HATTIESBURG – These days West Eighth Street in Hattiesburg is hardly on anyone’s must-visit list. Sleepy is one way to describe it. Deserted is another.
Fifty years ago, it was a different story.
“On Sunday afternoon, all the old spinster schoolteacher ladies from this entire city – mostly from Main Street Baptist Church, which is now Mount Carmel – were here on the front porch having coffee in the mid-afternoon still in their church attire talking about everybody; just gossiping about everybody in town,” said Mary Francis Blackard.
“The street would be lined up with everybody’s cars,” she said.
Blackard’s front porch was the Bethea House, a three-story, 17-room manor built by her great-grandfather John Jefferson Bethea, a prominent doctor in Hattiesburg. The house still stands today as it celebrates its 100th anniversary. It remains in the Bethea family.
Technically Blackard did not live in the family home until 1995, when she returned to Hattiesburg from Arkansas to take care of the Bethea House’s last living occupant, her great aunt Mildred “Snookie” Bethea.
Blackard, now 60, a Hattiesburg native and fifth-generation Bethea, was a frequent visitor as a child to the porch full of gossiping old ladies. One day, she stopped their chatter in its tracks.
“My great Aunt Snookie would play with us children like she was one of us,” explained Blackard. “She would let us turn on the hose out there and water the flowers or put water in the birdbath.
She doesn’t know what made her do it, she said, “but I turned around and I sprayed that porch. I got those ladies soaking wet.”
Blackard survived the furious aftermath, and she laughs about it now. It’s one of countless memories that she has stored up in the old home she now owns with her husband Ron, an electrical supply contractor.
“Smells and sounds affect your memory a lot,” Blackard said. “And you can just be out there (outside) and you can almost hear the croquet balls being hit and the ladies laughing on the porch.”
The home has a venerable history in Hattiesburg. It’s registered with the National Register of Historic Places as part of the North Main Street Historic District – one of five historic districts in Hattiesburg that includes the Oaks Historic District and the Hattiesburg Historic Neighborhood District.
Registered homes range in building date from the late 1880s to the 1920s.
Additionally, the house is a Mississippi landmark, a much rarer designation requested by the owner.
“Basically, it means that if the owner wishes to make any significant changes or demolish the structure, they must get a permit from (the Mississippi Department of) Archives and History,” said Bill Gatlin, MDAH architectural historian.
ED KEMP / Hattiesburg American