By the mid-nineteenth century, the locomotive, known as the “iron horse,” had become a national obsession and a massive machine of stamina, speed, noise, fire, iron, and smoke. Finally, travel conquered the obstacles of forests, water, hills and valleys.
Stories about railroad projects, railroad accidents, railroad profits and momentum saturated the press and became the subject of speeches, articles, stories, and songs. The railroad engine, a symbol of human energy and strength in the time of the horse and carriage, became godlike and in the distance resembled a long monstrous snake-like machine chugging down its track, puffing white smoke, like Native American ceremonial signals above a wilderness landscape.
Edward McGehee, a planter from Woodville, Mississippi , had a dream of a railway system extending the twenty-seven-miles stretch of railroad from Woodville to St. Francisville on the Mississippi River below the Louisiana line. In 1830, a company was organized; on December 20, 1831 a charter was obtained, and the West Feliciana became the first railroad in the United States to cross a state line as well as the first to use the standard gauge of four feet, eight and on-half inches.
After staking his claim to seven-hundred acres in 1834, Virginian Richard McLemore, “The Father of Meridian,” built his log house close to current downtown Meridian. His nearest neighbor being about eight-miles away, he recruited his neighbors-to-be from back east, offering them land and the promise of a future. McLemore played a great part in establishing Baptist churches in Lauderdale County, including Oakey Valley Baptist, predecessor of First Baptist Church. Possibly the greatest part McLemore played in Lauderdale County’s future, though not intentionally, was in the future of the railroad.
The Southern Railroad Company, chartered in Mississippi on February 23, 1846, had plans to build a railroad running eastward from Brandon through Meridian to the Mississippi-Alabama state line. However, before any construction began, the charter lapsed. Reincorporated as a Mississippi corporation on March 9, 1850, the Southern Railroad Company in July, 1852, acquired the Jackson and Brandon Railroad and Bridge Company’s line between Jackson and Brandon, including engines, cars, depots, lands, and slaves. The line would one day make its way toward Lauderdale County, Mississippi.
Before arrival of the Southern Railroad, the 1850’s witnessed the “Iron Horse” pushing its way through Lauderdale County, Attorney Con Rea of Marion predicted the primary beneficiary of the railroad would his town of Marion. In anticipation of the coming M & O Railroad, according to author James Dawson of Paths to the Past, Meridian Founder, Richard McLemore, before moving his family to the Marion area, sold the remainder of his land to Alabama Lawyer, Lewis A. Ragsdale and Kemper County Merchant John T. Ball. On this land purchased from McLemore, Ragsdale started a tavern in McLemore’s first home while John Ball established the first store in the village not yet named. These two guys would prove Con Rea wrong!
Once people filled this small church in rural Mississippi, their voices blending in spirituals, hands folded in prayer. After the service, children ran past their parents to the front lawn, their patent-leather Sunday shoes pressing into the grass, Mothers calling out to them, "Don't you get your clothes dirty!" A line of people extends down the center aisle leading to the front door where the pastor greets each attendee, thanking them for coming. "It was a beautiful sermon today," most say, even those who nodded away during the hour, waking only when the preaching rose to the highest note. You always found peace on Sundays. Peace still resides here.
Silence pervades the cemetery, as if even nature understands that death resides here, and with death comes a forever silence. We fear the cemetery in more ways than one, maybe because death is a certainty; maybe because we do believe ghosts reside here with the headstones and statues and monuments. Haunted tales of the dead live for centuries and we cling to them, preserve them, tell them, deny them and believe them.
It's something we all fear--being abandoned, left alone to face the elements because no one cares anymore. The gates begin to rust, the stones begin to fade and discolor over time. Yet, they still stand, reminding us of the way we were, that someone did care enough to preserve our life here on earth through iron and stone and marble and flowers. Death and time can never erase memories...and we cherish them until we, too, become dust and our stones reach up to heaven.
Many early roads followed Indian trails, such as the stage road through Lauderdale Springs and Daleville, which were among the first communities to have stagecoach service. Original surveys showed a road running southwest to northeast between Lauderdale and Enterprise. This was probably the early route of U.S. Highway 11 and most likely ran through present-day Meridian by way of Sixth Street. One mail and stage route was possibly the “Choctaw Trail.” On this route in 1800 a stagecoach stop was erected in the community of Lauderdale. A major stage line was the Jemison and Ficklin stage line. Coaches arrived in Marion on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings and stopped at the Bains Hotel in the town square so passengers could eat in the hotel’s café. Other important roads were the Marion–Livingston Road and the Gaston Road running from Marion to Alabama by way of Alamucha. An early road to Alabama probably followed the route of Highway 19 through Lauderdale County. Decatur Road from Marion may have followed today’s Seventh Street in Meridian.
