THE GHOST TOWNS OF WILLIAM FAULKNER'S YOKNAPATAWPHA
Dr. Carl Edwin Lindgren
Member, Royal Historical Society (
and Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
and Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
When one hears the words "ghost town," cinema-inspired images of old western frontier towns with tumbleweeds rolling aimlessly through the front street are brought to mind. One can almost hear the squeaky saloon doors and smell the distinctive aroma of freshly discharged gunpowder. Once they were centers of noisy feverish activity - teeming saloons with the more than occasional drunk and ever-present madam or bar maid, blazing gunfights, and quiet Sunday services at the single-room white-washed church at the edge of town. Now only spiders, suspicious barn owls, and scurrying field mice occupy the decaying buildings. Nothing else exists for miles except, perhaps, for madly swirling dust devils or a lone coyote.
The southern ghost town, however, is extremely different. Although the town, the center of activity and commerce, no longer exists, the people and social life of these once bustling municipalities continue. On the outskirts of dead shells are small, furiously independent communities asking nothing from their neighboring towns. Gone are hotels, dance halls, dry goods stores, and fashion shops. What remains are the hopes and dreams of people proud of their history and personal heritage.
Such are the non-fictitious ghost towns of William Faulkner's mystical Yoknapatawpha County -- which, by tradition, is bounded on the north by the Tallahatchie River, and to the South by the Yocona (patawpha) River. Its boundaries to the east and west are left to the imagination.
Although there is some dispute over how Pope obtained its name, it is generally agreed that the town was named after a Mr. W. E. Pope who served as a contractor for the roadbed of the town's railroad. Pope, according to legend, arrived in North Mississippi from Georgia with a work crew of 100 blacks.
On April 4, 1872, Pope received its charter, granted by the State Legislature and approved by the then governor. The charter "located the town on the Mississippi & Tennessee Railroad, later to become part of the Illinois Central..." (Anniversary, 1972). Originally, three commissioners were appointed to govern Pope until general elections could be held. These were: W. M. Monteith, C. A. Taylor, and Peter Hubbard (Historical, 1972).
Pope's growth was phenomenal. By the 1920's Pope's business area consisted of 27 shops which furnished necessities and luxuries including: yard goods, furniture, drugs, mens and women's clothing, millinery, farm implements, and groceries. There were, however, factors which were slowly destroying the economic future of Pope. Perhaps the first sign of trouble was in 1905 when, one fall night at about 11:30, a fire was discovered at the home of E. L. Selby (at that time occupied by a Mr. J. B. Wray). Flames from the residence spread rapidly until the neighboring store was also ablaze. Within a few minutes, the town's post office, bank, and the Pope and Steiner's store were also engulfed. A crowd of over 200 gathered, with buckets in hand. Bravely and diligently, they fought the blazes in an attempt to prevent further destruction. They knew that if the fire spread, the Wray Mercantile Store, Pratt's Oliver's Drugs, Pratt's Gin, and Bemis's Store would also be consumed. Through luck, determination, and prayer, they contained the inferno. As morning dawned and the smoke cleared, damage estimates equaled $10,300 (Three Fires, 1972). Over the ensuing years, Pope and Steiner, the bank and E. L. Selby were rebuilt - this time of sturdier brick and mortar.
Less than four years later, on January 14, 1909, fire again ravaged Pope. This time the fire was confined to the west side of town. Every house and business on that side was lost, save the bank and Pope & Steiner. These two establishments suffered substantial damage to furniture and goods. Damage, this time, was estimated at over $11,000. Insurance covered only a portion of the destruction (Three Fires, 1972).
The death blow to Pope, however, was the great fire of January 23, 1930. This blaze consumed the stores of S. V. Shinn, M. L. Weed, Bob Care, J. H. Steiner, and the ice cream parlor. Also destroyed was Dr. John Martin's office (Three Fires, 1972).
Perhaps even more devastating than the fires were other factors -- factors which the merchants of Pope had little control over: the motor car and better highways. Citizens of Pope were able to travel to nearby towns and even Memphis, Tennessee. The depression years also heralded an era of cautious spending and business failures.
