Reopening history — The Oaks House Museum gets new life
JACKSON — After closing for six months for renovations and a change in leadership, The Oaks House Museum in Jackson has reopened with a splash.
An open house was held Sept. 6 at The Oaks, which is located at 823 Jefferson Street in the Belhaven Heights neighborhood. The free event offered tours of The Oaks and gardens, live music by Joy and Bob Gates on the front porch and children’s activities.
“We held the open house just to let people know we have reopened,” said Beth Batton, who was named executive director of The Oaks in July. “It is Mississippi’s only urban farmstead, and one of only a handful in the Southeast. That’s what makes The Oaks House Museum so unique.”
The Oaks, built in 1853, is a Mississippi Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also called the Boyd-McGill House, the 19th-century urban farmstead was home to James Hervey Boyd, mayor of Jackson for four terms in the 1840s and 1850s, his wife Eliza, their six children and numerous grandchildren. The Oaks is one of few extant structures that survived the burning of Jackson in the Civil War, and three generations of the Boyd-McGill family lived in the house for more than 100 years.
In the first decade of its history, the five-room cottage was home to James Boyd and Eliza Ellis Boyd and their three sons and three daughters. Some of the children were born in the house; some were married there.
In 1863, Civil War battles raged all around the house. There are family tales of Union soldiers and their horses on the property, and bullets grazing the house and puncturing a molasses barrel in the smokehouse. Boyd men and friends served the Confederacy, and James Boyd was a city alderman when Jackson fell to Union occupation.
James Boyd died in 1877. After the last of the sons and daughters left for adult pursuits in 1881, daughter Mary and her husband Richard F. McGill moved into the Boyd home to live with the widow Eliza Boyd.
The McGills made numerous repairs and additions to the house and grounds, incorporating some of the popular trappings of the later Victorian taste in decoration. And they had two children, a son and a daughter.
In 1885, Eliza Boyd deeded The Oaks property to daughter Mary McGill for her lifetime, then after that to Mary’s children. Eliza Boyd lived in the house until 1902. Richard McGill died four years later.
Mary Boyd McGill was the family matriarch until her death in 1939. The McGills’ son Richard moved to Memphis, but daughter Mary McGill, a single lady, lived in the house until 1960, when failing health caused her to retire to a nursing facility. In that year, title to the house passed from the Boyd descendants to The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Mississippi, the current owner.
Uncovering the history of the The Oaks House has gotten a boost from the University of Southern Mississippi. For several summers, Dr. Amy L. Young and students from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at USM performed archaeological and historical investigations at The Oaks. The field work uncovered the footprints of the significant outbuildings and locations of the original Boyd household’s work activities — providing an understanding of the 19th-century urbanizing processes at a middle-class house and lot.
They identified the exact location of the original Boyd kitchen and its brick hearth. Typical to most 19th-century Southern home sites, the kitchen was behind and detached from the house — some distance away due to the fire hazard and heat of the daily work that took place in and around the kitchen. This detached building was razed in the early 20th century.
From shards found at the site, many types of ceramics, porcelains and other materials used by the Boyd family in their daily work were discovered, giving an insight into where they grew vegetables and where they slaughtered animals for food.
“When most people think of historic Mississippi homes, they think of grand plantation homes that were built and served by slave labor,” Batton said. “I think most Mississippians can identify more with The Oaks. The family was middle class, and their home reflected that. I encourage school groups, clubs, community members and tourists to see it for themselves.”
Beginning Sept. 9, The Oaks will be open to the public for tours from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays and by appointment. Regular admission to The Oaks is $4.50 per adult, $4.00 per senior (age 65 or older) and $3.50 per child. There is a 10 percent discount for AAA members and a 20 percent discount for groups of 10 or more.
For more on The Oaks House Museum, visit www.theoakshousemuseum.org.
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