Small Town at Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum

Small Town Mississippi at the Ag Museum

A History of Small Towns

From the 1820s until recent decades, Mississippi agriculture, and that of much of the South, was centered around the production of cotton. During the antebellum period, cotton was viewed as the social and economic focus of life. The wealth of planters was consumed in the purchase of land, slaves, tariffs, freight costs, and commissions. Little money found its way into Mississippi towns, and by the 1860s, the typical town was little more than a nebulous cluster of mercantile and service establishments.

ยป Story Continues below …

Small Town Mississippi Tour

The Print Shop

TBZH Letterpress at Small Town MississippiFrom 1860 well into the 20th century, most small towns in America had a print shop that printed a weekly, semi-weekly, or daily newspaper. The TBZH Print Shop is a composite of all small town print shops operating in Mississippi in the early 1900s.

The Blacksmith Shop

Small Town BlacksmithThe blacksmith provided many vital services for the community. The work of making and repairing wagon wheels, repairing farm tools, sharpening plow points, and shoeing horses was very valuable. The blacksmith’s trade was often passed down and was taught through the family, and most blacksmiths learned by apprenticeship. The MS Forge Council demonstrates during the Harvest Festival.

The Filling Station

The Filling StationAs the automobile and tractor increased in popularity and number, the business of providing fuel and lubricants spread rapidly into the small towns. At first, the general stores were the only source of these products, but soon many individuals opened filling stations with the single purpose of selling a particular oil company’s products. The filling station soon became another prominent fixture of the small towns. It helped expand the oil industry and improved the quality of life by making many new petroleum products and technology available in rural areas.

The first filling station was no more than a small room out of the weather for the owner and a large canopy providing shelter for the motorist and customer. The hip roof was selected for its strength thus creating a new architectural style for Mississippi commercial center.

The Doctor’s Office

The Doctor's OfficeConstructed in 1905 and originally located in Camden, Mississippi, this building served as Dr. John Whitworth Melvin’s office and later as a drug store. Doctors’ offices were frequently set on the second story or in the back of a drug store. Because of the limitations of medical technology, most small town doctors were equipped only to perform deliveries and minor surgery. A vast array of medicines were available in most drug stores due to the efforts of pharmaceutical salesmen.

Most Mississippi physicians who practiced in the 1920s received general education within the state, but they went out of state to regional universities for medical training. Internships were spent at both regional and state hospitals. Many returned to hometown areas to establish practices. Father and son practices were common.

The General Store

Small Town General StoreThe most numerous of all businesses were the general merchandise stores, whose shelves carried every conceivable product needed from cradle to grave. These stores were the center of activity for the town, and everything of importance either happened at the store or was reported there immediately.

General stores varied in size and material. In Mississippi, local sawmills provided adequate framing material, and larger operations milled lumber. Due to the arrangements of merchandise along the walls from floor to ceiling, stores tended to be greater in length than width. As the use of fertilizer and agricultural chemicals became more prominent, it was necessary for the stores to construct an addition for storage and merchandising.

The Museum Lodge

The Museum LodgeMuseum Lodge No. 636 is an active lodge and was constructed to look like typical Masonic Lodges of the 1920s. Its structure is designed after Woodland Lodge No. 542 in Woodland, Mississippi. A variety of materials from Woodland were used in constructing the ceiling, floor, walls, doors, and window frames. The Masonic Lodge was a vital part of everyday life in small towns. Frequently, the first floor was used as a voting precinct, school house, and community meeting place.

The Church

The importance of religion in the everyday lives of Mississippians cannot be underestimated. It has influenced all segments of our culture, from literature to politics, and has been a continuing source of community and individual strength. The story of the Epiphany Episcopal Church is typical in its reflection of the steadfastness of religious needs and beliefs through several generations and diverse circumstances.

The last services conducted at the church were in 1982. Rev. Duncan M. Gray Jr., the Episcopal Bishop of the state, agreed to donate the church to the museum in 1984. The structure’s materials were photographed, drawn, and carefully coded assuring that a proper restoration could be performed. The church was disassembled and moved during July and August 1984. Reconstruction was completed in February 1985.

The Schoolhouse

The SchoolhouseThe 1920s was a period of change and progress in education throughout the State. Interest in better schools and broadened curriculum was not confined to any particular county, community, or class of people. It was everywhere from the largest cities to the most remote rural sections of Mississippi. During the early days, schools relied on mule or horse drawn wagons. As the roads improved, Ford trucks with homemade bodies replaced the wagons. By the thirties, factory-built covered trucks and cars were widely used. But, in many areas children still walked to school, sometimes as many as three to four miles each way.

The one and two-teacher school was still a familiar landmark during the twenties, particularly in the rural sections and small towns that dotted the Mississippi countryside. Usually, the building was a wooden frame structure with one or two rooms heated by wood-burning stoves. Many of these schools lacked running water and electricity. Lighting was furnished by kerosene lamps when available and drinking water came from a nearby spring or well. Some had hand pumps to make the task of filling old oak buckets with drinking water a bit easier.

