Philadelphia, Louisville, Moscow, Neshoba County Fair

Philadelphia, Louisville, Moscow – Marian and I did some world-class traveling this time around, all to impress Guest Traveler Karen Deickmann. Like us, Karen has never passed a road she didn’t want to turn down and, like us, she’s willing to eat anywhere, and since that pretty much sums up our Guest Traveler requirements, we invited her along. Marian and I like to think of ourselves as easy-going people, but we simply won’t tolerate dieting fussbudgets.
If our trips had themes, the theme of this one would be “surprises.” We took the Trace south out of Tupelo, a lovely if somewhat leafless drive this time of year. An hour or so later, we exited onto Highway 15 South, through the communities of Mathiston, Sherwood, and Reform, where we suddenly found ourselves in the mountains. Or, Mississippi-style mountains anyway, big hills with beautiful overlooks. Incredibly, just moments earlier, we had commented on the view straight ahead of us: a long, flat, empty ribbon of highway stretching as far as the eye could see. Then, suddenly, we’re looking down on things and the GPS is telling us we’re at 684’. That’s only about a hundred feet shorter than Woodall Mountain, Mississippi’s highest point.
Just as an aside, later we passed through High Point, Mississippi, which is south of Ackerman, just before Louisville. But by the time we got to High Point, the land was flat again.
Ackerman, Mississippi, for everyone who doesn’t know (and that would be virtually everyone) is home to Camp Woodmen, a camp sponsored by Woodmen of the World. Yes, we know, yawn. But here’s what’s interesting: They have an adult camp too! Really, 55+, the “young at hearts,” they advertise. Ever sit around, reminiscing and longing for the fun you had at camp? Well, here’s your chance!
Actually, the camp folks might want to work on their advertising. Their website notes that the young (8-15) campers can partake of archery, swimming, a ropes course, talent show and a dance, among other things. The 55+ camp lists the following activities: coffee, snacks, friendship, fellowship, and a one-day field trip.
Worse still is the memorial plaque on the Senior Camp website. I feel it’s almost as big a downer as the activity list. They show a close-up of the plaque, which cites the donation of an Automatic External Defibrillator to honor the memory of Murphy Watson and Eugene Alexander. It’s a little off-putting and personally, we have concerns about their bunk beds, too.


Our next stop was Louisville, pronounced Lewis-vul, for those of you who aren’t from Mississippi. And, no, it’s not a mistake. The town wasn’t named for the French king, it was named for Mr. Louis Winston, the Anglo-Saxon who founded the town. (I can’t explain why “ville” is pronounced “vul,” but hey, it sounds fine to me.)
Louisville is a small town, maybe six or seven thousand people, but it was full of surprises, the main surprise being that we expected a tiny, sad-sack sort of town and found a real jewel.
We were greeted by a succession of welcome signs as we approached town, which is always nice, and then we spied a small man-made lake just off the highway. On the lake sat a small glass “lake house,” and alongside it, a huge water wheel turned.

This is all in a large field that is otherwise empty and open except for a big, beautiful statue of a black stallion. Upon close inspection, the stallion is made of strips of metal that look like black ribbons.

This stallion was probably 9-10 feet tall -- a beautiful depiction of strength and artistry.
That odd finish became less perplexing when we realized we were on private property belonging to Taylor Metalworks, a huge company headquartered in Louisville. A giant industry like that probably explains why the whole town looks so prosperous and upscale. The grounds, which we heard the company uses for picnics and the like, were well-maintained, and the drive onto the property was lined with eye-catching bushes – short, full, mini-trees with what appeared to be tomatoes growing on them. Specifically, they appeared to be Bradley tomatoes. Marian, our resident naturalist, ID’ed them as persimmons. Now, how often does one run into a persimmon tree?
Newly refurbished and waiting to become the Welcome Center of Louisville.

As we drove into the downtown area, there were other pleasant surprises awaiting us, beginning with a little red caboose sitting on a tiny strip of train track – their new, soon-to-open visitors’ center. Then we hit the downtown area, which is the standard Mississippi small town: two blocks of stores lining either side of Main Street. But these buildings have had their facades painted and spruced up to the point of resembling a movie set.

A downtown building....decorated for Christmas..

