Sunday, September 30, 2012

'Twas Electrifying!

Date Unknown, most likely during the Depression, by C.W. Witbeck, then a WPA photographer,
 from MDAH Archives

"Then let us cultivate patriotic sentiment in the children of this country and build for the future welfare of the nation." -- The Lincoln County Times, Nov. 16, 1915.

Between 1885 and 1915, the Liberty Bell made seven trips by rail to various World's Fairs and big city expositions, and along the way, visited some 400 towns across the U.S.  A visit from the Liberty Bell was a great occasion, and towns would put on their patriotic best, with parades, marching bands and flag-waving festivities. (For more, see this link.) 

In 1915, the Great War was in its second year.  The Liberty Bell was making its way home to Philadelphia via railways, after its much heralded display at the San Francisco World's Fair. 

It would be the last time the bell would be visible anywhere but its permanent home.

Brookhaven was one of the scheduled stops, and the town leaders saw an opportunity to combine patriotism with good old-fashioned marketing.  Where a Masonry welcome sign once stood, an iron and electric light sign bearing the slogan, "Brookhaven A Home Seekers Paradise" was erected over Cherokee Street, facing the ICRR tracks.

The train carrying the bell was scheduled to arrive at 6:25 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 19, 1915.  As with all towns on the scheduled 10-minute stops, there was great enthusiasm on the part of the locals.

That the train was due after nightfall did not dampen the excitement for this "opportunity of a lifetime."  The town promised to provide extra lighting so that the Liberty Bell would be "brilliantly illuminated." 

School children in particular were involved, with patriotic programs at 3:30 p.m. at the High School.  At 6 p.m., the high school and Whitworth College students were to gather at City Hall and then march one block to Union Station to await the arrival of the train. 

A program at the Cherokee Street crossing "beginning promptly at 6:10 p.m." included the reading of the Prize-Winning compositions, a rendition of the song "America," and a solo of "The Flag" by Mrs. R. B. Willoughby.

Next came College Yells; the illumination of the sign and Brookhaven's slogan; a salute of Bells; salute of company H, 3rd Regiment of the Mississippi National Guard; and finally, a rendition of "Dixie." 

Based on what I've read, I think it's safe to say that the illumination of this electric sign was nothing short of stupefying.  (Note: electric lights were NOT a novelty -- the town established telephone service in 1894 and the first electric light and water plant in 1898.) 

According to Lincoln County, Mississippi, A Pictorial History, by Durr Walker:

"As the first sound of the train's steam whistle cut through the noise of the crowd, the lights came on." 

All sound stopped.  "It was if the people were awe-stricken."

Just how many people were on hand to witness this historical moment is unclear.  Also unclear is when exactly the train carrying the bell arrived. I am told that long-time town historian Matthews Ard stated in one account that the train was hopelessly late and that it did not arrive in Brookhaven until after midnight. 

Regardless, the iconic sign welcomed every ICRR train for the next 28 years.  Born in a patriotic vein, it met its demise in a similar act of patriotism: it was dismantled during World War II and the iron donated for the war effort.  

The sign, however, lived on in nostalgia.  Post-War II, parents and grandparents often told Baby Boomers about the amazing electric sign that spanned Cherokee Street from the Storm Building to the Brookhaven Bank.

 In November of 1996, the town erected a duplicate sign in the same location. Today, it is perhaps one of the most photographed structures in downtown proper.

Bottom photos are from the Daily Leader Bicentennial edition (1976) from the Mary Becker Hatcher archives, courtesy of Bettie Hatcher Cox; scanned by Deenie Tallant

Post Script: A special thank you to Marti Parker for going to the library for me and finding the micro film accounts of the preparations in the Lincoln County Times, consolidation of the Brookhaven News and the Brookhaven Progress,  Nov. 16, 1915, No. 51.

For those of you curious as to the makeup of the Reception Committee, here is a list of names: Aldermen E.M. Bee, L.H. Baggett, F.H. Moodie, E. McCormick, S. Abrams; Mayor Charles Heuck.  On behalf of the Board of Trade were Messrs. C.S. Butterfield, J.W. McGrath, W.H. Seavey, W.D. Davis, H.C. Greenwood and C.B. Perkins. 

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