Watervalley, Charleston, Tutwiler and Beyond!

At long last, we’re back. It seems like forever since we last went exploring – life has been more than enough of an adventure these last twelve months. But, things are looking up and there is no better way to celebrate than by doing our favorite thing: snooping Mississippi. 
Guest traveler Kay Collins joined us on a lovely September Monday. We had few specifics on our agenda, just a loose plan to work our way over to Charleston and see what Highway 32 had to offer. 

We made Water Valley our first stop because we like the place and we hadn’t been there in a while. First stop was Turnage Drug Store to see their legendary soda fountain. While it serves up old fashioned ice cream dishes nowadays, this beauty used to serve something much stronger – it’s rumored to have begun life as the bar in an 1800’s saloon. Whatever it’s serving, it is a beautiful addition to this lovely town. 
Turnage Drugs Lunch counter / soda fountain.  

A small portion of the downtown area of Water Valley.

We also paid a visit to BTC, the fresh food market/bakery/restaurant. It’s in a wonderful old building on the corner of Main Street, across from the park. We snarfed up some delicious homemade pastries and hoop cheese to hold us until lunch and generally just enjoyed sitting around in a place that has seen so much history. They have refurbished, but they had the foresight to leave old signs and old brick and all the other things that lend soul to a place.   

Beautiful old building which now houses BTC in Water Valley
BTC  interior
Too early for bologna for us but the hoop cheese was awesome
The rear portion of BTC has exposed brick.
This is one of the eating areas -- seating available seven or eight --   complete with a
beautiful old back door, a window and an antique Coca Cola sign.
What a sign it is!

Leaving Water Valley, we got sidetracked by an antique store – something that happens quite frequently – so it was almost noon before we found ourselves skirting Enid Lake and approaching Charleston: Gateway to the Delta. It’s a delightful little town (population around 2,100) with lovely homes and a beautiful town square and court house.

 Tallahatchie County courthouse.  Located in Charleston, MS.
Charleston is one of the two county seats of Tallahatchie County; Sumner is the other 

We enjoyed a quick lunch and a bit of shopping at the China Cabinet and set off to see Charleston. 

Located just of the square, Harrison House 1902
The first thing we saw was the Bank of Charleston building with its homage to three famous native sons: actor Morgan Freeman, jazz and blues legend Mose Allison, and beloved Bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. 
Left to right -- Morgan Freeman, Mose Allison, and Sonny Boy Williamson.  
(Okay, Allison is actually from Tippo and Williamson is from Glendora, but they’re all from Tallahatchie county and Charleston is one of the county seats.) Morgan has a large ranch just outside town, but we were told we wouldn’t be able to see anything from the highway. It’s interesting that he chose to live here (he also has a home in New York), but it’s not surprising since he grew up in Charleston.

But the Charlestonian that really caught our attention was the late – and apparently great – hog, Scissors. Scissors was a Duroc-Jersey breed, for those who know their swine, and a real prize winner: World Champion at both the 1917 and 1918 Omaha Livestock Shows. He was also huge! And by huge, we mean massive; guestimates range around the “one ton of pig” mark. 

Scissors’ owner, Col. Tom Griffin James, took great pride in the porcine that brought such honor upon him. He pampered Scissors to the point of building him a special house on his Pine Crest Farm, although it’s hard to say whether James was being kind or cautious. Scissors’ size may have necessitated a place of his own just to protect the other pigs. If the photos on Scissors’ Facebook page are any indication, this was one gigantic, and gentle, hog. His house is actually quite homey, by the way, more reminiscent of a swanky modern-day chicken coop than a pig sty(click here to open a new page to see the Facebook page of Scissors) 

Located on Highway 32, approximately 3 miles east of Charleston.
Susan and Kay in front of Scissors' house 
A small, but more than adequate, house for a pig.

We had originally thought we might head north out of Charleston, up I-55 to Batesville, stopping anywhere that looked interesting. But so many places are closed on Mondays that we decided to hop on Highway 49 toward Tutwiler and loosely follow part of the Blues Trail through the Delta. Although we aren't die-hard blues fans, it’s a fascinating part of our state’s history and we’d never been to many of those small towns.  

The site of the old Tutwiler train station is now a small park with Blues Trail markers telling the story of W.C. Handy coming to town and hearing the blues for the first time. 

