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The Beginnings of Oxford and the J. E. Neilson Company

In your mind’s eye try to look back and what Oxford was like in, say 1839. Picture yourself walking along the top of a ridge that would later become North Lamar or South Lamar. This ridge runs almost a mile and it is place the founding fathers of Oxford picked for their town, county seat and hub of learning. Oxford was in its first years as an incorporated town in north central Mississippi.
In 1832, The Chickasaw Indians in North Mississippi were forced by the federal government to give up their lands and move westward to the Oklahoma Territory. This opened up vast new lands for settlement. Two local Indians sold land, which is now part of Oxford and Lafayette County. Princess Hoka and Enra-Nah-Yea sold to John Martin, John Chisolm, and John D. Craig the land that would become the home of Oxford.
John D. Craig had the first place of business in Oxford during this period. He had an Indian and settler trading post in a log cabin about where Boure’ is located off the Square on North Lamar. Dr. Thomas D. Isom , who would later be a prominate Oxford citizen, worked in the trading post as a clerk. The State of Mississippi had formed Lafayette County in 1836. The first meeting of the Board of Police was held in Craig’s Store on September 15, 1836. Shortly after that meeting Martin, Chisolm and Craig deeded fifty acres for the formation of a county seat. Oxford was then incorporated and our history as a city began. The name Oxford was given to the town in 1837 in hopes the new purposed State University would be located here.
From the beginning Oxford began to thrive. In 1838 a young merchant from Green County in East Tennessee decided to move to Oxford and open a new mercantile business. William Smith Neilson bypassed the new city on the Chickasaw Bluffs called Memphis and moved further southward to Oxford. He established a store in a small log cabin on the north side of the County Courthouse Square. Everything the pioneer family needed could be found in the store. He stocked groceries, clothing, hardware, drugs, and even coffins.
As the town would grow and prosper, so did Neilson’s store. He moved from the north side of the Square to south side and then to the west side. During the Civil War, Neilson turned his paper money into gold and buried it in his front lawn. As with the other businesses he was burned out on August 24, 1864. Thanks to the buried gold he was able to reopen the store in 1866. Neilson’s had survived the Civil War unlike many others in the South.
Neilsons by no means was the only store to prosper in the new town of Oxford and County of Lafayette. While Neilsons is by far the oldest store there were others such as an Inn setup by G. T. Penn and another one opened by George W. Hanks. The Board of Police not only licensed the new businesses it also set the prices to be charged. Some of the charges set forth by the Board of Police were: man and horse for twenty-four hours, $2.25; all night only with supper, $1.25; dinner, 75 cents; single horse per day, $1.12; and spirits and drink 12 cents.
Most of the records of the town were burned in 1864 but some records that survive state that there were “blacksmith shops and wagon and carriage shops ranged down South Street. Mr. Allen Wolverton is said to have opened the first blacksmith shop in town. Others before the war were H. Wohleben, Morris and Son and one owned by Mr. S. G. Burney, D.D. and run by his slave.” There was also a wood working shop owned by Mitchell and Kymes just to the east of the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Kymes was also a wagon maker along with a Mr. Cofer and Mr. J. Stoats. There were also several dry-goods merchants.
Neilsons along with stores owned by Herman Wohleben survived the war and were still prosperous at the turn of the century. J. E. Nelson took over the store after his father died in 1892. In 1897 he constructed the store building that is still housing Neilsons. He divided the store into departments and concentrated his inventory on clothing and related lines. In 1914 his son David Glenn Neilson and nephew, Herman Glenn came into the store as partners. They would later retire and the business would be purchased by a man who had worked there as a clerk and cashier since high school, Will Lewis, Sr.
In 1929 Nielsons was 90 years old and the trade journal, The Dry Goods Economist, conducted a survey and reported that Neilsons was the oldest store in the South and 16th in the nation. I have always loved shopping at Neilson. As many people have said over the years, Neilsons gives Oxford an aura of prosperity. It anchors the downtown, old town area.
Mayfield 34Jack Lamar Mayfield is a fifth generation Oxonian, whose family came to Oxford shortly after the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, and he is the third generation of his family to graduate from the University of Mississippi. He is a former insurance company executive and history instructor at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, South Panola High School in Batesvile and the Oxford campus of Northwest Community College.
In addition to his weekly blog in HottyToddy.com Oxford’s Olden Days, Mayfield is also the author of an Images of America series book titled Oxford and Ole Miss published in 2008 for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for restoring the post-Civil War home of famed Mississippi statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar and is now restoring the Burns Belfry, the first African American Church in Oxford.

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