Originally known as Ptocowa (Chickasaw and Choctaw for "healing waters"), the town grew around a natural spring. The spring, which was said to have had a mysterious healing quality, was during the 1700's and 1800's a gathering place for Indians wishing to benefit from its powers. In an 1867 issue of The Panola Weekly Star, the spring was described as "a fine, clear, and bold running mineral spring of known and well attested medicinal virtues" ("The Coal Mines," 1867) . Although in the early 1800's Ptocowa consisted only of a spring, several families, and a small creek (Randolph, 1975), by the latter portion of the decade a town was beginning to take shape. It wasn't however, until the 1890's that it became a thriving business community.
The town proper consisted of several large hotels, a pool hall, a dance hall, saloons, stores, and residential buildings. Perhaps what made Tocowa famous, at least regionally, was the elaborate Fourth of July celebrations. According to The Southern Reporter ("Picnic at Ptocowa," 1888), over 1,000 people attended the gala celebration. Picnic lunches, lively music, hand cranked ice cream, and of course, lemonade were among the attractions. This was also the perfect meeting place for politicians and would-be politicians "stumping" their way through North Mississippi.
For the steady boarder or weary traveler, the town boasted three large hotels and a boarding house: The Woodruff House, Beale House, the Tocowa Hotel, and the Fowler Rooming House (Randolph, 1975). During the spring months the hotels overflowed with "pilgrims" from throughout North and Central Mississippi who traveled to Tocowa to take the waters. According to Randolph (1975), other heartier and less affluent visitors lived in tents or built cottages.
Tocowa continued to prosper until, when in 1924, the post office burned and services were curtailed. Like Pope, Tocowa lacked a good transportation facility. A few years later, the depression took its grievous toll on the community. Stores folded and many residents left for the proverbial "greener pastures." Despite these problems, Tocowa's dance hall and Fourth of July celebrations continued until the 1940's. But, today only memories, the sounds, scents, and sights of Ptocowa, exist in the fond recollections of the county's eldest citizens.
In 1836, shortly after the formation of Panola County (a county in North West Mississippi, 23 miles to the west of Faulkner's home), two Chickasaw Indians (Chil-li-tah-umby and Ish-she-un-nah) sold a portion of land to three white settlers (Deed Book #1, 80-81, 1836). Richard Bolton, Wilson Carruthers and David Hubbard purchased the tract for $6,000.
Earlier, during the creation of Panola County, the legislature had authorized that the Board of Police should have the legal right and responsibility of creating a seat of justice or county seat. According to guidelines, the seat was to be located within the center of the formed county section, or within a reasonable five-mile area (Lindgren, 1993; 1994).
Acting within their legal authority, the Board of Police (governing body of the county) set aside a portion of the aforementioned land for the creation of a town. The following geographic description is provided concerning these deeds of land: "`a stake in the ravine near the river Tallahatchie' as a west boundary and near the same point a line `southwestwardly meandering the high bluff and along the margin thereof near the slue.'" (Hastings, 1990). Due to this act on the part of the board, a heated debate arose concerning where the county seat should be located. Finally, on 13 May 1837, a session of the legislature asked that a special election be held to select the future county seat.
During the election, voters were requested to choose between Panola or Belmont, a rival community located several miles northeast of the Panola site. Finally, in February 1838 the legislature, in accordance with the wishes of the electorate, created an act designating Panola as the first county seat.
The town grew considerably over the following years and by 1844, the town leaders donated a lot for the Methodist Church. Just eleven years later, ground-breaking began on the Presbyterian church. In 1855, a Masonic lodge was proposed for the town of Panola. According to the secretary of the lodge, the Masons were to furnish the lot and $1000 being matched by the citizens. Aside from serving as a lodge, the structure became known as the Masonic Female School. On Sundays the building was the meeting place for the St. Stephen's Episcopal congregation. Later, following the decline of Panola, the structure was moved to Batesville.
A Growing Business
Because of the town's proximity to the Tallahatchie River, Panola prospered and grew. Between the 1840's and late 1850's the local paper brimmed with notices and advertisements concerning the opening of new businesses. The town which started as a tiny "fork in the road," had grown into a large and vibrantly diverse community. The town boasted shops, drug stores, inns, feed stores, and most any other type of business facility imaginable.
