The second half of 2020 was just as historic for Stone County as it was for Mississippi and the nation.
In the past six months, the Stone County School District completed a historic land deal, residents voted in a Presidential election, and the community continued to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
City leaders in Wiggins furled the former state flag, which flew over government buildings for over 126 years.
The Mississippi State Legislature voted to replace the flag with a new design after the death of George Floyd sparked protests and conversations around the nation. Legislators voted to retire the state flag during the summer session, and vote on a new design later in November.
Following a final vote, Mayor Joel Miles and Alderman Darryl Barry saw it removed.
“This is a long time coming,” Berry said after its removal. “I’m proud of our legislators for taking this task on and just looking out for Mississippi as a whole.”
Berry said the flag would be displayed in the nearby Firehouse Museum.
A small crowd gathered to applaud its final day in the sun.
The pandemic did not keep residents from meeting their community members’ needs.
The Stone Kiwanis Club donated care bags for 55 foster children. Each bag was filled to the zipper with essential items including hygienic items like toothbrushes and toothpaste and more comforting items like blankets and stuffed animals for younger children.
Feeding the Gulf Coast, a nonprofit devoted to supplying low-income families with nutritional meals, gave away fresh fruits and vegetables to 100 families at the Stone County Library.
A pistol raffle raised $6,000 for former editor-in-chief Jody O’Hara. All the proceeds went toward his cancer treatments.
Beginning in July, multiple businesses banded together to provide students with new backpacks, school supplies and haircuts before their first day of school.
The next month, Keesler Federal Credit Union donated backpacks and school supplies for all 190 kindergarten students in the district. Podcast host Dylan Hodge, barbershop owner Corey Hendrix, consulting firm owner Shyra Galloway, and Jon Hinton provided backpacks to over 40 middle-school-aged students.
With the summer heat fading into autumn, students, teachers and administers began preparing for the upcoming school year as safely as possible.
Originally, classes were scheduled to begin on Aug. 6. After some deliberation, the school board voted to push back classes to Aug. 17. For the first time, Stone County schools offered virtual classes to compensate families.
The following week, Mississippi reported 476 new COVID-19 cases and 16 recent deaths. Stone County reported six of those positive cases.
While other annual events were canceled indefinitely, the Cultivation Nation Triathlon was a tremendous success.
About 150 entrants competed at Flint Creek Water Park. Participants swam 600 yards, biked 17 miles, and ran 3.1 miles.
The event was hosted by the Stone County Economic Development Partnership and the Stone County Chamber of Commerce. Each attendee had to adhere to the health and safety precautions while competing.
The Stone County Fair also continued their planned events as other coastal fairs were canceled.
Maddie Woodard was named Fair Queen, and Katherine Spacht was named Junior Fair Queen. Seven students competed.
Dozens of students competed in the livestock shows and rodeo competitions held that week. Several qualified to compete at the Mississippi State Fair.
In a major announcement the previous month, Matt Barnett retired as longtime Wiggins Police Chief after a decade of service. Two familiar faces stepped into leadership roles.
Jeff Thomas was sworn in as the new chief after serving as Barnett’s deputy chief since 2008.
“It’s a new day and we’re all very excited about what we’re fixing to embark upon,” Thomas said at his ceremony, which took place on Sept. 1.
Sergeant Tim Hill was sworn in as the new deputy chief.
As COVID-19 cases rose, the schools began publishing case numbers through the Mississippi State Department of Health and students made the most of a disappointing school year.
Despite the restrictions and disappointments, the Stone High School Band played on.
The former MHSAA 4-A state marching band champions were dismayed when the Mississippi High School Activities Association canceled the competition season.
The Pride took another blow when it lost around 100 band members who opted to school virtually.
For several seniors, it was their last chance to compete before graduating.
But better developments were underway for the schools.
A new industry made headlines across the state when it made Stone County home.
Rocket-fuel developers Adranos, Inc moved into the McHenry Industrial Site in September, leasing several buildings on the 640-acre complex formerly occupied by General Dynamics.
“Mississippi continues to make strides in our efforts to send astronauts once again to the moon and beyond. The newest company to join the ranks of others in this mission, Adranos, will further bolster our position as a leader in space exploration,” Governor Tate Reeves said in the MDA press release.
This time next year, Stone County will test rocket motors on-site.
The company made a $525,000 corporate investment, employing local contractors to get started.
SCEDP Executive Director Betsy Rowell predicted the company could employ up to 50 people within the next 10 years.
At the time, the new lease was scheduled to bring in much needed revenue.
The lease was the catalyst for a historic land deal between the SCEDP and the SCSD, which was completed in December.
The School District became the third in history to exchange 16th Section Lands for acreage better suited for development. The district could complete the deal through a rarely used clause in law, which allows 16th Section Land to be sold for industrial development.
The district bought in-lieu lands closer to the city limits where plans for brand new high school building are a future possibility.
The following month, both local football teams made gains toward titles.
The Tomcats had their hearts set on winning the 4A State Championship for 2020.
After a hard-fought season, the Stone County Tomcat Football team fell 27-28 to Mendenhall High School in the first round of the championship playoffs.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Bulldogs also lost out on a state and national title.
Gulf Coast secured another South Division title after avoiding prolonged quarantines and staying undefeated. In an unusual year, the Mississippi Community Colleges teams were the only schools competing, so the state championship also counted as a national championship.
On the home field, the MACCC game ended with the 2019 national champions losing 40-13 to Northwest Mississippi Community College Rangers.
The County experienced a late-season hurricane in November.
Hurricane Zeta swept through with strong winds, damaging hundreds of homes, and left over 8,000 residents without power for days.
A week later, most power had been restored. The county began a lengthy process of declaring damages and cleaning up storm debris.
The Board of Supervisors made special provisions for electric power line workers to skip voting lines for the upcoming election. The provision allowed linemen to vote as soon as possible, so they could continue restoring power.
The next week, a record number of local voters showed up at the poll and others voted via absentee ballot. The Circuit Clerk’s office counted over 1,400 absentee ballots, over twice the typical amount.
Stone County also voted in favor of several historic issues that went into effect.
Residents overwhelmingly approved of the new state flag design, an initiative approving medical marijuana, and amending the state constitution requirements for governors. The votes were in line with the rest of Mississippians.
The last month of 2020 was bittersweet.
Residents lost Wiggins Mayor Joel Miles after he died from COVID-19 complications.
Miles passed away late Sunday, Dec. 13, after battling COVID-19 for several weeks. His death left local leaders, grief-stricken and stunned.
Mayor Pro-Temp Darryl Berry said he will miss Miles as a friend and colleague.
“He was very good for the city... Everybody loved him,” Berry said. “We’re losing somebody that was very special.”
Besides his leadership position, Miles was a friend to the community, which included former editor-in-chief Jody O’Hara.
The pair had a history of volunteering together, and Jody covered Mayor Miles throughout his years on the Board of Aldermen.
After a lengthy battle with cancer, Jody passed away on Oct. 27.
When the news of Jody’s death reached the SCEDP’s annual meeting, Mayor Miles led a public prayer for Jody’s family.
“He was one of the most community-minded human beings to ever walk on the face of the earth. He loved Wiggins and Stone County,” Miles said in October. “He was driven to make his ‘hometown’ the best place possible.”
Their deaths were less than two months apart.