Vaiden: City Of Fine Traditions

by George M. Moreland


Commercial Appeal  -- Memphis, TN – Sunday Morning, December 1, 1929 – P. 12 Section I


Used with Permission.  Copyright, 1929, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN, 38103. 

Notice: These articles may not be copied, downloaded or reproduced in any form or

medium without expressed, written permission from the Commercial Appeal.




If we may understand the aspirations and ideals of a people by the knowledge of their past history, so too we may understand the sentiments that surge within their souls by acquainting ourselves with the songs they sing, the ballads they write, and the myths and legends which cling around them.  It is well that we know the history of ancient Greece and Rome.  The stories of the daring of Leonidas and Militades, the brilliance of Pericles and the eruditeness of Cicero are important lessons that all glorious students of history should know.  But I believe none will question the fact that we are able better to understand the characteristics of the Athenian and Roman people if we know the legends that cluster around the goddess Pallas Athene: know how Aurora came riding in her glittering chariot from the eastern heavens at sunrise every morning: how good old Cincinnatus, casting aside his plow, assumed the dictatorship of Rome and within 16 days conquered an invading army: and how Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, were nurtured by a she-wolf on the immortal Seven Hills that overlook the swift-flowing Tiber.


            There is no more beautiful “land of legend” anywhere than that magnolia-perfumed expanse of undulating hills and wide alluvial valleys that is known in America as Mississippi.  Wherever one rambles in that sun-bathed expanse, legends rivaling those of ancient Greece and Rome are encountered.  Whether it be among the emerald-crowned hills of historic Tippah or far down where the mystic Pascagoula sweeps in majesty to the sea; over along the self-haunted shored of the beautiful Tombigbee or down by the omnolent shores of the great “River of Death,” the arrogant Yazoo, it is all the same.  Everywhere cling legends that are transcendently beautiful.




            In the long ago, before the white-winged ships of Columbus ever daringly flaunted their flapping sails to the breeze that kiss the shores of the West Indian Islands, a race of noble men and tawny-skinned women lived along the mystic river shores that sweep down through the valleys of Mississippi – lived along those rivers and shores and among the hills that, even then, were submerged in a wealth of legend and tradition.


            It was out among the hills that divide the watersheds of the Pearl from the slopes of the Yazoo that long ago a race of Indians lived.  They built their wigwams, lived and loved, fished and hunted among those hills which had been passed down to them as their ancestral hunting grounds for years unnumbered.


            As the legend whispers, among those Indians lived a beautiful maiden.  Her hair was long and black and flowed, like the hue of the black bird’s wings, over her shoulders.  Her eyes were like ebony and her voice was as gentle as the murmuring of the prattling brooks that hurried along the way through her native hills.


            So beautiful was this maiden’s voice that when she sang it was ike the voice of a seraphic visitor come down from the blue canopy of heaven that stretched over the village of wigwams.  The Indians stood entranced while this Indian maiden sang – sang touching songs of love and valor – songs that reached down and clutched the heartstrings of all her hearers.


            One day while this maiden sang – so says the legend – the hand of the Great Spirit, the great god of the Indians, reached down and caused her to ascend toward the heavens.  As she floated away, her seraphic songs still echoing in one final and sweet refrain over the village of the startled Indians, the Indians expressed great surprise and the words they used to express that surprise on seeing their sweet singer floating away from them on a misty cloud were these: “Shonga-lo!”


            And then the white men came to settle in that fine section of Mississippi.  Hearing the Indians recite the story of their legendary maiden who floated away toward the heavens in a cloud of mist and their exclamation of “Shon-ga-lo,” the white pioneers, impressed with the beauty of the legend, called the pioneer village they built among the hills of Carroll County by the name of Shongalo.


            It is difficult to determine from the meagre information obtained on the subject exactly when the Shongalo settlement was made.  It must, however, have been in the earlier years of the preceding century.  Carroll County was organized in 1833 and it is probable that Shongalo was a prosperous community at that time.


