Taylor, Mississippi encompasses a little more than four square miles in the hills of north Mississippi. Approximately halfway between Oxford and Water Valley in the Yocona River delta, Taylor, the only place name that William Faulkner did not change in his novels, is one of the state’s best kept secrets, rich with history and culture.
The year was 1832 when John Taylor, the son of a Revolutionary War veteran, brought his bride Nancy from North Carolina and settled just north of the Yocona River. A physician by trade, Taylor bought large tracts of land from the Chickasaw Indians and he built a mill on the river. Nancy gave birth to the first of eight children they would have here.
The Taylors did not arrive to a virgin countryside made up of primeval forest. From the Chickasaws, the settlers inherited a landscape that had been cultivated into lush forests of oak, hickory, and magnolia, interspersed with vast meadows, which the natives had tamed with deliberate fires for hundreds of years. The hunting and fishing were plentiful and pioneers to this area described how there were canopied forests of huge trees, spaced far enough apart that one could drive a large carriage right through, as if in a park.
Building Community, Churches and Schools
It was in this land of plenty that Dr. Taylor and other pioneer families, some whose descendants still live here, chose to call home, and built houses, first of logs culled from the vast tracts of timber in the valley, and later, grander homes in the colonial style. A few large plantations manned by up to hundreds slaves grew out of the land, replacing expanses of forest and meadow with fields of cotton and corn. But mostly small yeoman farmers who cultivated the land with their own hands were scattered throughout the valley and up in the surrounding hills. The settlement was first called Yocona Station.
A school and church were soon built, a sure sign of a community bound for civilization. The school was a one room log cabin on Thacker Mountain, the county’s highest point at 571 feet, led by Miss Victoria Thacker, who taught all ages of students here. In 1840, Yocona Church was organized east of the town center, and a cemetery established.
Roads and Railroads
A road linking Taylor to Oxford and Memphis known as Stage Coach Road was the first main thoroughfare. In 1856, construction began on the Mississippi Central Railroad. Slave labor cleared the line for the tracks and laid the foundations. A depot was built near the site of the present day post office A large well located near the depot communally served the citizens, and a couple of businesses hung out their shingles.
Finished in 1858, the train was the life blood of the town, ferrying everything from cotton and timber headed for the port in Memphis to plantation owners’ daughters gussied up and headed to one of the frequent balls which were held at the various estates that dotted the peaceful valley. Taylor folks always did love a party.
War Comes to Taylor
In 1861 this serenity was shattered by the Civil War, and life here would never be the same. In 1862, right before Christmas, Grant’s army moved through and camped in Taylor on its way from Holly Springs to Vicksburg down the Mississippi Central Railroad. Over 10,000 soldiers in blue raided and occupied the local plantations and farmsteads, helping themselves to food, livestock and most anything else they could loot, and burned many homes, especially those of citizens they suspected of causing them trouble.
After the war, the citizens of Taylor set about rebuilding the ravaged town, bigger and better than before, including a new Methodist Church and school. Houses began to spring up among the ruins of the destroyed homes, and the Taylors built a two story house on the railroad for travelers to rest and have a meal. After the war, cotton was still king here, and the slave economy transitioned to the sharecropper economy.
Incorporation and Renaming
Taylor’s Depot was incorporated in February of 1873, and in 1907 the name was officially changed to Taylor.
A second school was built, and by this time Taylor’s Depot was a bustling little town. By 1878, in addition to the depot and telegraph office, there were 12 stores in Taylor, including dry goods shops, three saloons, a drugstore, and a hat shop. A Masonic Lodge was set up in the second floor of the general store. Artisans set up a tan yard where the Methodist Church now stands, and a brick kiln was built to meet the growing need for building materials. This was a prosperous time for Taylor residents, who farmed, shopped, worshiped, and enjoyed Sunday afternoon’s at Lover’s Paradise, a beautiful spring-fed pond by the railroad tracks that provided a cool, shady spot for families to fish and picnic, and young folks to court during the hot summers. To the railroad engineers, this pond was known simply as Tank Pond, and the passing trains stopped to fill their boilers with water from a tank that was fed from the pond, as well as load up with coal from a big bin.
Taylor saw its share of tragedies. On Feb. 25, 1870 one of the worst train wrecks in the history of the state occurred near Taylor’s Depot. A mail and passenger train coming from Oxford and heading to Texas plunged off the tracks as a trestle three miles north of Taylor gave way over a 50-foot gully. 21 people were killed, and the citizens of Taylor rushed out in buggies with their own mattresses to fetch the wounded to their homes. The disaster made newspapers across the country, even the New York Times.
