The J. E. Neilson Co., located on the southeast corner of the Square, has anchored Oxford’s business district for almost 174 years. The South’s oldest documented store was founded as a trading post in 1839.
In 1861, the war came. As Union forces began to invade the south, William Smith Neilson converted his money to gold and buried it in the garden at his home. When Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest operated his cavalry raids out of Oxford, the North retaliated and sent Union General ‘Whiskey’ Smith to burn the town. Unopposed, the Square and Courthouse were buried to the ground.
In 1866, with the buried gold in his garden, Mr. Neilson reopened his store. Nielson’s has operated uninterrupted since then. When the Great Depression of the 1930’s hit Oxford and most of the banks in town closed, Neilson’s acted as a surrogate bank, cashing paychecks for university employees and others.
The ten year period from 1954 to 1964 saw rapid changes to Neilson’s ownership. The Neilson’s began to retire and in 1964 the last family member, David Neilson, Sr., sold his interest in the store to Will Lewis, Sr. Two generations later the Lewis family still own and operate the store. While the store has remodeled and expanded through the years, the original exterior from 1897 remains the same.
In 1980 Neilson’s was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U. S. Dept. of Interior.