Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mississippi Research Trip to Attala and Holmes Counties - Part I

Late last month, we made a trip to Attala and Holmes County, Mississippi, to conduct some interviews and on-site research for the book I am writing about Tillman Branch. The trip was a successful one, and I had the opportunity to meet up with some folks I already knew (including a few relatives) and to make the acquaintance of others I had never met. Most of the roads we traveled, with the exception of a few country lanes, were familiar to me, since my family spent many weekends visiting relatives in these counties during my growing up years. The hilly, wooded countryside is still just as green and lush as in years past, and the open fields filled with horses, cows, and newly baled hay, showcase the spectacular labor of many farmers who still own land passed down through several generations. We saw a number of trucks laden with logs, an indication that raising and selling timber is still among the money-making crops in this area.

We spent our first two nights of the trip in Kosciusko at the Maple Terrace Inn, a stately Queen Anne mansion, now a delightful bed and breakfast owned by a local optometrist and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Routt. It was a repeat visit for us, since we had the pleasure of staying at the inn a few years ago.  Located on a residential street, and quite near the Attala County Library, the five bedroom house was built before the turn of the century by one of the town's early postmasters. Local legend says the house has its own resident ghost, believed by many townspeople to be that of a former owner, Frank Olive.

Our stay at the Maple Terrace Inn was a comfortable one that included a real southern breakfast, including biscuits and grits, prepared each morning by a lovely woman named Pamela.  Our visit to Kosciusko included a trip to the library to visit Ann Breedlove, the library's research genealogist and a long-time acquaintance of mine, and a drive around the quaint, brightly painted town square. Kosciusko has been designated a "Main Street U.S.A." city and was included a few years ago on a list entitled "Best 100 Small Towns to Live" in the U. S. The architecture of Kosciusko's residences, courthouse, and its old churches, along with its location on the Natchez Trace Parkway, maintained by the National Park Service, make Kosciusko a must-see Mississippi historic destination. Our trip would not have been complete without a meal at a highly-recommended local eatery across from the courthouse named Rib Alley and getting a photo of the Attala County Courthouse, one of Mississippi's beautiful, historic structures.

Attala County Courthouse
Kosciusko, Mississippi
Our next stop after leaving Kosciusko was the town of Goodman, Mississippi, where Tillman Branch owned two business establishments, his second family lived, and where his children attended high school.  As we traveled out of Kosciusko on Highway 14, we passed by the community of Newport, where numerous members of the Branch family, including three sets of my paternal great-grandparents, grandparents, and my father lived during the past 150 plus years. Tillman Branch, a first cousin, once removed, of my paternal grandfather, Clark Commander Branch, was born and raised in the Newport community, and later lived there with his first wife and their four children. Just down the road from Newport is Seneasha Church and Cemetery, where Tillman Branch and his parents, Edward Tillman Branch and Artissa ("Nettie") Ousley Branch are buried. Other deceased Branch family members are also buried in Seneasha Cemetery, along with many allied family members having surnames of Ables, Burrell, Mabry, and Ousley.

After crossing the Attala-Holmes County line, near Big Black River, a dark, meandering river that empties into the Mississippi near Vicksburg, we arrived in the small town of Goodman. In the early 1900's, Goodman was the center of trade for residents of the nearby rural Attala County communities of Newport, Sallis, Shrock, and others. The First Methodist Church in Goodman, Mississippi, was where my paternal grandmother's funeral was held in 1991, and Hillcrest Cemetery, north of town, just off U.S. Highway 51, is where dozens of my Branch and Porter ancestors and their descendants are buried. While we were in town, we placed some fall silk flowers in the urn between my grandparents' headstones.

Grave Site of My Paternal Grandparents
Clark Commander Branch and Lelia Porter Branch,
Hillcrest Cemetery
Goodman, Mississippi
Our next stop was the Goodman Library, where I had an appointment to meet Mrs. Jennette Moore, the librarian. We arrived a few minutes early, so we passed the time driving around the residential streets near the library, looking for the old home where my great-aunt Stella Branch Young and her husband Woodard Young, lived until they died. My great-grandmother, Claudia Baldridge Branch, Stella's mother, lived in a small cypress house situated next-door to the Young residence. Based on family information, Claudia Baldridge Branch's house had been "imported" from the "country" setting where she previously lived, and set up next to the house belonging to her daughter and son-in-law. Aunt Stella's husband was a disabled World War I veteran, and many local residents still remember him and my Aunt Stella, who worked for the Goodman school cafeteria for over 20 years.

After Mrs. Moore arrived at the library, we met each other in person for the first time, and had a pleasant time getting acquainted. We also discussed plans for an open meeting with local residents later in the week, a meeting that Mrs. Moore had sent for publication in Lexington's Holmes County Herald and had advertised with flyers that she placed in local business establishments. The meeting's purpose was to draw in local people who might provide me with information about Tillman Branch, his life and his death, and who might provide old photos of the Goodman and Newport areas. Just before noon that same day, we visited the Senior Citizen Center where I talked to some older residents who knew Tillman Branch in the 1950's and early 1960's before he died. On Friday, I returned for the event, where Mrs. Moore introduced me to the former librarian, Mrs. Bobbie Nance. As it turned out, Mrs. Nance is a distant cousin of mine, one who is related through the husband of another paternal great aunt, Ezma Branch McDaniel.  For someone like me, with deep roots in Attala and Holmes Counties, I don't find this unusual at all. In fact, I was quite pleased to meet another cousin!

At Goodman Library
September 20, 2013
We left Goodman around noon, headed north to the railroad town of Durant, Mississippi, where I planned to take a photo of an old mural in the post office there, before driving over to Lexington, the county seat. As a matter of courtesy, I introduced myself to the Postmaster, explaining that I am writing a book and would like to include a snapshot in the book of the unique mural above the postal window. He was very friendly and quite helpful and readily gave me permission to photograph the beautiful, old oil-on-canvas mural that depicts farmers, highway surveyors, and railroad crews working side by side in this central Mississippi town. According to some research, he mural is the artistic work of Isidore Toberoff and was commissioned by the U. S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts. Entitled "Erosion, Reclamation and Conservation of the Soil," Toberoff completed the mural in 1942, the same year that he received a Pulitzer Prize in art.

Mural in Durant, Mississippi Post Office
Of note here is that Durant, Mississippi was named for Pierre Durant, a well-known French trapper and furrier who built a very nice house in the 1800s for his family on the banks of the Big Black River. After the treaties with the Choctaw Indians were signed, some members of Durant's family left the area with relatives who had tribal connections. Later, members of the Durant family settled in a part of what later became the state of Oklahoma. Ironically, a town in that area was also named for a Durant son, and today, Durant, Oklahoma, like Philadelphia, Mississippi, is home to many Choctaw descendants. Also, like Philadelphia, Durant, Oklahoma has a large hotel and casino, a place that is known simply as "Choctaw" to those who live in southeastern Oklahoma and adjoining areas of North Texas.

Our trip to Durant took on a different direction after I told the postmaster a little more about the book I am writing. When I told him I was interested in seeing the former locations of more than a dozen nightclubs that existed in the town before liquor became legal in Mississippi in 1966, he told me I needed to talk to a man named Sonny McCrory, who operated a business just south of the post office.

To Be Continued........

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