In 1844, W. Steinhart & Co. opened a dry goods store (cash only.) Two years later, Panola was introduced to its first drug store which boasted prices cheaper than those in New Orleans or Memphis. (The Lynx, 1846). The New York Cheap Store also opened its doors in the late 1840's. This shop, owned by a Mr. M. Price, sold jewelry and dry goods to a large portion of Panola residents. At about this same time, a harness factory was opened by a Mr. G. A. Barbee. Other businesses included: Greenbaum & Earnest, dry goods; C. L. Rallings, general merchandise; Asa Love, grocery store, J. H. and M. D. Keith, dry goods; Bardford & Martin, general merchandise; Jones & Goodwin, merchants; L. C. Leland, drug store; B. T. Brown, saloon; T. E. Clark, merchandise; J. D. Murphy, boot shop; and many others too numerous to mention. The town also had its share of professionals including lawyers, doctors, dentists, etc.
The River versus the Railroad
Shortly after the formation of Panola County, the state government authorized the formation of the Belmont Turnpike and Bridge Company. In 1841, the Board of Police entered into a contract with Mr. A. G. Ellis for the construction of a bridge across the Tallahatchie at Panola. The board also empowered the bridge company to levy a fee on its use for the next 12 months. Later in 1850, the board gave Mr. D. Duke permission to create a ferry near Rayburn's Crossing.
The stage seemed set for what promised to be great expansion. But, on the sidelines, other changes were taking place which were to devastate Panola and its economy. As early as 1845, the first tremors of change were being felt.
On November 29, 1845, The Lynx carried an article appealing to the citizens of Panola (county) to propose the construction of a railroad from Panola to the Mississippi Delta. Although river and roads remained the primary routes into and out of Panola, the Mississippi & Tennessee Railroad was snaking slowly southward from Memphis. By 1857, the railroad reached Como (a town 16 miles northeast of Panola). Citizens from Panola traveled to Como by wagon where they caught the train to Memphis.
On September 2, 1857 the local press announced that the train would soon run to Panola Depot (one mile east of Panola). Due to various considerations it was agreed, much to the dismay of Panola citizens, that the tracks would not lie within the town proper. At this point the town began to slowly fall apart with business after business moving closer to the tracks. By the end of the Civil War, all of Panola's business district was moved to the depot. After this point, the town was known as Batesville, while Old Panola fell into decay. Today nothing remains of Panola except for a small marker, and on once proud grounds, a sewer purification plant for Batesville. Its once prosperous existence is carefully documented within the pages of a local historical newsletter.
Randolph's Crossing, located in the southwest corner of Yoknapatawpha, was founded in 1855 by Mr. M. M. Randolph. Later renamed Long Creek, its name was finally changed to the present-day Courtland. After its incorporation one year later, the town for a while became one of the largest and most prosperous in North Mississippi. The business district was famous for its variety of merchandise and affordable prices. People from many neighboring communities traveled to Courtland by wagon to purchase staples, shop for gifts, or window shop for luxuries. Stores were abundant and included: J. M. Jones Grocery, W. H. Cary's Drug Store, Tom McNeely's General Store, S. W. Williams Drug & Dry Goods Store, Lamb-Herring Store, Baily Brothers General Store, J. L.Coggin's Drug Store, and the A. F. Oliver Store (Snyder, 1975). The town also supported a blacksmith, broom maker, three hotels (Cary, Tucker & Woodruff), a cafe, and a millinery shop. In 1912, fire consumed the majority of establishments on the southeast side of town, but because of the determination of the town's people it was only a short time before rebuilding was well underway.
Perhaps what Courtland was most noted for was its excellent school system. The Panola Agriculture High School (built in 1911) thrived under the competent leadership of Mr. M. E. Moorehead (Snyder, 1975). The school consisted of two dormitories and a large dining room. Parents from over a fifty mile radius enrolled their children in this facility. Knowledgeable teachers, excellent facilities, and professional and moral ethics were the norm at this exceptional school.
Concerning religion, Courtland had three churches: the Baptist, Methodist, and Union (later Presbyterian). These churches strengthened the community and bound its citizens closely together. Before the churches' construction, the faithful of Courtland traveled to the neighboring communities of Independence, Antioch, and Eureka for Sunday services. For some, the trip to and from church was an all day undertaking.