We were happy to note that the good folks of Louisville had the foresight to save their town’s theater, The Strand (of course!). A town that saves things like glorious old pre-war theaters seems to do other things well too. It’s part of a pattern.

Louisville, Mississippi

The only place we could see where Louisvillians slipped up was in the “statue placement” department. The town has a lovely statue to honor Winston County’s support for the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and WWI. It’s a tall – maybe thirty or forty feet tall – marble or limestone statue at the intersection of Main Street and Columbus Avenue. Let me re-phrase that: it’s not at the intersection, it’s actually in the intersection. Right in the middle of the road(s). And it’s not standing atop any sort of huge base or in the middle of a patch of chained-off grass or anything else that would qualify it as a roundabout or town square or someplace people would obviously circle around in the course of a normal outing – the statue just sits in the middle of the road. It’s doubtlessly been there some time, and people must know to avoid it, but a stranger driving through town at night is in for quite a shock.
We missed the antique railway museum and didn’t take the time to visit the family-owned (yea!) resort Lake Tiak-O’Kahta, which we’ll check out when the weather is warmer. Still, we came away from Louisville very impressed and figuring that it would be the highlight of our trip. But there were more surprises in store.

Smallwood Hills?

After Louisville, we decided to make a short trek down Highway 25 South to Smallwood Hills, altitude 718 feet. Now, folks in the Rocky Mountain States may scoff at that, but in Mississippi we are talking about competition for the “state’s highest peak” status, and that’s no small matter.
Unfortunately, we seemed to have missed Smallwood’s hills, due to what we like to think of as a “map irregularity.” It seems that a cruel mapmaker put “Smallwood Hills 718 ft.” on one side of the highway and the little teeny tiny, itty bitty marker indicating where Smallwood Hills actually is on the other side of the highway and we didn’t look on the correct side. Marian had pointed out some pretty hills in the area though, and that’ll just have to do. There should be a law.


We had several things of interest on our list for Philadelphia, but Peggy’s restaurant was first and foremost in our minds. Peggy’s is old (about forty years old), established, and very famous for their fried chicken. They’ve actually won numerous chicken-frying awards. Mississippi magazine declared it had the “Best Fried Chicken” for two years running, and it is known far and wide for its ability to flour and fry. We pulled up in the parking lot, got out, and I said, “Gee, I don’t smell fried chicken.”
Peggy’s is located in an old white house. That isn’t to say that it is in an old white house that has been converted into a restaurant, only that the restaurant is in a house. They didn’t reconfigure the house in any way; it’s just a house with only tables and chairs for furniture. We ate in the living room. Someone (Peggy? Peggy Jr.?) greeted us, told us to sit wherever we wanted, and pointed to the buffet in the hall. On the way to the buffet, we passed several framed fried chicken awards. Then we picked up a plate and helped ourselves to garden salad, limas, green beans, cheesy mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, chicken and dumplings, and country ham. We searched the table thoroughly, but we didn’t see any fried chicken. We didn’t smell any fried chicken either, and chicken can’t be fried surreptitiously. People know when you’ve been in the kitchen frying chicken, and it was becoming painfully obvious that no one had been doing that.
Now seriously, if you were known – if you were actually famous – for your fried chicken, shouldn’t you be serving it every day? Especially if you offer two meats a day! Really. We had come a long way and it was hugely disappointing. Marian and I pride ourselves on trying local dishes, even when those local dishes are inedibles like slugburgers, and all three of us were bummed about not being able to try the chicken.
Marty Stuart grew up in Philadelphia, MS
Peyton and Eli like Peggy's
Luckily, being bummed out doesn’t affect our appetites, and Peggy is quite the cook. Everything was delicious, including the rolls, cornbread, and slices of lemon ice-box pie we found on the table when we got back from the buffet. People say that eating at Peggy’s is like eating at your grandmother’s, and they’re right. We stuffed ourselves and enjoyed every bite of it. Then we went back for more and enjoyed that too. Then we ate dessert. Then it was time to pay, so we asked for a check. “Peggy” told us they operated on the honor system – that there was a basket on the table in the living room, lunch was $9, and we could make change from the basket if we needed to. Now, that was a nice surprise.
Train Depot Museum and Welcome Center of Philadelphia, MS
Marty Stuart's guitar in the Train Depot.
From Peggy’s we visited the railway depot, which has been revived as a museum. It’s tidy and well-kept, and it seems to be totally original. The floors are especially notable – wide old boards that have probably seen tens of thousands of feet over the years. The depot is manned by a nice woman named Kay who was full of friendly chitchat and loaded us up with maps showing how to get to the places we wanted to see.
We had actually had some trepidation about going to Philadelphia – the murders of the three civil rights workers in 1964 still casts quite a pall over the place – but we were all glad we went. We visited the memorial to the men (Men! They were just boys!), a well-tended monument that resembles a gravesite on the grounds of Mt. Nebo United Methodist Church. As I understand it, the two white workers (Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner) had come to Philadelphia in response to the burning of a black church – Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, which is out of town a ways. Mt. Nebo, where Dr. King preached at the height of the trouble, is in town and was the only church in Philadelphia that was integrated in the 1960s, so we’re assuming that was why they put the monument there, although I do believe there may be some sort of marker at Mt. Zion, too.

