By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
Seventy-five years ago, Northeast Mississippi was down and out.
Hit hard by the Great Depression, followed by the devastating tornado of 1936, the region was mired in poverty. For one of the poorest areas of the poorest state in the nation, the outlook was anything but promising.
The economy was agriculture-based, with cotton the king. For farmers, diversification meant soybeans and corn.
But then came the dairy cow – but not just any milk-producing bovine. It was a Jersey cow, a prize-winning bull brought from England. Longtime Daily Journal publisher George McLean and other business leaders wanted to give farmers a constant stream of income.
What better than a dairy cow, which produced gallons of milk twice a day, every day, no matter the weather?
McLean and the business leaders pooled their money together to buy the bull, hire a dairy expert and began a program to inseminate cows within a 33-mile radius of Tupelo.
By the 1940s, the dairy program was a smashing success in Northeast Mississippi, which became known as the “Jersey Cattle Capital” of the world as the industry boomed.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of dairy farms dotted the region, which slowly but surely pulled itself out of economic doldrums.
“Cotton paid the mortgage,” said Harry Martin, who led the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation from 1956 to 2000. “But with dairy, you got paid every two weeks. It was supplemental income.”
But even with the dairy cow, the region’s economy was still agriculture-based. Area leaders knew it couldn’t be the cash cow forever. So they began looking at other ways to diversify the economy.
They found Morris Futorian.
The Ukrainian immigrant had a furniture factory in Chicago, but dissatisfied with the labor pool and looking for a more efficient way to assemble furniture, he turned his eyes to the South.
In September 1948, he opened a furniture plant in New Albany, introducing the mass production process from the automobile industry to the furniture industry. His idea didn’t go unnoticed. Futorian helped set the stage for the transformation of the region into the “upholstered furniture capital of the world.”
Today, hundreds of furniture manufacturers and suppliers directly and indirectly employ some 30,000 Northeast Mississippians. It is an industry valued at about $5 billion.
Manufacturing furniture helped pave the way for apparel and textile makers to find their way to the region.
Drawn by cheap labor and little organized labor, manufacturers of all stripes found their way to the South and to Northeast Mississippi.
Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi, however, didn’t want to earn the reputation of being home to sweatshops. So they went about things a little differently, looking for companies they knew would work with and alongside the communities where they built their goods.
McLean’s vision was to provide jobs for more people with businesses and industry serving “the mutual interest of town and country.”
In the post-World War II era, the CDF – established in 1948 – worked tirelessly to diversify the economy.
Hand-tools manufacturer Rockwell was the first to come, opening in Tupelo after the community raised $150,000 to build the plant and the infrastructure. In Rockwell’s footsteps came companies like Day-Brite, Tecumseh, Sara Lee, MTD, Norbord, Cooper Tire and Stanley.
Today, manufacturing continues to account for at least 20 percent of the work force in Northeast Mississippi. In some counties in the region, manufacturing makes up one-third or more of the jobs.
Diversification remains a goal of all economic developers, and the region does have an array of businesses and industries that employ about 200,000 people.
It can boast of having the nation’s largest rural hospital system in North Mississippi Health Services; two of the top five largest financial institutions in the state in BancorpSouth and Renasant; call centers and other service companies; defense contractors; software developers; and the third-largest retail shopping mall in the state.
And now Toyota and its suppliers usher in a new era in diversification, providing the next stage of evolution for the Northeast Mississippi economy.
“No question, I’ve never seen Northeast Mississippi with a brighter future than now,” said Randy Kelley, executive director of Three Rivers Planning and Development District.
“I see 10 years from now a manufacturing base that’s strengthened,” Kelley said. “Our furniture industry is unparalleled. Even if you add up Toyota and all the other industries together you don’t have the numbers furniture has.
“But there’s no doubt that Toyota and the automotive industry, together with our strong support of our existing industry, will continue to grow our economy.”
Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or firstname.lastname@example.org.