            During the earlier years of its history the cultured people who had settled among the Carroll County hills – immigrants from Virginia and the Carolinas – caused to be established at Shongalo an “academy” -- a place where the boys and girls could obtain not only elementary but classical educations.  This old academy was known as Richland Academy and among the boys who attended classes there might be mentioned one name which now glitters in a halo of glory that will live forever in the pages of Mississippi and American history.  That boy’s name was James Z. George.


            One of the teachers at Richland was an Irishman named Professor Hughes.  Among the subjects taught at that pioneer academy were included Latin and Greek.  Copies of Zenophon’s “Anabasis” and Homer’s “Iliad” in the original Greek still exist in the community which were used as textbooks by the Shongalo boys who studied under the tutelage of Professor Hughes.  In his declining years it is known that Senator George amused himself at his delightful retreat among the Carroll County hills – old ante-bellum home called Cotesworth – by reading Greek in the original.  He acquired his ability to do so at old Shongalo.


            There were many fine stories at Shongalo – stories that carried stocks of goods that tempted the aristocratic yeomanry of the old community.




            It is a fact of which Mississippians boast that the Magnolia State was first to approve of the amendment to the federal constitution which banished intoxicants from America.  But it is not generally known that a temperance society was organized at Shongalo many years before the advent of the Civil War probably giving Mississippi the distinction of being one among the first of the American states to start movements to banish John Barleycorn from the Republic.  Saloons were excluded from Shongalo away back in the forties, certainly giving Carroll County the distinction in Mississippi at least of being the first in the prohibition movement.


            Churches were early built in the old town, the Shongalo Presbyterian Church dating its organization to the year 1834.  The Baptists and Methodists soon followed with church edifices.


            Dr. M.M. Marshall, a native of Tennessee, was one of the early Presbyterian ministers, while Charles Kopperal was an early merchant.  Dr. H.H. Weir, an early physician, and many other men who became prominent in public life in Mississippi lived at the old Shongalo.  In the vicinity of the old village is the stump of a tree, felled only a few years ago, under which residents of the community will tell you pridefully, Sargent S. Prentiss stood and delivered one of the great orations which helped to make him internationally famous as an orator.


            It was long before the Civil War that a good old Presbyterian minister, W.W. Harris, answered the call to the charge at Hopewell rural church near Shongalo.  After assuming his pastoral duties this scholarly old Presbyterian established a school which he first called Hopewell Academy.  The name was later changed to Milton Academy and under that name it became one of the famous pioneer schools of Mississippi.  Enrolled in its classes might be mentioned such outstanding names as those of J.A.P. Campbell, Charles Campbell, Dr. B.F. Ward, the Barksdales, Mcleans, and many other men who later became famous in Mississippi history.


It was in 1837 that Cowles Mead Vaiden removed from his native home in Charles City County VA, to Mississippi and settled some miles east of Shongalo. This distinguished Mississippian bore the name of Cowles Mead, erstwhile Secretary of Mississippi Territory and acting Governor at the time when Aaron Burr was captured near Natchez.  The fact that he bore this distinguished statesman’s name is interesting.


The mother of Cowles Mead Vaiden was Miss Sallie (or Sarah) Cowles, a Virginian, and a cousin of Cowles Mead.  It is said that in her girlhood Cowles Mead loved and wooed her.  Although she loved him, because he was her cousin, she declined to marry him.  Then Mead exclaimed, “Virginia cannot contain this girl that I love and myself also.”  So he removed to Mississippi to later attain fame.


After beautiful and accomplished Sallie (or Sarah) Cowles married Vaiden and her son was born in 1812, he was given the name of Cowles Mead, the cousin whom his mother loved but declined to wed because of the blood relationship.


            Soon after settling in Carroll County in 1837 Cowles Mead Vaiden began the construction of his beautiful country home, called Prairie Mont.  A man of great wealth he spared no expense to make this palatial manor house second to none in Mississippi for completeness.  All his furniture was imported from abroad.  The mantel in all the rooms were made of the finest Italian marble in Italy.  The frescoes on the walls and ceilings were executed by a famous artist brought up for the purpose from New Orleans.


            After its completion Prairie Mont became famous for the hospitality dispensed within its walls.  Distinguished guests from all parts of the country were entertained in its spacious halls.  Cowles Mead Vaiden became one of the wealthiest and one of the most popular citizens of Mississippi.  In addition to his home at Prairie Mont he owned extensive lands in other parts of Mississippi.