Downtown Philadelphia and the historic sign for Marty Stuart

After a quick trip through the historic district – they have some nice old homes – we set off for Williams’ Store, one of the reasons we chose Philadelphia for a Tiny Travels tour, although Williams’ store is technically in Williamsville – and no, we feel sure that’s not just a coincidence. And, by the way, there are two Williamsvilles in Mississippi; this one and a second just south of Kosciusko, some 30-40 miles away.

Williams' General Store
General Store area of Williams'

Nice artwork? Sign on store front window.
Williams’ General Store

Williams’ is a hundred-plus-year-old general store, owned and operated by the Williams family. As in Olivia Williams Manning, wife of Archie and mother of Peyton and Eli (and Cooper too, to be fair). The three Manning boys used to spend part of their summers with their grandparents, working at the store. There are Peyton and Eli jerseys for sale, but the store doesn’t play on the relationship. They don’t need to. Williams’ is a force in its own right.
No matter how many general stores one has visited, no one can go to Williams’ and walk away saying that it was just another general store. It’s not, and because it is so singular, it’s hard to describe. It’s huge and red and its stock is varied: groceries, clothing, shoes, saddles, feed – you name it. But, it’s the quality and diversity of their stock that boggles the mind. Think Red Wing work boots and Spanx. There’s a room just for saddles, bridles, and assorted horse gear. There are two or three huge rooms of shoes – men’s and women’s, everything from heels to Rockport to Merrell to Tom’s to rain boots to cowboy boots. You name it, they’ve got it.
The clothing selection was a shocker too. They’ve got farm duds and flannel nightgowns with eyelet trim, but they also carry Polo and a lot of other name brands. And not just one or two “leader” items – rack after rack of them. These people deal in volume. That’s what was so staggering about the place (aside from its sheer size). They seem to carry some of everything. And whether the item is expensive or inexpensive, the prices are fair and reasonable.
Now, I’m sure they own the building and the land, and that keeps costs down to some extent, but it also looks like they employ everyone who lives within five-miles of the place. You’ve never seen so many (helpful) employees. We all just marveled at everything about Williams’. Marian -- I will never forget the numbers of shoppers....this place was BUSY...selling groceries, bacon, cheese, sorghum molasses, boots (under $100 to over $300 a pair), clothes (RL polo shirts were about $5- $8 cheaper than Belks), shoes, on and on and on and on...... One other thing...DO NOT believe the map information that you get on the internet... Once again, our trip attested to the fact that the rest of the world would be lost in Mississippi using GPS devices or internet maps.

Neshoba County Fairgrounds

Still, we left the store without partaking of the two things they are most famous for (besides Peyton and Eli): hoop cheese and bacon sliced on the spot. We watched them cut slices for other people, but a long car trip with cheese and bacon isn’t enticing, so we passed up that opportunity and drove out to the Neshoba County Fairgrounds. The Neshoba County Fair is inarguably the most well-known in the state, and Philadelphia seems very proud of it – welcome signs refer to the town as “Our Fair City” – and the fair is known as “Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty.” But what do those things really mean? A fair’s a fair, right?
No, no it isn’t. In Philadelphia, a general store isn’t just a general store and a fair isn’t just a fair.
The first clue is the fact that the fair has been on the National Register of Historic Places for thirty years. (The fair itself dates to 1889 or so.) The second clue was the distance from town to the fairgrounds. It’s really only about seven miles from town on Highway 21 South, but it’s in the middle of nowhere so it seems farther – far enough to make us wonder if we’d missed a turn somewhere. We finally got there though, and right inside the gate we found just what we were looking for: The fair houses (cabins, I think they’re called locally) that are so often pictured in Southern Living and Mississippi magazines. The magazines always show a strip of colorfully decorated houses and people partying to beat the band. But, like Williams’ General Store, it was the scale that left us stunned.

