A Brief History of Pearl River County

This history was taken from  the winning essay in a medal contest held by the Wade Hampton Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The essay was written by Frankie B. Stewart.  Ms. Stewart was the great-granddaughter of "Poplar" Jim Smith, founder of Poplarville, Mississippi.  At the time of the writing, Ms. Stewart was a Junior at PRCAHS.  She attended Pearl River College in 1929-1930.

In the early 1800's pioneers, venturing from the crowded conditions of the Eastern United States, found their way to the Mississippi Territory.  In 1817 Mississippi was organized into the present State of Mississippi.

Mississippi was divided into far fewer counties than now.  As the state grew, these counties were subdivided into the number of counties that are evident today.

In the southern portion of the state, in the area between Marion and Hancock counties, the people began efforts to organize another county.  The plan was to take land from both counties to make up a third county.  The land area chosen for this new county was occupied by a tribe of Native Americans (Choctaw) called Caesar (after their chief).  A large percentage of the people attempting to organize this county were from Virginia and North Carolina.

The county of Pearl was organized by legislation passed in the state house and senate in 1872.  Jim Smith, an early county landholder, was said to have given one of the Native Americans ten bushels of corn for his claim.  Much of the land was public land.  Pearl county's existence was brief.  After the courthouse (located in the Masonic Lodge at Byrd's Chapel) burned, destroying all important records, and because there was not enough taxable land to pay required debts inherited from Marion and Hancock counties,
the county was abolished six years later by the state legislature and the land was returned to the two older counties.

After Pearl County was abolished, northern syndicates bought up most of the public lands for the virgin pine forests.  Land prices in this undeveloped area were extremely low and were generally bought in vast tracts.  D.A. Blodgett was one of the primary landowners during this time.

In 1890 the county of Pearl River was organized from two districts taken from Marion and Hancock counties.  Since Pearl could not be used for the new county name (according to state law), River was added to the name, making it Pearl River County.  The new county utilized current county lines except for Lumberton which was later annexed to Lamar County and the area below McNeill, which was not added until an annexation in 1908.

Before the old Pearl County was abolished, the New Orleans and North Eastern railroad began laying track.  This was completed around 1884 and contributed to the rapid growth and, subsequently, to the reestablishment of a county.  Principal landowners were situated in a fertile area along the banks of the Pearl River.  Some of these landholders were:  A.B.F. Rawls, "Poplar" Jim Smith, Jim Bilbo, W. Calvin Stewart, Joel Baughman, Luther Rawls, J.E. Stewart, Jim Wheat and Albert Amacker.

The first officers of the county were appointed by Governor John Marshal Stone.  They were:  Captain J.M. Shivers, sheriff; T.R. White, clerk; J.L. Bonner, Superintendent of Education; and B.F. Rawls, generally known as the father of the county, was selected as president of the board of supervisors.  Supervisors were:  P.E. Williams, James M. Smith, Joseph Wheat, and Thomas Martin.  During the initial development of the county, each able-bodied man was required to give two days a year to road work.

Poplarville, the county seat, can trace its history to 1879 when the first United States Post Office was established there.  The Post Office was set up in a store owned by "Poplar" Jim Smith, a local land owner, who got his nick name from the Poplar Springs Branch where he built his home.  Smith's house was located approximately behind where Gandy's Sunflower Store now stands.  Smith's son-in-law wrote the Postmaster General submitting the name "Poplarville" after the store's owner's nickname.  The name was accepted.  By 1884, Poplarville was approved as an incorporated town under Mississippi law.  In 1892 the town petitioned the state legislature for recognition as a separate school district.  They received 2nd class municipality standing in June of that year and organized Poplarville High School which added grades 9 and 10 to the graded school system (grades 1-8) already in place.

The first county court house was built in 1892 by Camp and Hinton for $8,290.  This two story building became the county hospital when the new court house was built in 1918.  In the late 1940's the building was torn down and the lumber used to build a new hospital, which served in that capacity for about a decade until the new county hospital was built on the edge of town.  The old hospital was reclaimed by the court house and now serves as the Justice Court Building behind the court house.

