for Baton Rouge, fearing an ambush from forces concentrated at Osyka. The “Battle of Wall’s Bridge,” which occurred just to the southwest of Magnolia, was the most important battle of the raid.

The destruction of the railroad by Union forces directly impacted the city’s economic well-being. Yankee raiders like Grierson decimated the road between Ponchatoula and Jackson. From 1863-65, the railroad was not operated south of Brookhaven. The New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern suffered huge financial and property losses during the war. In some places between Hammond and Jackson, the railroad bed had literally overgrown with briars and underbrush. However, after ownership of the railroad was returned to its owners by Union forces in 1865, famous Confederate veteran, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard was appointed head of the railroad, and by 1869, under his guidance, the railroad was rebuilt between New Orleans and Canton, with train service reestablished on the line by 1869. After his heroic rebuilding of the railroad, Beauregard would be displaced in 1870 by Henry S. McComb of Delaware, who had purchased all of the company stock owned by the City of New Orleans. McComb would in just a few years reshape the demographics of the county by moving his railroad yards and roundhouse out of New Orleans. It is said he approached the leaders of Magnolia and proposed placing the railroad center in the city, but the city leaders noted that their city was too fine, elegant, and civilized to tolerate the rough ways of the railroad men. Thus, McComb went eight miles north to locate his shops.

A leather factory was established in Magnolia in the post war period. Magnolia’s depot was one of only three which survived on the line between New Orleans and Jackson. (Although it would later perish in the 1893 fire.)

After the war, local Reconstruction was marked by political agitation and Republican rule. To calm public fears, the respected founder of Magnolia, Ansel Prewett, was appointed by the governor as Pike County sheriff in 1870. His leadership was a stabilizing force. However, he became one of the county’s early public martyrs: On January 3, 1871, he was ambushed, shot twice in the back and mortally wounded while attempting to transport a dangerous prisoner to Vicksburg by railroad. By 1872, the local issues displaced national ones, and an effort was initiated to move the courthouse from Holmesville to one of the western railroad towns. In June 1873, after a bitter election struggle, Magnolia was voted in over Summit as the new county seat, with a grand courthouse erected by 1876. Since that time, Magnolia has remained the political center of the county.

Several fires decimated Magnolia in its history. In the early 1880s, the new courthouse burned to the ground, with the loss of many of the county records prior to that date. In January 1893, almost half the business district burned down, including the depot and the soul of the town since 1856, the grand Central House hotel.

Magnolia has a long literary history. Before the guns were fired at Fort Sumter, a first newspaper called the Grand Trunk Magnolian was established by John Waddell, although it did not survive the war. The well-known journalist Henry Bonney left Holmesville after the Civil War and came to Magnolia, establishing the Eureka Centralian, a reference to Magnolia’s “central” position between Jackson and New Orleans and a connection with the famed hotel on the tracks. Bonney left in 1872, and Captain J. D. Burke, a respected Confederate veteran and journalist, published the first issue of the Magnolia Gazette on Dec. 7, 1872. Although other newspapers followed, including the Magnolia Herald, the Magnolia News, and the Pike County Herald, the Gazette has outlasted them all, and is presently the oldest continuously operating business in Pike County. Luke W. Conerly, author of the highly regarded history Pike County Mississippi, 1798-1876, originally wrote the history as a series of articles for his Magnolia Herald, which he edited in the 1870s. Martha Lacy Hall, a Magnolia native, is a nationally respected author of such books as Call it Living, Music Lesson, and The Apple-Green Triumph and Other Stories. Recently, a graduate of Magnolia’s South Pike High School, Olympia Vernon, has written several award-winning novels and ranks as an upcoming writer of great promise. Several artists have called Magnolia home, and the best known was the late Blanche Batson. In the 1890s, Magnolia citizens erected an opera house, which featured many of the finest dramas and traveling musicals of its day.

The Magnolia Cotton Mill, organized in 1903 with $200,000 of capital, through a community effort birthed in the Stonewall Club and financially backed by the Lampton brothers, was the city’s first step toward industrialism. It also resulted in the creation of “Mill Village,” a large community in the south of Magnolia near the mill. By 1906, the city had a complete system of water works supplying artesian water, a telephone exchange, and an electric lighting plant, with a light on every corner. Other industry at the beginning of the twentieth century included a cotton oil mill, an ice plant, a compress, cotton gins, and a saw and planing mill.

In 1913, the founder of Magnolia’s first bank, Walter M. Lampton, established in Magnolia Mississippi’s one of the first Boy Scout troops in Mississippi and the nation. In 1915, Magnolia was named “The Cleanest Town in Mississippi” in a statewide competition, and for almost a half century, a sign stating such dangled from above Bay Street, leading across the railroad track in front of the Lampton-Reid Store.

Magnolia has a long history of fine schools, with its citizens placing great importance on education. Rev. W. H. Roane established Roane’s Academy in 1860 and it became a state school in 1873, being an important educational institution until the deaths of Roane and his wife in 1876. The Rev. Emanuel M. Cunnigen, Martin Russell, and Edmond James were after the Civil War leaders in education and religious life in the African American community. Respected educator Eva L. Gordon (1888-1982) led the development of black education in the early 1900s, and her efforts resulted in the erection of the Pike County Training School from Rosenwald Fund support in 1920.

Dr. A. V. Beacham and his brothers, descendants of the original Felder settlers, established Beacham Memorial Hospital in Magnolia in 1938, and the 37 bed hospital continues to serve the citizens of south Pike County with modern technology. Also, Magnolia Clinic, with a staff of three physicians, has been serving the health needs of the area since 1969.

Although the busy Cotton Mill would close in 1953, later efforts by city leaders such as longtime mayor W. J. Simmons and others created Pike County’s Industrial Park within the city’s northern limits. Such companies as Weyerhaeuser and Croft Metals have given Magnolia the distinction as “most industry per capita” in the state of Mississippi. And despite this industrial growth, the city has renewed efforts to preserve and highlight its rare architectural legacy in two National Historical Register districts. Magnolia remains one of the most beautiful communities in the state, with ample health, educational, literary, historical, political, and outdoors offerings.

Several disasters have hit Magnolia, a large downtown fire which burned most of the town in 1893 (including the antebellum depot and the famous Central House hotel, both of which had survived the Civil War); a railroad collision in the heart of Magnolia in 1961, which resulted in many deaths, a large fire on the tracks, and broken glass throughout the area; and in 2005, Hurricane Katrina blew roofs off, knocked ancient, huge trees down, and left the area without electricity for weeks. All were reported in the pages of the Gazette and we invite our readers to read old copies of the Gazette. Magnolia’s Library and City Hall contain bound copies of the Gazette from 1998 on, given by the current owners of the Gazette. The most extensive collection of old Gazettes is available on microfilm at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Library in Jackson. However, if you can’t go to Jackson, the McComb and the Tylertown Libraries have fairly extensive collections of old Gazettes, going back to 1872, available on microfilm. There is no more comprehensive source for early Pike County history than the Magnolia Gazette.

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