It was in 1859 that a railroad was projected southward through Mississippi – Railroad called then the Mississippi Central.  It passed within two miles of Prairie Mont, and within a few miles of historic old Shongalo. 


Cowles Mead Vaiden gave a right-of-way for the railroad through his vast holdings.  He became one of the first directors of the new railroad – railroad which is now, by the way, the great Illinois Central from Chicago to New Orleans.


When a railroad station was established on Dr. Vaiden’s land, it was given his name – name which is borne by no other post office or railroad station in the world. 


It was then that Shongalo was abandoned.  The merchants from that historic old community removed to Vaiden.  The old Presbyterian Church at Shongalo, without a change in name, was removed to Vaiden. Milton Academy, which has been converted into a female school before the Civil War after W.W. Harris, its founder, had passed away and left the work to J.S. Colmery, was abandoned, but the old bell which once summoned the pioneer boys and girls to classes was placed in the belfry of the old Presbyterian Church at Vaiden, a two story brick edifice, the upper story serving as a meeting place for Vaiden’s Masons.


Cowles Mead Vaiden gave lots at the new town bearing his name for use of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal churches and presented Bibles to the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.  Mrs. Mary Pleasants, owning property near the new location of the new town of Vaiden, gave a site for the Baptist Church, as Mr. Vaiden had also given a site for the public school – site still occupied by Vaiden’s excellent high school today.


Mrs. Pleasants also gave a site on a hilltop overlooking the new town for the cemetery.  There during the Civil War many heroes who wore the gray were buried, their graves today being marked with no other marker than a single brick placed at the head of each hero’s grave.  (Mississippi U.D.C. take notice.)  [Ed. Note:  See Confederate Cemetery Section for more details.]


But there is a single exception.  During the war a sick Confederate happened to be located at Vaiden.  Mrs. Mary Pleasants became interested in him.  She nursed him and when he died caused him to be interred in the cemetery where others among his comrades found sepulchre.  She caused a simple but substantial slab to be erected at the head of his grave.  Upon that slab is carved the following words: “Lucas, C.S.A. Alabama, Died, 1862.”  That is all.


It was at the invitation of Mrs. A.A. McPherson, cultured citizen of Vaiden, a member of its local school board and the widow of one of the most prominent citizens of that historic community, that I journeyed down to Carroll County and became submerged in such a wealth of local history that, although my Sunday space is of some length, it will not be possible to include even half of the valuable data I assembled during that delightful visit.


It was Dr. C.D. Alexander, scion of a Carroll County pioneer, who acted as my capable host during my visit to Vaiden.  We first drove two miles eastward to an isolated hilltop where, peeping from beneath its stately cedars and magnolias I first glimpsed Prairie Mont, antebellum home, built there by Cowles Mead Vaiden long before the Civil War.


With its stately colonial columns glaring at me like ghosts of yesteryear, its stately walls gleaming white through the emerald of the magnolias.  Prairie Mont stands as a monument to one of the rare characters of Mississippi’s local history.


We were welcomed at Prairie Mont by J.E. Young, present occupant, a delightful Alabamian and once a member of the Legislature of that interesting old state. As I rambled through the spacious interior of beautiful Prairie Mont it seemed to me that the portals of time had swung ajar and that I rambled again in that interesting and romantic old Mississippi of yesterday.


I saw the marble mantels imported from Italy.  I saw the fine frescoes on the high walls and ceilings made by the New Orleans artist long before the Civil War.  Although not in the best of repair, Prairie Mont is in better condition than the average ante-bellum home in Mississippi.  In the upper rooms some plastering is crumbling, but the wide halls, the spacious rooms and even the cupola on top are yet in good condition.

Then we drove out to the historic old cemetery – cemetery given to the people of Vaiden by Mrs. Mary Pleasants a long time ago.  That cemetery is immaculately kept by the good people of Vaiden.  Within the sacred inclosure sleep many distinguished Mississippi pioneers.  The McConnico family, Dr. W.H. Armistead, the McClurg family – same family that gave to Mississippi Monroe McClurg, once attorney general of Mississippi – and many other notable families of Mississippi.


