A small town with a lot of history
By Lyndsi Naron
The Bolivar Bullet
You might know the town of Merigold by McCarty’s Pottery and The Gallery, Crawdads, or the concerts at Hey Joe’s, but a select few call it home. Located in Bolivar County, just north of Cleveland, Merigold has about 525 residents.
Stephen Smith shared he and his brother Jamie Smith are fourth generation residents of Merigold, and their family came to the area in the 1880s. Stephen Smith is also Vice Mayor, on the Board of Alderman, and co-owner of McCarty’s Pottery and The Gallery in Merigold with his brother Jamie. According to Smith, McCarty’s Pottery opened in 1954, and has been in business for over 65 years. He shared much of the town’s rich history.
Not incorporated until 1908, the town was swamp and wilderness before the town’s namesake, Colonel Frank Merigold, opened his saw mill in the 1870s, and cleared the land.
“Of course, at that time the interior part of bolivar county was all swamp,” said Smith. “The county first settled along the river which is why the first county seat is Rosedale and that’s where civilization was. Then, the interior part of the county began being settled in the late 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. Civilization sort of worked its way into the interior. Cleveland was the second county seat as people began to live in the interior part of the county. The powers that be, of course, realized that it was too much for the citizens to travel all the way to Rosedale, conduct their business, and then return home on horseback.”
Smith said there were also German P.O.W., or prisoners of war camps on the outskirts of Merigold during WWII.
“All the camps were operated out of Camp Shelby, and there were a number of different satellite camps all over the Mississippi Delta,” said Smith. “Pursuant to the Geneva Convention, we were allowed to use POW labor on the farms, and they were given a little bit of money and even given liberty. They were allowed to come in town on Saturdays. My father remembered that you would see them come in, and they would have one guard. They were allowed to go to the stores, go to the movie theater, and that sort of thing.”
Johnny Dorr returned to Merigold after WWII, and started the first crop dusting school in the world. People from all over the world came to be educated at the school.
“I remember as a child you could go out to The Airport Café. They had wonderful hamburgers,” said Smith. “You could go out there and you would have all sorts of people talking in all sorts of different languages because they were here, in little Merigold, to learn how to crop dust.”
Smith said many people would stop and spend the night in Merigold when traveling because it is the midpoint between Vicksburg and Memphis.
“We had a hotel and we had a lot of people who lived in Bolivar County at that time. If I remember correctly, in 1951, the census for Bolivar County was over 80,000 people. Now, we’re well below 40,000 in the county,” said Smith. “When my father was a child, he would tell me stories of how you would have anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people in town on a Saturday. We had a high school that went through the 12th grade, and we had a movie theater. We had doctors, dentists, and lots of dry goods stores. It was a bustling, vibrant town in the Mississippi Delta.”
According to Smith, something many people don’t know is that the gardens at McCarty’s and The Gallery were photographed by the Greenville Garden Club in 2011, and submitted to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.
“In 2012, our gardens were inducted into the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens. It was a tremendous honor for us and also for little Merigold that our little town is part of the Smithsonian Institute,” said Smith.
Andrew Westerfield served as mayor from 1974 until he passed in 2018. He was involved in many projects that have helped make the community what it is today. Today, Ken McGarrh is the Mayor of Merigold.
“Andrew really helped Merigold survive and even thrive during those years where so many small towns in the Mississippi Delta suffered,” said Smith. “Andrew had a number of different projects that bettered the town. We are so lucky to have had Andrew and Ken, and then our wonderful city employees, who have done so much for us.”
According to Smith, Andrew secured funding for the town’s storm shelter, which can house up to 900 people through an F5 tornado.
“Andrew put the storm shelter right next to Hayes Cooper, so the children can easily reach the safety of that storm shelter should, heaven forbid, a tornado ever come to Merigold,” said Smith.
