The First Ninety Years of Forrest County, Mississippi.
In 1908, the Legislature carved Forrest County out of the western portion of Perry County. Like numerous other counties created in South Mississippi, Forrest County owed its existence primarily to the growth in industry and population resulting from the railroad and lumber boom in the Piney Woods of South Mississippi. In 1880, few people inhabited this area; but by 1910, the population of Forrest County stood at 20,772.
The population of Hattiesburg alone had risen to 11,773, while the population of Perry County numbered only 7,685. By 1910, Hattiesburg sat at the hub of four railroads. The J.J. Newman Lumber Company, Hattiesburg’s largest mill, employed over 1,200 workers and produced in excess of 75,000,000 board feet of lumber annually. More than thirty lumber wholesalers maintained purchasing offices in Hattiesburg.
The constitution of 1890 established the structure of county government, and few changes have been implemented in the past hundred years. The constitution required the election of county officials by registered voters for four-year terms and permitted all, except the sheriff, the right to stand for re-election. The law vested most power in county government in a five-member Board of Supervisors, which had legislative, executive, and limited judicial responsibilities. According to the constitution, each county was to be divided into five (5) districts with a supervisor elected from each district. The law required members of the Board of Supervisors to be registered voters and resident landholders in the districts, which they represented.
The Board of Supervisors had broad powers and responsibilities. Among their duties and responsibilities are having full jurisdiction over roads, ferries and bridges, governing and administering the county, adopting a budget, raising taxes, receiving and expending tax money, and providing for schools, hospitals, and limited welfare.
Other county officials who performed largely administrative duties included the Chancery Clerk, the Circuit Clerk, the Tax Assessor, and Treasurer. In addition to serving as Clerk of the Chancery Court, the Chancery Clerk also served as Clerk of the Board of Supervisors and County Auditor and Treasurer and was responsible for maintaining recorded county documents including land titles, deeds, mortgages and wills.
The Circuit Clerk was primarily responsible for keeping court records, serving as the registrar of voters, conducting and supervising county elections and issuing marriage licenses. The principal duty of the Tax Assessor was to compile a list of all taxable property in the county and to assess it for taxable purposes. The Treasurer, an office abolished in 1924, was primarily responsible for handling county funds, and these duties were transferred to the Chancery Clerk.
The constitution vested county law enforcement responsibilities in the Sheriff whose duties, in addition to enforcing the law, keeping the peace and maintaining the jail, included also serving as the executive officer of the Chancery and Circuit Courts. The Sheriff also served as County Tax Collector until 1972, when a legislative act required those duties to be rather combined with the Office of Tax Assessor or permitted a separate office in counties with more that $65 million of assessed property.