Founded in 1890 from parts of Hancock and Marion Counties, Pearl River County initially had a population of just 2,957, the smallest in the state. This small and sparsely populated county in the Piney Woods grew with the timber industry in South Mississippi.
By 1900 Pearl River County’s population had reached 6,697, with whites making up 73 percent. Only two counties had fewer acres of improved farmland. Among farmers, 84 percent of whites and 69 percent of African Americans owned their land. The county had 77 tenant farmers, the lowest number in the state except for the three counties on the Gulf Coast.
The timber industry and related economic activities were far more important than agriculture. For a small county, early Pearl River had a great deal of industry. In fact, by 1900 Pearl River had about 700 industrial employees working at thirty-two establishments, and Picayune, Pearl River County’s largest community, had become a railroad center for the South Mississippi timber industry. The Rosa timber mill, a small operation in the nineteenth century, became a major employer when L. O. Crosby Sr. and his colleagues organized the Goodyear Yellow Pine Company in 1916. The mill later expanded to become part of Crosby Forest Products. Pearl River County wood products became popular for construction throughout the country, while the Crosby family expanded into other enterprises and into local leadership.
According to the 1916 religious census, Southern Baptists made up more than two-thirds of all church members in Pearl River County, with almost all other churchgoers attending Methodist or Missionary Baptist congregations.
The county’s population grew along with the timber industry, tripling between 1900 and 1930 to 22,411. About three-quarters of the residents were white. Almost 5,000 people lived in Picayune. Pearl River County had twenty-two manufacturing establishments employing 2,254 people, the state’s third-largest number of industrial workers. Agriculture remained secondary to timber, and Pearl River was one of only six Mississippi counties where more than 70 percent of all farmers owned their land.
Theodore Bilbo, one of Mississippi’s most aggressive advocates of using racial segregation and disfranchisement to protect the privileges of white residents, grew up in the county seat of Poplarville. He died in 1947 while under US Senate investigation for using his influence to finance his new home there. In 1959 Pearl River County became the center of national attention and scrutiny when Mack Charles Parker, a young African American male, was lynched after being accused of rape.
Pearl River County has also been the home of notable writers and storytellers. Novelist James Street grew up in Lumberton and wrote numerous books set in the Piney Woods. In the 1910s S. G. Thigpen Jr. became a Picayune store owner and author, writing stories about rural life in Mississippi collected in books such as Work and Play in Grandpa’s Day. Born in Picayune in 1943, literary scholar Noel Polk was an important editor and interpreter of the works of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. He taught at the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University. His memoir, Outside the Southern Myth, recalled his early years in Pearl River County. In addition, television star Gerald McRaney spent much of his childhood in Picayune, and in the 1980s the Pinecote Pavilion, designed by architect E. Fay Jones, opened at the Crosby Arboretum in Picayune.
In 1960 Pearl River County had a population of 22,411, with whites comprising 77 percent of the total. The county continued to rank high in the amount of commercial timberland. About a third of Pearl River’s workers were employed in manufacturing, particularly in furniture, timber, and apparel, while about 7 percent worked in agriculture. After two decades of substantial growth, Pearl River’s population reached approximately 34,000 in 1980.
Pearl River County, like many counties in southeast Mississippi, has continued to grow, and in 2010 it was predominantly white and had a small but significant Hispanic/Latino minority. Indeed, with a 150 percent increase in size since 1960, the county’s population had undergone one of the largest expansions in the state.
- 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)