The old Time Traveler’s journeys these past few weeks have proven to be fascinating, if for nothing else, to continually discover how this historically rich and fast-growing county has impacted Mississippi and the Mid-South, and how its legacy continues to impact the state, nation and world.
The front-page headlines of the newspaper on March 17, 1960 told of the “Greatest Model City on Earth To Be Built in DeSoto County.”
Members of the First DeSoto Corporation, which included Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson and local movers and shakers like Robert P. Cooke, chairman of the DeSoto County Planning Commission, W. Hoyette Austin, president of the DeSoto County Board of Supervisors, A.W. Bouchillon, DeSoto County Planning Director, and Joel P. Walker, First DeSoto attorney, along with Memphis developer Wallace Johnson, among many others, boldly proclaimed that DeSoto County would become home to one of the nation’s newest model cities.
The news story told of an initial investment of $125 million and a future population of more than 50,000.
“The figure of 50,000 population may sound fantastic, but it’s not fantastic if we have sufficient vision,” First DeSoto Vice President Charles Jackson was quoted as saying.
Flash forward to 2019, the City of Southaven is now Mississippi’s third-largest city, growing from a model community to one of the fastest-growing cities in the Mid-South. Another mover and shaker, Jon Reeves, along with business partner Bob Williams, would help usher in much of that growth.
I spoke with legendary, longtime homebuilder Jon Reeves this past week and he recalled the complete transformation of Southaven, from a sleepy suburb of Memphis to a dynamic, thriving city.
“It was just a dream out there at the time,” Reeves said. “There wasn’t anything down here but cotton fields and gravel roads. We like to have never gotten Stateline Road graveled.”
While it might have seemed like a tall tale at the time, history has proven these early visionaries to have been right on target.
Without their efforts, their passion and devotion to building a booming economy, DeSoto County would never have become the burgeoning metropolis that it has become.
Bill Austin, longtime DeSoto County Regional Utility Authority Executive Director and the son of W. H. Austin, Sr., recalls the groundbreaking ceremony along Stateline Road and U.S. Highway 51.
“I remember my dad saying that they had to get the groundbreaking ceremony over by dark,” Austin said. “They had billboards powered by generators.” Then Gov. Ross Barnett was the featured speaker, according to Austin. “It was a big deal getting it started. A few months before that all that land around there had been dairy farms. They built a circle of showhouses there. It was really something.”
Speaking of big dreams and tall tales, a young man from Hernando also made the news that memorable edition.
A story chronicled the fact that Jamie Tipton of Hernando may very well have been the “tallest page” ever to serve in the United States Congress.
“A 15-year-old Hernando High School athlete may hold a tall distinction which may never be topped — not even by a Texan. Jamie Tipton, son of Mr. and Mrs. James P. Tipton, is believed to be the tallest page ever to serve in the U.S. Congress. The Hernando High School basketball center stands six feet, six inches tall.”
Tipton would go on to tell the newspaper it was a thrill for him to have taken his first airplane ride to the nation’s capital and he spoke several times to Vice President Richard M. Nixon while in the corridors of Congress. Tipton was appointed by U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten. Tipton would go to serve as a Hernando city alderman.
That year was also notable for another reason.
Banks & Company began operation of the DeSoto County seat’s first 24-hour laundromat. To wash a load of laundry would set you back 20 cents. To dry one’s clothes would cost you a dime.
“Whether it’s eight o’clock, midnight or 4 a.m., you can do your week’s laundry in 30 minutes,” a newspaper advertisement proclaimed.
The times were “a changing” then, too, just as they are today. Funny how history often comes full circle and then slips away quietly, like the evening mist, into the oblivion of eternity.
As the writer Andrew Marvell once observed, “had we the world enough and time.”
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.