- Associated Press - Monday, September 1, 2014

WINTERVILLE, Miss. (AP) - As Winterville Mounds undergoes a multimillion-dollar expansion, a new historic research specialist has been brought aboard to help gather information about the area and the culture of those who passed through or lived here years ago.

Kelli Ferris is the historian behind the books, researching the history of Native American heritage in the Mississippi Delta.

“It’s always been important to me to help discover and preserve the past,” Ferris said.

She joined Winterville Mounds’ staff of three - director Mark Howell, staff archaeologist Mark Dingeldein and secretary Susie Smith - earlier this month. As the historic research specialist, Ferris spends two days of the week working in the museum. The rest of the time, she’s researching for the new facility, which is tentatively set to open in 2017.

The 42-acre park is the site of a pre-Columbian ceremonial center built by Native Americans more than 1,500 years ago. In 1939, the Greenville Garden Club purchased the Winterville Mounds site and designated it as a state park in the 1960s. In 2000, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History took over management.

“The 42-acre park houses what is left of the original mounds,” Ferris said. “There are 13 mounds in the park, and it’s originally thought to have 23.”

Plans are to expand the site and transform the museum into a contemporary and interactive history, documenting the area’s Native American heritage.

Ferris’ focus, she said, is “figuring out how far the original property extends out, the series of owners and what the mounds looked like.”

“I do primary and secondary research,” she said. “I have a lot on my plate, but it’s exciting. I spent four and a half years getting an education to do this.”

While she’s neck deep in her research - piles of books sit on her desk at Winterville Mounds - a career in history wasn’t a part of her initial plan.

A Seminary native, Ferris attended Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven, where she studied theater.

After graduating in 2009, she continued her theater studies at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“I had always been a performer,” she said, adding she at one time, she won the regional competition, allowing her to compete in the national competition.

Her transition into anthropology came after a study-abroad trip to Europe in spring 2011, she said as she began telling stories about her grandfather, Emil Cranford, who had been dubbed Seminary’s historian. He had a pharmacy in Seminary and knew anybody and everybody.

“He became known as the town historian. He made everyone’s business his business,” she said.

It was also through him that she heard story after story about Native American groups living in the area where she grew up around the Okatoma River.

It was during her trip abroad that she realized she wanted to pursue a career in anthropology.

“I always had a passion for history, but that’s when I found my passion,” Ferris said. “

Heading into her junior year at USM, Ferris had two weeks to decide if she was going to switch from theater performance to anthropology.

“I just changed my major out of the blue,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t really know what this is, but this is my passion; it’s what I like to do.’ I felt like it was what I was supposed to do, and I kept telling myself I can always go back to theater.”

Three years later, Ferris hasn’t looked back.

“I always make rash decisions and decide not to look back,” she said. “I feel like I’ve never made a wrong decision.”

Though she’s new to the job, Ferris had knowledge of Winterville - and the area - before moving to the area.

During her undergraduate studies, she did an independent study on Winterville Mounds and in May, she helped excavate a site in Rolling Fork.

“I was in the middle of digging when I got a call from Mark Howell,” she said.

She interviewed in May and landed the job a few months later.

“I made a fast, rash decision again,” she said. “But it’s those moments in life where I think it’s the way I want it to go, so how can it be wrong?”

And a few weeks into her new job, she still feels it was the right decision.

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Online:

Winterville Mounds, https://www.mdah.state.ms.us/hprop/winterville.html

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Information from: Delta Democrat-Times, https://www.ddtonline.com

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