Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mississippi's Polish Hero

On a recent trip to Krakow, Poland, I visited the Wawel (pronounced “Vaw-vul”), which is the historic castle complex of Polish kings and queens, as well as the site of Wawel Cathedral, the “national” church of Poland where most of Polish royalty are buried. As visitors ascend Wawel Hill to enter the castle complex, an impressive equestrian statue (right) looms above the entrance. Although I didn’t realize it immediately, the name on the plague was a familiar one, even in Polish: it was none other than Thaddeus Kosciuszko. While I knew that Kosciuszko was Polish, I mostly associated the name Kosciusko (without the ‘z’) with the Mississippi town along the Natchez Trace in Attala County. Frankly,  I did not expect to run into him in Krakow. Had I done a little bit of reading about him before my visit, though, I would not have been surprised one bit, because Thaddeus Kosciuszko is perhaps the greatest of Poland’s heroes.

Kosciuszko was born in Poland in 1746. An engineering student at the Cadet Academy in Warsaw, Kosciuszko continued his studies in Paris before coming to America in 1776.  He came here to offer his services as an engineer during the American Revolution and was commissioned a colonel by the Continental Congress.  Not just a military officer, Kosciuszko was a dedicated patriot who sincerely believed in the cause of liberty, not just in the Americas but in his homeland as well. Impressed with the Declaration of Independence, Kosciuszko met Thomas Jefferson and the two became friends. During the war, Kosciuszko helped build fortifications at Philadelphia and at Saratoga, New York, before becoming the chief engineer at West Point (long before West Point became the United States military academy). Kosciuszko’s fortifications at West Point made the place virtually impregnable.  He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1783 and was awarded the Cincinnati Order Medal by George Washington. Washington also gave Kosciuszko two pistols and a sword as thanks for his service to the young nation.

After Revolution ended, Kosciuszko went back to Poland to help his own country win its independence from foreign powers.  On April 4, 1794, he successfully led troops in the battle of Raclawice (right), which resulted in the liberation of Warsaw. The revolution ultimately failed, however, and Kosciuszko was wounded and taken prisoner by the Russians. Released from prison, he came back to the United States in 1797, where he received a hero's welcome in Philadelphia. His home in that city is now a national monument.  Kosciuszko spent the last few years of his life in Switzerland and died at the age of 72 in 1817.  Although Jefferson declared that Kosciuszko was a “son of liberty” in America (and he was an earliest advocate for the emancipation of slaves), he never saw the liberation of his own homeland. In fact, Poland would not be freed from foreign domination until the latter half of the 20th  Century. Today, Kosciuszko is celebrated in Poland as a national hero, and is buried at Wawel Castle along with the kings and queens of his native land.  

Kosciusko, Mississippi, was originally known as “Redbud Springs,” but was later renamed to honor Kosciusko (but without the ‘z’) because of his contributions to the American Revolution. There are several other place names in Mississippi which honor heroes of the Revolution, and there are few other places in the United States named to honor Kosciusko. For instance, there is a town in Texas named for him (also with the ‘z’), as well as a county in Indiana. Interestingly, Monmouth, Illinois, was originally supposed to be called Kosciuszko (with the ‘z’) after the name was drawn from a hat, but it was decided that the name would be too hard to pronounce. 

There are also several monuments to Kosciusko in the United States, including Chicago, Milwaukee, Scranton, Boston, Washington and at West Point. The latter was erected in 1913, but the base was designed and dedicated in 1828 by John Hazlehurst Boneval Latrobe. Latrobe was an author, artist, lawyer and inventor who founded the Maryland Historical Society. In 1834, Latrobe recorded his journey from New York to Natchez in a journal. His descriptions of Natchez and New Orleans and his observations about travel on the Mississippi River are a pleasure to read. More significantly, perhaps, J.H.B. Latrobe was the son of Benjamin H. B. Labtrobe, the architect and designer of the U.S. capitol. The monument at West Point designed by the younger Latrobe was commissioned by the Corps of Cadets. The reward for the winning design was a medal (above right). On the reverse side of the coin was an image of the monument base. The most recent monument erected to honor the memory of Kosciusko was in 2006 (above left). Located in Redbud Springs Park in Kosciusko, Mississippi, the monument is the work of sculptor Tracy Suggs.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko never made it to Mississippi (or Texas for that matter) but his memory lives on in his adopted homeland. Although he never knew freedom for his own country, he is finally at rest in a free Poland, where he is revered as a national hero. Oh, and they spell his name with the ‘z’ intact. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Horrible sights never before witnessed here:" The Crystal Springs Bus Wreck of 1942

On Wednesday, August 5, 1942, just after 1:00 p.m., a Greyhound bus on a routine New Orleans to Jackson run was hit by a southbound passenger train on the Illinois Central Railroad line. The bus, loaded with fifty-two passengers, had just completed its scheduled stop in Crystal Springs and headed toward Hwy. 51 on the way to Jackson. The passengers included a number of United States Army Air Corps cadets and at least one newly married couple. Although there have been many accidents involving trains and passenger vehicles through the years, the severity of this particular wreck is still remembered in Crystal Springs.