Courtland's railroad was the fiber that held the town together and brought in much needed outside revenue. The Courtland tracks, according to Snyder (1975) were known as the "Silk Stocking" Avenue.
The train depot was able to accommodate over 2,000 bales of cotton. On any given day it was a center of lively conversation and furious activity. With the railroad, a prosperous business community, and a decent system of roads, the town should have thrived. Unfortunately in 1915 the boll weevil made its descent and, with the subsequent decline of the cotton crop came the demise of the town. Farmers declared bankruptcy and the town merchants who had extended liberal credit were forced to close their shops and stores. The businesses that remained, one after another over the next decade, moved to Batesville (some ten miles north of Courtland). Among the first to leave was Oliver, taking nearly $100,000 worth of business from the town's economic base. (Snyder, 1975).
Today, all that remains of old Courtland is the town's church, built in 1844, which has now been turned into a storage room for hay. The building, tall and stately seems desecrated by being filled to capacity with fodder for cattle. Its still readable plaque, though rusty and paint chipped, calls forth memories of a more sacred, ethical time.
According to The Heritage of Lafayette County Mississippi, Dallas has been extinct for fifty-six years. Located some six miles southeast of Tula and twenty miles southeast of Oxford, the town was created in 1842. Though rather small, it possessed "a church, school, two stores, a grist mill, a post office, and a boarding house that served as a hotel." (Karr, 1985). The church, an Independent Baptist, was located just north of the stores. The town's cemetery was situated on the opposite side of town from the church, therefore; funeral services were often held in the more convenient schoolhouse. Typical of many other small Southern towns, religion was taken quite seriously and stringent rules were imposed on the town's people. One such regulation was the prohibition of dancing. On many occasions individuals caught dancing were expelled from the local church.
The town's post office was established in 1846 but service was discontinued by May of 1914. Mrs. Sarah E. Swaim Philips' boarding house provided the weary traveler a hearty meal and a comfortable place to stay. The structure consisted of two spacious stories and had the only indoor water system in the community.
Eaton was located about twelve miles northwest of Oxford and planned to be a progressive community with forward ideas. Its creation, however, never quite came to fruition. During the 1830's land was sold, lots surveyed, streets laid out, and stores built. This was the boom period when all dreams and hopes seemed possible. But by 1837, reality in the form of a financial crash (Mitchell, 1985) arrived, and what was heralded as the town of tomorrow never really had the chance to rise from the blueprints.
As with Tocowa, Springdale was named for its local springs. The town's original settlement was near the Mississippi Central Railroad in the late 1850's. The town grew and within a short time consisted of several stores, a church, and railroad station (Mitchell, 1985). If one visits this community today, a newly built church and the town's old graveyard serves as the only reminders of this once prosperous village.
Perhaps one of the first records of homesteading in Tula was in 1842. The community grew slowly and by the late 1860's only three or four families were recorded living in the area. Delay, another community, about 2 miles west served these families, supplying a store which provided farm and food supplies. By the 1870's, Tula had grown into a thriving town with three churches, drug stores, doctor's offices, three general stores, a sawmill, grist mill, hotel, post office, and school (Karr, 1985). By 1884, the town had constructed its first church - the Tula Methodist Church, which was during this period known as "Liberty". The church's services were conducted by circuit riders (ministers who traveled from church to church by horse).
Another interesting note, mentioned by Ms. Maxine Karr (1985), was that for 40 years, a Mr. Robert "Rob" Davis rang the church bell and opened the doors for Sunday service. Upon his death the congregation, as a sign of respect and appreciation, buried him with one of the large church keys near his hand. The other two churches were the Camelite Church and the Popular Springs Church.
For a town the size of Tula, the community had more than its share of physicians. In fact, Tula, over a period of years had eight doctors, including: Drs. A. G. Hunt, S. T. Lyles, W. P. Wester, and others (Karr, 1985).
Concerning stores, Tula's first general store was constructed by Monroe Johnson. People would travel from miles around by wagon and horse back to shop. The Tula Mercantile General Store, which housed the town's first post office, was built by the Parker family. Other community stores were ran by the Sharp and Davis families.
A Desire to Achieve
Tula's first school was known as "Smut" School (Karr, 1985). The school received its name from an incident in which a young child, being frightened by the minister, climbed up the chimney and became covered by soot.
