- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

HOLLY SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) - Whether he wanted to or not, Chelius Carter has adapted to the idea of gradual progress.

A crumbling building from 1837 on Southwest Boundary Street in Holly Springs faced an uncertain future in 2003. It’d been vacant for decades and needed serious work.

“That was at a time when the then-owner of it was looking at the possibility of demolishing the structure and developing the four-acre lot for low-income housing,” Carter, 61, said.

Thirteen years later, the building has a new roof, freshly plastered walls and a good chance at surviving well beyond its 200th birthday in a couple of decades. There’s more money to raise and work to do, but the building’s return to usefulness has begun.

“We want it to become a contributing partner, a functioning structure that contributes to the local economy,” Carter said.

He also wants to raise the roof off the place, so to speak.

“Basically, it’s a nice, medium-sized music venue to showcase regional talent and the hill country blues,” he said, adding that it also could be used for weddings, receptions and other events.

Yesterday’s gone, never to return, but the building survives as a relic from long-ago days.

“Holly Springs was bigger than Memphis in the 1800s because it had the railroad,” said Genevieve Busby, 42, of Holly Springs. “There was a concentration of people with money here.”

The brick-and-wood building started as the Holly Springs Literary Institute, but that didn’t last long.

“Trustees of the literary institute decided the fledging town of Holly Springs needed a university,” said Carter, president of Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc.

In 1839, the Mississippi Legislature approved the University of Holly Springs, the first legislatively chartered university in the state, Carter said.

“It went belly up in 1843, and it remained a vacant building until 1847,” Carter said. “That’s when it became Chalmers Institute.”

The name has stuck. It was inspired by Thomas Chalmers, a religious freedom advocate in Scotland.

A group of Presbyterians operated the building as a boys prep school until 1879, when the school closed and the place was converted into a private home.

As the years passed, occupants came and went, and then the old building was left empty again.

“The structure had been pretty much vacant since, I would say, the 1980s,” Carter said, “and it had had no maintenance to it whatsoever.”

In the early 2000s, Carter, W.O. “Bill” Fitch and Tim Liddy combined their resources and bought the building for $90,000 with the expectation the City of Holly Springs would purchase it from them with money from the Mississippi Legislature.

“We stepped in. We put our names on the line,” Carter said. “The only way you can guarantee a historical structure’s preservation is by changing ownership.”

Further research revealed that the allocation from the Legislature couldn’t be used to purchase property. It could be used for rehabilitation and restoration projects, but Carter said it required a persistent effort to free the funds from the city. Nearly $81,500 was awarded in 2014.

Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc., a 501(c)3 organization, was created and took ownership of the Chalmers Institute. The building also was designated an official Mississippi Landmark.

Carter and crew sought additional funding sources, including grants from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

“Those grants need to have matching funds,” he said. “If you get $100,000, you have to raise $20,000.”

The Wrecking Ball was born in 2011. The fundraiser was set up on the building’s grounds, even though it was still early in the rehabilitation.

“The intent of the Wrecking Ball was it would be happening on what was an active construction site,” Carter said. “Oftentimes when you donate money for something, you don’t see where it goes. We wanted to make sure there was nothing abstract about it.”

Shannon McNally, an Oxford musician with roots in Holly Springs, usually contributes her talents to the Wrecking Ball. Organizers make sure to schedule it when the University of Mississippi Rebels don’t have a home game.

“Our big donations and sponsorships come from people who have ancestors who went there,” Busby said. “Chelius has painstakingly tracked down those people.”

The sixth edition of the Wrecking Ball was in October. Everyone was invited, but most participants came from out of state. In addition to donating to the cause, they paid for hotel rooms, gas and meals.

“It has a good ripple effect,” Carter said.

Through public grants and private donations, more than $392,000 has been raised for stabilization and rehabilitation. Crews from throughout north Mississippi have worked on the project.

“These people, when they do work there, their paychecks filter out into the economy,” Carter said.

He expects phase three to be complete by next year, but there will be more to do for phase four.

“We need to add a kitchen so we can have full-blown catering there,” Carter said. “We’ll design it so it fits the original structure. That’s where the handicapped accessibility will be.”

Carter splits his time between Holly Springs and Fredericksburg, Virginia, so Busby has been handling issues that pop up in Mississippi. There’s been a buzz of activity, as craftsmen have worked to plaster the walls. The downstairs is finished, and the upstairs is in progress.

“It’s plaster done like the 1830s,” Busby said. “It’s a family trade passed down. It’s costly, but it’s worth it.”

An expert in window restoration visited earlier in the year. Busby and her husband took the class, and now many of the building’s windows are at their house for rehabilitation. Working on the Chalmers Institute has become a family project.

Busby said she feels confident the relic from the 1830s will survive for years to come, and it’ll also testify to what people did in the early 2000s.

“Eventually, our names will be on a plaque outside the building, so we’ll be here forever,” she said. “I’ll be more than a name on a tombstone. This will be here 400 years.”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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