SP-4310 Way Station to Space

 

- Chapter 2 -

A Sense of Place

 

 

The Setting

[17] Native Mississippian and Nobel laureate William Faulkner described the Gulf Coast as an area in which "the pine barrens and moss-hung live oaks give way to grassy marshes so flat and low and treeless that they seem less of earth than water. More of a beginning of the sea than an end to the land." Indeed, the Pearl River meanders like a sluggish water moccasin through the seaboard of Mississippi, creeping by the high bluffs at the site that is now Stennis Space Center. This deep river flows on through pristine cypress swamps, merging downstream with prairies of salt marsh before emptying its dark currents into the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico.1

Likewise, the land that borders the Pearl River is part of a low-lying region extending 10 to 20 miles inland from the coastline, aptly named the Coastal Plain Meadows. Because of the region's distinct topography, its streams flow toward the Gulf with only moderate force and become tepid toward the coastline. The soil is gray and sandy, but in the low swampy meadows, where water [18] from the small streams and bays usually stands, the soil becomes black and peat-like. The Coastal Plain Meadows give way to a region known as the Piney Woods, where the soil consists of red and yellow sandy loam.2

Despite a mild climate, the Mississippi Gulf Coast remains captive to the fickle disposition of Mother Nature. Weather watchers can expect a mean temperature of 68 degrees, an average of 350 frost-free days, and an annual rainfall of 62 inches.3

Camille, the most powerful storm ever to strike the U.S. mainland, ripped the Gulf Coast in 1969. Its howling winds, clocked at over 200 miles per hour, created a 27-foot tidal wave that killed hundreds and left thousands homeless. In 1965, Betsy brought death and destruction to New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, and an unnamed 1947 Hurricane left the entire Mississippi coastline in shambles. If it were not for a chain of low, sandy keys, or barrier islands, that serves as a buffer, the coast would fall prey to even more storms and squalls swept toward shore from the deeper waters of the Gulf. The calm, shallow water between the barrier islands and the shoreline, known as the Mississippi Sound, offers a lagoon of modest protection.4

 

Along The Pearl

Indians were the first people to inhabit the lands along the Pearl River, as the natural resources along the river were a lure and a virtual paradise. Evidence indicates they settled in the area 4,000 years before the arrival of European explorers. The Acolapissas, an offshoot of the Choctaws, were living on the banks of the Pearl during the early 1600s. In 1699, Pierre LeMoyne Sieur d'Iberbille, a French-Canadian explorer, sailed up the river from the Gulf of Mexico. He discovered large oysters on its banks and optimistically christened it the "Pearl River".5

[19] Hancock County, where the NASA Space Center is located, was named after John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. The first county seat was at Old Center, which stood about one-half mile east of the present community of Caesar. The courthouse was completed in 1817, the same year Mississippi was admitted to the Union, and was moved to Gainesville in 1846.6

Three towns, Gainesville, Pearlington, and Logtown, on the Pearl River experienced significant growth during the 19th century. These communities on the lower Pearl River were first noteworthy as ports and trade centers for the growing Mississippi Territory. Eventually, the area became known for its large sawmills fed by timber from the vast pine forests of south Mississippi and Louisiana.7

The town of Gainesville received its name from Dr. Ambrose Gaines. In 1810, he came to the area, known then as Cottonport, and found most of the choice property along the Pearl River still available. As a result, he petitioned Spanish authorities for a land grant of more than 500 acres. After acquiring the grant, Gaines laid out a new town he first called Gaines Bluff, but changed later to Gainesville.8

An industrious young man, J.W. Poitevent moved to Gainesville in 1832 and established the Pearl River Lumber Company. This sawmill proved to be very successful and Poitevent later moved downriver and opened another mill in Pearlington.9

As the logging and timber business boomed, a small sawmill was erected 5 miles downriver from Gainesville at Logtown. Logtown, originally an Indian site, was settled by early French pioneers who named it Chalons after a city in France; the town was later renamed Logtown by English-speaking settlers. E.G. Goddard of Michigan constructed the first good-sized sawmill in Logtown; and, in 1848, Henry Weston founded the H. Weston Lumber Company, which helped turn Logtown into one of the largest lumbering centers in the United States. At its peak, Logtown had approximately 3,000 residents, and most of them were associated with the lumber business.10

 


[
20]

The H.Weston Lumber Co. sawmill

The H.Weston Lumber Co. sawmill, founded in 1848, was said to be the largest in the United States. The sawmill was the hub of activity and employment in the community of Logtown, one of five communities that existed where Stennis Space Center in now located. (SSC Roll Negative).

