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Where in Mississippi is ... Monticello? From the peak of prosperity to the depths of devastation, this riverside town has weathered an incredible history.

Though no one could blame them if they did, residents of the Lawrence County seat of Monticello don't often sit around asking themselves "What if ... ?" What if an 1821 decision to make Monticello the state capital had not been overturned after only a day? What if the early railroads had been built through this town rather than through Brookhaven, some 20 miles to the west? What if a deadly tornado had not flattened nearly every building in town in the 1880s? If each of these events had turned out differently, this quiet small town might now be a bustling center of commerce and government with hundreds of thousands of residents crowded onto its riverside land.

One of the earliest towns in Mississippi, Monticello came into being because of the commitment of a wealthy Georgia native named Harmon Runnels. Runnels came to Mississippi in 1811 and bought more than 500 acres of land on a high bluff overlooking the Pearl River; it would be the perfect spot, he believed, to lay out a new town. Inspired by the beauty of the setting, Runnels called the new community "Monticello" after the Virginia mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson. The town was incorporated in 1818, just a year after Mississippi became a state, according to the Lawrence County Historical Society.

An east-west corridor called St. Stephens Road was forged through Monticello and (by way of a ferry) across the Pearl, which was then a major shipping lane to the port of New Orleans. The new road created a vital link between the former territorial capital of Natchez and Fort St. Stephens, north of Mobile. "... The intersection of a river and a road became an invitation to a better way of life," according to the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Soon, "Pearl River fever" developed among people who had earlier chosen to settle on the more established Mississippi River, and settlers began to flock here, drawn by the strategic location, fertile soil, and industrial opportunities.

In 1821, the Mississippi Legislature voted to make Monticello the state capital "after much arguing, conniving, and horse-trading on the part of Lawrence County members," wrote town historians in a publication celebrating Monticello's 175th anniversary in 1986. But the local representatives' joy was short-lived, for just a day later, after they raced home to celebrate with their constituents, the Legislature reconvened and voted again. Without the influence of the Monticello-area members, the body chose the centrally located LeFleur's Bluff--later renamed Jackson--for the new capital.

But the resilient citizens of Monticello didn't despair, and the town continued to grow. The 1830 census ranked Monticello as Mississippi's largest town. The mid-1800s were considered Monticello's heyday, but it wasn't long before the tide began to shift. When tracks for the New Orleans-to-Chicago railroad were laid more than 20 miles to the west of town, "there was a veritable exodus of money and people," according to the anniversary book. War also took its toll, as the Union Army cut off the river as a shipping lane. Then, in the late 1800s, several major businesses were lost to fires. The final blow came in 1882 when "one of the fiercest tornadoes ever recorded struck the town of Monticello," the book notes. A reporter for the Corinth New Mississippian newspaper wrote at the time, "Last Saturday, at 12 o'clock, in less than one minute the historic town of Monticello, Lawrence County, was totally destroyed by a cyclone.... Only three houses were left standing."

The natural disaster forever scarred the once-prosperous town, both physically and intangibly. "Strangers and newcomers often ask, 'lf Monticello is so old, where are the old homes and buildings?'" writes the anniversary book's author. "The answer, of course, is "The tornado.' Every residence and every place of business in town has been built since 1882."

The dawn of the 20th century brought to Monticello the start of a slow but steady recovery. The timber industry came to town, bringing economic stability once again. New railroad lines were built through town, and Monticello was literally back on track. In 1904, Monticello was incorporated as a community for the second time, with a population of 225.

Today, industry again thrives here, with leading facilities including a Georgia-Pacific paper mill and complementary lumber and hardwood companies. Other new businesses geared toward the leisure traveler such as Malta's Downtown Market, a French-Quarter-style restaurant and market complete with beignets and muffalettas, and the English Garden, a charming tea room, have also appeared here.

Abundant lakes, streams, and forests also attract visitors, many of whom arrive via U.S. Highway 84, which follows the approximate route of the old St. Stephens Road. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks considers Lawrence County one of the state's best spots for fishing and hunting. Among the town's natural treasures are two riverside parks: Cooper's Ferry Park, located downtown on the site of an early 1800s ferry landing, and Atwood Water Park, which each May hosts a music festival with headlining acts that have included Minnie Pearl and Lorrie Morgan. History buffs might visit the museum inside the Lawrence County Civic Center, built in 1926 in the Prairie-Mediterranean style by prominent Mississippi architect N.W. Overstreet, or tour the 1884 former home of one of Monticello's most prominent native sons, Governor Andrew Longino.

Longino, who oversaw the construction of the new State Capitol building during his 1900-1904 term, was the most recent of three Mississippi governors who hailed from Monticello, including town founder Harmon Runnels' son Hiram, who served from 1833-1835, and Runnels' rival Charles Lynch, who held the post from 1836-1838.

The 21st century has seen still another Monticello native rise to a high governmental position. Rod Paige, born here in 1933, was appointed U.S. Secretary of Education by President George W. Bush in 2001 and held the position for four years. The local middle school is now named in Paige's honor.

"When I was a boy in Monticello, Mississippi, in the 1940s, how could I have known that I would someday be the Secretary of Education?" Paige said in a 2001 speech. "I had no idea, but I made the decision to respect my teachers and then to respect my classmates and then to act with discipline, and these decisions got easier and easier. By making these decisions, I gradually built my character, and that character is what I brought with me to Washington, D.C."

Musicians like blues guitarist J.B. Lenoir, who toured the world and recorded songs including "Don't Dog Your Woman" and "Don't Touch My Head," and Lenoir's cousin Blyther Smith, considered a living legend of the Chicago blues scene, were also born here.

One of the most recent Monticello natives to achieve international fame is Al Jefferson, a 6'10" power forward playing in his second season for the Boston Celtics basketball team. Born here in 1985, Jefferson attended Prentiss High School and was drafted out of high school by the Celtics with the 15th pick in the 2004 NBA draft. "He has an instinct for scoring and rebounding that's hard to teach," Celtic executive director for basketball operations Danny Ainge told The Boston Globe in 2004.

After almost 200 years of ups and downs, the more than 1,700 residents of Monticello are once again holding their heads high and cherishing the things and the people that make their town unique--never mind what might have been.

IF YOU GO:

Cooper's Ferry Park is located at 213 Brinson St. on the banks of the Pearl River.

Atwood Water Park is located on U.S. Highway 84 just east of town; for information, call 601/587-2711. The Atwood Music Festival will take place on Memorial Day weekend; call 601/587-3007 for details.

The Lawrence County Civic Center occupies a former school building at 125 E. Broad St. and houses both a local theater troupe's auditorium and a regional history museum; for information, call 601/587-4422.

The Longino House museum is located at 136 Caswell St. and is open for tours by appointment; call 601/587-3007.

Malta's Downtown Market is located at 235 E. Broad St.; 601/587-2405; www.maltasdowntownmarket.com.

The English Garden tea room is located at 428 E. Broad St.; 601/587-0034.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:SMALL-TOWN SPOTLIGHT
Author:Bozeman, Kelli
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1369
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