Just a sample of the hundreds of "cabins" at the Fair.

Even a Post Office!

These houses were everywhere on the Fair Grounds!
 The magazines always make it look like there are two or three or maybe even four rows of fun-houses. In truth, there are hundreds. And, by hundreds, I mean six hundred. They go on and on and on.
Now, it may be a stretch to call some of these places houses, but I must because there is no such thing as multi-story sheds. And believe me when I say that they are photogenic beyond all reason. In the magazines, the rows of houses with their front porches, their flags proclaiming Ole Miss or State, and their cute, cleaver signs, look a little like Seaside. In person, they don’t. At all. In truth, 90% of them are one coat of cheerful pastel paint away from qualifying as a ghetto. Seriously, take away the pretty pinks and yellows, the cute signs and decorations, and no magazine would be down there taking pictures.
First of all, the construction could best be described as haphazard. (Think plywood and particle board exteriors on many of them.) Some lean. Some lean a lot. Some front doors sit so crooked in the frame that there are two-inch gaps in the upper right-hand corners. Some are much nicer than others, of course, and there are some that really look nice. The houses on the racetrack are especially attractive – like a modern, yuppie version of Gunsmoke’s main drag or something.
But, here’s the thing – even on a cold December day, when the place was deserted save for a few maintenance workers, those houses reeked of fun and good times. In some quirky, inexplicable way, the whole thing comes together in a way that works. You can only envy the people who own them and can spend a week or so every summer hanging out at the fair with their friends, and we were told that people often gather for weekends at the fairgrounds in pleasant weather. And be honest…it’s making you smile just to see the pictures, isn’t it? You can’t look at pictures of those funky houses and not feel upbeat. But what a surprise; we were absolutely blown away.
The Choctaw Indian reservation
The Choctaw Indian reservation was next on our list, and we were greeted by the requisite casinos. Silver Star and Golden Moon front the entrance to the res, which covers some 35,000 square miles. Needless to say, we didn’t try to take in the whole thing – time constraints kept us near the entrance, where we noted a nice array of tribal governance buildings and a high school whose athletes are known as “the Warriors.”
We visited the museum, which displays a pictorial history, along with bead work, ceremonial dress, basketry, etc. It was run by a really nice lady, but then, everyone we met on the trip was nice, leading us to conclude that Mississippians are just nice.
We didn’t have time to really see the reservation, but for some interesting info on the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, check out http://www.choctaw.org/ and click on Tribal Profile. It’s a good read, and certainly enlightening.

From the reservation we headed to Nanih Waiya historical site to see the Indian mounds. Unfortunately, the road to them is blocked off for some sort of excavation, so it was a wasted trip. Then, after a quick dip south off Highway 16 to check out Moscow (Sorry, nothing to report.), we motored on in to Scooba. We couldn’t resist going by the little strip that is the former downtown Scooba, just to see if it had improved since our last visit. It has not. It’s sad because there is some charm there, or was at one time.
We picked up Highway 45 North there, the state’s most boring (but drivable) highway. Still full from lunch, nobody wanted to stop for dinner (that’s a first), but we’d covered a lot of territory and it was long after dark before we pulled into Tupelo. A wonderful, fun, totally exhausting day.

Fayetteville, TN/ TN Central Railroad

Marian and I have ventured far north in our travels this time. So far, in fact, that we ended up in Tennessee. Well, okay, we intended to be in Tennessee all along, I just said that. We debated whether or not to post Tennessee travels on a Mississippi web site, but finally decided to just go for it since we hadn’t been able to do any Mississippi traveling for a couple months anyway. So, here goes.