 

 

The prosperity of the river towns continued until the coming of the railroads in the latter half of the 1800s. Ironically, the sawmills along the Pearl River furnished most of the timber for the construction of the railroads. These railroads contributed heavily toward the demise of the Pearl River communities and toward the growth of the towns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast - Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Mississippi City, Biloxi, and Ocean Springs. Sawmills located in Gainesville moved north to locate along the railroad. The town of Picayune was built on the railroad, 2 miles north of Nicholson, and named after the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper that sold for "one Picayune," the equivalent of a Spanish coin worth 6 1/4 cents.11

[21] The railroads also boosted the prosperity of the resorts along the Gulf, further detracting from the once important Pearl River towns. Hotels and health resorts from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi became even more popular, once the railroad opened the way for vacationers and commuters.12

By the end of World War I, the great virgin pine forests of south Mississippi had been depleted. The H. Weston Lumber Company at Logtown closed in 1928, ending the economic boom in that town forever. As the towns along the lower Pearl struggled to survive the decline of their only industry, the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s compounded their problems.13

Logtown, with 3,000 residents at the peak of the timber boom, could claim only 250 residents in 1961. Gainesville, once the county seat and economic center for the entire area, had only one store left to serve its 35 families and 100 residents. The hotels, stores, taverns, and most of the homes of Gainesville had vanished. The streets and roads that had once been the arteries of a carefully planned town were barely visible in the dense forest on the Pearl River.14

Roy Baxter, Jr., was among those in the Logtown area at the time NASA arrived in 1961. Baxter often flew fishermen out to the barrier islands in a Cessna 180 seaplane that he co-owned with a friend. On 25 October, he had been to New Orleans to gas up his plane for a fishing trip the next day. While flying home, he looked at his watch and noticed it was time for the five o'clock news from the radio station WWL in New Orleans. Missing some of the report, Baxter heard enough to be alarmed and puzzled as he learned that the federal government was going to acquire vast amounts of land by eminent domain along the Pearl River and build a facility to test rockets bound for the Moon. When he landed and taxied the plane up to its dock, his mother Gladys met him on the banks of the river and said, "We've got some bad news."15

At first, many people in the Logtown area did not comprehend the full extent of the federal government's plan. Baxter himself looked up the term [22] "eminent domain" in the dictionary to be sure of its meaning. According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the term means "the right of the government to take (usually by purchase) private property for public use." Once the town realized the magnitude of the announcement, chaos ensued.16

Just up the river, at Gainesville, Alton D. Kellar and his neighbors were "shocked," and some never reconciled to the news. The day of the announcement, Kellar's father told Alton that "Moving is for you folk, it's not for me." Kellar responded, "Dad, you know we've all got to move when the government condemns a place like this." His father replied, "Well, you go on." A year later, the senior Kellar died of a heart attack, even as the movers had come to jack up his house.17

Other longtime residents received the news with mixed emotions. On the one hand, they felt confused and saddened about the prospects of being displaced. On the other hand, they looked to the future and pictured the NASA operation as a positive, economic force for the Gulf Coast. Leo Seal, Jr., president and chairman of the board of Hancock Bank, was one of these individuals. Seal, born and raised in Bay St. Louis, spent most of his adult life in Hancock County and recalled that people in the county received the news in "disbelief." Seal found it difficult to comprehend in 1961 that NASA proposed to spend such an enormous amount of money on the Mississippi project. An ardent supporter of the NASA project from the very beginning, Seal welcomed the test facility with "open arms."18

