The History of Byhalia, Mississippi
(Adapted from “A History of Byhalia”, by D. Barton Williams 1987)
The history of Byhalia must begin with the land. Historically fertile, the land has rolling hills and abundant water sources. The first inhabitants of this region, the Chickasaw Indians, established their largest settlement in the Pontotoc Ridge area. Smaller villages were scattered over North Mississippi with one small village founded at the current location of Byhalia cemetery.
Byhalia was founded in 1938 when C.W. Rains and Wash Poe purchased Sections 35 and 36 of Township 2, Range 5 West and sold the property to the Chickasaw Land Company. This land was located at the intersection of Pigeon Roost Road (now Church Street) and the Collierville-Chulahoma Road (now Highway 309). Pigeon Roost Road had been improved in 1835 to accommodate the removal of the Chickasaw Nation to Oklahoma.
Byhalia was named for a creek spelled Bihalee. The Chickasaw word was Dai-yi-il-ah meaning “White Oak”. The U.S. Postal Service accepted the name Byhalia in 1846.
Marshall County, Mississippi, named for Chief Justice John Marshall, was established February 9, 1836, with a land surface of 707 square miles. Byhalia was an ideal location for an early settlement, lying near the crossroad site where the Pigeon Roost Road ran from Memphis to Oxford and Pontotoc. The land in Georgia, Virginia, and North and South Carolina was depleted from continuous cotton planting and lack of crop rotation, making the newly opened territory in North Mississippi an optimal opportunity. Many early pioneers brought families and friends to the new Mississippi an optimal opportunity. Many early pioneers brought families and friends to the new frontier. Tombstones in the Byhalia Cemetery and surrounding area tell of many founding families.
The town of Byhalia grew slowly due to the proximity of Holly Springs and lack of a railroad. However in 1885, completion of the railroad from Memphis joined the existing railroad at Holly Springs and spurred new growth. Most existing downtown buildings date from the period 1884 to 1920. Time, fire and the Civil War destroyed many of the early homes in Byhalia. A major fire around 1970 destroyed much of the northern section of downtown near Highway 178. New buildings have been built in that area since the fire.
Entering the 1850’s, Byhalia seemed well on the way to becoming a key trade center in North Mississippi. Even though Byhalia was small and lacked the advantage of being the county seat, growth potential appeared unlimited. Stagecoach service from Memphis to Oxford came through Byhalia in the late 1840’s. Mail, light freight, and passengers traveled to and through Byhalia with this fast and reasonably comfortable means of transportation. Schools were established. As more settlers arrived, local commerce flourished.
However, two major events occurred within a four-year span that minimized Byhalia’s progress for some thirty years. First, Holly Springs obtained a railroad in 1852 making the stage line obsolete. Since Byhalia was only a top on the stage route, and the stage line could not effectively compete against the railroad from Memphis to Holly Springs or Oxford, service was suspended in 1856.
Second and most devastating to Byhalia’s growth was the outbreak of the Civil War. In the early stages, young men from the North and South alike rushed to join. Byhalia’s men were no exception with more than 250 from this immediate area serving in the Confederate Army. After the war, the period from 1865 to 1874 proved frustrating and traumatic for both white and black Mississippians. The harsh Reconstruction period left scars that would not heal for the next one hundred years.
A national depression hit in 1873 which lasted several years. A severe freeze in the winter of 1873 blocked traffic on the Mississippi River. Having survived the war and the Reconstruction, Byhalians coped with these two additional hardships.
In the early 1870’s, yellow fever occurred several times in the area. Even in 1873, twenty-five thousand people fled Memphis but an early autumn kept the dread disease from becoming a major epidemic. The first yellow fever death in Holly Springs occurred on August 25, 1878 from a resident who left Grenada, already infected. Three hundred and four people died of yellow fever in Holly Springs; many stories were told of personal sacrifice and bravery. However, Byhalia appears to have escaped the wrath of the fever, as few tombstones in the immediate area reflects deaths in the summer of 1878.
The early doctors practicing in Byhalia deserve credit for promoting a healthy environment in the town. They handled major tragedies including the yellow fever outbreak as well as a major train wreck in Victoria, MS in 1925. Listed in the Secretary of State’s Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1968-1972) are the names of the medical facilities located in the state. Included is the Leonard Wright Sanatorium in Byhalia. Dr. Wright established the sanatorium around 1949 in the former home of T.D. Burrow. Some local concern surfaced over having a facility in Byhalia that cared for patients with drug and alcohol addiction and minor nervous disorder. However, financially well-to-do patients from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi frequented the successful sanatorium. The most famous patient was William Faulkner, noted Mississippi author from Oxford.
While the Civil War ended the traditional way of life for large planters, the vast majority of Mississippians never lived the grand lifestyle of wealthy plantation owners depicted in books or movies. For the most part, local residents were simple living, hard working people who respected their neighbors and held realistic expectations from life. Byhalia gradually recovered from the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction; by the mid-1880’s prosperity was once again evident. The most important economic factor was the railroad coming through Byhalia. Irish laborers and convicts build the railroad.
When the depot was completed, Byhalia was indeed on the map. In 1880, the population of Byhalia grew from 346-474. No doubt establishing the railroad expanded commerce. The security of weekly wages attracted some workers from surrounding farms.
Byhalia continued as an area trade center for many years. In 1887, W.C. McCrary established W.C. McCrary and Company. In 1903 this mercantile business incorporated with John Talbot Myers becoming Vice President. At one time this store sold everything from cradles to caskets. In the early 1900’s, McCrary’s provided funeral services including a horse drawn hearse. Soon after Henry Ford began mass-producing the automobile, on of the first Ford dealerships in Mississippi was offered to the W.C. McCrary Company but was courteously declined, unconvinced there would be a market here for automobiles. A chapter of Byhalia’s history ended when the W.C. McCrary Company closed in 1970.
Each church in Byhalia has its own history. The most prominent church membership in Mississippi prior to the Civil War was the Methodist, with Baptist a close second. The Farmington Methodist Church was the first known church in Byhalia established on the site of the present cemetery around 1845. The Byhalia Baptist Church was organized in 1865. The Presbyterians built their church about three miles northwest of Byhalia around 1853 but in 1872-73 decided to tear down the church board by board and relocate in the town of Byhalia. The carefully reconstructed building was bricked in 1948.
In March 1925, electricity came to Byhalia. M.A. Pool bought the electrical franchise and modernized the power distribution system. Byhalia entered the twentieth century in a cautious and conservative manner. However, the rapid national changes in education, farming and business dictated adjustments throughout the country.
In 1992, a large portion of Byhalia was proclaimed a National Historic District. Historic preservation and rich history are some of Byhalia’s most marketable assets with buildings, houses, and churches dating from 1860 to 1920. Though economical by today’s standards, building a house in the late 1890’s and 1920’s was not a simple matter. In 1890, only about 1/3 of Americans owned their homes. Usually homes were inherited from parents and were shared by more than one generation.