Early Woodville History
In the earliest years of the 19th Century, when most of the area that eventually became Mississippi was untamed wilderness and Indian land, a tiny section in the southwest corner of the future state was where things were beginning to happen.
In this small region, early maps usually show only three sites: Natchez, founded by Bienville in 1718; Fort Adams, established on the Mississippi River in 1798; and a tiny community called Woodville, incorporated in 1811. During these years, this small section was still part of the Mississippi Territory but was destined to grow into one of the most important regions in the history of Mississippi and of the young American nation.
It wasn’t long before settlers from Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia began arriving in the Territory, seeking new lands, new opportunities and new lives. Many headed for the largely unexplored wilderness lands in Wilkinson County, formed in 1802, where Woodville was located.
Conditions were primitive and often brutal, and some early people simply gave up and returned to their former homes. But many others stayed to buy and clear land, build log cabins, and begin to establish plantations. They brought with them their culture, their architectural styles and their social traditions; as a result, these early settlers eventually created in Woodville and Wilkinson County a society that in wealth, influence, prestige, and style of living would rival anything that existed in nearby Natchez and West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.
These early people not only established a dazzling plantation society but they also built churches and schools, provided a sound legal system, helped to finance banks, and built a railroad. They also became the leading founders of nearby academies and colleges.
During these prosperous years, Wilkinson County contributed three governors to the state: George Poindexter, Abram Scott and Gerard C. Brandon, the state’s first native-born governor. Mississippi’s first Lieutenant Governor, Duncan Stewart, also was a resident of Wilkinson County.
Among those who arrived in the county in those early years was a man from Kentucky named Samuel Davis. He brought with him his wife and their ten children and, in 1810, established a 300-acre plantation they named Poplar Grove. That plantation still exists today.
Poplar Grove was re-named Rosemont by the Davis family. Located just outside of Woodville, it is today privately-owned, meticulously restored, and open to the public as the only Davis family home still standing in the United States.
Another man who established himself in Wilkinson County in those early years was 21-year-old Edward McGehee of Georgia. Arriving here in 1807, he became one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in the county, the owner of an estimated 30,000 acres at the height of his career. His Bowling Green Plantation near Woodville was ransacked and burned by Federal troops in 1864; it was one of the most significant events that took place in the county during the war.
The ruins of the plantation house still stand as a reminder of the event. Nearby is the imposing Bowling Green Cemetery, where over 90 family members and their descendants are buried.
When the war ended, the plantation society in Wilkinson County was in ruins. Many of the most prominent citizens never recovered. A few, like Judge McGehee, managed to survive and prosper, but the glory days of antebellum Wilkinson County had ended.
It wasn’t long before a new group of settlers began to arrive in the county, seeing opportunities for development and wealth in the aftermath of the war. They were Jewish businessmen, mainly from Germany, and they very soon had established homes and businesses in Woodville. They also began purchasing vast acres from former plantation owners in the county, and soon those cotton plantations were producing again.
In only a few years, these Jewish entrepreneurs were in virtual control of the local economy and became some of the area’s most prominent citizens. It was during this time that Woodville became known as “Little Jerusalem.”
When the boll weevil virtually destroyed the southern cotton economy, in the early 1920’s, Woodville’s Jewish citizens sold out and moved on, leaving behind their synagogue and their small, picturesque Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodville. For many years, descendants of those Jewish businessmen provided funds for the upkeep of that tiny burial ground, where many of the monuments carry epitaphs in Hebrew.
Through the years, a few of Woodville’s early homes disappeared, along with a handful of early commercial structures, making room for newer buildings, but somehow most of the town’s early architecture remained intact.
In some cases, however, the use to which some of these structures were put changed dramatically. The 1819 bank building housed numerous businesses, including at one time a barber shop; one important early mercantile business served as the local bus station; and the old Jewish synagogue was sold to an American Legion post, moved downtown, and transformed into a movie theater until it was destroyed by fire.
Newer architectural styles crept in gradually – small bungalows and modern stores- but the courthouse square and its surrounding ambiance somehow remained intact. The second courthouse on the site – a two-story brick Federal building – was replaced in 1904 by the present Wilkinson County Courthouse, a Beaux Art structure designed by the Texas architect James Reily Gordon.
