Our area celebrates the local Italian Heritage this weekend with the 49th Annual Italian Festival. Throughout the state and the region since Krebs is so appropriately recognized as “Little Italy” (today because of the fine Italian cuisine and originally because of the great influx of immigrants from Italy coming to work in the coal mines of Indian Territory), it is only logical that some would think the founder of Krebs to be Italian. But this is not the case, the town’s name honors Edmond Folsom Krebs, of German and Choctaw descent.
Edmond F. Krebs was born in Winston County, Mississippi, in 1821 as one of 17 children of Placide Krebs and Rebecca Folsom and traveled with his parents along the Trail of Tears. Krebs arrived in the area in 1876 and opened a post office at the mining district three miles east of McAlester. At that time, the area was a small coal-mining camp inhabited by English and Irish miners. Italians, other Europeans, and Mexicans were later recruited to work in the Indian Territory mines. The first mine had opened in 1875 and by 1895, 15 were operating in the area.
Edmond Krebs was married to Amelia Walker, the sister of Choctaw Principal Chief Tandy Walker. He trained in the law in Tennessee before fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War — while his brother Nathaniel Krebs fought for the Union. He was a Choctaw Interpreter for Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and was a Choctaw Judge for Tobucksy County (Now Pittsburg County). Clyde Wooldridge wrote, in "McAlester: The Capital of Little Dixie": “Judge Krebs was a traditional Choctaw Indian Judge who meted out prescribed punishments for various types of crimes. For a short time, 1887-88 Judge Krebs lived on a farm south of the Canadian River, southeast of Eufaula.”
Ancestry study reveals that Edmond Krebs is a descendant of Hugo Krebs, who built the oldest home in Mississippi, the LaPointe-Krebs house, which is now a museum in Pascagoula. Dating to 1757, it is the oldest scientifically-confirmed standing structure not only in Mississippi, but in the Mississippi River Valley, which spans from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Mountains. The “scientifically-confirmed” term qualifies the significance because some historians claim a structure in New Orleans is slightly older.
Built on a bluff overlooking Lake Catahoula (Krebs Lake), the house was erected by Hugo Krebs, who married the daughter of Joseph Simon de la Pointe. LaPointe had traveled with French Canadian explorer Jean-Baptiste de Bienville to the area in 1699, and had bought land rights from France. Krebs, a German, came here in about 1730 to manage LaPointe’s indigo and cotton plantation. He later married LaPointe’s daughter.
Descendants of the Krebs family lived in the house until 1930. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971. The museum next to the house was built in 1984, but closed after Hurricane Katrina dumped three-and-a-half feet of water into the building. It reopened in 2016 with exhibits offering written explanations of the various time periods of the area’s inhabitants, as well as hands-on activities for kinetic learning.
One of the museum exhibits displays a replica of a cotton gin. Krebs is credited with inventing the cotton gin 20 years prior to Eli Whitney, but he did not have his idea patented. A Mississippi historian shared, “The first cotton gin, an American invention, of course, was invented by one Sieur Frances Krebs (Hugo) of Pascagoula MS. Krebs invented the apparatus in 1772 and had it working long before Eli Whitney allegedly invented the gin in 1793. Krebs gin was operated by steam power which one Haller Nutt originated as energy. Nutt likewise used steam to power one of Whitney’s gins. Whitney and Nutt were friends and between them provided a machine which turned about the cotton economy of the south. The gin made the southern part of the United States one of the most prosperous areas in the world.”
A few feet from the house lies the Krebs Family Cemetery, the oldest active private family cemetery in the United States. Original tombstones date to 1820 with the marker of a 15-year-old girl written in French; however, burials are recorded for the cemetery as far back as the 1700s.
The Dec. 14, 1893 Vinita, IT Indian Chieftain shared, “Judge Krebs died very suddenly at his home in this city Saturday evening of a violent attack of pneumonia. The Judge was a Choctaw Indian and formerly lived near Eufaula. He was quite prominent in that country, being a man of integrity and good sense and have a great many friends in this city also.” It is believed that Judge Edmond Krebs is buried in the North McAlester Cemetery beside his son James. F. “Bill” Krebs and that his grave is, or was, only marked by a Civil War metal star.
Oh, and it seems important in this review about Krebs and its Native American origins to remind that possibly the most prominent and prosperous Italian to call Krebs home, Pietro Piegari (Pete Pritchard) after getting in to the restaurant business,” happened upon a unique recipe brewed by the local Native American tribe, the Choctaw, which made use of the plentiful supply of golden wheat that swept across the plains of Oklahoma. Pete rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He experimented and tested, until he perfected his own version, which he named after the very people who inspired it: Choc® Beer.