Friday, October 29

We went to Fayetteville on Friday so that Marian could see Sir’s Fabrics, a store I’ve been telling her about for years and a place that turned out to be all she had hoped it would be! That’s rare, you know, places you hear about for years almost always turn out to be a disappointment when you finally see them. We got there via I-24, a beautiful drive that took us through Lynchburg, Tennessee, a town that has really spiffed itself up in the last few years. We vowed to go back some day soon and check it all out. Then we zipped on over to Fayetteville.
This old home was fabulous, as you can readily see --
just a block away from Sir's.
Notice the outside staircase that connected the porches.

Sir’s is where (and how) I make the purchases that allow me to maintain my extensive fabric collection which – by the way – pales in comparison to Marian’s fabric collection. (M. -- yep, I win this race!) We both enjoy the collecting much more than the actual sewing, which is much harder and less fun, and we found plenty of lovely, colorful items to add to our stashes. Like always, we went in vowing only to buy things we could use to make immediate gifts for our family and friends but, like always, we just bought what we liked. Our new fabrics will join the older, more established stacks of unused fabrics that enhance virtually every spare drawer, shelf, and closet in our homes. ( M. here.... I've actually USED some of the fabric lately and really needed to restock some of my stash -- really, I did.....)

Sights around Fayetteville's town square.

Fayetteville has undergone quite a change since I was last there. New businesses have come to town – primarily antique shops (yea!!!) – and we found a new “coffee place” for lack of a better term – a warmer sort of Starbuck’sish place. We ate lunch there and it was fabulous! We had the daily special (a lasagna roll and salad, if you’re interested) and maybe it was just because we had gone there not expecting much, but it was great. We also walked/drove around town a bit, shopped a few antique stores, and were generally impressed. Fayetteville is a cool town full of beautiful old homes. The town square should be a guide to other town-square towns trying to gentrify themselves, because Fayetteville did it right. They’ve painted, fixed up, and – most importantly – have not torn down these charming old buildings. Really pretty.

The stores are brightly colored and well detailed...downtown Fayetteville. The blue storefront is actually an old theater, with the name spelled out against a blue tile background.

We left Fayetteville to drive back to Nashville on I-65, which is by far the better route between the two places – Fayetteville’s closer to I-65 and there are no small towns to pass through. It’s also faster because the countryside right outside Fayetteville is home to one of the grandest boondoggles in the entire country: the four-lane highway that connects the town to the interstate. Miles and miles of four-lane it is, with a wide median and both inside and outside shoulders of approximately eight feet. Did I mention that this is in the middle of nowhere? It is. There are breaks every so often to allow drivers to turn (but they must be used only to turn around because there is no place to turn into) and some of the driveways/roads/paths off the shoulder have been paved for the first ten or twelve feet, even though they don’t go anywhere except to someone’s pasture. It’s the sort of sight that makes one ask: Who has this kind of pull? And, can such a feat be pulled off by a state legislator, or must a project of this size and level of absurdity be the “work” of a national legislator? I imagine finding out who owns the surrounding land would answer at least one of those questions, even if only in part. Admittedly, it’s a beautiful drive, although slightly less so for knowing that my tax dollars paid for it.

Saturday, October 30

Our Fayetteville trip was a wonderful diversion, but the real purpose of our get-together was Saturday’s trip: a ride on the excursion train to Cookeville, Tennessee, a small town on the Cumberland Plateau. Cookeville is ninety miles east of Nashville, a distance that can be covered in approximately an hour and twenty minutes on Interstate 40, or three hours by train. Hmmm.

Excursion trips are actually fund raisers for the Tennessee Railway Museum; Nashville has no passenger train service. Volunteers organize a dozen or so such trips every year because it takes a lot of money to keep trains maintained and in running order, given that they are old trains to begin with and not getting any younger. Many, if not all, of the cars have a bit of their history posted on one of their walls – how old it is, what railroad line it was with, what route it worked, etc. I noticed that one car dated to the 1950s, and I imagine most of them were around the same age, because these are old, clattering train cars, nothing at all like the whisper-quiet Amtrak trains running between, say, D.C. and NYC. Those trains whisk passengers along; the museum’s trains chug passengers along.

The museum has 4 separate layouts of HO model trains.

