Hickory Park was the first great brick mansion built in Marshall County, constructed by Volney Peel (1805-1846) in about 1840. Volney Peel was born in Alabama, the son of Hunter Peel (1785-1831), a noted surveyor in the former Chickasaw lands of north Alabama. After the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, the lands of North Mississippi were opened to settlement. But first, the land needed to be surveyed and platted. In late 1832 or early 1833, Peel and his young family had arrived in the Chickasaw Cession, and Peel was employed with the surveyor general office. As one of the first white settlers to survey the new territory, Peel was able to determine the areas of the Chickasaw Cession which had the best potential for development and profit. After the completion of the survey, Peel focused his attentions on two particular settlements.
In October of 1835, Volney Peel is listed as one of the original founders and commissioners of Holly Springs (a full year before the town was officially founded). Within just a few years, Holly Springs was the largest and most prosperous town in north Mississippi, and Peel undoubtedly made a small fortune on his initial investments. Unfortunately, Peel’s other local investments were not as successful. In the early 1830s, a trading settlement was formed at what was believed to be the head of navigation for the Tallahatchie River, south of Holly Springs and north of Oxford. Originally called Mitchell’s Bluff but later changed to Wyatt after the settlement’s founder, Wyatt Mitchell, the town was booming as early as 1835. Speculators believed that Wyatt would grow to rival Memphis, Tennessee as a port town, and money flowed into the town. Volney Peel was one of the town’s initial benefactors, and supposedly made several investments and built several buildings in the town. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837 resulted in a rapid decline for the town, and Wyatt never fully recovered. By 1900, the town was completely deserted, and by 1950 there was no trace of the village’s existence. Much of the town was lost with the construction of Sardis Dam and creation of Sardis Lake in the 1930s.
Even though Volney Peel’s Wyatt investments were not successful, he survived the Panic of 1837 and soon began construction of the first great mansion in Marshall County. Hickory Park, a two-story brick Federal house, was built near the community of Laws Hill and was finished by 1840. Many sources state that Hickory Park was constructed as early as 1833, though this seems unlikely.
The brick house was constructed using slave labor, and the house’s bricks were made and fired on site using the clay dug out of the ground. According to a contemporary description of the houses, Hickory Park was a one-and-a-half story brick house, with front and back porches, four rooms and a wide hallway on the first floor, and six bedrooms on the second floor. Many parties and other social gatherings were held in the house in the early flush days of Marshall County.
Volney Peel died young, like his father, in 1846 at age 41. His oldest son, Dr. Robert Hunter Peel (1832-1902), inherited Hickory Park. Dr. Peel was said to be the first white child born in Marshall County, though contemporary records and Dr. Peel’s tombstone make it clear he was actually born in Alabama, before the Peel family moved to Mississippi. Dr. Peel was a well-liked physician in Holly Springs before and after the Civil War, and served as a doctor in the Confederate armies during the War. In 1874, Dr. Peel sold the family house at Hickory Park to G. W. Wright, who lived in Hickory Park with his family until 1886, when the Wrights moved to Holly Springs. By the 1880s, Hickory Park was considered fairly isolated, with the nearby town of Wyatt nearly dead and the Mississippi Central Railroad several miles away. In 1897, the Wrights sold the house back to the Peel family, this time to Volney’s youngest son, Volney Peel Jr.
By 1910, the Peel family had abandoned Hickory Park, and by the 1930s the house was close to complete collapse. Local historians will forever be indebted to historian and photographer Chesley Thorne Smith (1910-2012), who ventured into the overgrown woods and into the dilapidated house in the early 1930s to give us the only known pictures of Marshall County’s first mansion. Even in her last years, Hickory Park was beautiful, with a Federal fanlight over the main entrance, Flemish brick work, and other architectural details. Within a decade of Smith’s photographs, the house was completely destroyed, leaving behind only the old Peel burial grounds (which still exist, though they are seriously overgrown and inaccessible). There is no trace of the first brick mansion of Marshall County at its former site, though some sources suggest that materials from Hickory Park were used to build the “Cuffawa Lodge”, a roadhouse that catered to University of Mississippi students during the 1960s.
Much of this history comes from Dr. Hubert McAlexander’s important histories on Marshall County: “A Southern Tapestry: Marshall County, Mississippi, 1835-2000” (2000) and “From the Chickasaw Cession to Yoknapatawpha: Historical and Literary Essays on North Mississippi” (2017). The vintage pictures of Hickory Park are courtesy of the Chesley Thorne Smith family.