By late 1835, Scott, Newton, and Lauderdale County residents had persuaded the legislature to establish a mail route from Jackson eastward through Brandon, to the three county seats of Scott, Newton and Lauderdale counties, passing through Alamucha to the county seat of Sumter County, Alabama. Postal authorities wished to upgrade three routes to Lauderdale County so that the coaches pulled by four horses would have greater speeds.
Traveling Mississippi's coastal region you discover soft, white sandy beaches, daily arts & entertainment events, incredible restaurants, and quaint towns nestled among high-rise casinos along the shore igniting the darkest night! The Northeast Mississippi hills spin you on the world's most powerful literary wheel and you feel the stories penetrate your soul. Parallel to the Mississippi River, Highway 61 trails from Natchez and Vicksburg, two river cities that daily share Mississippi's past through antebellum homes and buildings and structures. Before heading to the Delta, stop in Yazoo City's colorful downtown filled where music flows into the streets, beckoning you to get out of the car to stroll the sidewalks and visit the shops along the way. Then, it's on to the Mississippi Delta, where the blues move you and thrill you and the deep, rich soil your toes dig into feels like home.
So, Mississippi's East Central Region can be easily overlooked. However, through my research for the Mississippi Secretary of State's Bicentennial Book, the East Central Region's history has shouted, whispered, sung, recited, cried and laughed through the many stories it revealed. Join me as I share a few highlights from my research. I know you'll be as amazed as I was!
When the Mississippi State Legislature enacted Senate Bill #2666 in 2001 establishing the Southern Arts and Entertainment Center, Inc., d/b/a The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center (MAEC), there was no warning of what was to come in 2005 when Katrina’s fury struck Mississippi and hurled her into years of disaster relief and recovery. Neither was there warning of a downswing economy and soaring gas prices. Life is that way. It changes every moment. The saying, “Only the strong survive,” has nothing to do with physical strength, but everything to do with perseverance and carrying on with a dream in spite of adversity. The journey for the MAEC has been a long, difficult struggle, but then again…we’re talking about Mississippi.
And when you talk Mississippi, you’re talking rich soil that grows anything and the Mighty Mississippi that stretches beyond all other rivers in the country. You’re talking Elvis Presley, Sela Ward, William Faulkner, Morgan Freeman, Jim Henson, Tennessee Williams, Mac McAnnally, B. B. King, Oprah Winfrey, James Earl Jones, John Grisham, Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, LeAnn Rimes, Eudora Welty, Leontyne Price, Walter Anderson, Faith Hill, Jimmy Buffett, Robin Roberts, and, yes, the list goes on because we’re talking about Mississippi. Factories and businesses come and go. And have. But Mississippi’s legacies will never leave the ground from which they were birthed. In fact, these legacies continue rising to infinite glory through stories, music and photographs, creating histories for generations to come.
This is the dream the MAEC refused to surrender.
In 2009, MAEC’s Walk of Fame began its bronze legacy pathway from the historical MSU Riley Center for the Performing Arts toward the MAEC building site and will continue its trek as the MAEC moves toward constructing its state-of-the-art museum on the corner of 22nd Avenue and Front Street in Meridian, Mississippi, the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers.
Support of this museum helps the MAEC accomplish its mission in recognizing and honoring legendary artists through a hands-on Hall of Fame and other exhibit halls that visually, auditorily, and kinesthetically educate, inform, and entertain every visitor. In addition, the museum will steer these visitors to other museums throughout the state, forming a partnership that benefits all Mississippi regions and their legacies, from Tupelo’s Elvis, to Indianola’s B. B. King, to Pascagoula’s Jimmy Buffett, to Jackson’s Eudora Welty, to Ocean Springs’ Walter Anderson, and…well, you know the rest.
This is Mississippi, where stories pass from generation to generation and where legends are made; where visitors from all over the world come to walk upon its soil and to drink the water in hopes of becoming a part of Mississippi and making Mississippi a part of them.
Join the MAEC Newsletter to stay updated about the progress of the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center and step into conversations about the Mississippi artists who made history and who are making history. But be prepared to pull up a chair and sit a spell because here in Mississippi, you just can’t rush a good story.