Located in north-central Mississippi on land historically populated by Choctaw and Chickasaw peoples, Calhoun County was founded in 1852 and named for South Carolina political leader John C. Calhoun. Notable geographic features in Calhoun County include the Skuna and Yalobusha Rivers. Calhoun is also home to a ceremonial site from the late Woodland period. The county seat is Pittsboro. Other towns in Calhoun County include Bruce, Calhoun City, Derma, and Vardaman.
In its first census in 1860, Calhoun was home to more than nine thousand people. Slaves made up 19 percent of the population—the second-lowest percentage in Mississippi. As in many counties with more free people than slaves, corn was a more important commodity than cotton and other cash crops. Sixty-five men worked in industry—mostly in the lumber industry and small blacksmith shops. Calhoun County had thirty-six churches, sixteen of them Baptist, fourteen Methodist, and six Presbyterian.
By 1880 the population of Calhoun County had grown to 13,492, with African Americans accounting for one quarter of the residents. Calhoun had only thirty-eight industrial workers, and more than 75 percent of the county’s farmers owned their own land. By 1900 the population increased by more than two thousand, yet landownership had declined dramatically: 57 percent of the county’s white famers owned their land, as did just 24 percent of African American farmers.
The 1916 religious census found that members of the Southern Baptist Convention made up more than half of Calhoun’s churchgoers, with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; Colored Methodist Episcopal Church; and the National Baptist Convention as the next-largest groups. Calhoun County hosted the state’s first Sacred Harp singing convention in 1878. Born in Calhoun County in 1898, Zelma Wells Price became a state legislator from Washington County with a particular interest in opposing the sale of alcohol.
Calhoun County’s overall population changed very little between 1900 and 1930, though African Americans dropped to one-fifth of all residents. By 1930 Calhoun had seventy-one manufacturing establishments, and they employed 528 people. Agriculture remained the primary employer, and corn was the most important crop.
By 1960 Calhoun had a population of almost sixteen thousand people, 73 percent of them white. Calhoun’s farmers grew the second-highest amount of corn in the state and had the seventh-highest number of hogs. The county’s production of other agricultural crops and timber was about average for the state. Along with its timber industry, Calhoun had a growing furniture industry that employed 763 people.
Vardaman has become a central place for the growing and marketing of sweet potatoes. Now called the Sweet Potato Capital of the World, the town hosts the annual Sweet Potato Festival.
Calhoun County was the home of the forty-second and forty-seventh governor of Mississippi, Dennis Murphree. Maj. Gen. Fox Conner, chief of operations for the American Expeditionary Force during World War I and a mentor to George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also born in Calhoun County. Ann Downing, an important southern gospel musician, was born in Pittsboro in 1945 and learned to sing in area churches and singing schools. Laurie Parker, author of Everywhere in Mississippi and other works about the state, was born in Bruce in 1963.
Other notable people from Calhoun County include National Football League players Frederick L. Thomas, Armegis Spearman, Cornelius Wortham, and M. D. Jennings as well as Major League Baseball player Dave Parker, who was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1978. Saxophone player and Mississippi Musicians’ Hall of Fame member John “Ace” Cannon also resided in Calhoun County.
The county’s population fluctuated slightly but remained relatively stable between 1960 (15,941) and 2010 (14,962). In 2010, 67 percent of Calhoun’s residents were white, 28 percent were black, and 5.4 percent were Latino/Hispanic.
- Mississippi State Planning Commission, Progress Report on State Planning in Mississippi (1938)
- Mississippi Statistical Abstract, Mississippi State University (1952–2010)
- Charles Sydnor and Claude Bennett, Mississippi History (1939)
- University of Virginia Library, Historical Census Browser website, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- E. Nolan Waller and Dani A. Smith, Growth Profiles of Mississippi’s Counties, 1960–1980 (1985)