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From sidewalks to religion...Old newspapers reveal progressive ideas from the past

April 16, 2011

A look at our past can help us measure our progress.  Old newspapers reveal interesting information about the building of sidewalks, county fairs, circuses, grocery shopping, riding in surreys, teachers boarding, revivals, and many other things.
According to the Starkville’s newspaper, The East Mississippi Times, in 1904, “it had been demonstrated that concrete walks, whenever tried, were the most durable and cheapest of walks.  The Mayor and Board of Aldermen passed ordinances some time since, that the side walks on both sides of Main Street will be constructed from Washington to Jackson Street, that it will be done by owners of property along said street, that it will be done by the town authority and all charges assessed to the respective owners and the same will be a charge and a lien upon the property of the owners.
In other places this plan has worked satisfactory and harmoniously and no doubt it will be the same here. We have not heard nor know nothing to the contrary.
The Board of Supervisors and the Masons and Odd Fellows will in the near future have the walks laid. All work will be done and materials furnished for 14 cents per square foot and a bond given guaranteeing the work to hold good for five years. We can all agree upon one thing sure, that we have very poor sidewalks and stand greatly in need of good ones.”
In 1911, a taxpayer and property owner wrote to the editor of East Mississippi Times the following message.  “A year or two ago we got enthusiastic over good sidewalks and the result was the residential portion of town was improved, and property values enhanced, by a great deal of concrete sidewalks being laid. Since then very little has been done in walk building line, with the exception of the walk from town to the college, which was planned and ordered about the time the other walks were laid. Let us revive the sidewalk building. A trip over the city will convince any one it is necessary; where there are plank walks they are rotten and full of dangerous holes, and it would certainly be poor policy and worse economy to replace them with new plank walks only to rot away again in a few years. There are many streets in the town where permanent walks are a necessity and the property owners along these streets would surely not object to bearing their part of the expense as it would increase the value of their property many folds more than the work would cost.”
Mrs. Lucy Wellborn Cole, a local historian, remarked that the plank sidewalks were somewhat like a see-saw.  If a nail came loose and you were walking with someone heavier than you, the plank would send you upward. 
A look into the past by another local historian, Mrs. Hunter Arnold, of Sessums concerning fairs, circuses, a trip to town and revivals was archived in the files at the museum.
Mrs. Arnold was the former Ruth Steele who grew up in Adaton, married in 1919 and moved to Starkville.  After a year, she and her husband moved to Arkansas for six years.  They moved back to Starkville and stayed for five years and then moved to Sessums in 1934.
One of the most exciting events she remembered concerning children were the county fairs, which used to be held out where the airport is now.  They had a track for cart races with men who had good horses.  Horseback riding also was a competition event.
They had prizes for this, that and the other.  They judged stuff like the best cake and canned food.  In those days, people did a lot of canning.  To make the best better, Tomato Clubs were established in Oktibbeha County around 1915.  Tomato Club girls measured their plots, planted seeds, harvested tomatoes, canned the produce, and then competed for prizes by exhibiting these products at local, regional and State fairs.
Her family came to town in a surrey which had a lantern on each side of the seat, so if we had to go somewhere at night we had lights. Their surrey did not have fringe.  It had a top, and when it rained, they could put the curtains up.   Most people did not have cars until the early nineteen-teens.  They drove buggies, surreys and wagons.
The surrey was a light pleasure carriage, the two forward wheels slightly smaller than the rear ones, the body of the surrey light and mounted on quite flexible springs, a dashboard with a whip and whip holder, two comfortable seats, open sides, and a top supported by light side rods extending from the floor of the surrey.  You stepped aboard by using a curved running board to ascend, the footpace being flat, and the forward and rear parts curving up and over the wheels to serve as mudguards.
The surrey was a delightful means of transportation in good weather, and many a family enjoyed happy rides in one behind a fast-stepping horse as they visited friends here and there. Gone is the surrey, like the good old days, but who is sorry? For now the horseless carriage is here, good for all weathers, and requiring no horse to be fed and watered, curried and harnessed, and hitched to a hitching post or held from running away by a heavy weight secured by a long line to his bridle. The horse had also to be fed and watered and bedded down at night.  However, to give him credit, he usually knew when he was headed for home and could often make the way there by himself.
