|Pearl River County, Mississippi
by Nancy Brister
The Battle of New Orleans, in 1814, accomplished what the governments of Spain,
France and England could not. Until then, the West Florida Parishes, which
included south Mississippi, had been a magnet and haven for the countless
outlaws who sought sanctuary beyond the laws of the US borders. But, after the
dust settled and the new boundaries of the United States were placed, a modicum
of law and order finally began to take hold in the "far western country." The piney
woods of southern Mississippi still saw their share of outlaws, but, between
1815-1820, more and more settlers made the trek from points north and east to the
newly opening Territory. Eventually, the unabated lawlessness for which the
western country was so well known, became not much more than a distant memory.
Mississippi became a state in 1817, however, it wasn't until 1872 that a county in the
southwest portion of the state, made up from parts of Marion and Hancock
Counties, was formed and named Pearl, because it bordered Louisiana and the
Pearl River. But, due to its limited tax base and small population, Pearl County was
short-lived and, in 1878, it was disbanded and the land returned to Marion and
But the state hadn't seen the last of the independent-minded folks in the 'old' Pearl
County. In 1894, the railroad came through the area and brought with it northern
businesses whose owners had an eye on the thousands of acres of virgin forest in
the southern part of the state. Now that the railroad could be used for transporting
the timber, businesses and individuals alike both gravitated toward the train tracks
and the population of the area grew very quickly. In 1890, the county was, once
again, formed from parts of Marion and Hancock Counties. The name 'Pearl'
couldn't be used again, so they christened their new county 'Pearl River.'
Poplarville was chosen as the new county seat, that town having been incorporated
in 1896, and named for the man who'd owned the land, "Poplar" Jim Smith. The first
courthouse was built in 1892; it was later used as a hospital and, eventually, as the
county welfare department. In 1908, the town of Picayune was annexed to Pearl
River County and it was to become the county's largest town. With the addition of
the land acquired at that time, Pearl River County became the 4th largest of
Mississippi's counties. Construction of a new courthouse was completed in 1920.
Changing times brought changing industries to the county. At its inception, the
timber industry dominated. Countless sawmills dotted the landscape and, many
times a day, trains left the county, headed north and loaded with timber from the
massive pine forests of Pearl River County. In the 1920's, agriculture, also, became
an important factor in the economy: citrus fruit, peaches and strawberries were
popular, as were huge orchards of pecan trees. In the 1940's, dairy and beef cattle
became more prominent. For many years before and after World War II, the area
was the center of the tung tree oil industry in the United States. Tung tree oil was
used in the manufacture of furniture polish and paint and no other place in the US
produced as much as Pearl River County. When Hurricane Camille came ashore in
1969, the tung tree orchards were wiped out and the industry never rebounded.
However, even today, groups of tung trees thrive, unattended, in many areas of
Pearl River County.
In the 1960's, the National Aeronautical Space Administration constructed its
Mississippi Test Facility. It sits on land in both Pearl River County and neighboring
Hancock County. One of its purposes was to test the engines of the Saturn Moon
Mission's spacecrafts. It was later re-named the National Space Technology
Laboratories. Many government agencies make use of this facility, such as, the US
Navy, US Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency and others. It
continues to play an important role in the local economy.
Because of its proximity to New Orleans, Hattiesburg and the Gulf Coast, Pearl
River County has recently become a favorite among people looking for a place to
spend their retirement years. And, in fact, since the twin spans were built across
Lake Pontchartrain in the 1970's , Picayune has attracted New Orleanians looking for
an escape from the hustle and bustle of big city life. Many are weekenders, but
others move to Pearl River County and make the hour's commute to the city every
day. This has contributed to the vitality of the community and to its economy.
Though not among the oldest of Mississippi's counties, Pearl River County
has a rich history, as interesting and unique as the industrious pioneers
who first called it home.
Have you ever seen a tung tree?
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