The Hermitage, part one, from October 28, 2007

Published 1:14 am Sunday, February 17, 2008

Long ago, a pioneer befriended an Indian chief and purchased from him a parcel of land, with high bluffs, overlooking a small river, and so began the history of Picayune Mississippi. The land and Ante-bellum home, located in northeast Picayune, are the Hermitage, and the river, Hobolochitto.

Located in the Crosby library is a manuscript titled “The Hermitage,” written by Elsie Farr sometime during the 1930s. As secretary to one of its owners, and frequent visitor, she wrote glowingly: Beside the Hobolochitto, shaded with live oaks and perfumed with pines, is a haven where the work of nature has reached perfection, where the birds fold their wings and sing with heavenly sweetness, so perfectly are the forces of heaven and earth in concord here. Here is a lovely old home, remodeled from the house which vibrated to the thunder of cannon during the Civil war. It is said that a young girl who lived here during that conflict, waiting trustingly for the war to end so that her lover, who was fighting, might come back, used to play the violin every afternoon on the south gallery of the house, as if calling to her soldier sweetheart, wooing him back from the din of battle to the lovely tranquility of the Hobolochitto — which, being interpreted, means “Strong Creek”. So sweetly did she play that the slaves n the place all dropped their work, with one accord, to listen…the haunted house, the Negroes called it and to this day some of the old Negroes claim that they hear sweet violin strains here in the afternoon.”

“The first white man to settle in this land of the Choctaws was Stephen Jarrell, the son of a Scotchman. The exploits of the French, the British, and the Spanish had already marked a trail to this part of the country, and Jarrell formed the first white settlement on the river below Cyber, just outside of what is not the town of Picayune.”

Jarrell acquired the land from Chief Muchihira and “built a small log cabin beside the Hobolochitto, and established a trading post for the Indians…this cabin, we are told, was the headquarters of the first United States surveyors.”

“Meantime, the country had been drawn into the vortex of revolution. General Jackson’s brave defense of the gulf Coast against the British in 1812 has gone down in history. In general Jackson’s army, acting as assistant to the quartermaster, was a young man named Moses Cook, a Pennsylvanian by birth, who had enlisted from Tennessee. When Jackson and his army marched over land from Mobile to New Orleans, they came by way of what is now the town of McNeill and Pools Bluff, thereby passing within seven miles of the present town of Picayune. Having heard of Stephen Jarrell’s trading post, the young assistant quartermaster came here to secure provisions for the army.

“Such a picturesque haven as he found beside the Hobolochitto made a lasting impression upon the young man. As he watched the stream wind around this peaceful nook, caressed by the breath from the moss-hung live oaks and guarded by the stately pines, something of the devotion it had inspired in the ancient Choctaws, must have entered his soul. The picture of this potent paradise, where the beauty of heaven on earth met to refresh and inspire, stayed with him through the rigor of the next few years. In 1819 he returned to this land of the Choctaws with his wife and bought from Jarrell this paradise of Indian Chiefs.

“Mr. Cook immediately began expensive improvements. He built a large double log house and enlarged the store where Jarrell’s little cabin had been. In 1828 he built the first bridge, with a gate across to guard the approach to the place. This for some twenty years was used as a toll bridge and thus made a source of revenue. Five cents was the toll for a man alone, fifteen cents for a man on horseback, and twenty-five cents for a wagon. A bell at the bridge enabled the traveler to announce himself to the attendants, who thereupon collected the toll and opened the gate.

:Other white men had located near the Jarrell’s on the river below Cyber, and new settlers were coming nearer and nearer to the old home of the Choctaw Chiefs. Mr. Cook urged them to come for he was a public-spirited citizen, with strong fraternal instincts and a robust faith in the promise of this beautiful section. Many of Picayune’s best known citizens f today are descendants of the men and women Mr. Cook induced to come here at that time. It was probably largely due to Mr. Cook’s influence that the territory was sectionalized, about the year 1830 and that Tom Mitchell homesteaded here.

“This newly settled country became the prey for many a bandit and we are told that robbers invaded the log house beside the Hobolochitto one day when Cook and his wife were away and an old Negro mammy was in charge. Urged to help them in their search for plunder, the faith old soul refused, even when they pulled her finger nails out by the roots. Her resolute loyalty to her trust goaded her torturer to murder. It is said that this old black mammy’s spirit also haunts the place; so if sometime you hear soothing notes of a lullaby crooned against the soft ripple of the stream you may know that the old black mammy’s spirit is still attune to the melody of Hobolochitto.

“In 1838 Mr. Cook was appointed Probate Judge of Hancock County (Pearl River had not been made a separate county) and as such was instrumental in the enactment of important state legislation. It was Judge Cook who founded the first Masonic Lodge in South Mississippi — Moses Cook No. 111. Originally established in Gainesville, this lodge was later moved to Nicholson, and still later to Picayune, where it stands today a fitting monument to its founder.”