WIGGINS — Any well-traveled native Mississippian with graying hair has passed it at least 100 times en route to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It’s a sign — “Fruitland Park” — just north of Wiggins on the east side of U.S. 49. Unless you were headed for the regional Boy Scout camp, Camp Tiak, it’s unlikely you have viewed that trove of Mississippi history.
When you turn onto the two-lane road and cross the railroad tracks, the road suddenly becomes an overgrown boulevard that passes what once was the “New York Hotel.” And the boulevard leads up to Pine Circle and then the road, bordered by houses and pecan trees, curves on toward Perry County.
As you come off Highway 49, there are four buildings on the left. One of them is a house Jere Hess and his wife, Jo Etta, moved into last May. Hess had retired after 23 hectic years as an executive with Peavey Electronics in Meridian. His sister, Marjorie Morris, is co-owner with Jere of the adjoining 250 acres inherited from their parents. Marjorie retired last May as a speech teacher at Hinds Community College and remains in Jackson.
Two hundred of the inherited acres comprise a pecan orchard from which Hess said, his parents “… eked out a living.”
Marjorie and Jere have copies of “Sunni-Glo Farms” sales letters and post cards from the 1950s through the 1970s that their parents mailed to potential customers up North giving price lists. “Mother and Daddy and our aunt and uncle would go up there and bring back phone books to get a mailing list,” Hess said.
Nearby is the pecan “factory” that’s still in seasonal operation. Among other things, there is a sizer and four crackers along with a blower that separates the meat from the shell. Jo Etta said she clearly remembers coming down for the Thanksgiving holidays and helping with the shelling and packing process.
Jere and Marjorie’s mother also served as the postmaster (Hess said she strongly emphasized that she was not the “postmistress”) until the Fruitland Park facility was closed in 1976. The tiny post office complete with combination mail lock boxes is next to the Hess homestead. In the same building are the remains of a small general store the Hesses ran. It contains some eBay type collectibles including a Lion gasoline sign.
The Hess acreage descended from Jere’s grandfather, Floyd Hess, a Philadelphia, Pa., lawyer, and thereby hangs the tale of Fruitland Park.
The piney woods of South Mississippi had been clear-cut in the early 1900s, and F. B. Mills came south from Rose Hill, N. Y. in 1913. Having a seed business, he envisioned the Mississippi land and climate providing a veritable Garden of Eden and invested in the acreage that became Fruitland Park. It had excellent transportation with the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad running daily trains north and south plus a road (later U.S. 49) to Gulfport (on a good day, only three hours away) and Jackson.
Using his list of seed business customers, Mills offered acreage and built-to-order various size houses to potential buyers. His letter emphasized the area’s long growing season and the potential bountiful harvest of crops such as figs, gladiolas, peaches, peppers and pecans.
The boulevard and Pine Circle were put in place and the two-story, 12-bedroom New York Hotel was built. The Fruitland Park post office was established.
Business boomed. According to historian James Thatcher, a descendant of one of the settler families, 70 homeowners from 30 states accepted Mills’ offer. But when they began to plow and plant, the stumps from the cut-over pine trees posed severe problems. And there was the heat, and then, crop failure. Today there are only eight families left from the original settlers.
When suits were filed against Mills for misrepresentation, he called on his Philadelphia lawyer friend, Floyd Hess, to defend him and ended up paying Hess with 250 acres of Fruitland Park property. Hess planted 200 acres with 3,800 pecan trees between 1918-20 and was so meticulous in doing so that the Hess family still has the plots of each tree’s location.
Now Jere and Marjorie are wrestling with decisions. Marjorie bought the New York Hotel to protect the family’s interest in the property, then did all the paperwork that resulted in a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. She’s considering the possibility of turning it into a bed and breakfast or an antique/collectible store.
But there’s a long way to go. Right now, the wooden structure with the screened in front porch is showing its age, and is being used for storage of pecan lumber retrieved when Hurricane Georges knocked down 50 of the orchard trees.
Jere has formed the Hess Pecan Company and has purchased that name domain on the Internet. “So now if you type ‘pecan’ into your search engine, ‘Hess Pecan Company’ will show up, but at 57 years old, I’m not sure how big a scale I want to go into,” Hess said. “The harvester alone costs about $10,000, then we’d have to buy shakers and these trees are 81 years old…”
His voice trailed off.
He recalled that his parents lost a whole crop of pecans when Hurricane Camille stormed through, then had to pay $3,000 to have many of the trees pushed back into an upright stance. “Anytime you have a good crop in the making, you start worrying about another Camille,” Hess said.
On the optimistic side, he talks about the traffic to Camp Tiak that must pass the west side of Hess Pecan Company.
“Last year, 13,000 Scouts used that place on 47 weekends, so there’s a built-in market right there,” Hess said. “Then I’ve got two sons and a daughter and Marjorie has two sons, so you never know.”
The history of Fruitland Park is largely untold (another task Hess says he’ll undertake) while the unfolding saga of Hess Pecan Company is still in the works.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 485-7046. Johnson served as an economic development consultant in Starkville from August 1999-April 2000.