Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mad Rivers, Mills and Merrehope—Meridian, Mississippi

Meridian, Mississippi was founded competitively. Lewis Ragsdale and John Ball bet on making a profit from the proposed junction of the Mobile and Ohio and the Vicksburg and Montgomery Railroads. Both purchased land in the area and they began laying out lots, yet they could not agree on the orientation of the streets thus creating streets that sometimes turn at odd angles. There was also disagreement over the new city’s name. Ball favored the name “Meridian,” while Ragsdale had a Native American name in mind, “Sowashee,” meaning “mad river” for a nearby creek. The competition progressed to the point where supporters of the two founders would change the train station’s name nightly.

The cloud of war arrived in the city just after the name Meridian was established, but it brought it much opportunity for the burgeoning town. The town’s strategic location brought an arsenal, military hospital, prisoner of war stockade and many state offices. The city’s importance also caught the eye of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman who decided to capture the city from Confederate General Leonidas Polk. On Valentine’s Day, 1864, the city fell to Sherman who intended to wipe this upstart town off the map. The city, already heavily damaged from the battle, was put to the torch.

Early 20th Century view of 22nd Avenue. The building with
the rounded corner, just left of center is the Grand Opera House.
This view now looks towards the large Threefoot Building.
Postcard from the Cooper Postcard Collection, Mississippi
Department of Archives and History.

Like so many other cities put to the torch by the Union army, such as Atlanta and Columbia, Meridian rose phoenix-like from the ashes.  For the next half century the city served as a shining example of the “New South.” Mills and factories sprang up next to the railroads and workers poured in from the agricultural fields. Businessmen opened businesses to cater to the workers and business districts spring up. Among the many commercial buildings constructed were three in the 800 block of 22nd Avenue: The Pigford Building (818 22nd Avenue), The Meridian Star Building (814 22nd Avenue) and  813 22nd Avenue (formerly the Peavey Melody Music store), all of which are believed to be haunted. The Meridian Star Building still houses the newspaper and takes up a large portion of the east side of the block and sits in the shadow of the Pigford Building which towers above. (I’ve just recently covered the hauntings there in a newsbyte here.)

The Pigford Building, 2008. Photo by Dudemanfellabra, courtesy
of Wikipedia.

The Pigford Building has a fairly well-investigated and documented haunting. The building was constructed around 1915 for the Knights of Pythias, a secret fraternal organization, and was called Pythian Castle Hall. In the 1920s, the building was purchased by Pigford Realty who rented out the building for retail and office space while the third floor held a ballroom. The retail space on the ground floor has seen many tenants and at some point in the last decade, the top floors have been closed. The windows to those two floors have remained boarded up.

Most of the activity has centered around a dress shop located in the retail space adjacent to the Meridian Star Building. Three different dress shops have occupied the space and both shops have had activity. The haunting was first noticed by employees in the form of spectral female laughter then later, whimpering and crying. Footsteps were heard upstairs in the empty building. Soon enough, clothing and jewelry which had been hung up the night before were being found scattered on the floor the following morning. In 1999, an employee saw an apparition: a lady with long hair in a white gown gliding across the balcony.

The shop’s owner worked late one night and had her young daughter with her when the little girl heard a woman’s voice on the intercom. She responded, thinking it was her mother, the mother asked her daughter who she was talking to and discovered someone else was on the intercom. The same owner had her three year old cousin with her another time. The little boy wandered upstairs and came down later saying, “I don’t like the lady in the long dress. She doesn’t like me.” Again, no one else was or should have been in the building. Not long after, the owner saw the lady in white for herself, silently gliding along the balcony.

Owners of the current dress shop had experiences with a vacuum cleaner. In both cases, the vacuum cleaner had been unplugged and moments after leaving the room, the machine turned itself on. The spirit may also have an affinity for a clock in the store. During one investigation, the clock moved forward by two minutes while witnesses were in the room.

Across the street the even older Wagoner Annex No. 3 Building housed the Peavey Melody Music store for many years. The store was opened in this building in 1945 by J. B. Peavey whose son, Hartley, started selling electronics out of the upstairs of this building, eventually creating Peavey Electronics. The store closed its doors in 2006 and the building appears to be unoccupied at the moment.

Devastation from the 1906 tornado. Postcard from the Cooper
Postcard Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and
History.

This building, however, has a much darker history. The same year the building was completed, a devastating tornado struck the central business district of Meridian, killing nearly 50 people. The Wagoner Annex No. 3 building housed the Smith Funeral Parlor which handled many of the bodies. The morticians were so overwhelmed with bodies that many were stacked on the second floor. Legend holds that there was so much blood that it was swept out of the first floor with a broom. During its time as the music store, employees in the building would occasionally hear the sound of children upstairs. At times they would hear children laughing and running up and down the hall only to discover no one upstairs.

