Pearl River County was officially organized by an act of the Legislature in February 1890, on lands taken from Marion and Hancock Counties. The land area of the new county had earlier been a part of the short-lived Pearl County. Pearl County was officially formed in 1872. The county courthouse was located in a Masonic building that burned not long after the county was formed, destroying all its early records. Because of financial problems, a sparse population, and a limited tax base, Pearl County was abolished in 1878 and the land was returned to Marion and Hancock Counties. Prior to the establishment of Pearl River County, a rail line, the New Orleans and Northeastern, was built through the area, and it aided greatly the area's population growth.
Pearl River County's seat of government, Poplarville, was named after "Poplar" Jim Smith, who had owned the land on which it was located. Incorporated on March 4, 1886, Poplarville boasted 236 residents in 1890 when Pearl River County was formed. The first Pearl River County courthouse was built in l892 at a cost of $8,298. The original courthouse later housed the Pearl River County Hospital and then offices of the county welfare department.
The first school in the county opened in Lumberton in 1890, and two years later, a school opened at Poplarville.
In 1900, the young county suffered a setback when residents of one of its two main towns, Lumberton, voted to become a part of neighboring Lamar County. However, in 1908 it received a tremendous boost when an area approximately one-third the size of the original Pearl River County was taken from Hancock County and added to it. With the addition of this new territory, Pearl River County reached its present size of 828 square miles, making it the fourth largest of Mississippi's 82 counties.
Included in the added territory was the town of Picayune. Incorporated September, 30,1904, Picayune had a population of 846 by 1910, and it has since become Pearl River County's largest city.
In 1907, a young lawyer-minister-farmer from Pearl River County, Theodore Gilmore Bilbo, was elected to the Mississippi Senate, beginning a long political career that took him twice to the governor's mansion and finally to a 12-year tenure in the United States Senate. History shows that Bilbo was an extremely progressive governor, and his first term (1916-1920) particularly was a period of tremendous progress for this state. In his book, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945, George B. Tindall said, "In the four Bilbo years (his first term as governor), according to the Federal Commission of Education, Mississippi made more educational progress than any other state." In 1909, two years prior to Bilbo's election to the post of Lieutenant Governor, Pearl River County Agricultural High School was established at Poplarville. In 1923, the progressive community opened the first of Mississippi's junior colleges at the Agricultural High School.
As Pearl River County continued to grow and prosper, its citizens decided that the original county courthouse was inadequate, and in 1918, construction of the present courthouse was begun. The $130,000 building was completed and occupied by county officials in June 1920. In 1926, the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised $8,500 to erect on the courthouse lawn a monument to Confederate and World War I Veterans and to the women of the South.
In the mid-1930 another Pearl River Countian, Heber Ladner, began a long career of public service to Mississippi. Ladner was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives from Pearl River County in 1936. From 1940-42, he served as Secretary of the State Budget Commission and from 1942-48 as Clerk of the House. In 1947, Ladner was elected Secretary of State, and he held that post continuously until retiring in 1980. During his tenure as Secretary of State, Ladner brought recognition to the state by serving a term as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Pearl River County is growing today at a great pace. From its early beginnings, the county placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of preparing its citizens for a better future. From the county's strides in technology to Pearl River Community College, which is proving to be not only Mississippi's first but one of Mississippi's best. Pearl River County is taking great steps to see to its future.