- Associated Press - Monday, October 10, 2016

RODNEY, Miss. (AP) - There are dozens of places across Mississippi like the community of Rodney: A once bustling town that time, circumstances and Mother Nature have nearly returned to dust.

Like most all those sites, Rodney - located 30 miles northeast of Natchez in Jefferson County - has an appealing, haunting thread of uniqueness. Author Eudora Welty was curious enough to travel there during the 1940s and snap photographs.

And yes it can be difficult to locate without proper homework.

“I love the posts on the (Rodney) Facebook page by people asking for directions,” says Lacretia Marie, 52, who was born in Natchez and first visited Rodney when she was 11. “Most say something like, ‘You can’t get there from here!’ or ‘I drove around for hours and never did find it.’”

When Mississippi was admitted to the union, Rodney missed becoming the state capital by three votes.

Settled by the French in January 1763, it once nestled against the Mississippi River. By the 1850s, Rodney was the busiest port between New Orleans and St. Louis. It boasted more than 4,000 residents, and the town’s streets were lined with more than 40 businesses, including saloons and one of the state’s first opera houses. Those traveling the Mississippi River made Rodney a sure-fire stop. A good time was guaranteed.

Things changed.

“See that treeline right there?” longtime Rodney resident Mike Piazza asked a couple of exploring journalists recently. “That used to be the bank of the Mississippi River.”

Around 1870, a sandbar developed and directed the river’s route some two miles away from Rodney. Trains had trouble chugging up some of the area’s steep hills, so the rail lines built to the east.

“That was the beginning of the end,” Piazza said.

Rodney also had to battle two invasions of yellow fever, two fires and the Civil War, when Union troops took whatever they needed, from livestock to food.

And now?

Piazza can rattle off current residents in a matter of seconds. “Thirteen,” he says, “and nine of them are (my) family.”

That number increases to two dozen if one cares to include those who live on nearby Rodney Road.

Cleanup efforts

What keeps Rodney alive, almost as much as its residents, are the few remaining buildings from its heyday. Among them: Three or four businesses and a couple of farmers’ homes.

It is seeing those structures, even in the process of losing their battle with age, that best help Marie picture Rodney’s good times.

“My recollection of Rodney was a few dilapidated buildings and houses in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “That always made it like stepping back in time, like this little piece of forgotten Mississippi. But I became members of two Facebook pages . I literally spent hours every day on these pages. I was fascinated. And seeing the (old) photos, documents, it’s easy to picture Rodney at its peak, as the center of activity for a large surrounding area.”

Marie drove eight-plus hours roundtrip in February from her home in Atlanta, Texas, to participate in the first organized cleanup day. She returned in April to work some more.

“Many others drove several hours, too,” she said. “We had people of all ages and backgrounds who just shared a love of history.”

Cleanup efforts centered on the present-day centerpiece, Rodney Presbyterian Church (est. Jan. 1, 1832), along with the Masonic lodge and the Presbyterian cemetery.

“Two years ago, weeds were growing out of the brick landing of the church,” Marie said. “Now that has been cleaned and sprayed with weed killer. A lower brick landing was uncovered during (the latter) workday. And it’s beautiful.”

More work is needed. “The steps leading up into the balcony need replacing. There are several broken windowpanes that need to be fixed to keep the elements out,” she said.

But one pane captured Marie’s eyes and imagination. On it is scribbled in shaky handwriting, “Feb. 27, 1890.”

“Stuff like this really makes one wonder about the past,” Marie said. “What was the significance of this date? Why was it so important that someone would scratch it on a windowpane in a church?”

And what pane of glass survives 126 years?

A piece of Rodney

Mike Piazza, who worked 30-plus years as a game warden in this area, can’t imagine living anywhere else.

His family is descended from Italian immigrants. His grandfather bought a piece of land and a store in Rodney, “and now I’m the proud owner of what they had,” he said.

Piazza is a friendly, crusty sort who shared stories in a voice that sounded like the late comedian Jerry Clower.

“There are a lot of great stories to go with this place,” he said. “At the old Presbyterian church, there was a Union sympathizer who invited sailors with a Union vessel to come to Sunday service,” he said. “Confederate soldiers found out about it, so they captured them.

“When the Confederates came in to seize those prisoners, one of the soldiers hid under the hoop skirt of one of the church ladies. My daddy knew the lady who hid the soldier. It’s stories like that that show what a connection my family had to this place and some of the things that happened back in that time.”

But a hint of sadness suddenly covered his voice.

“Several houses have been moved away from here,” he said. “The house my daddy was born in in 1913 was bought and moved.”

And a piece of Piazza, and Rodney, went with it.

___

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com


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