While cotton production was almost non-existent, the local economy developed a thriving timber industry, still strong today. Another major source of revenue in the county has been the establishment of hunting camps, supported not only by local hunters but also by hunting enthusiasts from all parts of the nation.
Although Woodville has retained its quiet, small-town atmosphere and often been overlooked by tourists travelling through the area, the town is beginning to derive some long overdue attention as an interesting place to visit and live. A major event has been the restoration of the old Woodville Hotel building, now Woodville Lofts & Studios, on the courthouse square, which now houses modern apartments on its second floor and spacious areas for offices on its ground floor.
A few of the older homes are being restored by their new owners, and the enormous oak trees which shade the courthouse square have been trimmed, treated and preserved. Tour groups visiting nearby Natchez and St. Francisville, Louisiana often include Woodville now in their itineraries.
And a few years ago, Woodville became a Mississippi Main Street Community. Its Main Street Association operates a popular downtown antiques mall and restaurant; and sponsors a well-attended Deer and Wildlife Festival each October.
Of major importance is the Woodville Civic Club, organized in 1971, which remains an active advocate for historic preservation in Woodville and Wilkinson County. The Civic Club owns and maintains two museums downtown: the Wilkinson County Museum, housed in the 1834 former offices of the banking house of the West Feliciana Railroad, the first standard gauge line built in the United States, and the African-American Museum, located in the 1819 Federal building that originally housed the Branch Bank of the Bank of the State of Mississippi.
The Civic Club sponsors tours, publishes books on local history, and actively supports preservation of the buildings in the town’s historic district, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
John James Audubon visited Woodville during his sojourn in St. Francisville in the 1820’s. In the lush forests of this region he found more than 26 of the species which he documented and painted for his“Birds of America” series.
Woodville’s families date to the 18th Century, its diverse and marvelous architecture to the 19th. The leadership of its residents distinguishes Woodville from many other small Southern towns that are its contemporaries, and accounts for a noteworthy group of cultural resources and activities: the Woodville/Wilkinson Main Street Association; the Wilkinson County – Woodville Public Library; and the Wilkinson County Museum and the African American Museum, both restored and owned by the Woodville Civic Club. Among the Main Street Association’s initiatives are the much-heralded and newly-opened Woodville Hospitality Station, providing a tourist information and rest stop to north-bound travelers on Highway 61, near the town boundary, and the annual Deer & Wildlife Festival, staged on and around the Courthouse Square each October.The Civic Club has published three volumes of “The Journal of Wilkinson County.” Recently completed and available is “The Plantation World of Wilkinson County, Mississippi,” by Stella Pitts and Ernesto Caldeira, well-written and researched, with numerous photographs and insights.
Woodville remains notable for its role in a flourishing timber industry; the dedication and commitment of its proud and friendly residents, many of whom are third and fourth generation; its marvelous assemblage of 19th C. buildings in various classic styles; and its abundance of recreational availability, hunting and fishing in particular. Recently, a flurry of interest in oil and gas drilling, some of which is under way, has prompted speculation that additional commercial activity may be on the way.
The kingdom of cotton has yielded to the kingdom of timber, an industry in which Wilkinson and Amite counties are a bread basket of the U. S. Conducive climate, soil quality and drainage in these rolling hills offer an ecosystem unequalled for the cultivation, harvesting and processing of species as diverse as pine, red and white oak, cypress and ash. Here there is remarkable “sustainability” – conditions that foster the repetitive and efficient planting, harvesting and replanting of acreage without damage to the soil or to the landscape. The timber plantations of the county make for a clean and healthful environment with excellent air quality.
Netterville Lumber and Big River Timber, among the county’s major employers, produce finished lumber and ship their products world-wide. Area employers of significance are Georgia Pacific and KAPAQ Industries, major processors of pulpwood, situated in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.
The town is home to the oldest newspaper in continuous existence in Mississippi, the Woodville Republican, founded by W. A. Chisholm in 1821, and still publishing each week under the management of a great-grandson of John South Lewis who settled here in 1810, and whose family acquired the publication in 1878.The grocery is Treppendahl’s Foodstore, operated by a great grandson of the first owner. The Treppendahls are now sixth generation Woodvillians.
Today, over 200 years since its founding, Woodville is still thriving and moving forward – in a slower and quieter manner, perhaps, than some communities – while remaining what it has always been: a charming and fascinating example of a small and very historic Southern town.
Stella M. Pitts (June, 2015)