Hwy. 51 Revisited: Brookhaven, Mississippi

By Jesse Brooks

When traveling through Brookhaven, Mississippi, it is easy to see why the town claims its official slogan as “A home seeker’s paradise.” When approaching the city limits on Highway 51, the first view in is that of stunning and beautiful old homes filling up block after block of neighborhoods just before reaching the downtown area. It is simple, quiet, and clean. Driving through Brookhaven, there’s a gained sense of elegance, not to be confused with a more arrogant term like “luxurious.” Many of the homes look like they have been perfectly preserved since the day they were built.

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Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum

Brookhaven was first established as a trading post in Choctaw Indian territory the year after Mississippi received statehood, which was in 1818 by businessman Samuel Jayne, who named the settlement after his hometown of Brookhaven, Long Island, New York. The railroad arrived by the 1850s and launched a new economy based on lumber like many communities now residing on the circuit that connected New Orleans with cities of the North.

As the lumber industry prospered through railroad expansion, so did Brookhaven. The town’s population around the beginning of the Civil War in 1860 was around 996 and experienced a 62 percent increase ten years later in 1870 for a total of 1,614 after the railroad reopened after wartime. The Nalty family rose during this time as John B. Nalty ran two Brookhaven sawmills: Pear River Lumber Co. and East Union Lumber and Manufacturing Co. Nalty invested many other sawmills along the route, including the Hammond Lumber Company of Hammond, Louisiana. As the businesses were passed on through the family, the Nalty’s invested and settled in the communities where they were located. If Brookhaven appears similar in city planning or home architecture to Hammond, the fact that the Nalty family built the original homes in both towns would be one of those reasons.

The lumber industry is also what would eventually give Brookhaven its place in American music history. Lumber towns were a place that African-American musicians of early jazz and blues could tour and find an audience, as well as work at sawmills themselves.

Kentwood born jazz and blues pioneer Little Brother Montgomery (born in 1906 as “Eurreal Wilford Montgomery”) found a home in Brookhaven for a period as he passed through sawmill towns. Montgomery was self-taught in New Orleans style jazz and blues and created his own “lumber circuit” in the cities of Vicksburg, Canton, Gulfport, New Orleans, Jackson, and McComb before he decided to make Chicago a permanent home.
Brookhaven

A Mississippi State Blues Trail Marker in honor of Little Brother Montgomery is placed outside of the sawmill where he worked. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

In the 1930s Montgomery wrote an instrumental called “Crescent City Blues”, and twenty years later the melody was borrowed for a song of the same name written by Gordon Jenkins and Beverly Mahr. In 1955, Johnny Cash reworked the song in a country and rock-&-roll manor as a new artist at Sun Studios in Memphis as “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Montgomery’s role in the evolution of American music is undeniable, and should not be ignored. A Mississippi Blues Trail Marker is placed at the Godbold Transportation Center (Amtrak station) honoring Montgomery’s life. Behind the station is the lumber yard where he used to work.

Anyone wanting to come face-to-face with Brookhaven’s rich history can visit the Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum. It is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and admission is free to the general public. The museum’s home is the former site of the B’nai Sholom Jewish Temple, founded in 1896. The museum documents the history of the town and the history of Jewish settlers in Brookhaven.

In a nod to two of Mississippi’s biggest staples, blues and barbecue, Magnolia Blues and BBQ in Brookhaven offers up everything that is Mississippi barbecue. Pulled pork, chicken, baby back ribs, burgers, everything you can name and more is found here. Many crowd in on weekends for the live music and bar food to get their fill on grooves, locally brewed beer, and loaded BBQ nachos. The bar even hosts an open mic night on Wednesdays for anyone brave enough to bare their soul.

Brookhaven’s two biggest periods of growth were immediately after the Civil War and at the peak of the lumber age in the early 1900s. Remarkably the small city has mostly held a steady period of growth since that time. Brookhaven is as steady as the trains that still make their daily trips through town. It is self-reliant. More importantly, for dwellers of the past and present, it is home.

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