The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune carried a big headline that read "660 La.-Miss. Families Must Leave Testing Site." Without delay, the federal government began the legal action necessary to acquire land for a Moon rocket testing site. The families that had to be relocated lived in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, and Hancock and Pearl River Counties in Mississippi. Therefore, condemnation suits were filed in U.S. Courts in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi, and a timetable of 2-1/2 years was established to complete the removal process.19

[23] Governor Ross Barnett (D-Mississippi) said he was "happy" to know that NASA had decided to locate in south Mississippi. He pledged "full support" of the project and predicted great economic gains as a result of the project. Senator Stennis, at the time a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee, told The Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger that NASA's decision "puts Mississippi in the space program and gives the state an unusually high military value in the program." He also said, however, that he regretted that families would have to be moved from the area. This aspect of the project concerned the senator for the rest of his career and played a major role in all of his dealings with NASA.20

Soon after the effects of dismay and excitement were being felt by residents along the Pearl River and by the state's politicians, news media representatives from Jackson, Mississippi, New Orleans, Louisiana, and the local area descended on south Mississippi to obtain firsthand reactions. Emotions churned. Some people were ready "to take up arms" to defend their land. Roy Baxter of Logtown drove to Bay St. Louis to confer with Leo Seal, Sr., an influential community leader and personal friend of Senator Stennis. They decided to ask the senator to meet with the people. Seal telephoned Stennis and the senator agreed to a meeting at Logtown on All Saints Day, 1 November 1961.21

If anyone had the ability to allay the people's fears and explain the need for the huge new project, it was John Stennis, the junior senator from Mississippi. In Washington, Stennis projected the characteristics of national pride, self-respect, sincerity, and extreme honesty. In his home state, Stennis exhibited these same qualities. In fact, Stennis's childhood years on the farm, his education in and practice of the law, and a political career dedicated to judicial and patriotic endeavors prepared him to be eminently qualified to help the people of south Mississippi deal with their relocation problems.22

John Cornelius Stennis, born 3 August 1901 in the Kipling community located about 8 miles south of DeKalb, Mississippi, was educated first at the Mississippi Agriculture and Mechanical (A&M) College (known today as Mississippi State University) and then at the University of Virginia...

 


[
24]

U.S. Senator John C.Stennis

 U.S. Senator John C.Stennis was an American statesman and national leader who served in the U.S. Senate for 41 years. In May 1988, the National Space Technology Laboratories was officially renamed the John C. Stennis Space Center by Executive Order of President Ronald Reagan. (SSC Portrait File).

 

....Law School. Stennis was elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election in 1947 after service as circuit judge, district prosecuting attorney, and state legislator. By the 1960s, his national reputation was such that President Eisenhower considered him to be a man who possessed presidential-like qualities. Others suggested that the senator's sound judgement and fine legal mind qualified him for the Supreme Court. Stennis never encouraged these recommendations. Instead, he simply affirmed his desire to serve as Mississippi's "battling lawyer" in Washington. He brought all of these qualities to the Logtown meeting, an event that in many ways defined his senatorial career.23

 

Promise at Logtown

An estimated 1,500 people congregated on the grounds of the elementary school at Logtown to hear Senator Stennis's speech. Local radio stations had previously announced that Stennis and representatives from NASA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be present to answer questions about the project. When Senator Stennis and the NASA and Corps representatives [25] arrived, they quickly took their positions on the back of a flatbed trailer and spoke from a portable podium borrowed from the school.24

Senator Stennis, a noted southern orator, called on his natural talents and, according to some in the audience, spoke from "the bottom of his heart." The outdoor setting, of tall pines and stately live oaks, was familiar territory to Stennis, and he was at his best when face-to-face with his people. "The federal government is ready, willing, and able to pay full compensation for the property involved," Stennis said. "In other places where land has been taken over in like situations by the federal government, it has worked out very well."25

Stennis assured the land owners that the government would try to lighten their burden as much as possible. Moreover, Stennis solemnly declared that he was "under personal obligation" to help in the readjustment process. He then called on the patriotism of his fellow Mississippians to help in the nation's fight against Communism. He argued that the world situation was such that the "entire nation must arm to the teeth although there [was] no shooting war" and cited the vital nature of the space race to the success of the Cold War.26

