Close to Home: Tombigbee State Park offers natural getaway

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

If you want to get away from it all, you don’t have far to go. Tombigbee State Park has been an oasis from the hustle and bustle of regular life since it opened in 1935. The 21st century has had a tough time infiltrating the place.
“People call and they’re surprised when we tell them, ‘We don’t have cable, satellite TV or wi-fi,’” said Donna Hollis, park manager. “Most of them will say, ‘Wonderful.’”
The park encompasses 522 acres, which includes a fishing lake that’s nearly 100 acres, Hollis said.
It’s open 365 days a year for day-use visitors, recreational vehicles and tent campers. There’s a secluded dormitory area with its own dining hall and pavilion that’s been used for church retreats and other large gatherings.
In addition, the staff has seen an increase in outdoor and indoor weddings this year.
“A lot of people will come out here for a family reunion or a company picnic and say, ‘I haven’t been out here in years,’” Hollis said. “It reminds them of what we have to offer.”
Michael Penson, 53, of Tupelo, had his own reason for making a recent visit to the park after an absence of several years.
“I had a friend who came out last week. I saw he caught 12 or 13 bream,” Penson said. “That’s why I came, thinking I might catch some of them.”
He used to be a regular visitor in the early 2000s, and remembered that the fishing was pretty good. His return trip, though, wasn’t what he would’ve hoped.
“The fish aren’t doing anything today,” he said. “That’s fishing. You get away and have peace of mind, whether you catch anything or not.”
What’s in a name?
Tombigbee State Park was the second Mississippi state park to open, Hollis said. It was built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who lived on the property during the Great Depression and built the levee for the lake, as well as the original cabins and other buildings.
“We’re on the National Register of Historic Places,” Hollis said. “We have to be careful when we work on the cabins. We have to keep them as close to their original states as we can.”
At some point in Northeast Mississippi history, there probably lived a man named Tom Bigbee. If he existed, he had nothing to do with the park or its name.
“Tombigbee is supposedly a corruption of French and Choctaw,” Hollis said. “It means ‘box maker’ or ‘grave maker.’”
Before he died, Native American historian Ed Christian researched the history of the name. According to an essay he wrote and gave to park officials, the name came after a French soldier saw a Choctaw preparing a friend’s bones for burial.
“Subsequently the fort was located at the place where the bones were being cleaned,” Christian wrote. “The French, wishing to honor their alliance with the Choctaw Indians, named the supply depot ‘Fort Tombe-Ikbi.’ Using one word from the French, ‘tombe’ (grave). And one word from the Choctaw, ‘ikbi’ (make). And the west fork of the Alabama River became known as River De’Tombeikbi.”
Over the years, Christian wrote, the name evolved into Tombigbee, which later was applied to the park and the Tombigbee National Forest.
“We were named first, before the forest,” Hollis said.
On course
Tombigbee State Park also can claim the first disc golf course in Northeast Mississippi, Hollis said. That original 18-hole course is maintained by the Tupelo Disc Golf Association, which put a new course on park grounds a year and a half ago.
“The new course is a lot harder,” said Jonathan Carter, a 31-year-old Tupelo resident.
As a member of the association, Carter regularly picks up trash and helps maintain the courses. He recently was practicing his disc golf form and introducing other people to the game.
“He’s teaching us to play,” said Carter’s sister, Sharon Bascom, 30, of Saltillo. She was out with her daughter, Makayla Carter, 7, and her boyfriend, Michael Philpot, 35.
“We’re just walking around and enjoying the scenery,” Philpot said. “It’s a blast.”
Now, there are disc golf courses at Veterans Park and Ballard Park in Tupelo, as well as at Trace State Park and Tishomingo State Park.
“I play here and other places,” Carter said. “I bought an annual pass. It’s $42 a year. You get into any state park in Mississippi.”
If he were to lose one of his discs, new ones are on sale at the park office in the lodge.
Busy season
Donna Perkins, assistant park manager, said June is one of the busiest months. The season begins in March and slows down in July and August during the heat of summer, then there’s another increase.
“Really, we have a second busy season from September until Nov. 1 before it starts slowing down,” Perkins said.
A new cottage was added to the park in the past year. It has more modern furnishings than the rustic cabins.
Renovations were completed last week on day-use bathrooms, and the bathhouse at the RV area is undergoing an update that’s expected to be finished by July 4.
The wish list for the future includes funds to refurbish the cabins, without doing anything to detract from their historic nature, of course.
There are no plans to install cable or satellite TV or wi-fi Internet access.
Hollis said people are conditioned to driving long distances to get away from their busy lives, but that’s not always necessary.
“We’re close to home,” she said, “but it doesn’t feel like it when you get out here.”
scott.morris@journalinc.com

Plan your Trip
Tombigbee State Park is located in Plantersville off State Park Road. It’s open 365 days a year, though the office closes on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Cabin rentals range from $65 to $85 a night, depending on the day of the week and the cabin’s location.
The day-use entrance feel is $3 per vehicle, and fishing is $5 per person with a $2 discount for seniors and people with disabilities.
For more information, visits www.mdwfp.com or call (662) 842-7669.