Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Mississippi below Natchez lies Woodville, a relatively undiscovered town of considerable charm. Woodville is the county seat and traditional market town of Wilkinson County. While the county was founded in 1802, the town wasn’t incorporated until 1811. The town’s historic district (est. 1982) has about 140 contributing buildings- most from 1820-1930. While there has been attrition from the town square to nearby Highway 61, there has been a pronounced movement to resurrect the town’s iconic square. The Woodville square, in fact, was selected for inclusion in the television movie “The Story of Jane Pittman.” Cicely Tyson drank from a water fountain near the court house which once had a sign declaiming “For Whites Only.” If you seek the water fountain, it’s long gone.
The square is mostly intact, with only a couple of intrusions which demand removal- an unfortunate faux-colonial post office from the 1970s and a bad 1950s bank could well be extracted for the betterment of all concerned. Mostly, though, the town suggests that time has stopped somewhere in the 1960s. There is little to suggest the march of progress here, and that’s what makes it a real find.
The town is noted for its well preserved churches. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church seems like a bit of New England come to rest on a quiet street corner in Mississippi. The church is said to be the oldest Episcopal church building west of the Alleghenies. True or not, it was built in 1823-24 and has only been altered with Victorian stained glass and a Gothic board and batten porch, both of which do not detract from its simple essence. Inside the church, the visitor will find a splendid Henry Erben organ from 1837 and restored in the 1980s.
Other notable churches include the Woodville Baptist Church from 1809, a mellow red brick church with four stolid columns and a bell tower. Only the relatively recent intrusion of a modern stained glass window disturbs the placid ensemble. St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church is a sweet little clapboard Gothic from the 1870s. As if that weren’t enough, the Methodist Church dates from 1823. It is fairly similar to St. Paul’s and has late-Victorian stained glass as well. Rounding out the roster are the sober Presbyterian and Christian churches near the square. Woodville even once had a synagogue, as the town was home to a flourishing Jewish community in the 19th century. After the boll weevil destroyed the cotton in the early 1900s, most of the Jewish merchants fled, leaving behind only the synagogue and a remarkable cemetery which survives today. The synagogue was later turned into a movie theater and eventually burned.
Returning to the square, the Rothschild Store has recently had its unusual Germanic stucco facade restored. Many of the Jewish merchants came here from Germany and this building displays a joyful departure from the norm in local construction.
Much credit is due to the efforts of the Woodville Civic Club and particularly to Ernesto Caldeira and David Smith in restoring the West Feliciana Railroad Office Building and the former Branch Banking House, both prominent buildings on the square. The former now serves as the Wilkinson County Museum and the latter has been carefully restored as the African American Museum. Perhaps one day, the former City Hotel building on the square will be restored. The first floor is still in use.
Woodville has been chosen as a Mississippi Main Street community and it is hoped that further restoration and revitalization of its classic town square will take place. Our next visit to Woodville will take us around the town for a stroll.