A little ways down 22nd Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets stands another building from the post-war Golden Era, a building that brought prestige and culture to this backwoods town, the Grand Opera House (now called the Riley Center for the Performing Arts, 2206 Fifth Street). Built in 1889 by the owners of the neighboring department store, Israel Marks and Levi Rothenberg, this opera house brought the world to Meridian’s stage including the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt and the actress Lily Langtry, who was a mistress to Albert, Prince of Wales. The theatre operated successfully into the next century and part of it was converted for use as a movie house in the 1920s. The building was leased to Saenger Films of New Orleans and after a dispute over use of the structure, Saenger wanted to convert the building to offices so it wouldn’t compete with the Temple Theatre, the second floor opera house was closed. It remained shut up until the late 20th century, when it was rediscovered. It was recently fully restored and is now owned by Mississippi State University – Meridian Campus.

Grand Opera House, now the Riley Center, 2008. Photo by
Dudemanfellabra, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Before the Grand Opera House was reopened, people began to tell stories of a ghost. The executive director first encountered a spirit there while giving a tour to a young woman he was dating. Leading the young woman through the dark halls, the pair walked into a cold spot. Later the director would hear from a woman who worked in one of the retail stores that once operated on the street level. She would sometimes eat lunch on the old stairs to the opera house and would hear a woman singing in the dark theatre. Others have witnessed a woman in a white gown in the theatre. Most recently, a member of the cleaning staff and her daughter saw the woman who they said resembled the woman painted in a medallion above the stage. While the model for that painting is unknown, she certainly still gazes down upon audiences over nearly a hundred and twenty-five years since she was first painted.

When the curtain for the Grand Opera House was drawn in 1927, it was done to prevent competition with Meridian’s new grand showplace, the Temple Theatre (2320 Eighth Street). The Temple was constructed as a temple for the Hamasa Shrine organization, part of the Freemason order. In 1927, the temple was leased to the Saenger Corporation for use as a movie house. The Moorish revival-designed structure house the second largest stage in the country at the time, after New York’s Roxy and contained a marvelous Robert Morgan pipe organ to provide accompaniment for the silent films of the era.

Temple Theatre, 2008. Photo by Dudemanfellabra, courtesy of
Wikipedia.

The theatre was in regular use until the early 1970s when the Saenger’s lease expired. The building saw nominal use and was only very recently purchased by a Dallas businessman for use as a performing arts center. Staff members have begun reporting odd occurrences. One woman saw a dark human shaped form standing in a doorway while a group of people saw a white haired man standing in the corner of the room just beneath the stage. A group of stage hands who dared spend the night on the stage of the old theatre were frightened by numerous odd noises throughout the building all through the night.

With the Great Depression, Meridian’s economy faltered, but it picked up quite a bit of steam with World War II. Into the 1950s, the economy began a decline as the importance of the railroad waned with the advent of the car and the interstate highway system. The fight for civil rights during the 1960s brought the city some notoriety. When three young civil rights workers were killed in nearby Neshoba County, Michael Chaney, a citizen of Meridian, was among them. These deaths, among many, coupled with the work of the African-American community, helped spur Federal Civil Rights legislation. Meridian later honored Chaney by renaming part of 49th Avenue after him.

While repairing its race relations and reputation, the city has worked to preserve some of its history; though this fight is far from over. As industrialization has pulled out of the South, and the nation as a whole, cities like Meridian have watched their cores rot and crumble. Where the bells of streetcars one rang a peal of prosperity, the rumble of the bulldozer brought only despair and emptiness. The 1980s and 90s saw a good deal of work to preserve the historical fabric of Meridian; work that continues today and includes the preservation of the monumental Threefoot Building just down the street from the Grand Opera House and the 800 block of 22nd Avenue. A city landmark, this 16-story 1929 structure is mostly abandoned and was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2010 list of America’s Most Endangered Places. The building, named for the Threefoot family, since 2002 has also served as the centerpiece for the Threefoot Arts Festival. There is hope that this building will be saved and revitalized with much of the rest of downtown.

The name for Merrehope (905 Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Drive), the culmination of that hope that Meridian has to preserve its history, is derived from “Meridian,” “restoration” and “hope.” Merrehope carries that hope into the future after witnessing so much of Meridian’s history.

Merrehope, 2008. Photo by Dudemanfellabra, courtesy of
Wikipedia.

Merrehope’s history begins with one of its first settlers, Richard McLemore. A Virginian, McLemore settled the area in 1831, just after the Choctaw signed away much of their land in central Mississippi with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. When Lewis Ragsdale arrived in the area to create his city, he purchased McLemore’s property. John Ball arrived only a few days later and purchased land adjacent to Ragsdale’s property which would all eventually become downtown Meridian. McLemore moved to an area north of his old property and in 1858 built a small house for his daughter Juriah and her husband, W. H. Jackson.

