Holly Springs was founded in 1836, shortly after the Chickasaw Cession opened up large tracts of northern Mississippi to white settlers coming west from the original 13 Colonies. Prior to the founding of the town, this area belonged to the Chickasaw nation. Starting around 1834, a small settlement grew around the original “holly springs” in the area known today as Spring Hollow Park. In 1838 the settlement’s center moved south to the current town square, and a frame courthouse was built in the center of the square.
By 1840 Holly Springs was the third largest city in the state, after Vicksburg and Natchez. During the prosperous years of the 1840s and 1850s the town was the most populous in northern Mississippi, boasting forty lawyers, thirty-nine doctors, and ten schools. Many of the great Greek Revival houses were built during the 1850s, including Walter Place (1859), Athenia (1858) and Airliewood (1858).
Holly Springs saw much action during the Civil War in the 1860s. Holly Springs produced 13 Confederate Generals during the War and many soldiers. Union General (and future President) Ulysses S. Grant captured Holly Springs in late 1862 and used the town as his base. The most famous military action in Holly Springs occurred in December 1862, when Confederate General Earl Van Dorn raided the town, destroying millions of dollars in Union war supplies. After the end of the Civil War, Holly Springs was occupied by Federal troops during the remainder of Reconstruction. Shortly after the end of Reconstruction, Holly Springs suffered through the Yellow Fever Epidemic in 1878, killing over 300 residents.
The town’s recovery was helped by the important rail lines which ran through the town, and the great Illinois Central Depot (1886), which was extensively renovated in the 1880s, was often the first and last building visitors to Holly Springs would see, and remained the heart of the town well into the 20th century. Holly Springs soldiered on through the early 20th century and subsequent World Wars, and was a hotbed of activity during the Civil Rights Movement, owing largely to the two historically black colleges located in town, Rust College (1866) and Mississippi Industrial College (1905).
Though the town has lost many important historic properties, most of which were demolished in the name of “progress”, a historic preservation movement began in the 1930s with the preservation of Montrose (1858) by the Holly Springs Garden Club, which began the long-standing Holly Springs Pilgrimage at the same time. Another victory for preservationists was the founding of the Marshall County Historical Museum (1903) in the 1970s. Today, Holly Springs is a small but vibrant historic town, with well-preserved antebellum homes and a town square which is beginning to welcome new stores and new activity.