Crystal Springs, located in Copiah County, was organized in the 1820s and named for a number of clear springs in the area. In 1858, the town, such as it was, moved about one and a half miles west of the original site to take advantage of the railroad (at the time known as the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern). As with many communities in Mississippi, the town prospered with the coming of the railroad. By the 1870s, Crystal Springs started shipping vegetables via the railroad to markets across the country, especially tomatoes, earning Crystal Springs the nickname “Tomatopolis of the World.” Today, Crystal Springs hosts an annual tomato festival to celebrate the town’s commercial agricultural heritage.

On the fateful day of the accident, the railroad which had brought prosperity to the town instead delivered death and destruction. On that day, the Greyhound bus had stopped at the railroad crossing to wait for a northbound freight train to clear the intersection. Once the last car of the freight train had passed, the bus driver proceeded to cross the tracks, unaware that a fast-moving, south-bound passenger train was bearing down the second set of tracks. That train was an Illinois Central Railroad special troop train. Although the driver attempted to avoid the collision, the train slammed into the rear of the bus. The force of the impact tore away the rear engine and the roof of the bus. Witnesses later told the Highway Patrol that the bus was lifted off the ground and carried for some distance before overturning, and came to rest upside down with the front facing back toward the tracks. To make matters worse, the accident happened to fall on the first day of school, and first reports were that the train hit a school bus, causing a near-panic in town. Once the rumors were dispelled, the townspeople began the task of clearing away the debris and caring for the wounded, many of whom were taken to hospitals in Jackson.

The bus was carrying an equal number of cadets and civilians (26 each). Casualties also included some who were standing along the tracks waiting for the trains to pass, including Thelma Boatman Dodds of Osyka, Mississippi, who was killed when the bus overturned on the sidewalk where she was standing. Mrs. Dodds, by all accounts, had been trying to warn the driver of the danger. The little town of Osyka suffered two casualties that day – Mrs. Zellie Cutrer was also killed in the accident.* Mrs. Fannie Johnson Smith (right) of Crystal Springs was on her way to Jackson to visit relatives. Her niece and nephew, Mr. and Mrs. Earl Patterson of Jackson, had been visiting her in Crystal Springs. Both were seriously injured in the crash. Mrs. Smith, 44, was buried at the Old Crystal Springs Cemetery.

All told, the accident claimed the lives of fifteen passengers and injured thirty-two others. Among those who died or were injured were citizens of eighteen different states, including Mississippi. The United States Army Air Corps cadets were going to Jackson en route to a new training post at the Greenville Army Flying School. Among the cadets killed was Richard H. M. Shinebarger of Erin, New York. Shinebarger married his wife Wilma just a month before, on the Fourth of July, in Ocala, Florida. After graduation from his high school, where he was the valedictorian, Richard enrolled in the Alfred University School of Ceramics, still considered the top school of ceramic arts in the country. Richard left in his junior year to join the Air Corps. His wife Wilma was a 1941 graduate of the Arnot-Ogden Hospital School of Nursing in Elmira, N.Y. before meeting Richard. Both were 21 years old. Geddie Roy ("Bill") Smathers, Jr. of Charlotte, North Carolina, (left) was also killed in the wreck. Smathers, aged 20, had worked as a bookkeeper at the American Trust Company in Charlotte before enlisting in the Army Air Corps. His father, Geddie Roy Smathers, Sr., a veteran of the First World War, was left behind to mourn the death of his son. Smathers died at Baptist Hospital in Jackson.

The tragic accident in Crystal Springs made national headlines (including the front page of the New York Times), even though events worldwide demanded constant attention. In short time, of course, the horrors of World War II overshadowed the bus wreck in Mississippi and was mostly forgotten except by those who lost loved ones in the crash. The people of Crystal Springs, however, have not forgotten the dead and in 2008 erected a state historical marker at the site of the accident.

* Other sources indicate that both Dodds and Cutrer were from Crystal Springs

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) (2) Accident photos courtesy of the Copiah County Historical & Genealogical Society
(3) Mrs. Smith:
(4) Smathers:
(5) Newspaper:

Monday, February 11, 2013

Waits Jewelry Store

Located in downtown Corinth, Waits Jewelry and Fine Gifts has been in operation since before the turn of the 20th Century.  Opened in 1892, the jewelry store is housed in a building constructed about 1870. A former saloon and later a post office, the building retains many features of its original design, including cast iron cornices and pressed-metal ceilings. As interesting as the historic structure is, however, the story of the jewelry store’s original owner is even better.