The museum offers quite a few types of excursions: Thomas the Tank Engine trips, Santa Claus trips, murder/mystery trips, a spring trip to see dogwoods in bloom, winery trips, two fall leaf-peeper trips, and maybe a couple of others. They’re virtually all sellouts. It is amazing the lengths people will go to to ride a train when their town has no rail service. We trainless folk tend to romanticize train travel when, in fact, if you really think about it, a train ride is little more than a really slow flight with more intimate views and nastier bathrooms. Travel is travel, after all; it’s all a matter of attitude.

The outside of the cars were very spiffy -- all polished up
and emblazoned with Tennessee Railroad.
The bright orange caboose was at the end of the train for our return trip.
Marian and I have a great attitude! And, we were able to do something on a train that neither of us has ever been able to do on a plane – buy a full-fare first class ticket. Actually, we were willing to spring for the dome car, an expensive ticket to be sure – but what a view! There is only one dome car though, and it only holds twenty people, so it was already sold out by the time we heard about the trip. Maybe next time. A first class ticket buys you comfy two-by-two seating and a window. Well, in truth, it just rents you those things. There’s coach seating as well, which consists of four to six chairs around a table. That could be fun if you’re with a party or get interesting people at your table, but miserable if you land a batch of blowhards or whiners. That’s too big a gamble for us, so it was first class all the way.
We got to the museum/depot very early for our 8:00 a.m. departure, but lots of people got there before us. And they just kept coming and coming and coming. (Marian -- Dave, our Wilford Brimley look-alike conductor, told me this leaf-peeper trip carried about 400 passengers.) As we all moved en masse toward our assigned cars, it looked like we were at a busy train station, really going somewhere – like we were boarding The City of New Orleans, or the California Zephyr or something. Of course, it also looked like we had all, simultaneously, forgotten our luggage.

Marian and I settled into our seats, and at precisely 8:00 the train pulled out of the station. Despite the fact that railroad tracks tend to run through the ugliest parts of town, we found the scenery fascinating. We were just so happy to be riding a train! Marian had never ridden one before – not too surprising since Tupelo has no passenger service – although Barry did remind her that she had ridden the train at Disney World. Seriously. He told her that. Lucky me, I’ve ridden lots of trains but still find it exciting. (M. -- The chugging of our old passenger train delighted more than just the riders -- all along our route we saw people who had brought their children to see the passenger train go by....smiling and waving ...made me feel like a celebrity..)

That's the front of our train...4 engines to pull the 15 or so cars.
See the caboose? It's right behind the 4th engine.
On our return trip, the engines were swapped to the other end of the train,
leaving the caboose to trail us -- as well it should!

Most of our fellow passengers fell into the 40-60 age group. The younger people tended to be part of large family groups, with the exception of one carload of folks who had rented the whole car for a party of some sort. That had to be fun! They didn’t go into Cookeville with us; the train stopped a few miles west of Cookeville, at a winery, to let them off and we picked them up on the way back. That really had to be fun!
Roy, our conductor...84 and enjoying his "retirement".

The train attendants were an older group as well. (Some were actually pre-war.) I never saw the engineer, who in my mind’s eye was a young, healthy individual, skilled at his work and dedicated to the job of keeping me safe. But the staff I did see – they’re all volunteers – were very nice and very chatty, and I worry that there is no one coming along to replace these fine people and keep the museum going. There was only one young guy working (he may have been in high school, actually), and he looked for all the world like the railroad conductor in a children’s book. He really did. He even wore a dark, conductor-looking suit. I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if he had pulled a little metal thingy out of his pocket and punched everyone’s tickets. (Ticket punching would have been a nice touch, but it didn’t happen.)

At any rate, I doubt there is a harder working group of volunteers anywhere. This was a 12-15 hour day for them,
and not only are they in charge of crowd control, announcements, and tidying up, but in Cookeville they must physically turn each dome and first class seat around so that people don’t have to ride backward all the way home.