In 1892, a boarding school was built.  This was a two story building with 6 large classrooms located about where the present grammar school is located.  This boarding school drew students from all over the southern part of the state.  W.I. Thames served as superintendent until 1906, when he established the South Mississippi College (William Carey College) in Hattiesburg.  Two years later, the college lost several buildings to fire and Thames became the Picayune High School Superintendent. 

The first county election was held in 1892 with N. Batson being elected as sheriff; W.G. Stewart, Representative; G.W. Bilbo, Assessor; R.L. Ratliff, Chancery and Circuit Clerk; W.C. Anderson, Superintendent of Education; P.E. Williams, President of the Board of Supervisors; and the board, consisted of:  G.W. Smith, W.C. Stewart, R.T. Martin, J.L. Strahan, and Andy Smith (Treasurer).

Shortly after the turn of the century, Lumberton, located in the north part of the county, withdrew from Pearl River County and was annexed to Lamar county. 

In 1908, The area south of McNeill was a part of Hancock County.  This included Picayune.  This section of Hancock County was denied court facilities in their part of the county, and because of distance, the citizens sought to become a separate county with Picayune as the county seat.  The state legislature denied this petition and, instead, annexed the north west section of Hancock to Pearl River County.  This was approved in an election held in the annexed portion and Pearl River County annexed the land south of McNeill.

In 1908, the county school board met to discuss the establishment of an agricultural high school.  It was supported by county tax payers before state appropriation was worked out in the Legislature.  In 1909, the building complete, Pearl River County Agricultural High School opened for its first session.  After the courts declared the agricultural high school law unconstitutional in 1909, a number of Poplarville citizens banded together and borrowed money to keep the school going until a new agricultural high school law could be passed.  This took place in the spring of 1910.  This school later (1921) became the first high school to offer college freshman courses making it the first public 2-year post-secondary institution in the state, first in the gulf south, second in the south, and 16th in the nation.

Pearl River County, an innovator in the educational field, led the state in consolidated schools and teachers' homes, and was, for four years, designated as a model county, receiving a large appropriation from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Governor, and later, Senator Theo. G. Bilbo was a native of Pearl River County who contributed greatly to the establishment of the agricultural high school along with many other achievements.

In 1918 a new court house (the present one) was built by Dabb and Wetmore of Meridian.  The total cost of the project was $130,000.

In 1891 the county was assessed at $1,119,373.50.  By 1927 this had increased to $14,000,000.  In 1927 the county's population was 18,000 and the population at Poplarville was 1,800.  There were 33 schools in the county, 2,100 automobiles, 260 miles of gravel road, and two experiment stations (run by Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College, now Mississippi State University), one at McNeill and the other at Poplarville.  The county also boasted four saw mills.

On June 3, 1926, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a marble monument to the Confederate Veterans and mothers of Confederate soldiers on the lawn of the court house at a cost of $10,000 (a sizable sum in 1926).

The county employed a county doctor and nurse, a county Home Demonstration Agent, and a County Agricultural Agent.  Three hospitals were located in the county:  two in Poplarville and one (Martin Sanitarium) in Picayune.

By 1927 most of the county's timber had been cut and the residents turned to truck farming and raising fruit.  Picayune was the Peach center, even holding a Peach Festival each year.

County officials were:  Arthur J. Smith, Sheriff; J.N. Stewart, Superintendent of Education; L.T. Simpson, Circuit Clerk; H.K. Rouse, Chancery Clerk, H.S. Stewart, Assessor, C.J. Blackwell, Representative; and J.S. Moody, President of the Board of Supervisors.  The Board of Supervisors were:  Hamp S. Stewart, W.C. Bass, M.D. Tate, and Pate Lumpkin.

If you have information about the history of Pearl River Community College that you feel would interest the readers or if you find an error in the information in this history, please state it briefly in the box provided.  Please include your name so that you can receive credit for the information you provide.

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Do you have pictures, memorabilia, or information about the history of Pearl River Community College?  If you do, and you would be willing to donate, loan or share this with us, contact Ronn Hague at the Office of Public Relations, Museum Project, PRCC, Highway 11 North, Poplarville, MS, 39470, ph. (601)-403-1316, email us, or use the form above.
The PRCC Story is a publication of the Department of Public Relations
Pearl River Community College
Poplarville, Mississippi
© 1998-2002 by Pearl River Community College

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Last Update 7-24-2002