Marker in Tutwiler explaining the beginning of the blues by W.C. Handy.
Blues Trail marker for W.C. Handy

The park also has a military monument and a platform (A stage? The old railway platform?) painted to look like a quilt. Tutwiler is known and recognized for its beautiful quilts (which can be ordered through www.tutwilerquilters.org). Across the street from the park stands an old brick building whose wall displays lovely murals depicting Tutwiler’s history.  
Quilt platform

Murals on the building next to the park

Since Kay, Marian and I are all Ole Miss grads, it should come as no surprise that we made a pass through Drew – we were kinda sorta in the neighborhood anyway. We looked a while, hoping to spot a shrine of some sort, but we came up empty, so we went on to pretty little Ruleville, home of blues great Jimmy Rogers and the world’s shortest stop sign.

Ruleville downtown.
Jimmy Rogers Blues Marker
  Does this mean you should "stop shortly", or "stop short", or perform a brief stop?
There appeared to be a nice selection of stores and such downtown, but we didn’t spend any time there because we wanted to get to Mound Bayou before Peter’s Pottery closed. Kay had been before, but it was a first for Marian and me and we weren’t disappointed – beautiful pottery!

Mount Bayou, the oldest U. S. all black municipality.
Peter's Pottery

When we were finally able to drag ourselves away from all the pretty pottery, we continued up Highway 61, making it a point to note Hushpuckena when we passed just so we could say we saw it. And we drove through Alligator too, because who can resist a town named Alligator? 

Actually, it seems that Alligator is categorized as a village rather than a town – there are only about 220 people who call the place home. One of their former residents, Fred Coe, went on to make quite a name for himself as a television and film producer, a real pioneer in those early days of the industry. 

Fred Coe Blues Marker

Locals are rightly proud of where they live, as evidenced by the decorative murals someone was kind enough to paint (although we do wish they had welcomed more than just the one tourist).

As anyone who follows the Blues Trail knows, at some point you must go to the Mecca of the Blues: The Crossroads. 

The Crossroads -- intersection of Highways 49 and 61
Supposedly, it was here, at the intersection of Highways 49 and 61, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for instant mastery of the guitar. Few facts about Robert Johnson’s life are not up for debate, so there are multiple opinions about which crossroads Johnson was referring to when he claimed to have had this meeting…but 49/61 is the most well known version and really, we were on 61 anyway so we’ll accept that and move on.

Since Morgan Freeman was on our mind and we had been stymied from actually seeing his house, we did the next best thing and drove into Clarksdale in hopes of having dinner with him at Ground Zero, the blues club he owns. Marian and I ate there years ago and the food is great! It’s a unique place, to say the least, given the writing on the walls and windows and ceilings and doors and tables and mirrors and framed photos and….We wrote our names on the wall too, something neither of us had ever done and something we still don’t feel good about to this day. Unfortunately, GZ was closed (and we couldn't go back and erase our names). Big disappointment. Monday travel is tricky.

The I-55 Corridor: Grenada, Tillatoba, Courtland, Batesville, Sardis

 Our trip down the I-55 corridor was an eye opener – we were taken aback by the beauty of Mississippi’s great outdoors. But between stops at various lakes and campgrounds, we paid visits to a few towns. We didn’t have time to really examine any town in-depth, but we enjoyed getting even a glimpse of places we’ve always heard about.

We made our first stop in Grenada – at Jake and Rip’s, a barbeque restaurant we read about in Mississippi Magazine. WOW! We expected good barbeque, but we were blown away by how good everything we ordered was. The menu piqued our interest with its fried okra appetizer. An okra appetizer. Who thought of that? Whoever it was, we love them. But mostly we love whoever cooked our personal plate of okra – the closest to homemade we’ve ever had in a restaurant. No pre-frozen, thickly-floured, industrial-flavored puff balls here; Jake and Rip’s okra tasted fresh and came coated in cornmeal and fried like Mama used to.

Okay, we’re not sure Jake and Rip’s could even find fresh okra in April, so maybe theirs did come out of a freezer…we don’t know. What we do know is that if they can buy frozen okra and turn it into what we ate, they have magical powers. And by the way, their catfish is outstanding.
The front door of Jake and Rip's takes you to some fine cooking.
When we finally finished eating – and it took a while – we waddled off toward downtown Grenada. It’s a pretty little town of about 15,000 and it’s done a lot of historic preservation work. There’s a beautiful town square with a gazebo, some well-restored storefronts, and a couple of lovely murals. They also have an extensive (35 properties) Historical Walking and Driving Tour – go to http://www.grenadams.com/ for a brochure.

