Like many other Mississippi counties, Oktibbeha County was formed in 1833 from lands ceded to the United States by the Choctaw Nation in 1830. The name is said to have come from the words okti abeha bok, meaning “ice, there in the creek.” The county is the site of multiple Choctaw burial sites. Native American artifacts more than two thousand years old have been discovered near Choctaw mounds just east of Starkville, the county seat.
Located in northeastern Mississippi, Oktibbeha began as a profitable agricultural county with success in corn crops and orchard products. Although livestock did not dominate Oktibbeha’s industry, the prairie grasses and ample supply of water from the Noxubee River made the county conducive to raising cattle, mules, and horses. By the 1920s Oktibbeha became Mississippi’s main dairy producer, and the region was known as the Milk Pitcher of the South.
In 1840 Oktibbeha had 2,197 enslaved residents and 2,079 free people. The county witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of slaves in the late antebellum period, and by 1860 the county’s 7,631 slaves comprised 59 percent of the population of 12,977. Oktibbeha lost some of its territory and population with the establishment of Clay County to the north in 1872 and of Sumner County to the northwest two years later.
According to some evidence, the first church services held in the county occurred in 1835, led by Horatio Baldwell, a Presbyterian minister. Over time, Baptist churches came to dominate Oktibbeha’s religious organizations, and by 1860 Oktibbeha had thirteen Baptist churches, eleven Methodist churches, five Presbyterian congregations, and two Cumberland Presbyterian congregations.
In response to lobbying by white farmers in the Grange, the state founded Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College in Starkville in 1878, bringing significant changes to the community. Mississippi A&M was the state’s first land-grant college, created with Morrill Act funds, which allowed states to sell federal land to establish institutions for higher education. Classes began at the “people’s college” in 1880, though women were not admitted until half a century later.
Another major contribution to the farming industry in Oktibbeha County was the opening of the state’s first agricultural experiment station in 1888. The stations served as teaching centers where Mississippi farmers could learn new ways of selecting seed and plowing, planting, and rotating crops. In 1908 the boll weevil destroyed Mississippi’s cotton crop, and A&M extension services received funds to work to prevent similar devastations. With the help of the US Department of Agriculture and the Hatch Act of 1914, new extension agents were hired to travel throughout the state and demonstrate productive farming techniques. For more than a century, the extension services have conducted and published research on significant subjects in Mississippi agriculture—the boll weevil, dairy farming, catfish, soybeans, forestry, kudzu. The extension agents and home demonstration researchers funded by the Hatch Act operated out of offices in Starkville and maintained close connections to the university. Some prominent scholars and faculty members from this era include Dorothy Dickins, a leader in home economics research, and David Phares, author of The Farmers Book of Grasses and Other Forage Plants.
In 1900 Oktibbeha’s population topped twenty thousand, with African Americans accounting for almost two-thirds of the total. The county had a small but growing industrial sector, with 106 employees. Only 10 percent of Oktibbeha’s 3,115 African American farmers owned their land, compared to more than two-thirds of white farmers. In 1916 the majority of Oktibbeha churchgoers attended Missionary Baptist and Southern Baptist services, while many others joined Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal Church, South congregations.
In the 1930s Oktibbeha’s population declined slightly to 19,119 (11,367 African Americans and 7,752 whites). The growing college town of Starkville had a population of almost 2,600. The county’s businesses employed almost 400 workers, and Starkville’s dairy condensery (which opened in 1926) and other factories expanded manufacturing employment in the region. Agriculture remained the center of Oktibbeha’s economy, with two-thirds of the 2,827 farms run by tenant farmers.
Mississippi A&M became Mississippi State College in 1932 and Mississippi State University in 1957. The school’s notable graduates have included agricultural reformer Cully Cobb; political figures John Stennis, Sonny Montgomery, and Sharion Aycock; novelists John Grisham, Louis Nordan, and Thomas Hal Phillips; food writer Craig Claiborne; children’s author Laurie Parker; chair maker Greg Harkins; and longtime coaches Ron Polk (baseball) and Babe McCarthy (basketball). Famous Mississippi State athletes include basketball stars Bailey Howell, Jeff Malone, and Erick Dampier; football stars Eric Moulds and D. D. Lewis; and Major League Baseball players Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jonathan Papelbon. In 1965 Mississippi State University admitted its first African American student, Richard Holmes.
Among notable Starkville natives not associated with Mississippi State University are James “Cool Papa” Bell, a Negro League baseball star, and National Football League Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, who was born in Starkville and grew up in Crawford.
By midcentury, Oktibbeha County’s workers relied a great deal on Mississippi State University and other schools. In 1960 more than seventeen hundred county residents earned their living in education, giving Oktibbeha the state’s fourth-highest percentage of people with high school and college degrees. With the growth of the university and concerns connected to it, Oktibbeha County’s population soared to 36,018 by 1980.
In 2010 Oktibbeha County’s population reached 47,671 and was 59 percent white, 36.6 percent African American, and 2.4 percent Asian and Asian American, making Oktibbeha one of six counties in Mississippi with significant Asian populations.
- Mississippi State Planning Commission, Progress Report on State Planning in Mississippi (1938)
- Mississippi Statistical Abstract, Mississippi State University (1952–2010)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History: Comprising Sketches of Counties, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons (1907)
- 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)
- Sadye H. Wier and George R. Lewis, Sadye H. Wier: Her Life and Work (1993)