Preserving small-town history is no easy task, but the Friends of Flora endeavors to do just that and more.
The Friends of Flora has taken on the challenge of finding, sorting and housing the town’s historical record.
“We call it The Friends of Flora so we’re not tied to just history,” said Tracy Ward, who was recently elected as the interim president of the Friends of Flora. “We are trying to be a little bit of everything — promoter, protector of our little town and certainly our history. We actually brought back the historical society and have their charitable status and renamed it in the last 12 months or so.”
Ward, a local architect with offices in Flora and in Atlanta, was elected interim president of the group after former president Nathan Thomas took the opportunity to expand his education at the University of Notre Dame pursuing a master’s degree in architecture.
The non-profit’s mission statement says it all, “to engage and cultivate interest in the town of Flora, Mississippi, and its history through historic preservation and community development. Our aim is to celebrate and protect what makes Flora unique.”
Ward has been busy along with the rest of the organization’s leaders and volunteers to do just that.
“We’re literally still going through old paper files, electronic files, old audio tapes — we’re going to spend the next few years organizing that and putting it all on an updated website. We are in the infancy of doing that and getting it all under control. The information has been in someone’s home and some was stored at city hall.”
Years ago, the former society got grants to refurbish the old railroad depot but it had fallen into disarray and needed a bit more loving to get back up to standard.
“It had kind of been forgotten the past 10 years or so and we just got that back in shape,” Ward said. “We now meet in the depot the first Tuesday of every month. And that’s where all the records are being gathered. We are always looking for more volunteers and leadership.”
The group recently got a landscaping grant to update the outside of the depot.
“The depot was built in the late 1800s and had a grant to be restored about 25 years ago,” Ward said.
The history of Flora begins at that same depot. In the 1880s, J.C. Clarke, general manager of surveys and construction for the Illinois Central Railroad, thought a rail line from Canton to Yazoo City would well serve the region. After getting his boss on board with the idea, it was decided the line would run from Jackson to Yazoo City and there would be a depot built in what now is Flora.
As was the custom in the day, train stations honored the memory of those who helped with the railway. This particular line would run through the W.B. Jones Plantation and his wife, Flora Mann Jones, was known as “a delightful personality” and Clarke decided to honor her with the “Flora” depot. It was built in 1883 and the town was incorporated three years later but there are graves in the cemetery that date the area as early as 1821.
Henry Presley Posey gathered most of the history in his published book, “The Flora Book: A History of the Town of Flora and Southwest Madison County, Mississippi.” The book can be found on Amazon.com.
Ward said the 3.33 square mile town was “quite successful” early on with several cotton gins and the railroad bringing visitors and business to the area. The population grew from 228 in 1890 and had nearly tripled by 1910. It would stagnate somewhat until the 1970s and 1980s when it hit 1,507. Today, the population hovers near 2,000 residents.
Flora has World War II history with the ordnance plant built in 1941 and shut down in 1945. The Kearney Park plant produced propellant and igniter charges for large-caliber guns. The site also had firing ranges for sub-machine guns, rifles, anti-aircraft guns, live grenades and demolition explosives. Today, many of the ordnance buildings have been repurposed into other businesses and agricultural uses.
Flora is also home to some “ancient” history with its Petrified Forrest that has been in existence as a park since the 1800s. More has been done in the past 40 years to develop the area and open it to the public. R.J. "Bob" and Shirl Schabilion procured the “Petrified Forest” in August 1962. The couple had a foundation to work to conserve and preserve any and all of natural resources — long before such preservation efforts were popular.
Located in hills with ravines hollowed out by nature during the past century, the size of the petrified logs indicates that as living trees, these stone giants were over one hundred feet tall, and perhaps a thousand or more years old. The site appeared in a 1937 issue of National Geographic magazine as well.
Flora has an iconic but no longer in use water tower. Efforts are being made to preserve the tower.
“It was built in 1914 but it’s an icon of the town,” Ward said. “The Flora Butcher, a high-end meat market, uses the old water tower in their logo. Unfortunately, the top blew off during a tornado so it’s deteriorating fast. We really want to save it and we’re trying to gather some funds and get it cleaned up and repainted and lit up at night as a centerpiece of downtown. Mississippi Heritage Trust lists the 10 Most Endangered properties in Mississippi and these old water towers are on their list as a category and they want to save them. Our town has been too poor to put any money into it.”
To learn more about the Friends of Flora, check out their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/friendsofflorams.