The national award-winning Hayes Cooper Elementary Magnet School, which opened its doors in 1991, is a draw for young families to the area. The school serves students in PreK (age 3) through 6th grade.
Other recent projects include; acquiring grants to have security cameras placed around town in 2013, upgrading all the sewer lines in 2014, maintaining roads, and beginning the process of incorporating a secondary water well as well as the new walking trail that current mayor, Ken McGarrh, is working to secure.
“This is a project that started under Andrew, and Ken was able to shepherd it through the final process. We received a wonderful grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, and Commissioner Willie Simmons was also very helpful in helping us get our walking trail. It is going to be a little over a half a mile in terms of distance. It will have benches, lighting, and, of course, the trail itself. That is going to be a great addition to our community,” said Smith. “Overall, Merigold is a strong, safe, stable community and that is what attracts people to it.”
Mayor McGarrh has been on the Board of Alderman since 1997, was Vice Mayor for a time, and became interim Mayor after Westerfield passed in 2018. He was soon after elected to the position.
“I have lived here all my life,” said McGarrh. “If something comes up for sale, people buy it quickly. The citizens are great! Businesses are doing well. Merigold is the best small town in the Delta. It’s a very special place. In my travels, if I mention Merigold people always say McCarty’s. Crawdad’s is also a topic as well. I was the first waiter at Crawdads, so it is dear to my heart. We will continue to try to get quality things done in town as opportunities present themselves. I am proud to serve and call Merigold my home. We are a small tight knit community; a very laid-back town. The community supports each other. Our citizens take pride and really want the best for our town.”
Rogers Varner, a resident since 1987, says Merigold is in a mini boom. Many people enjoy the low amount of traffic as well as the litter free roads.
“It’s a sweetheart of a place to raise kids, mine used to have a charge account for snacks at the local Chinese grocery;” said Varner. “Real estate is tight, and I’m constantly asked to be alert whenever a house goes up for sale. Homes turn over rarely and only by word of mouth. You don’t have to put a sign in your yard, all you have to do is discreetly put the word out to sell your house. We are fortunate to have successful businesses such as McCarty’s, Hey Joe’s, Branning Repair, One Stop and Dollar General, as well as many old line farm families.”
Realtor Tracey Bell and her husband, Warren Bell, have recently started investing in Merigold.
“I think Merigold is attractive to these young families because its country living in a small, safe, and quiet community,” said Bell. “The most interesting thing about Merigold is that it is still a thriving community, and the entire town is under video surveillance for the protection of the community. I think people are building homes there because they feel safe, and they like the idea of small close-knit community.”
Both Crawdad’s and Hey Joe’s often have live music floating through the town each weekend. Justin Huerta, owner of Hey Joe’s in Merigold, also said he believes it is a great atmosphere for young families. Children are often seen around town riding their bikes and driving golf carts.
“There’s a lot going on here, but I can’t tell you too much. You and your readers will have to come and see for yourselves,” said Huerta. “We have done a few festivals here. They are more like block parties; our July 1st fireworks fest called “Lil Bit Country Lil Bit Rock N Roll Fest” is up next. Then, we do “Otherfest” in late October, and in the spring, we do one called “Dirt Fest” with some anonymous friends around town. We have a couple more things we are planning in the future: parades and a beer festival.”
According to Huerta, one of the most interesting things about Merigold is how large the McCarty’s Pottery 2nd Sale is each year. People from all over the state, and country, stand in line for hours with laundry baskets to buy whatever they can carry. You can learn more about this sale and McCarty’s Pottery by visiting their website, www.mccartyspottery.com.
Merigold has also hosted the Rice Festival for the last two years. The 2023 Rice Festival will also be held in downtown Merigold on Thursday, September 21.
“It’s just a cool town. So, we had Hey Joe’s in Cleveland for 11-12 years, and we wanted to see if we could replicate some of that old magic in another town and another location,” said Huerta. “Merigold had some buildings for sale so we expanded here and so far, it’s been great.”