But it was the stately monument which occupies a conspicuous place in the center of the burying ground that I approached reverently and with interest.  Upon that beautiful work of art I read the following inscription: “Sacred to the memory of Dr. Cowles Mead Vaiden.  Born in Charles County, Va., April 21, 1812.  Removed to Mississippi in 1837.  Died in Carroll County, Feb. 6, 1870 [ed. note: actual year is 1880].”


This expensive and ornamental work of art was executed in Italy of finest Italian marble, at the order of the old pioneer whose grave it marks.  En route to the United States from Italy the vessel was delayed in arrival and it was believed the monument was lost at sea, but it was finally delivered and placed at the head of the grave where Dr. Vaiden and his wife, who lived until 1886, are both sleeping.


The Confederate section of the cemetery is on a grass-covered slope.  The graves, covered with green grass, are, as has been stated, marked only with bricks, a single brick placed at the head of each sleeper’s grave, except the grave of the gallant Alabamian whose grave has been marked by Mrs. Pleasants.


After our visit to the cemetery Dr. Alexander drove with me over the historic old town, pointing out to me many interesting places of history.  The Herring home, beautiful old residence where the distinguished Herring family lived, was pointed out, as was also the ante-bellum home with its porticoed front and its stately colonial columns of Dr. W.H. Armistead, distinguished Carroll County pioneer.  Dr. Armistead was born on Aug. 5, 1820, and died on Nov. 30, 1878.


I was also shown the old historic old Shongalo Presbyterian Church, organized in 1834, which stands near the railroad tracks at Vaiden.  This old church, weather-stained and venerable, is surmounted by a quaint belfry in which still hangs the historic old Milton Academy bell which summons the Masons to their regular meetings.


It is interesting to note that Rev. T.L. Hammond [ed. note: Haman], recently deceased, held the pastorate of this church for a period of 41 years, while A.A. McPherson, a Baptist layman, also deceased, was superintendent of the Baptist Sunday School at Vaiden for the even longer period of 60 years.


Concluding my visit about town, I was introduced to R.C. Weir, son of a pioneer physician of old Shongalo, Dr. H.H. Weir.  I wish I could convey to my readers just how delightful this Vaiden citizen is.  Not only is he a compendum of information – the local annalist indeed of the Vaiden community – but scholarly and affable, he is most entertaining and knows the history of the community in which he was born, being able to recall dates and names without any hesitation whatever.


Mr. Weir and I sat in a drug store at Vaiden.  I permitted him to talk while I hurriedly transcribed to my note book a complete history of the Vaiden community from the day the pioneers first settled at old Shongalo to the year 1929.


Mrs. Ruth Hawkins, daughter of a prominent pioneer family of Vaiden, also splendidly assisted me in assembling a wealth of local history.  In fact, Vaiden was unique in that respect.  Anticipating my arrival and knowing I am always interested in local history, these good people had so much local history assembled and waiting for me [unintelligible] have tried my best to cram it all into this story of Vaiden, having reached the limit of the space allotted me.  I know now that I have scarcely touched the surface of the story that night be written about this historic and progressive community.


Much has been omitted entirely – interesting data that might have been included.  I have told nothing, for instance, of the story of how Earl Brewer, former governor of Mississippi, lived as a rural youth near Vaiden.  I have touched but lightly on the distinguished Monroe McClurg.


Leaving Vaiden with that reluctance that caused me to cast a backward glance, like Lot’s wife, when I drove out of town, I was made aware of one undisputed fact.  Although I must say good-bye to this lurking place of Mississippi history – this place where I was entertained in the typical Mississippi manner by unbounded hospitality – the memory of that visit will remain with me always as one of the green spots in the niches of memory’s storehouse.  When I am lonely; when I crave to indulge in lofty annals of the past, or to recall deluxe hospitality, then will I permit memory to wander back again down to progressive and historic old Vaiden, home of the pioneers who are dead and gone, and home as well of a people of culture who are so splendidly maintaining the beautiful traditions of culture and hospitality of that other dear old Mississippi of yesteryear.