Behind a counter at the newly opened Livingston Mercantile Store and The Gathering restaurant in Madison County is an enlarged, black-and-white photograph of four people. The doctored photograph was taken in the late 1890s and features current store owner Bowen Eason’s great-grandparents, his grandmother and his great-uncle — all of whom lived in Livingston.
Around the time the photo was taken, Livingston was dying. The first county seat of Madison County, Livingston was a thriving community until the construction of the railroads in the 1850s bypassed the town. Generations later, with the help of a scenic byway preservation project and community investors, Eason is able to revive the town where his family once thrived.
The Gateway to History Scenic Byway stretches a wide span of Madison County from the Natchez Trace Parkway near the Ross Barnett Reservoir to Flora, including the cities of Madison and Canton. Popular destinations like the Petrified Forest, the Canton town square and the Chapel of the Cross line the byway, which includes parts of Mississippi 22, 43 and 463.
Project developers said the byway’s main purpose is to help preserve the history, but other benefits like boosts in county tourism and creation of new business and jobs have contributed to its success.
Perhaps the most visible beneficiary of the byway is the town of Livingston, which is being developed by people like Eason.
“(The byway) has already made Livingston more of a destination for people,” Eason said. “Things are developing quickly here, and I know we’ll continue to see the effects of what the project will do for us.”
A group of Madison County residents had tried for 15-20 years to organize a way to preserve the historic stops along the byway, project developers said.
Madison County native Michael Yerger, who was a key community supporter, said his grandmother took him around to many of the sites along what is now the byway when he was a child, including his great-grandparents’ home and his great-grandmother’s cemetery.
After learning of the cemetery’s demolition by commercial developers, Yerger knew he wanted to become involved in historic preservation efforts.
“After that ordeal, I realized that there were so many other places in the county that would be endangered by developers,” he said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to help do something that would preserve other people’s interests in Madison County.”
Yerger teamed up with fellow Madison County residents Phyllis Doby and Rita McGuffie, and the group worked with state senators to draft a legislative bill. The bill was signed into law in 2013, and the positive results of the project have since been made obvious.
In June, the Mississippi Heritage Trust awarded project developers with its 2014 Award for Excellence in Historic District Preservation.
“We were all just tremendously impressed of the work that (Doby) and the others involved with that project did to help preserve a true piece of Mississippi history,” said Lolly Barnes, director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust. “The byway is truly something to be extremely proud of in our state.”
The increased traffic has helped boost existing businesses and open the door for new ones, particularly in Livingston. Staying true to the historic nature of the byway’s existence, Eason and other developers are working to reestablish the look and feel Livingston was once known for.
Eason’s businesses showcase a rustic, old-timey feel which he said was strategically planned. He opened the mercantile store Sept. 19, which sells locally produced groceries and other general store items and offers a full-service gas station.
Eason’s businesses will soon be joined by others next door, including a traditional men’s barber shop, a cooking school, a cellar wine store and another restaurant called County Seat.
Yerger, along with the other project coordinators, have secured multiple grants and other funds for special projects, like the creation of a nature walk trail, which is currently in the planning stages.
On Saturday, Yerger is leading a project in which community volunteers will take existing daffodils, which would otherwise be removed for commercial development, from a hillside in Livingston and replant the bulbs along the byway.
“We’re trying to help the community continue to learn about all the history,” he said. “We want to keep the integrity of the area intact, and that’s what we will continue to try to do for years and hopefully generations to come.”
Contact Adam Ganucheau at email@example.com. com or (601) 961-7303.
Last modified: August 30, 2017