Furnishings varied from county to county depending on the funds available. In many schools, single and double patent desks were used. Since several grades were taught in the same room, the desks were all different sizes. In some of the older schoolhouses, homemade desks were installed around the walls with benches pulled up to them. Rows of homemade desks were also common. And in every classroom there were recitation benches. Children were called up front by the teacher to recite their lessons. Meanwhile, the other students were supposedly busy studying a lesson assigned to them. Much of the school work was done at the blackboard.

Small Town School is a composite of the hundreds of schools throughout the state and the many facets of education they supplied during the 1920s. The artifacts lend authenticity to the reconstruction. Wherever possible, items from the period have been secured and reproduced by artisans familiar with the history and crafts of the early 1900s. Small Town School is a place to recall a bygone era in education.

The Rose Garden

The Rose GardenSince 1991, a formal rose garden has been a permanent place of delight for enthusiasts and visitors alike. The Museum Rose Garden is the site for numerous weddings, photo sessions, and strolls. Containing up to 75 varieties of flowering plants, the garden is beautiful to the sight, and its fragrances are unmatched anywhere. The garden begins to bloom in early April and continues until the first frost. Ranging from tea to old-fashion to hybrid plants, the garden yields a kaleidoscope of color.

The Bisland Cotton Gin

Gullet Bisland Gin in Small Town Mississippi - Circa 1892Cotton is the world’s most important and most used textile fiber because of its many excellent qualities, such as durability, strength, porosity, color fastness and comfort. Cotton ginning developed into an agricultural industry in areas where cotton had become firmly established as a reliable cash crop. During peak cotton seasons the gin ran 24 hours a day and became the center of economic activity.

The Bisland Cotton Gin was originally located near Natchez at Cannonsburg, Mississippi. Built in 1892 and in operation until 1954, this gin is a working example of a typical 1920s gin. The original 2,890 square foot frame building was deteriorated too badly to be restored; however, the gin’s machinery was well preserved. This new structure duplicates the 1920s architectural features of the gin building and houses the original equipment restored to operating condition.

The Grist Mill

The Grist MillGristmills could be found on plantations, and after the Civil War, the gristmills became a permanent fixture in small towns. The gristmill was used to make corn meal.

Before the corn could be ground, it was shelled by the corn sheller. Then, it was placed in the stonemill to be ground. Inside the mill, there are two adjustable grooved stones that ground the meal. The mill, on the Museum grounds is run by a tractor.

Saw Mill

The Small Town SawmillAlong the newly constructed railroad lines, large and small sawmills were erected, attracting a considerable work force and, in turn, creating towns and villages.

Before 1850, early sawmills had catered only to local needs. By the turn of the century, development of transportation facilities, markets, and capital investments produced an era of large scale lumber and sawmill industries in Mississippi. Depletion of northern white pine forests caused large lumber companies to look to Mississippi for vast new timber supplies.

The Small Town SawmillDuring the years 1908-1915, the state ranked third nationally in lumber production. The large mills came to dominate the industry; however, small mills continued to operate. Using labor saving machinery and specialization, the large mills produced lumber of a superior quality and at lower costs than was possible for smaller operations. Gradually, the band saw proved to be more economical and superior in performance.

The sawmill contains a circular saw and run by a diesel motor. The sawmill was moved from Jefferson Davis county.

The Sugarcane Mill

Sugarcane millCane mills were used to produce molasses. After the cane had been cut, it was taken to the cane mill. As the mule walked around the cane mill, the cane was pressed by two rollers and the juices ran in a container. Then, the juice was strained and moved to the cooking pan. A fire was built under the cooking pan, and the juices were cooked for about three and a half hours. This was a continual process that could carry on into the late night. If any juice was left over night, it would spoil.


In the post-antebellum period, Mississippians became more firmly attached to a cotton economy than ever, but the emancipation of the slaves and the devastation from years of fighting forced drastic changes in both the economic and social orders. The owners of large landholdings came to use sharecroppers or tenant farmers for labor. Money for production of cotton was practically non-existent, and literally thousands of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, wage laborers, and small land-owning farmers began to produce cotton under a crop-lien system of credit. Farmers pledged their anticipated cotton crop as security for furnishings and supplies necessary to produce a crop.

Under this new economic system, retail markets were established to a degree unknown in the antebellum period to serve the needs of farm communities. Commissaries were opened at crossroad sites, and the owners of these commercial enterprises dominated community life perhaps more effectively and completely than had antebellum planters. Their power base was both protected and assured by crop lien laws which denied the small trade towns of commercial gain.

After 1900, several factors combined to reverse the post-bellum trends and to encourage rapid growth of the trade towns over the next three decades. Improved roads and transportation by automobile enabled farmers to produce a larger variety of goods for sale and promoted competitive markets. Business and cash flow increased in Mississippi during this period. Small trade towns became the first and foremost business centers.

Typical businesses that flourished in these small towns included the general merchandise store, filling station, cotton gin, sawmill, and grist mill. Professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, began to open offices in many of the towns. Most small towns had one or more churches and reforms in education encouraged construction of schools. Former residents of rural areas moved their families to the towns and built homes, as increased economic activity created new jobs.