Saturday, June 3, 2023

HottyToddy Hometown: Cleveland, Mississippi


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In the late 1860’s a few families began to brave the elements and the unknown, building their homes and lives on the eastern side of Bolivar County. The region offered timber resources and ultimately rich farmland and commerce. In 1884, the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railroad was completed between Memphis and New Orleans. Needing a halfway point between the two cities, the rail company chose the settlement that was closest to that point. The village that had been known as Coleman, Coleman’s Station, Fontaine, and Sims now had to settle on a name and so, in honor of the then current President, Cleveland took on its final identity and was chartered on March 25, 1886.

Even at the turn of the 20th century Cleveland was fortunate to be home to civic leaders and citizens who envisioned growth and prosperity for the very young railroad town. In 1900 Cleveland was designated as the county seat for the Second District of Bolivar County and a new courthouse and jail was constructed. In 1924 Delta State Teachers College was located in Cleveland. Expansion continued through the years as the city began to actively seek new industries. Baxter Laboratories located in Cleveland in 1949, followed by Mississippi Power & Light’s Delta Steam Electric Station, Douglas and Lomason, and Misceramic Tile.

The diversity and progressive nature of Cleveland’s population has always been a factor in its history and its future. Almost from the town’s inception the people have sought to improve the quality of life through visual arts, theatre, dance, and music. Cleveland, home to those of Scottish, English, Italian, African, Chinese, Mexican, Russian, Filipino, French, German, Lebanese, and Greek descent, among others, has always managed to entertain and feed its visitors well. W. C. Handy, often referred to as the “Father of the Blues,” gave credit to Cleveland for revealing the Blues music form to him. In his autobiography, Father of the Blues, he stated, “My own enlightenment came in Cleveland, Mississippi. I was leading the orchestra in a dance program when someone sent up an odd request. Would we play some of ‘our native music,’ the note asked….” Handy went on to say that on that night his idea of what constituted music was changed forever.

Today the traditions born in the beginning days of Cleveland continue. Delta State University is as integral a part of Cleveland as Baxter Laboratories. Friday night football is still the talk on Saturday morning and Cleveland is home to many championship teams representing several sports. The importance of music and dance is as evident in the Delta Music Institute, the Bologna Performing Arts Center, or local night spots as it is in one of our many churches. The arts come alive every third Saturday in April as the juried Crosstie Arts and Jazz Festival takes place (now in its 42nd year) and each October our culinary skills take center stage with the sanctioned barbecue contests of Octoberfest. A part of our immigrant heritage is celebrated each March with the ever-growing Italian Festival. Although the last train went through Cleveland in 1995, the community that was initially built by the railroad pays homage to that past with the Martin & Sue King Railroad Heritage Museum, seeking to preserve and promote the railroad heritage that first put Cleveland on the map.

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