On April 26, 1911, the following article written by a pedestrian appeared in the East Mississippi Times.  “Starkville is pre-eminently a “city of autos.”  When a pedestrian attempts to cross the street he is kept busy dodging the “buzz wagons.” There are autos to the left and to the right and they are approaching at a terrifying speed from every direction. When a town gets as many autos as Starkville has, public safety demands that certain regulations be enforced. Each auto should be numbered and a licensed chauffeur only allowed to operate them. I believe we have a good speed limit but I have never known of it being enforced. The city authorities should act now. It will be too late after some terrible catastrophe has happened.” 
Mrs. Arnold recalled the days of the circus which came to town every fall.  They would have a big tent and a parade.   The children delighted to see it come.  If mothers and daddies could spare the money, they would bring the children.  The circus would have a parade down Main Street—showing animals and clowns and cutting up in the street.
Teachers used to board in the homes of the students.  Mrs. Arnold’s mother boarded a teacher and they all loved her.  She was an excellent teacher.  She could play the piano and bought books for the children to read.  She directed plays to make money to buy the books.  She had a unique way of setting up the stage.  She ran a wire and asked students for sheets from home.  She and the older students sewed them together and pinned them to wire.  They used sheets for the dressing rooms, also.  People knew how to improvise and use what they had.  The plays were called “concerts” back then and admission charge was 25 cents which was not much but nothing to be sneezed at.  We had some good teachers. 
The two-teacher county school went through the eight-grade and students had to be “bused” in to Starkville High School.  She took two different “buses” to SHS during her four years there.  One was a surrey.  The other was a canvas-covered farm wagon with seats built-in.
Shopping trips were infrequent.  My mother would buy flour by the 100-pound barrel because people didn’t go to town every day.  The main things her mother purchased in town were sugar, coffee and flour.  Mother probably went into town four times a year—in the spring and in the fall and twice in between.  We lived six miles from town.  You didn’t run up town like you do today.  Eight dollars meant a lot in groceries then.  We had gardens and chickens and turkeys.  Most every family had their own milk cow back then. 
Revivals were another favorite memory of Mrs. Arnold.  Every summer people in small communities had a “protracted meeting.”  It would last from Sunday to Friday night with morning and night services.  Mother always kept the minister who would spend the night and have breakfast with us.  Then he was invited out for dinner and supper.  My twin brother and my younger brother were always glad when we kept the minister because we had ham for breakfast from our big smokehouse in the back of our house. 
Two centuries ago, there were Communion Seasons, Camp Meetings, Revivals, Protracted Meetings, Old Time Meetings and Dinners on the Ground, Brush Arbor Meetings, and Homecomings.
With spring appearing, it brings new hope and joy.  The past winter seemed long but gave us time to reminisce.  Since our church is beginning a revival, I was remembering my own mother, Mrs. Cody Morgan, telling me about old time revivals.  It seemed that everyone looked forward to attending.  Folks would come for miles around. Many families would spend the night with another family who lived close by so they could attend the revival.  Afterwards, they would get together and sit on the porch and talk about what a great revival they had and how renewed and blessed they felt.  The meetings would sometimes last for weeks.  One of my favorite images at the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum is a 1909 postcard which shows a scene of a cotton warehouse revival held in Starkville from May 1 to May 26. 1909.  The card’s postscript states THE GREAT REVIVAL:  Thousands attended; hundreds converted. Can you imagine thousands attending a revival in Starkville in 1909?  They would have had to come by surreys, buggies, wagons and horses and over rough terrain back then.
Hundreds of men and women, some from the high ranks of society, some poor wastrels and beggars, were converted where they stood, and lived from that day as those who had indeed received a new heart and a new spirit. The memory of that revival has never died and lives on in two postcards which are archived in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the very telling of its story has proved a fount of revival to many.

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