James Waits, a native of Alabama and a Confederate soldier, was stationed in Corinth during the war. Captured and sent to prison, he returned to Corinth after the war ended and opened a watch shop at the corner of Fillmore and Waldron Streets. In time, the watch shop turned into a jewelry business and Waits purchased the store on Fillmore in 1892.  In 1873, James E. Gift, who had been a private in Co. M, 5th Ohio Cavalry during the Civil War, also moved to Corinth and went to work for James Waits. A watchmaker, Gift was apparently a very good businessman (or at least made timely investments), as he would later become president of the Corinth Bank and Trust Company and the Alcorn Electric Light Company. When James Waits died, Gift continued to operate the jewelry store and married his partner’s widow, Ada.

Born to James and Ada Waits was a son, Ernest Farris (E.F.) Waits. Waits was also a jeweler and a watchmaker, but he was so much more than that.  A man with boundless energy and curiosity, he was an inventor who pushed the boundaries of early 20th Century technology. He might be considered Corinth’s Ben Franklin.  In 1902, E.F. Waits was appointed as a weather reporter for the U.S. Government and worked on perfecting a set of instruments for determining atmospheric conditions.  A few years later, he built a wireless radio station. Operating from the upper story of the jewelry store, Waits’ wireless station was the third largest in the United States at the time and could reach up to 2,000 miles (he was able, in fact, to communicate to ocean-going vessels).  

In 1910, Waits built an airplane.  The type of plane he built was a Demoiselle Monoplane, a small single-engine, single-person craft.  Max Wessner, a former professional wrestler, copied the design of the plane from newspaper pictures and convinced Waits to back him financially and technically in building the machine on the third floor of a drug store next to the jewelry store.  The result was the first known airplane built below the Mason-Dixon Line.  According to a contemporary news account, “After the completion of the machine it was carried to a field two miles south of the city where the first hop was made in it...many spectators were present. Mr. Waits climbed into the cock-pit and gave the word to ‘shove off.’  The little plane slowly rose into the air and soared about 100 feet, coming down in a tree top.” Waits was injured in the affair but recovered in time and continued to fly. Warning its readers about the possibility of seeing the flying machine about town, the paper wrote that “if you should see a monstrous-sized bat-like thing sailing far overhead, don't be scared into a conniption fit, but just remember that it is Mr. Waits or Mr. Weesner out enjoying a few whiffs of pure altitudinous air." The next year, Waits and Weesner took the plane to St. Louis, where it was displayed at a national exhibit. 

Because of his interest in flying, Waits was close friends with Roscoe Turner, Corinth’s famous aviator (more about him in another blog). Turner flew Waits’ Demoiselle on several occasions and even visited Waits’ store with his pet lion Gilmore. Gilmore was given to Turner (seen here together) as an advertising gimmick by the Gilmore Oil Company. When the lion died in 1952, he was stuffed and mounted in Turner’s home. The lion’s remains were later sent to the Smithsonian, where Gilmore remains in storage.  E.F. Waits also built an x-ray machine in the upstairs of his jewelry store, one of the few x-ray machines in the South at the time, and he patented an optometric device.  Because of his knowledge of clocks and watches, he was given the job of keeping the town’s clock in working order, and the official time was based on Mr. Waits’ store clock. For his official clock-keeping duty, he was paid the sum of $25 annually. Aside from being an inventor, Waits was an artist and painted several scenes of the changing seasons above the showcases in his store. The hand-painted murals are still on display. He also organized a group called the Sea Scouts in 1932. Composed of Eagle Scouts, the group managed to build a boat at a local lumber company and then launched it in the Tennessee River at Shiloh. One of his Sea Scouts – a Mr. Cleburne Wiggington - was a member of Waits’ wedding party in 1934. The bride, Miss Eugenia Lynch, had worked at the jewelry store for four years before the two were married.

E.F. Waits died just four years later, and Eugenia took over operation of the store. For many years thereafter, she faithfully maintained the store as it was when her husband ran it, including the painted scenery. Serving generations of customers, Mrs. Waits worked at the store from 1926 to 2002, a total of 76 years. By keeping the memory of her husband alive and maintaining the store as he had, Waits Jewelry and Fine Gifts is a treasure trove of history. Operated since 2006 by Sandy and Rosemary Williams following a renovation of the building, the Waits store continues to be a part of Corinth’s history and heritage.