This small house, a few years later, served as headquarters for “The Fighting Bishop,“ Confederate General Leonidas Polk, who also served as the Episcopalian bishop for Diocese of Louisiana. Polk tried to ward off Sherman as he advanced on the city in February of 1864, but he was unsuccessful. The Jackson cottage would be one of only a handful of buildings that Sherman spared and it housed some of his officers. After the war, the house passed to John H. Gary who resided there with his wife and family. He added on to the cottage as did the next few owners; each adding and remodeling portions of the residence.

The house was carved into small rooms for a boarding house in the 1930s and remained that way for some 30 years. It was during this time that a young schoolteacher boarded in the house. Addicted to alcohol and gambling, the young man one night lined the mantelpiece of his room with whiskey bottles and shot them off one by one, then shot himself. His playful, yet mischievous spirit is one of the first that was encountered by the staff after the house was purchased by the Meridian Restorations Foundation and restored as a house museum and events facility in 1968. It is believed that his spirit haunts what is now the Periwinkle Room. The bed in that room is sometimes discovered to have a human-shaped indention in it.

In addition sounds of breaking glass sometimes emanate from this room. Jennifer Jacob, a reporter for The Meridian Star captured a possible EVP when she visited the home in 2007. She took and tour and recorded it on her recorder. When she played back the recording, she was surprised to hear a loud scream in the background. The other people speaking at the time took no notice of it.

Merrehope’s other spirit may be that of one of John Gary’s daughters. Eugenia Gary never lived at Merrehope, as she died before her parents moved there, but her spirit may be connected with her portrait that was acquired by the Foundation not long after they bought the home. Staff members have had run-ins with a young woman in a dress with a solid green top and a green plaid hoop skirt. Evidently, she bears a striking resemblance to the portrait of Eugenia. Staff members have also heard the rustle of her skirts and smelled rosewater perfume on occasions.

The hope of Merrehope has spread to another house, the Frank W. Williams House that is now located just behind Merrehope. Built in 1886 on once fashionable 8th Street, this marvelous Queen Anne Style house was built by Frank W. Williams, the owner of an insurance agency for his bride, Mamie Watson. Williams had found success in this booming city and love with his new bride. After they married, they lived happily in the house until Mamie’s unfortunate death. In her later years, Mamie had become wheelchair bound and an elevator had been installed in the house. One day Mamie opened the door and backed on the elevator, but it was still on the first floor and she succumbed to her injuries a few weeks later.

Frank W. Williams House, 2008. Photo by Dudemanfellabra,
courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mamie’s devastated husband became a recluse, locking himself in his library until his death in 1949. In the 1970s as the city’s core began to deteriorate, the house was given to the Merrehope Restorations Foundations in order to save it. The house was moved and is being restored. With the restorations, staff and visitors have noted that the spirits of Frank and Mamie Williams remain. Most recently, a couple visiting last year noted the spirits and left hurriedly after feeling odd sensations. But, in their house as well as the rest of Meridian’s historic structures, hope and spirits linger on.

Sources
Brown, Alan. Haunted Places in the American South. Jackson, MS:
     University Press of Mississippi. 2002.
Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Jackson, MS: University
     Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Brown, Jennifer Jacob. “Elusive ‘lady’ spotted at Grand Opera
     House.” The Meridian Star. 14 September 2009.
Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration.
     Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State. NYC: Viking Press,
     1938.
Gillespie, Steve. “Music store shuts its doors today.” The Meridian
     Star. 24 February 2006.
History of Meridian, Mississippi. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopdia.
     Accessed 27 August 2011.
Hubbard, Sylvia Booth. Ghosts! Personal Accounts of Modern
     Mississippi Hauntings. Brandon, MS: Quail Ridge Press, 1992.
Jacob, Jennifer. “The legendary ‘lady’ of the Grand Opera House.”
     The Meridian Star. 29 October 2007.
Jacob, Jennifer. “Merrehope: Meridians Haunted Mansion.” The
     Meridian Star. 28 October 2007.
Jacob, Jennifer. “The Pigford building’s ‘Lady in White.’” The
     Meridian Star. 25 October 2008.
Knights of Pythias. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 30
     August 2011.
Livingston, Brian. “Experience creepy with Temple tour.” The
     Meridian Star. 10 October 2010.
Meridian, Mississippi. Wikipedia, the Free Encylopedia. Accessed
     27 August 2011.
Pigford Building. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 30
     August 2011.
Riley Center. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 31 August
     2011.
Sillery, Barbara. The Haunting of Mississippi. Gretna, LA: Pelican
     Publishing, 2011.
     Encyclopedia. Accessed 1 September 2011.
Threefoot Building. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed
     28 August 2011.  

4 comments:

  1. That is a lot of hauntings for a smal area and they all interesting too.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There are two others I didn't include. I really think that these are just the tip of the iceberg for Meridian.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have a few people that would like to experience some of these sighting in these places. If at all possible we would like to get permission to do so. If you have any numbers of the owners or caretakers of these places please email me at ahatten87424@yahoo.com ty very much!

    ReplyDelete