As a child of the 1960’s living in Wiggins, the seat of Stone County, my life was indeed rich. Those memories today still make me smile. My mind takes me back to riding the Old Fire Engine No. 3 in the Stone County Fair Parade or listening for Santa as he rode around town on the back of that same iconic fire truck. I hear, and, in fact, feel the rattle of the train in the middle of the night as the ICRR freight makes it way north. I hear, too, the Brown Miller Pickle Factory whistle at noon each day and smell the brine during “green season” when the vats were loaded with cucumbers. I smell wood chips and turpentine as I ride, in my mind, past the saw mills, chip mill, and pole plant. I look to see who most recently climbed the old water tower and declared their love for their sweetheart in black paint. I feel the chill of the water as we swam in Red Creek beneath the Old City Bridge and smell the oiled floors of the old Wiggins School where I spent my K-8 years. I hear the creak of the floorboards and the door as I enter the old Sanctuary of First Baptist Church. I feel the excitement of the annual Stone County Fair Parade and march, in my mind, to the beat of the drums from the bands from Wiggins and Locker High Schools and Perkinston Junior College. I smell the piney woods as I walked the Tuxachanie Trail in De Soto National Forest.
While I did not understand it then, those childhood experiences are, in fact, integrally tied to the history of this small South Mississippi County. My family is one of the original families of Stone County and the founding family of the Town of McHenry. From the time we could sit still and listen, relatives filled our ears with tales of our family and their peers and their impact on their community. They instilled in me a love of history and a sense of adventure and showed me how important local history is to the community. Until now, the local history has lived primarily with families and in general tales and a few historical markers and homes and in yellowing post cards, photos, and news articles but never cataloged and presented as complete story.
Enter a group of retired Stone County school teachers who are driven still to educating those around them. Add to that a “circle of influence” that extends to most of the area residents. Stir in the generosity of the City of Wiggins, a few gracious benefactors, and lots of donations and sweat equity and what you have is The Old Firehouse Museum.
Located in the old fire station attached to Wiggins City Hall, you are welcomed by an exhibit of fire house memorabilia including the fire hat of long-time volunteer Fire Chief Robert (Bobby) Watts, the helmet of a line fire fighter, and the old slate board where whoever took the truck out noted for the other volunteers the location of the fire and the time the truck deployed. A corridor paved with original bricks from Pine Hill, for years the iconic main business district of Wiggins, then beckons you to explore. On the walls you see photos from everywhere in Stone County – Wiggins School, Magnolia School, Locker High School, McHenry School and Home School athletic teams and class photos, pickle factory and sawmill workers, old auto dealerships, newspapers, churches, and so much more.
You see pictures of Dizzy Dean, a favorite son of Stone County and a Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher who made his home in Bond, one of the original settlements in the area. In one corner, you will find one of the original pickle barrels. In another, you see the Military Exhibit that shares photos and articles about the men and women who left Stone County to serve our country, some never to return. There are portable exhibits that will change regularly in the museum as well as be used throughout Stone County in the schools and businesses to share the history with as broad an audience as possible. Additionally, the Museum will offer educational tours of parts of the county.
Through the museum, you will learn how the area originally was part of Jackson County when Mississippi became a State in 1817 then split off as a part of Harrison County in 1841. Stone County, in a final and controversial split, was finally established as the State’s 81st county based on the votes of the citizens of the affected area in 1916. You will learn how a Mr. Perkins homesteaded in 1880 beginning what is now Perkinston and George Austin McHenry homesteaded in 1883 establishing McHenry. You will learn, as well, that Wiggins grew from an 1886 Madison Hatten homestead and was known originally as Niles City. You will hear the impact of the Finkbine Lumber Company and the establishment of Perkinston Agricultural High School (now the Perkinston Campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College). You will wonder about the resort at Ramsey Springs and the healing waters found there. And, you may even hear what appears to be a tall tale (but is not) that my great-grandfather, unhappy with the move to establish Stone County as a separate county and make Wiggins the county seat, threw the McHenry ballot box off the Red Creek Bridge!
As an adult, I have traveled throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. I have walked through history in such places as Boston, Washington, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Belfast, Edinburgh, Quebec, Vancouver, Paris, Brussels, and St. Petersburg. I have explored great battlefields and memorials at: Normandy, Pearl Harbor, “the Wall” in Berlin, Vicksburg, and Flanders. I have experienced many of the wonderful National Parks left to us through individuals who cared that these great lands be preserved: the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, the Columbia River Gorge, the U.S. and Canadian Rockies, and the Great Smoky Mountains. To experience these, and more, tie back to those childhood years in Stone County and the sense of adventure instilled in me by her people, their ties to the world at large, and the importance shared with me and others to preserve our legacy and history for those who come behind us.
The Old Firehouse Museum will be dedicated Friday, March 22, 2013 at noon during the annual Pine Hill Festival (March 22-23, 2013). The Museum is located at 117 First Street North, Wiggins. Bring your sense of adventure and love of history and explore with us, the history of the communities, heroes, business and industry, education and great people found from this spot the piney woods of South Mississippi.
For more information, see http://www.stonecounty.com/. Special thanks for the information and photographs in this article go to the Museum Board: Mike Cain, Kathy Kirker, Rita Rester, Ruth Ford, and Lynette Havens.
Author: Cille McHenry Litchfield; published originally in the Spring 2013 edition of Our South magazine.