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Dr. Van Robinson Burnham Jr. recalls Rankin Co. early times

By Sara Richardson and published October 16, 1985


Recently we (the Rankin County Historical Society) received a call from Dr. Van Robinson Burnham Jr., one of our non-resident members, who lives in Clarksdale. He called about our plans for Volume II of Rankin County’s history, saying he had further information about Dr. Sylvanus Wheeler Robinson, also some anecdote-type material about Rankin County’s part in the Civil War, asking if we were interested. Indeed we are.

Since that time we have had several letters from Dr. Burnham, which to put things mildly, are jewels. His reminiscences of Rankin County, as it was when he was a child, are just the kind of material we have been pleading for, ever since we started trying to preserve and record events in the county’s past. We hope some of you will be inspired to “go and do likewise” when you read what Dr. Burnham said. We quote:

“Though he was now a member of the Mississippi legislature, Dr. Robinson continued to practice medicine in and around Pisgah. In the year 1887, on December third just across the Scott County line, he delivered a two-pound baby boy. Dr. Robinson was also largely responsible for the survival of this premature infant during the precarious first weeks of its life.

“Because of their gratitude to the good doctor, the parents, Thomas P. and Margaret Denson Burnham, named the child Van Robinson Burnham. A number of years later, on June 28, 1911, the child had grown to manhood and coincidentally happened to marry Dr. Robinson’s own granddaughter, Nettie Lee Robinson. Their male offspring was subsequently given the same name. By virtue of the happenings in the above story this child was not only a junior bearing his father’s name but also bore his mother’s family name of Robinson.”

This story identifies Dr. Burnham of Clarksdale as the great-grandson of Dr. Sylvanus Wheeler Robinson. Incidentally, our 1986 calendars contain a picture of Dr. Robinson.

“Sandhill, in Rankin County, consisted in the late 1920′s and early 1930′s of a small collection of shops and stores situated in the curve of the Canton road as it bent on its way to and past Pisgah. To me, however, and all my little cousins, Sandhill was Uncle Will Barksdale’s store. How many times have we climbed the steps to the porch and then entered, looking for a NuGrape or a strawberry Nehi and a Stage Plank or a Baby Ruth to be bought from the young clerk, George Carter, I believe. Inside, on the right behind the post office grill and window, would usually be Miss Kate Barksdale, selling stamps or sorting mail, spectacles almost falling off the end of her nose as she smiled up at the children. Meanwhile Uncle Will would be talking to our parents about some timely subject.

“It was like all general stores of the time, full of everything that anybody could possible need for the home and farm. Nails from various wooden kegs, an oilcloth for the kitchen table, boots for Uncle James, sacks of flour and sugar, two or three yards of cloth measured from the bolt — items like these usually accompanied us on our return to Granddaddy Robinson’s.

“Before we left, we younger folks might wander through the back door or maybe around the side of the building and stroll down the path through the shrubs and fruit trees to the outhouse. Or, best of all, we might be invited to come into the big white two story house behind the store to have egg custard pie and chocolate cake and milk with Cousin Helen Barksdale. After that the car would be loaded, we would pile in and ride merrily back to the farm. Children were chattering and laughing in the back seat of the touring car, their excitement rising as they spotted the long, lean metal bridge over the Pearl River and the glistening white sandbar on the other side. However, once across, the Pearl River swamp had to be faced with its multiple small wooden bridges whose crosswise planks might be loose or missing, particularly after a recent high water. The adults would get out, check the boards and supports to be sure the bridges were suitable for passage. All of this was an acceptable routine to the children except for the one bridge, the worst of all. To us it was a terror, a demon, something that had to be faced and passed before vacation at Granddaddy’s in Pisgah could ever start.

“This monstrosity, probably no more than 15 or 20 feet long, was peaked in the middle like a housetop with its apex rising four or five feet above the road level, a formidable barrier that had to be slowly ascended and then creakingly descended. To a young child it was a breath-holding event as the car edged its way toward the parapet, the boards rattling and clinking like a giant cracking his knuckles. And then over the hump, having that fear while going down, that the middle of the bridge would raise itself and pierce the vitals of our car. But blessed relief was found as level ground was reached, with nothing more than a few ruts and mud ahead which could be easily negotiated. Fun time was in store for all the little cousins until we faced the monster once more on our return trip home.

“Why such a bridge was designed and built, what purpose it served, why it couldn’t have been like all the others, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I never want to see a bridge like that again.”

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