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Birney Imes: 'It's Mr. Bigbee on the line, Tom Bigbee'


Birney Imes



A fellow named Tom Bigbee called the newsroom last Thursday. He told Carol, who answered the phone, he was from Columbia, S.C., and was the last of his family's line. It was one of those Hail Mary phone calls. He was looking for information online about his family and the name Rufus Ward kept coming up, and somehow, it seemed, Rufus was connected to us. 


"I'm confused about my heritage," Mr. Bigbee said when I phoned him the next day, "I know I got plenty of Indian in me." 


Bigbee, a retired 57-year-old heavy equipment operator, says he spends his days selling Griswold cast iron skillets and cookware at flea markets. He bought a 1,300-piece collection from a friend and is selling it piece-by-piece. 


"I sold $2,000 worth today," he said, "two 20-inch hotel pans at $600 each, dutch ovens and some skillets." 


There are a lot of Griswold skillets for sale on the Internet, even though the company ceased production in 1957. They are beautiful in their black utilitarian simplicity. I expect 100 years from now people will still be collecting them.  


There was an Indian chief named Tom Bigbee, said Mr. Bigbee, adding that his father and grandfather had a lot of Indian in them. 


Maybe so, says local historian Rufus Ward, but the word Tombigbee comes from an Anglicized version of a French word that comes from the Choctaw word meaning boxmaker. To be precise, the word is Itta-ombee-aye-ika-a-vee and is Choctaw for "river of the wooden boxmaker." 


The French had a fort at Epps, Ala., and needed boxes to transport pelts they were trapping. The Choctaw learned to make wooden boxes there and thus the name of the fort and the nearby river. TombecbĂ© if you happened to be French. 


For the Chickasaw it had been "The King's Bath River," so called from the belief that the river's flooding was caused when the great spirit would take a bath in the river. By the early 1700s, the name Tombigby took hold. Not sure when the present day spelling went into effect. 


Though I doubt it would be any more enlightening than calling our newsroom, Mr. Bigbee could visit at town in Monroe County with his surname. Bigbee is about 2.5 miles northwest of Amory on Highway 6. Once it was a thriving sawmill town. 


According to an article written by Marilyn Tackett Richmond on Present-day Bigbee was established in 1893 when Houston Brothers Lumber Company bought land and built a sawmill there. The company built a hotel, boarding house for the crew and a two-story commissary for their over 100 employees and families. Bigbee was the first place outside of Amory to have electric lights as the company had their own dynamo to make electricity. They built a one-room school which was used for church and school. ... Houston Brothers was the largest sawmill in the state and possibly the largest east of the Mississippi River. 


The logs were cut from forest filled with virgin timber and floated down the Tombigbee River. There were two large holding lakes in the area where Bigbee was built; these can still be seen. When the timber was all cut, the mill closed and moved to another section of the state. This caused the community of Bigbee to almost evaporate. Records show that some men paid taxes on as many as four sections of land between 1862-1890. It is known that some were offered the land for $5 an acre. 


Before the Tenn-Tom Waterway was completed in the early 1980s, the Tombigbee was little more than a muddy creek beginning in north Mississippi and meandering to Demopolis where it joined the Black Warrior to become a navigable stream to Mobile. 


At a tribute for geologist Jack Kaye last Sunday those of us there were reminded of how the river connects us with our ancient, even prehistoric past. 


Friday afternoon I walked the soon-to-be-restored river bridge pondering a more recent past. Battered and rusted, its wooden roadway exposed, the old bridge (build in 1928, according to Rufus) was once the gateway to abundant temptations that awaited "across the river." 


River homes have replaced nightclubs and what was a primeval forest is an industrial site. Aside from the old bridge, two tourist courts and the shells of what were the Coffee Cup and the High Hat may be the only vestiges of that area's recent past. 


Roselynn Rainey remembers. Friday I ran into Rainey as she was walking the old bridge, cooling down after the 4-mile round-trip to the end of the Riverwalk. She pulled off her ear buds, and we talked a moment. Rainey, 38, teaches preschoolers with disabilities. She acknowledged doing some time at The Club, a later incarnation of the Southernaire. 


"I love that they are making it into a pedestrian walkway," she said of the bridge. 


We talked a minute longer, and then she returned to her Aerosmith and I to my memories. 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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