Woodville — All the words often used to describe small Southern towns that are off the beaten path and have thus managed to escape the generic look of much of the country most definitely apply to Woodville. It is beautiful, charming, sleepy, and has history dripping like Spanish moss from the abundant Live Oak trees. It is the county seat of Wilkinson County in Southwest Mississippi, located between Natchez and St. Francisville, La.
This town of 1,700 has 200 properties listed in its historic district, a traditional town square without a single vacancy in the surrounding buildings, six historic churches of six different faiths, the state’s oldest newspaper which is also the state’s oldest continuously operated business and several bed-and-breakfast inns.
It also has no industry and one of the state’s highest unemployment rates. Some new businesses have built up where four-laned Highway 61 comes through. A private prison located just north of town five years ago, providing employment for about 200 people. The Fred Netterville Lumber Company has been there many years and currently employs 115 people.
“Woodville has taken care of itself with renovations and preservation,” said Andy Lewis, editor and publisher of The Woodville Republican. “The merchants keep up the storefronts around the square and it still looks good, but there’s nothing coming in employing more than two or three people. Industry doesn’t want to come to an area like this.”
The area has always had an abundance of good hunting land with high-dollar leases. Hunters and their families come to hunting camps and spend money with local merchants. “You’d be surprised what they spend,” he said.
Jan McGraw is one of those merchants. With her partner, Gerie Ellen Foster, she owns Town Square Accents & Antiques. Located on the square, the shop has been open 14 years and is one of few places in town where shoppers can buy gifts for weddings and other occasions.
“We have a lot of out-of-town customers and good local customers, too,” she said. “We get a lot of business from hunters’ wives. They’re mostly from Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans.”
Mayor Gary D’Aquilla says the area is lucky to have the prison and Netterville Lumber Company. Others earn a livelihood logging, raising cattle and farming soybeans. He is pleased that all stores on the square are rented and that a Dollar General store and Sonic drive-in have opened on the U.S. 61 bypass.
“We’re trying to revitalize the town,” he said. “We have the Wilkinson County Museum and the African-American Museum that are open daily. Since we formed the Main Street Association and did some advertising, more tourists are coming.”
The retired schoolteacher who’s serving his third term as mayor says he hopes the town’s many historic attractions will expand tourism into a vital industry.
“Woodville’s just a real nice place to live,” he said. “People are friendly and helpful.”
Raven Lewis serves on the board of directors of the Main Street Association and is optimistic about the organization’s goals. “The town has a lot of potential, and we’re hoping to reinforce the economic structure,” she said. “We have a working square, and that’s a big asset for Main Street.”
She said Woodville is one of the smallest towns awarded the Main Street certification in Mississippi. The group will support the businesses already there and help bring in new ones.
“We have many long term goals that will be incremental,” she said. “Saving the oak trees on the square is a project we’re working on now. A lot of people want to work to make Woodville better.”
A barbecue, blues and bluegrass festival will be held on the first Saturday in November as a fundraiser benefiting the oak tree project.
Charlie Netterville and his brother, Howard, run three family businesses that include two sawmills, a logging operation and a trucking company to deliver a lot of their own product. The Fred Netterville Lumber Company buys standing timber, hauls it and processes it by running it through a dry kiln. Working mostly with red oak, white oak, ash, poplar and cypress, the lumber is used to make furniture, cabinetry and molding.
The company employs 115 people, off about 40 from a few years ago. Netterville says they hope to get those employees back but that may be difficult with the lumber industry losing market share to China. “We’re losing to the cheap labor and minimal costs of operation in China,” he said. “We’re in the process of opening an office in China. We must do that to survive. We’ve become a world economy, and us ‘rednecks’ have to compete.”
Growing tourism traffic
Nana’s Guest House opened four years ago as a way for David Smith to preserve the turn-of-the-century home of his grandmother, Ima Cunningham. It’s located on U.S. 61 in the Woodville Historic District. He also owns Showroom Antiques and does on-site and contract catering.
“It’s done real well,” he said. “We have tourists here and I think it will continue to grow. It’s amazing how much business I do.”
Smith, who’s also a town alderman and sells real estate, recently sold a Victorian house to a friend from Louisiana. He’s urging her to also open a B&B. “I think the more we have, the more people will come,” he said. “It’s a good way to maintain these homes and I enjoy sharing my home.”
Woodville was chartered in 1811. It has three of the oldest churches in the state — St. Paul’s Episcopal, Woodville United Methodist and Woodville Baptist. St. Paul’s is the oldest Episcopal church building west of the Alleghenies. The building was raised in 1824 and stands today, with the exception of minor repairs, as it was built. The organ donated in 1827 by Major A.M. Feltus is still in use. A plaque in the church commemorates the confirmation of Jane Cook Davis, mother of Jefferson Davis. The Confederate president’s boyhood home, Rosemont, is a few miles outside the city limits.
Rounding out the town’s lovely, white-frame churches are St. Joseph’s Catholic, Woodville Christian and Woodville First Presbyterian.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.