Yellow fever came through twice—in 1879 and 1898. The first time was the worst. There was camp meeting revival in full swing, when suddenly a woman starting screaming hysterically—a man next to her was having yellow fever convulsions. Panic and mayhem ensued as everyone scattered to their homes, packed their belongings in wagons and evacuated the town. Taylor’s Depot became a ghost town for a few months, with a few brave souls left to look after the sick and the dead. The town relived this nightmare 20 years later, and joined much of the state in mourning the many that died from this dreadful disease.
The Beginning of the Decline
In 1910 a fire swept through Taylor’s Depot, destroying nearly all the stores and homes in the town center. In all, 13 buildings were razed. This demoralizing blow marked the beginning of the end of Taylor as a thriving center of commerce, and many of the businesses never reopened. The only surviving buildings were one store and the post office.
By 1914 Boll Weevil reached north Mississippi, wiping out entire cotton crops and making the sharecropping business even more of a dead end situation. On top of the fire, this little bug helped speed the decline of Taylor as a rival to Oxford. Thus began one of several waves of emigration by people who headed up north to the cities for better paying work in factories.
The resilient Taylorites survived the hard times, though, and always strived to better their little town. Education played a prominent role in the history of Taylor. Using taxes from the railroad, school houses were improved and additional teachers were added to the payroll. Coming a long way from the days that Ms. Thacker taught everyone in one room as they huddled by the pot bellied stove, the students were divided according to age and the school ran nearly year round. When the school house burned down, the students were taught in the churches.
After the 1910 fire, a new two story school was erected on the hill just south of the town center, but after a couple of years, it was struck by lightning and also burned. Again, the churches came to the rescue and allowed classes to be held there. Just in time for the 1914 graduating class, a new brick school was built, and more students than ever were able to receive the benefits of an education. The school year ran for eight months, so that farmers’ children could work in the fields.
The New School
A modern school was built in 1926 down by the tracks. With heat, indoor plumbing, electricity and a large gymnasium, it was state of the art for its time. The school served not only Taylor residents, but also students from around the county. Today, many county residents have fond memories of attending Taylor School.
The school also added to the town’s traffic and commerce. About a quarter of the county’s students attended Taylor School, and sports, plays and other school activities kept the town bustling. Until the school closed in the late 1960’s, the town center stayed full of makeshift school buses and their drivers, who hung out all day at the stores and eateries until time to take the students home, while shade tree mechanics worked on cars and visited.
Taylor Vocational High School
The African American community of Taylor boasts a proud educational tradition that ran parallel with the segregated white schools. By the end of Reconstruction, there were three Black schools in the area, which were consolidated into one at Taylor. Black schools did not receive the same tax revenue as the white schools, so the students’ parents provided wood to heat the makeshift school house.
In 1936, the community galvanized to build a proper school. Those who could not afford to give money donated labor, timber and food for the workers, and a five room school, a model of excellence in the state, called Taylor Vocational High School, was completed where the Taylor Community Center now stands. Agriculture classes were taught there in addition to the regular curriculum, and a spacious farm building with classrooms and a shop was added to the school complex. A health center was built next to the school, constructed with volunteer and student labor. After World War II, the school offered classes for veterans in farming, canning, construction and livestock. This school operated until the 1960’s.
By 1970, Taylor was considered a “declining small town” by geography scholars, and could well have become extinct, gone the way of other towns in Lafayette County, such as Springdale and Altus, which exist only as community names now. Taylor was an Oxford backwater, located on a road that went nowhere, and home to mainly an aging population of farmers whose children were likely to move off when they were grown, so the population of Taylor dwindled.
The 1970 census indicated the population to be 92, eight less than the 100 needed to remain an incorporated municipality, and in 1972 Taylor’s charter was revoked. In 1973, Taylor citizens, along with the help of State Representative Ed Perry, persuaded the Mississippi Legislature to lower this requirement to 92; as a result the municipal charter was restored.
A special election was held and a new mayor and board of aldermen were elected. Their first order of business was to annex additional land area. In late 1973 the municipal boundary was moved to the present day location. This annexation increased the physical size of Taylor about ten-fold, while tripling the population. In 1974 this same administration purchased the Town Hall and the property where the park is located. These two actions secured Taylor’s viability for the future.
