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Historic Hazlehurst home lost to fire

You’ve got to wonder what the parents were thinking, naming their child something like “Isaac Newton Ellis.” Was that the norm in 1849, or were they just a scientifically-inclined couple? Perhaps the far-sighted Ellises had high hopes of raising a revolutionary thinker, and just maybe that baby lived up to that labelling.  Their son did, after all, make his mark, becoming one of the foremost businessmen in Copiah County by the turn of the century.

It was in 1882 when Ellis and Major R. W. Millsaps founded the Merchants and Planters Bank of Hazlehurst, an enterprise in which Ellis served first as cashier, then as president until his death in 1930. He was also active in community affairs, serving Hazlehurst as an alderman and secretary of the school board, and Mississippi College as a member of the board of trustees.

Accomplishments like those would make most any parent proud, even ones gutsy enough to bestow a name like Isaac Newton on their newborn. What that couple couldn’t have guessed 167 years ago, though, was that their son would still be making headlines in 2016. Last Saturday evening, news outlets from across the region reported that the historic Isaac Newton Ellis House had burned to the ground, taking 125 years of history with it.

Our family just happened to be headed to Family Fish House that night in search of some of their incomparable hushpuppies when we saw the smoke – huge, dark clouds of it – on the horizon. The closer we got, the farther we could see orange flames shooting into the dusky sky. Blue lights kept motorists from closer inspection, but crowds gathered along sidewalks to watch the tragic end of a truly grand structure.

Hours later, little was left beside the gazebo and a portion of the original cast iron fence.

“In addition to being a beautiful home, the Ellis House was one of the few that we had been able to thoroughly document,” Bill Gatlin of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History told me by phone on Monday. “It’s not only a loss to Hazlehurst, but a loss to the entire state.”

Completed in 1890, the Ellis House was perhaps the most architecturally-distinguished dwelling on Hazlehurst’s tree-lined section of Highway 51 known locally as South Extension Street. It was listed on the National Historic Register in since 1987 as one of the best remaining examples of domestic Queen Anne architecture in Mississippi. The steeply-pitched hip roof, projecting bays, wraparound porch, and balconies were what experts considered its most notable features, but it was a corner tower that had always fascinated me.

“Driving past this beautiful home was always the highlight of my trips from Brookhaven back to Smith County,” someone commented on a weekend news feed.

Gatlin also noted the Ellis house was significant because George F. Barber, a Knoxville architect known for his mail order home plans business, designed it. It seems this Barber was a regional heavyweight, and his Victorian homes can still be seen all over the southeast.

“The Ellis Home definitely reflected a high level of design, and the preservation world will miss it,” Gatlin added.

Records indicate Ellis purchased the original 5.7 acres of land on which the home stood from Sarah Birdsong in 1884. The plot was an easy walk’s distance from downtown and a block away from where Ellis and his wife, Georgia, are now buried in the Hazlehurst Cemetery. At least two of the couple’s children are buried there, too – children born after the 1890 housewarming, children who would have played on the three-flight open-well stairway and slept near one of its 11 fireplaces.

And while historians write this one down in the books in terms of a 35-foot long central reception hall and Palladian windows, Georgia might be happy to know the wallpaper she picked out for the parlor stood up to more than a century of fashion trends, and all of the original hardware to more than a century of use.

But even those with a less-than-acute sense of smell could detect lingering smoke throughout Hazlehurst as late as Sunday night, proving nothing tangible – neither structures built on brick foundation piers nor powder room vanities topped with marble – last forever. The original Isaac Newton himself formulated a scientific principle to that effect, I believe. “What goes up must come down”, wasn’t it?

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.