"America's superiority of a few years ago with the atom bomb was lost when the Russians got a vehicle into orbit first," Stennis said. "General Medaris's predictions of things to come when the Commies launched Sputnik seemed like fantasy. But developments have shown since, that who controls outer space will control the Free World." Stennis explained that the static engine-testing operation would not be dangerous to area residents and predicted that the benefits from the installation would far outweigh any liabilities.27

Perhaps the best-remembered quotation from Stennis's rhetorical appeal to his fellow citizens came when he said, "There is always the thorn before the rose . . . you have got to make some sacrifice but you will be taking part in greatness."28

The courtly senator's speech on All Saint's Day 1961 was a powerful "call to arms" for the residents along the Pearl River. He asked them to give [26] up their land, and even their homes, as a sacrifice in America's crusade against the Soviets. This clarion call carried with it strong promise that day at Logtown, of fair compensation for their sacrifices and an uncertain glory for "taking part in greatness." Stennis stepped forward that day as their leader and accepted full responsibility for keeping the promises that he made on behalf of his country.29

 


Notes

1. James B. Meriwether , ed., Mississippi Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters by William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1965), p. 11.

2. Mississippi, the WPA Guide to The Magnolia State (New York: Viking Press, 1938), pp. 34-35, 40, 50; For a history of the State of Mississippi, see John R. Skates's Mississippi, a Bicentennial History (New York: Norton, 1979).

3. Caroline Keifer, "Hancock County," Coast Area Mississippi Monitor 1961-1962, Bay St. Louis, MS, 1962, p. 19.

4. Ibid.; Staff of The (Biloxi/Gulfport, MS) Daily Herald, "The Story of Hurricane Camille" (Gulfport, MS: Gulf Publishing Company, 1969).

5. "Mississippi Will Test The Rocket That Will Put A Man On The Moon," Mississippi Magic, Jackson, MS, May 1963: pp. 3-5.

6. "Historical Resume, Mississippi Test Operations," George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Stennis Space Center Historical Record Collection at Stennis Space Center, MS (henceforth referred to as SSCHRC), p. 2.

7. Suzanne Grafton, "Formation of John C. Stennis Space Center," (unpublished paper, University of Southern Mississippi, no date), SSCHRC.

8. S.G. Thigpen, Pearl River: Highway To Glory Land, (Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1966), pp. 27-28.

9. Carol Fox, "Gaines Bluff: 19th Century Town," (unpublished paper, University of New Orleans, 1994), SSCHRC.

10. Ibid.

11. Charles L. Sullivan, The Mississippi Gulf Coast: Portrait of a People (Northridge, CA: Windsor Publications, 1985), p. 105; Fact Sheet, "History of Pearl River County," (Picayune, MS: Picayune Chamber of Commerce, ud.), SSCHRC.

12. Grafton, "Formation of The John C. Stennis Space Center."

13. Ibid.

14. Ron Bailey, Life Magazine, 26 September 1964, p. 3.; William R. Matkin, interview by Johnny Mann, video tape, SSC, MS, October 1991, SSCHRC.

15. Roy Baxter, interview by Henry Dethloff, Pearlington, MS, Mississippi Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi, volume 422, 24 July 1991, SSCHRC.

16. Ibid.

17. Alton D. Kellar, interview by Dr. Charles Bolton, Hancock County, MS, Mississippi Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi, vol. 454, 16 July, 1993, SSCHRC.

18. Leo Seal, Jr., interview by Henry Dethloff, Gulfport, MS, Mississippi Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi, vol. 482, 23 July 1991, SSCHRC.

19. "660 La.-Miss. Families Must Leave Test Site," The (New Orleans, LA) Times-Picayune, 26 October 1961.

20. "Uncle Sam To Testfire Moon Rockets In State," The Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger, 26 October 1961.

21. Roy Baxter, Jr., interview by Mack Herring, Pearlington, MS, December 1994.

22. Biographical Sketch, "John C. Stennis, United States Senator," SSCHRC.

23. Ibid.

24. "Watch For Speculators," Rural Electric News, December 1961, Mississippi edition.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.; Baxter, interview by Mack Herring.

28. "Watch For Speculators," Rural Electric News.

29. Ibid.


previousindexnext