by Mary Collins Landin
From about 1880 through 1960, Utica was a "railroad" town, because when the Little J rail line was built here in 1881, the old town moved to the railroad tracks and five "new" streets, Main, Depot, White Oak, Carmichael, and Furguson, were lined with buildings and businesses. I have old photos of oxen teams pulling cotton wagons, of Utica's stave mill, sawmills, cotton gins, businesses on Depot and Main Streets, etc. Utica had more than 100 businesses and more than 15 factories/mills, plus 2 newspapers, electricity, a water system, etc. at the turn of the 20th Century. Its public school (successive buildings) stood on the same spot from 1852 until 2000, when it was burned to the ground by arsonists. Utica even had an opera house, and all the buildings were eventually built of brick, made from Utica's brick factory. Utica's streets were paved in the 1930s. Those were the glory days and
Utica is a dying town, losing population with each census, now with only about 900, a handful of businesses and no industry. The railroad closed down in 1981, would have closed sooner except for unions preventing it, and pulled up the tracks.
During the Civil War, Utica only had about 115 people in the village itself, and was just a stop in the road. Although people had lived here since 1780 when it was known as Cane Ridge (first death date on a gravestone in the Utica Cemetery is 1818----the name was changed when the U. S. Post Office refused to name the new PO "Cane Ridge" in 1837), the town didn't incorporate until 1880, because the rail line was going to miss them and they didn't want it to.
Depot Street was lined with packing sheds where a LOT of people worked, packing tomatoes and other produce grown around Utica, that were shipped out on the railroad to New York City and other big cities in the east. Once upon a time, restaurants and markets in NYC even listed their tomatoes as Utica MS tomatoes (we have the old menus and writing), sort of like Elberta peaches and Vidalia onions from Georgia and Idaho spuds are today.
Utica, Crystal Springs, Carpenter, and other small communities here with great soil were once known as the tomato capital of the US, and Crystal Springs (close by in Copiah County) still capitalizes on that title and holds an annual Tomato Festival in June that is a well attended flea market and with other festivities. What happened to that is Florida and California both jumped into the business when they became able to irrigate crops, and they mostly had year-round growing seasons, whereas central MS could only grow truck crops from about February to October. The retailers moved to the new sources, and central MS's truck crop business died. The good soil is still here, and we still grow great tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits for our own use, but the market will never return.
Mississippi's first radio station, WQBC, even began in Utica, MS. WQBC stands for "We Quote Better Cotton", because the owners were cotton buyers and crop furnishers, also a big crop in this area that is barely grown now, mostly by two farmers who still row-crop. In fact, we now have almost no farmers left, and we are all older people, whose children have no intention of taking on a farm life, or for that matter, staying in the Utica area. Most people drive to Vicksburg or Jackson for jobs, and the public high school kids are bused to the next town (there is a public grammar and junior high school left, on new locations), or all age kids are driven by their parents/grandparents to about 10 different private schools in 6 surrounding counties (Hinds, Copiah, Claiborne, Warren, Madison, and Rankin).
I would love to see an economic turnaround, but don't see it in the future, and right now we are just trying to save what is left. We can't do anything about the town government, but at least we can do something about remaining historic buildings and structures, and preserve the written and other history of the area. With a declining and aging population, that may also be in doubt.
Mary Collins Landin, Utica, Hinds County
Page Created July 3, 2005
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