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Ask Rufus: The stories houses tell

 

The Ole Homestead on College Street was probably built or purchased by Charles Abert in 1825 and is the oldest building known to have survived within the original town limits of Columbus.

The Ole Homestead on College Street was probably built or purchased by Charles Abert in 1825 and is the oldest building known to have survived within the original town limits of Columbus. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

Last week Karen and I attended the annual meeting of the Mississippi Heritage Trust in Tupelo. Our house, the Ole Homestead, received the 2014 Trudy Allen Award for residential restoration in Mississippi. While much talk was of architecture it is the stories that houses tell that most fascinate me. 

 

The Ole Homestead is a mid-1820s vernacular raised cottage on College Street in Columbus. It was constructed between 1821 and 1829 --most likely in 1825 --by Charles Abert. It was originally two rooms over two rooms facing Franklin Street (now Third Street South) and the Tombigbee River and is the oldest building known to have survived within the original town limits of Columbus. It also may be the third oldest surviving raised cottage in Mississippi and is the earliest one known to have survived north of the old Natchez District. 

 

The stories of the people who have lived in the house are what make it come alive for me. Its first owner of record was Abert. Abert's story is one of how times really haven't changed very much. He was a merchant who wrote in 1860 that he had moved to Columbus in 1825. At that time he apparently either bought or built the Ole Homestead. His business did very well form the beginning but really seemed to mushroom in 1826. In that year records of the Choctaw Indian Agency begin to show Abert selling goods to the agency. The next year, 1827, Abert built a large brick residence on Main Street. 

 

Though Abert moved, he did not sell the Ole Homestead until 1835. I find it interesting that he sold it at the time of the removal of the Choctaw People after the implementation of the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Timing that makes one wonder if in 1827 Abert knew from his dealings with the Choctaw Agency that preliminary treaty negotiations were under way and land prices would skyrocket after the treaty. Renting the house until then would make the house a sold investment. 

 

For three years there are no records of what was happening at the Ole Homestead. Then in 1830 it shows up as being rented to Hendley S. Bennett, a local lawyer. Bennett's story is another interesting one. He lived in the house from 1830 to 1835. When Abert sold the house to John Kirk in 1835, Bennett bought other property and moved. 

 

Bennett became a popular lawyer in Columbus and was elected Circuit judge in 1838. During 1848 Bennett invested in the now extinct Town of Barton where he was part owner of the Tombigbee ferry. Barton was located on the river's west bank in present day Clay County about nine miles north of Columbus. 

 

Bennett's aspirations, though, were greater than that. He became much involved in politics. He was a Democrat and was contending with a locally strong "Know Nothing Party." Bennett had some strong support in the Granada area and decided to run for Congress from there. In 1854 he was elected to Congress and gave his residence as Granada. He either did not actually move to Granada or, if he did, he still continued to spend most of his time in Columbus. That ,of course, angered his base and popular Aberdeen attorney Reuben Davis campaigned against him claiming Bennett had double-crossed him and several others in political dealings. 

 

As a result, Bennett was defeated when he ran for re-election. He "officially" moved back to Columbus, but in 1859 moved to Texas. Interestingly, the Congressional Directory lists Bennett as being from Granada. 

 

Another interesting resident of the Ole Homestead was Dr. James W. Hopkins. Hopkins had purchased the house in 1859 from Lowndes County Sheriff James Wynn, who had purchased it in 1846. When the Civil War erupted and Columbus became a major hospital center, Dr. Hopkins offered his services to the Confederacy. He served as a surgeon, probably on a contract basis at the Confederate Hospitals in Columbus. 

 

According to Gary Lancaster there were only two hospitals initially in Columbus. There was the Gilmer Hotel which was 450 beds but at times had as many as 750 patients, and the Newsom Hospital which is now Calloway Hall at MUW. It was named after a Dr. Newsom and had about 190 beds. After the Battle of Shiloh with over 3,000 wounded flooding into Columbus a need for more beds was realized and other hospitals were built or established. 

 

Dr. Hopkins' son, E. R. Hopkins, was a small boy during the war. He recalled troops marching along College Street to the Steamboat landing on the river. He wrote of trading food with the soldiers for souvenirs. In working on the Ole Homestead, Dan Clark found what may have been one of his prizes. It was a Confederate Archer-type artillery shell. The stories old houses tell can be fascinating and who knows what you may find.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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