Leesha Faulkner


Sihya Smith and I continue to uncover nuggets of gold as we plod through our archives in preparation for the re-opening of the Oren Dunn City Museum after its renovation. Last week, we discovered a ledger from 1906. The book apparently belonged to William A. Camfield Jr., a day laborer, according to 1900 census records.

Camfield’s ledger shows us how he spent his money for a year, including repayment of debts to his mother, his sister, and various stores. It also shows us he smoked a plethora of cigars he purchased from T.K.E. Drug Store. His cigar habit notwithstanding, on further research we discovered Camfield’s relationship to the Thomas of T.K.E. – the brother-in-law and later uncle of one of the store’s owners.

Research like this into seemingly minutiae actually tells another portion of the Tupelo Story – one from what some historians refer to as “the bottom up.” Writing and telling history from the elite, powerful, or wealthy gives us only one view of Tupelo’s growth. This view alone negates the contributions of all kinds of people and their roles as farmers, day laborers, seamstresses, homemakers, and does not burrow down deeply enough to explore the richness of the people – men, women, minorities, employees – who provide the foundation of our collective story.

Understandably, writing and telling any history from the “great man” point of view seems much easier. Most of them – white and male – kept journals, correspondence, and public papers. Certainly, they had the edge on less-educated people. The contribution of these well-known individuals provide a meaningful portion of our city’s history.

Camfield’s ledger demands more digging through census data, court records, and deeds. By doing so, Sihya and I discovered that he never married. He lived with his extended family. The son of a minister, for whom he was named, Camfield lived with his sister, Virginia Thomas, and her family, first on the family farm near Brewer and, then, moved with the family into a house on Jefferson Street in Tupelo by the 1920s. The tornado of 1936 destroyed the house just two years before Camfield died at the age of 83.

A more complete examination of the record shows that in the decade of 1910, Camfield and the Thomas family had a servant by the name of Jerry Ruff, who at the time of the 1910 census, worked as a farm hand and earned wages. Ruff was 29 at the time. For that census, Camfield, 55, listed his occupation as a general farmer. One could surmise that Camfield had direct supervision over Ruff, a mulatto.

The information also told us that Ruff’s mother, Harrit, could not read or write. She and Ruff’s older siblings also worked as farm laborers. By 1920, Ruff had married and settled as a tenant farmer along Richmond and Plantersville roads.

Prior to the 1920 census, Camfield had moved into Tupelo with his family and become a salesman at a grocery store. This begs the question about the family farm near Brewer. We know that the boll weevil had infested the area and cotton prices had declined. The soil in the region had worn out. About this time in the Tupelo Story, bankers and other leading businessmen had begun to try to have farmers diversify. Again, Camfield’s story likely gives us a view into what occurred with a single person. We need to research more.

The value of this ledger, then, seems enormous on its face to rounding out the human stories behind the events we know. This is the value of history, especially social history. Tupelo has many stories in its one overarching tale of growth, conflict, and change. Camfield gave us another insight.

LEESHA FAULKNER is curator of the Oren Dunn City Museum. You may reach her at leesha.faulkner@tupeloms.gov.

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