Ask Rufus: Leigh Mall, in the beginning

Rufus Ward On Aug. 23, 1972, a time capsule was buried at Leigh Mall in

Rufus Ward

On Aug. 23, 1972, a time capsule was buried at Leigh Mall in front of Sears with instructions to open it during Columbus’ bicentennial in 2021.

On Feb. 10 of this year Columbus celebrated its 200th birthday as the town of Columbus, Mississippi. This year Columbus actually is 202 years old, for prior to 1821 Columbus was thought to be in Alabama and was first recognized as a town on Dec. 6, 1819, by the Alabama Legislature.

Forty-nine years ago, when Sears opened and the time capsule was buried, people did not realize that before the completion of the survey of the state line in late 1820 Columbus was the town of Columbus, Alabama. The time capsule was opened last Wednesday before a large crowd at Leigh Mall.

The story of Leigh Mall had its formal beginning in 1969 when Columbus native and Atlanta businessman Frank Leigh, who was the southern regional sales director for GM’s Buick Division, proposed to the mayor and city council a 300,000 square-foot, air-conditioned, enclosed shopping mall. It would be developed in association with Danville, Virginia, developer John Daniels on 30 acres at the planned intersection of Highway 45 North and the proposed Highway 82 bypass. Assistance was asked of the city for improvements to the Old Aberdeen Road that would cost $72,000.

The board of directors of Downtown Columbus Unlimited submitted a resolution to the city council asking it to turn down the request by Frank Leigh to rebuild Old Aberdeen Road at a cost of $72,000 in order to help establish a multi-million dollar shopping mall less than a mile from the downtown business district. The downtown merchants told the city that, “We feel the city council should be influenced more by the stark reality of present and more urgent conditions in the entire community, and less by the visionary fantasy of private landholders with dreams of promoting their own interests.”

The downtown merchants also took action of their own, exploring the development of Market Street south of Main as a pedestrian mall.

Years later, Leigh commented that the mayor and city council “looked at me like I was a tree full of hoot-owls.”  He said he “could not get any support from local government or bankers/investors when (he) first brought the plan to their attention” but later, everyone wanted his business when they saw it was a success.

After the local opposition rose up, the plans for a mall lay dormant until early 1971. Leigh was now also associated with Jim Wilson and Colonial Properties Inc., of Montgomery, Alabama, who believed it was a good commercial venture and were willing to invest in the project when local investors wouldn’t. Not known for his patience, Leigh grew frustrated with some of the negotiations with a major retailer, so he and Daniels sold their interest to Wilson. The sale included the provision that the mall be called Leigh Mall as a tribute to Leigh’s aunts and his family who had owned the land. At the time Wilson and associates operated eight other enclosed malls including the Metro Center in Jackson.

As construction commenced Southeastern Builders of Birmingham were the prime contractors. The over 309,000 square-foot enclosed mall was advertised as air-conditioned, carpeted, containing a 200-seat community center and having public pay phones. The first store to open was Sears on Aug. 23, 1972. Miss Mississippi cut the ribbon and U.S. Sen. James Eastland gave brief opening remarks.

Heavy rains after the mall opened rose the Tombigbee River to a record level on March 18, 1973. The flood waters crossed Highway 45 North, flooding the newly opened mall. The mall flooded on Sunday afternoon, and the river crested at record 42.23 feet early Monday morning on March 19, 1973. It was reported that three to four feet of water flooded the mall. Though some stores reopened by Friday, the mall did not officially reopen until Saturday, six days after it flooded.

The flood itself was said to be a 100-year flood and to have flooded over 1,500 homes in Columbus. That much water is about 36 feet above normal river level at the Riverwalk and bridges. Mayo Ellis, the mayor of Columbus, said, “This is the worst flood that I can remember.”

Since the completion of the Stennis Lock and Dam at Columbus and the opening of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in 1985, Columbus has not been threatened by such a devastating flood.

In 1975 the mall became involved in the controversy over Blue Laws, which prohibited stores from being open on Sundays. Twice Charles Thornell, the store manager of Super X Drugs in the mall, was charged criminally, as was Harold Lloyd, the manager of Gibson’s Discount Center, for illegally being open and selling merchandise on a Sunday. The affidavits were signed by a downtown merchant. When the case went to court, City Judge Tommy Wallace dismissed the charges on the ground that Mississippi’s Blue Laws were unconstitutionally vague.

In 1997 Robert Lee and Coyote Development of Dallas purchased the mall and commenced a multi-million dollar renovation. On Sept. 25, 1998, the mall celebrated a grand reopening. Then in 2019 Hull Property Group, a Georgia-based company, bought Leigh Mall. James Hull, who is developing plans for the mall, was here from Georgia to attend the time capsule’s opening.

What was in the time capsule? Newspapers, a Bible, soggy cardboard boxes, 1972 annuals from Lee and Caldwell high schools and MSCW, photographs, a 1972 Olympic Games souvenir coin and a lot of water, probably from the 1973 flood. The contents are being examined to determine what other items might be in the waterlogged boxes that have to be carefully opened to prevent them and their contents from falling apart. Working with Gary Lancaster from the Billups-Garth Archives at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, we are finding the contents greatly damaged and are working to save what we can.

In 1972 Earl Martin was public relations director with Sears and in Columbus for the store’s opening. At Sears grand opening he had placed his business card in the capsule. Wednesday he was present for the opening of the capsule and found his now soggy card right where he had left it.

Rufus Ward is a local historian.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

Ask Rufus: Leigh Mall, in the beginning