After several sessions, the school burned and was rebuilt a short distance away from the original site. The new facility was known as the Poplar Springs School. Although expected to last a considerable period, by 1877, just three years after its construction, the school was far too small to accommodate its students. A new frame schoolhouse was built and was known as the "Tula School" (Karr, 1985).
Although enrollment continued to grow, it was in 1888 that a marked increase was noted. This was due to the employment of Prof. Charles C. Hughes. Through Prof. Hughes guidance, a boarding school was constructed. The facility was known as the Tula Normal Institute and Business College (Karr, 1985). This school became one of the county's leading centers of education and continued to grow until Hughes resigned in 1902. Later, the college closed and the facility became known as the Tula Consolidated High School. (Karr, 1985).
In 1920 the citizens of Tula decided to construct a larger school house. This decision was due to the growth of the student body. Since the school's early years (the "Smut School" with only 5 or 6 students) to over 230 students in 1920, educational needs continued to grow. By 1922, Tula had constructed one of the county's most advanced facilities. At a cost of $10,000 the board of trustees had only twenty dollars left to purchase insurance. Feeling this too small a sum, the trustees decided not to purchase insurance, but rather wait until later when the budget allowed. That same week, the new school, the older facility, the Camelite Church, and W. B. Coleman's Shop burned to the ground. Shortly thereafter a Mr. Carl Blackwell was arrested, in part due to evidence supplied by the superintendent of education. According to this information, Blackwell had written several vile letters concerning a Miss Mary Whitson who was currently teaching at Tula. The letter signed "Ku Klux Klan" demanded the immediate dismissal of Miss Whitson. Blackwell, however, never came to trial since he skipped bail and was never heard from again (Karr, 1985). The town's citizens, although heavily taxed over the next twenty years for the destroyed school, were still determined to provide quality education. With determination and small donations, the town within a relatively short time reconstructed a school similar to the one which burned.
The decades which followed were to see Tula's slow transformation from a thriving rural center to a quiet residential community. Once dusty, wooden wheel-cut stretches of road are lined with shaded, green-lawn 3 bedroom brick homes.
Consolidation brought an end to the era of the "one room" school house. Students now attend Lafayette County School and the University of Mississippi. Money finds its way along the newly black-topped roads to Oxford and Tupelo, leaving a small, struggling country store and a one-room post office as monuments to things past.
There are other ghost towns of Yoknapatawpha, perhaps not as well known or remembered as the previous. Yet today, only long stretches of road dotted with deserted buildings and shattered dreams remain - lands which Faulkner traversed as a youth, and lands which were, later in life, vivid inspirations for his chronicles of a proud town and the countryside it rested within. And still, the pride and stories remain, recanted by parents to curious youth - about a time that was, things that were, and what could have been.
"The Coal Mine," (25 May 1867). The Weekly Panola Star.
Hastings, Tom (January-March 1990). "The Town of Panola's Beginning," The Panola Story, 1-4.
"Historical Facts about Pope -- Old Facts and New." (8 June 1972). The Panolian.
Karr, Maxine H. (1985) "Dallas," The Heritage of Lafayette County Mississippi. Oxford: The Skipwith Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc.
_______. (1985) "Tula," The Heritage of Lafayette County Mississippi. Oxford: The Skipwith Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc.
Lindgren, C. E. (1993). A History of Panola Education. London: The College of Preceptors.
_______. (1994). Panola Remembers. Morris Publishing Co.
The Lynx, (1846).
Mitchell, Martha (1985) "Eaton," The Heritage of Lafayette County Mississippi. Oxford: The Skipwith Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc.
________. (1985) "Springdale," The Heritage of Lafayette County Mississippi. Oxford: The Skipwith Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc.
"Picnic at Ptocowa," (6 July 1988). The Southern Reporter.
Randolph, Lori (October-December 1975). "Tocowa," The Panola Story. Batesville: The Panola Historical and Genealogical Society.
"A Salute to Pope on its 100th Anniversary," (8 June 1972). The Panolian.
Snyder, Kathy (July-September 1975). "Courtland, Mississippi," The Panola Story. Batesville: The Panola Historical & Genealogical Society.
"Three Fires Take Toll on Pope Economy." (8 June 1972). The Panolian.