The town also survived extinction, even though the train stopped running through here in the early 1980’s, because there were still several large farms and a cotton gin here. The old cotton gin, located behind the present post office, burned in the late 1950’s, and a new modern one was built on Highway 328 in the early 1970’s but has ceased operation recently. Small truck farms and a dairy farm were located here as well.
The Artist Community
About this time something serendipitous happened. In the 1970’s real estate prices in Oxford began to rise, and several artists, looking for affordable housing, moved into Taylor, buying Victorian era fixer uppers and settling in to the town’s rustic lifestyle. This peaceful atmosphere turned out to be the perfect setting for inspiring and allowing artists the tranquility they need to create, and more artists followed their colleagues to Taylor to live and set up shop. A natural gas pipeline running from Oxford to Water Valley passed through the town’s center, adding an incentive for potters to move here— industrial kilns run on gas.
By the 1990’s, over a dozen artists and writers were calling Taylor home, including potters Obie Clark and Keith Stewart, sculptor Bill Beckwith and photographer Jane Rule Burdine. The line between native and newcomer became blurred. Farmers, artists, and an increasing number of refugees from city life live side by side in neighborly harmony, visiting on front porches, working together on the volunteer fire department, attending church, and raising families.
In 1999 the first art gallery, Taylor Arts, was opened by husband and wife artist team Marc Deloach and Chris Schultz, and the towns already burgeoning reputation as an out of the way arts mecca was cemented. Pat and Jim Hamilton opened Taylor P.O. Gallery and Gifts in the old Post Office in 2006. Jim Hamilton’s family was among the first settlers here, and his father was the postmaster in that very building from 1959 to 1987. Located next door to Taylor Grocery, this unique shop offered work by local artists, fine antiques and jewelry. Tin Pan Alley Art and Antiques opened in Plein Air in 2008 and owners/artists Alice Hammell and Obie Clark sold their work and that of other area artists, as well as distinctive antiques and home décor.
Restaurants and Service Station
Taylor Grocery and Restaurant continues a longstanding town tradition of serving “The South’s Best Catfish” along with other other menu items and serves hundreds of people each weekend with world famous food and live music.
Grit, in Plein Air offers a sophisticated Southern cuisine. Nick recreates dishes from his grandmother’s table in Memphis, while incorporating bold flavor combinations from Old World and international cuisine.
Carter’s Store, which has operated since 1941, is the town’s only gas station and keeps the locals supplied with dry goods, cold sodas and sandwiches.
Plein Air Neighborhood
Plein Air, a concept neighborhood focusing on the arts, opened in Spring 2007, in the heart of Taylor on an old dairy farm, and is bringing a distinctive flavor to the town. With its old fashioned homes, commercial district, and walk and bike friendly design, Plein Air seeks to incorporate the simple and community friendly lifestyle of Taylor into modern living.
Plein Air has several small businesses, a Southern Living Dream Home and it hosts art workshops and demonstrations, concerts, and festivals. It is a safe place where Taylorites like to walk, ride bikes and picnic.
Taylor Community Center on First Street serves the area with a safe place for kids to play, and a venue for basketball games, education and art programs, a voting precinct and community gatherings. It is the headquarters for the annual Taylor Christmas parade, a festive affair that brings everyone out to cheer on the various town organizations and businesses on their creative floats and catch candy and beads.
The Town Park at 12 Main Street provides a shady playground and picnic pavilion serve the public. Adjacent to the park, Town Hall hosts various public events and the annual lighting of the town Christmas tree. The Town Hall building is available for private use by reservation to citizens residing within the town limits.
Adding to the large established cotton and soybean farms and cattle ranches here, several enterprising small farmers established organic produce farms, among them Broken Magnolia Farm. Raising vegetables, herbs, cut flowers, chickens, goats and other small livestock, these growers, using sustainable and restorative agricultural practices, have breathed new life into defunct farmland.
Taylor Looks to the Future
Taylor has a Planning & Development Code Ordinance and Building Code ordinances that are designed to ensure safety and comfort in the community and to control future large scale residential or commercial development. Taylor is a historic, vibrant and thriving community that is growing, but in a way that the town folks hope will preserve the pastoral way of life here. Many residents are 2nd to 5th generation Taylorites who choose to stay and raise their families here, alongside the new young families, retirees, and artists who value living where neighbors take care of each other and love to gather, creativity is encouraged, and there are no traffic jams.