The John Moore house c. 1856, 201 Margin Street

The John Lake House c. 1880, 425 Margin Street
The Golladay House -- said to be haunted -- c 1850, 501 Margin Street
The First Presbyterian Church, established 1838.

One of the two murals in downtown Grenada depicting its history.
 It’s a great tour, but we recommend walking parts of it if possible, especially the eleven or so stops on South Main Street. A lot of homes are close together, necessitating a really slow drive – much slower than the cars behind you want to go – to really see and enjoy them. Plus, we found it difficult to maneuver the one-way streets and remain oriented to the tour.(Marian --hey folks...I don't think I've ever been as confused by one-way streets in a town. They all seemed to lead away from the square.  Honestly, walking would have really been the very best way to make this tour.)
The town square in Grenada has a clock tower, statue and gazebo.

Full disclosure here: Although we were touring the I-55 corridor, we didn’t actually take I-55. We don’t like interstates. Oh, we use them when we need them, but we prefer not to so we stayed with Highway 51 – a fine road that runs right alongside the interstate – and we’re glad we did. If we’d been on the interstate, we would have missed the tiny hamlet of Tillatoba. There are only something like 100 Tillatobans, and we actually spotted one. He waved. And, had we been on the interstate, we would have missed the little town of Oakland, and the beautiful house whose owner spied us as she was leaving and told us to come back anytime and she would show us around inside. We wouldn't have seen Courtland, either, and its pretty United Methodist Church. What a charming little church and what beautiful stained glass windows.
Courtland United Methodist Church

This beautiful early 1900 mansion in Oakland has been lovingly restored. 

Turn around in their driveway and you'll get a bouncy barky greeting, too...had to share.

Batesville’s really been busy renovating their downtown, sprucing up buildings and painting murals. They’ve also done a beautiful job of hardscaping and landscaping their (courthouse-free) town square. It’s really lovely – an open and airy park, very green, with gazebo-like structures that have a “railroad depot” vibe. 
Town square in Batesville.
 Actually, Batesville has a railroad history – it owes its initial growth to the Illinois Central Railroad that once came through town en route from Memphis to New Orleans. And by “came through town” we mean just that; the railroad tracks run right through downtown!  That’s only fitting for a town named for a railroad man: Mr. Jim Bates, a conductor on the Illinois Central’s predecessor, the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad.   http://www.cityofbatesvillems.com/

Yep -- Susan got the camera and took a decent picture of me in the square in Batesville. 

Sardis’s tiny downtown has a lot of potential, and revamping seems to have gotten underway recently. Some of the original brick facades have been uncovered already and it’s looking good.

The Panola Playhouse

Sardis is home to the Panola Playhouse, “A Historic Community Theater.” It’s a live theater company that has been around about fifty years – remarkable for a town of some 2,000 people.  http://www.panolaplayhouse.com/

Nettleton, Aberdeen, Amory, Mantachie

A couple years ago we took a quick trip through Amory on the tail end of a day-long zip around North Mississippi. We arrived late in the day and everything was closed, so our visit didn’t amount to much more than a fine home-cooked dinner at Wilson’s Family Restaurant and a drive through downtown. We were impressed by what we saw though and made plans to return to see the Amory Regional Museum and eat at Bill’s Hamburgers.

We opted for the old route out of Tupelo (two-lane Highway 45) because we wanted to have a look around Nettleton on the way. Neither of us has ever spent time there, but it isn’t exactly uncharted territory either. Marian’s mother used to teach there and I used to pass through on my frequent trips to Aberdeen in the ‘60s. It had grown a bit and there had been some laudable attempts to spruce things up/gentrify the downtown area with cute storefronts.

