Pleasant location attracts settlers to Bethlehem
The South Reporter, date unknown
The Bethlehem community is spread out along Highway 349, the black top road that leads from Potts Camp to Cornersville. The community is about midway between Cornersville and Potts Camp.
The site of Old Bethlehem, once an incorporated town, was the intersection of two well traveled pioneer roads and the business section was in the vicinity of the Bethlehem Methodist Church. There the Cornersville Road intersected the Waterford Road. Westward the Waterford Road connected with old Wyatt, a river port on the Tallahatchie River, and then, retreating from the river, it led northward to Byhalia and thence into the Old Pigeon Roost Road or the Chulahoma Road. Other ramifications of the road led to Collierville and thence eastward to the Tennessee River area.
The geography of Old Bethlehem, however, made its location a most strategic one. Located on elevated rolling lands that slope into Tippah River bottom to the west and the Tallahatchie to the south, it made a pleasant place for rest stops for the early travelers. Abundant water from the springs, shade trees and freedom from the mosquitoes of the swamps of the two nearby rivers made it an ideal camping site.
Undoubtedly there were early trading posts and stores at the crossroads before the country settled up but data relative to these early ventures has been lost to the obscurity of long past years.
The country around the crossroads was early settled. Land records of Marshall County show early purchasers in the community. It would require too much time and space to summarize all of these early purchasers so the following list includes mainly those who bought land in Section 17, in which the old village was located:
Original purchasers of Section 17, fro the U.S. Government in 1836 were J. D. Cain, N. Crockett, E. F. Potts and E. S. Shorter, Crockett, a year or so later, sold his holdings to D. S. Greer, a very wealthy man who owned large tracts of land in many sections of Marshall County. He lived in Holly Springs and was perhaps a common ancestor of the present day Greer family of Marshall County and other parts of the country.
Other early buyers of land were: G. W. Oglivie, 1845; A. H. Roach, 1853; James Farrell, 1853; William Poe, 1865; William Cook, 1867; Alfred Whaley, 1869; C. M. Alvis, 1877; William Cook, 1880; F. P. Boatner, 1883; R. B. Overton, 1884; B. C. Alvis, 1869; R. S. Henderson, 1881; R. B. Overton, 1879.
As stated above in this article, this list of owners is restricted to the vicinity of the old village of Bethlehem. There were perhaps many other pioneers who settled in the community some years earlier. The names of some of these families are yet preserved in the immediate area by descendants.
Old Bethlehem seems to have reached its peak of prosperity and population in the late 1870s and early 1880s. An article copied from a newspaper (unfortunately misplaced) in the early 80s records that there were “several stores, a factory (product not listed), a post office, two churches, one of the best schools in the state, a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright establishment, all in business and doing well, in our little town.”
The town was incorporated in the late 1870s. The article stated that Will Cook was mayor and R. B. Overton was councilman and peace officer. Names of other officers and the proprietors of the business places are not recalled.
The article also stated that the school “immediately to the rear of the Methodist Church has been greatly enlarged by the addition of the Cook School and that the faculty of the school could teach any student desired by advanced pupils.” It also noted that Dr. Boatner and Will Cook were patrons and chief instigators of the school. Dr. Boatner, who practiced medicine in the area for more than 50 years, probably lived in the village. It is thought that he later moved to Potts Camp.
Like many pioneer villages, Old Bethlehem longed for a railroad. When rumors of the building of the Frisco Railroad became prominent, the citizens of Bethlehem made every effort to secure the railroad through their town. And, like so many other towns and villages of the era when the railroad bypassed them, most of the people moved to the railroad and the old town faded away. So it was with Bethlehem; the railroad was constructed through Potts Camp, then “a wide place in the road,” several miles north of Bethlehem.
Unlike Old Wyatt, Old Waterford and other extinct towns and communities of the country, Bethlehem did not entirely fade away. The era around the town was a pleasant place to live and the people having homes in the community kept their residence there. In those days soil of the uplands was very fertile and produced good crops. There was no stock law and it was easy to run herds of cattle, hogs and other livestock on their holdings and in the nearby river bottoms.
Submitted by Martha Fant.
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