Downtown Nettleton -- south side of the street -- Holland Funeral Home

On to Aberdeen, a beautiful old town that has seen some hard times but appears to be on its way up. Aberdeen is on the Tombigbee River, a fact that is much more important than it seems at first glance. Before there were interstates, before there were highways, before there were railroads, everything was shipped by boat and those boats had to dock and load/unload somewhere. Consequently, port towns were prosperous places inhabited by important people: shipping magnates, bankers, store owners, etc. Such affluence tends to leave a legacy of beautiful buildings and fine houses and, judging by the number of gorgeous historic homes – many of them antebellum – Aberdeen must have been a prosperous town indeed. There are over 200, an incredible number given the size of Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Court House

We made our requisite stop at Monogram Magic on the way into town – it’s one of our very favorite places (seriously, google this place, it's great!) – and left with shopping bags overflowing with shoes, purses, earrings, candles…and fudge! Then we drove around and looked at the beautiful homes.

Aberdeen hosts a Pilgrimage every April, although it’s overshadowed by the one in nearby Columbus, only thirty miles away. Columbus has a much larger to-do, but while Aberdeen can’t build more antebellum homes, they can fix up the plethora of historic homes they do have and they seem to be very busy doing just that. Aberdeen native Billy Brasfield is generally credited with putting this gentrification into motion, and that may well be true.

Billy Brasfield completed this clapboard renovation.

Billy, who grew up in Aberdeen and then moved to New York and became a makeup artist, remodeled one of Aberdeen’s smaller old houses a few years back, and now many people seem to have jumped on the revitalization bandwagon. It sure makes for a jaw-dropping drive.

Beautiful old home in Aberdeen

We zipped over to Amory next, to Bill’s Hamburgers. It may seem silly to make such a big deal over a burger, but our theory is that any restaurant that can last 80+ years – even with changes of ownership – deserves a visit. Not to mention that we like to eat. Bill’s is famous for its burgers; it is one of two Mississippi restaurants mentioned in the Hamburger America book (Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs is the other). It’s a step back in time to visit Bill’s, but we’re comfortable stepping back in time – we've already been there; it’s familiar to us – so we plopped down at the counter and ordered off the menu, a plastic sign on the wall. We had our choice between burgers with onions and burgers without onions. Things used to be so much simpler. The burgers tasted just like Mom used to make, and the total tab for a burger, fries and an iced tea was $4.85.

Burgers aren’t all there is to Amory though. Amory is a railroad town, or used to be back when railroads wielded life or death powers. Actually, Amory is the state’s first planned community, established because the railroad needed a stopping point between Memphis and Birmingham back in the late 1800s. It’s even named for one of the railroad bigwigs and there’s still a certain “railroadiness” about the town in things like its motto, “A Community on the Right Track,” and its downtown park, Frisco Park, a beautiful expanse of green where they hold their annual Railroad Festival every April.

Engine 1529 is said to have been the last steam engine to pull a passenger train on the Frisco line. The engine is displayed at the Amory Museum.

After Bill’s, we dropped by the Amory Regional Museum, an interesting collection of photos and exhibits covering a variety of topics relating to Amory. There are Indian relics, military paraphernalia, and antique medical instruments among the displays and, amazingly, it’s free. It’s a good little museum, but we were more interested in the building it’s in, a beautiful old house that once served as Amory’s sanitarium/hospital. We were also taken with the train car attached to the back of the museum. It’s a passenger coach, the Frisco’s Pasadena Hills No. 1251 for you train buffs, and it houses railroad memorabilia. There is a little log cabin, circa 1850, behind the museum too, an interesting place to snoop around.

Amory Park Hotel -- the ground floor is the restaurant.

We’d been real excited about seeing Amory’s Park Hotel because we have a soft spot for old hotels and towns that have the foresight to preserve them. We’re hoping the Park is as nice on the inside as it is on the outside, but we don’t know because it was locked up tight as a drum. Even the restaurant – where we had been planning to enjoy a little ice cream. Granted, it was Wednesday afternoon and several things were closed, so we’re hoping that was all it was and that the hotel will be around a long time, but it’s worrisome.

We still had a couple hours of daylight left, so we headed north out of Amory and about forty-five minutes later we were greeted by a sign welcoming us to Itawamba County: “Native American Name, Classic American Community.” Our destination was Mantachie, which is much larger than we had thought it would be and much nicer. There’s even a sign posted along the highway into town noting, “Deaf Child Area,” which makes Mantachie seem like a very thoughtful community too.

Welcome to Mantachie
Jim "Buck" Murphy Store -- now an antique store in a quiet setting