There was a bit of color..in spite of the drought and winds.
The scenery along the route was beautiful – albeit in a mostly leafless sort of way (thanks to the drought and a recent storm). It was especially pretty as we neared the plateau and began climbing a couple of mountains. Well, they are more foothills than mountains, but to people from Mississippi they are mountains, and as we climbed, the train traveled on tracks that appeared to have been carved into the very edge of the mountainside. Our neighbors across the aisle – who, incredibly, slept through a good part of the scenic train ride they paid for – had nothing but a wall of trees and brush right up against their window; Marian and I had an expansive vista. We could see for miles around. We could see everything except the ground alongside the track we were traveling on because there was no ground alongside the track we were traveling on. There was just a sheer drop straight down the mountain. It made Marian nervous, and I’ll admit it was somewhat daunting to press your forehead right up against the glass and look straight down and see nothing there to hold up the train. We ventured outside once to stand between the cars and feel the fresh air and see the scenery up close, although admittedly, we stood on the mountain side, not the chasm side.
(Marian -- Oh, my...this is one of the most vibrant memories of the train trip. Although the conductor told us that each car on the train weighed nearly 250,000 pounds and wouldn't tip over, I had serious doubts about his ability to predict the future. As I looked out my window, it appeared that we were on the edge of a cliff with nothing except a few small trees between us and the river/rocks/land below. Susan, the brave one, wasn't sitting on the edge of air ...she kept telling me to look out toward the horizon, not down. Easy for her to say!)
Our caboose --yep, it was orange! Hey, we're in Tennessee!

The weather was perfect, by the way, and when we got to Cookeville everyone piled off to shop or dine or both. Cookeville is a small town, and I imagine having a train come along and bring hundreds of hungry shoppers right to your doorstep for two and a half hours is a great boon to local merchants. We browsed through several cute gift shops and a couple of antique stores, but it was such a beautiful day that we just wanted to walk around and enjoy being outside. Well, actually it was the siren song of that cupcake shop just off the main drag that lured us out and away, but still, we walked outside. Then we boarded the train for the ride home which, surprisingly, was as much fun as the ride up. 

Tennessee countryside.

(M.... I would like to add one little note....the couple who was seated across from us asked if we would like to switch sides for the return trip down the mountain. I really didn't want to see the bottom of that chasm again from the outside fringe of the mountain and Susan didn't mind...so, we switched. They promptly fell asleep with the rocking of the train, again....)

An old steam engine in Cookeville.

So, that’s our latest adventure. We came home exhausted, but after a good night’s sleep we rallied over coffee Sunday morning and then Marian got to drive the Natchez Trace back home. The Trace between Nashville and Tupelo is the prettiest part by far – nothing like the pleasantly dull drive from Tupelo to Jackson. It inspired Marian to plan a Trace excursion as one of our future trips – when we can find someone going to or from Nashville to drop one or the other of us off. Then we can ride the length of the Trace together, stopping at all of those sights/sites that look so interesting on the signposts, but are a bit too secluded to stop at when you’re alone.

Causeyville, Meridian, Toomsuba, Shuqualak Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Another early start, another really dull drive down Highway 45 South. We left Tupelo about 7:30 to allow plenty of time to stop at Highway 45 Antiques, which is about ten miles north of Meridian. Marian’s had her eye on this place for years. She and Barry travel the route often to see friends in Alabama but oddly, he shows no interest in it at all. I share her interest, of course, so we spent about an hour browsing, and walked away with a huge bell for Marian and a pair of sparkly gold pumps for me. Don’t know that we would stop again for anything other than a good walk around, but it was fun and the people who work at the store are really nice.

From there we went to Causeyville, just outside Meridian. To get there, we drove about twelve miles down a winding, two-lane country road that is really lovely. And then it’s not lovely. And then it’s lovely again. No, wait! It’s not. There are some zoning issues in Causeyville. Or rather, a total lack of zoning in Causeyville. Nice home, trailer, nice home, trailer, nice home, trailer, trailer, trailer.…

We have included here, for your visual pleasure, one of the houses that really caught our attention, a stone house that proves once and for all that you really can have too much of a good thing.

Also, please note the beautiful mansion with the lavender front door. No, no... we don’t know why they chose such a garishly wimpy color - and either do their neighbors, according to the lady we talked to. Trust us, the door is incredibly photogenic! The big picture is scary.

The Causeyville General Store

The purpose of our trip to Causeyville was to visit the Causeyville General Store (1895), which, along with the gristmill (1869) next door, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The mill wasn’t open when we were there, so we just saw the store. It still operates as a real store, and it’s very nostalgic – brought back a lot of memories – but it’s a long drive out in the country to get to it, and as far as we could determine, it alone qualifies as downtown Causeyville.

The Gristmill

Advertisement for Coca-Cola on the wall of the General Store. It was beautifully preserved under the side porch. Wish I could have moved the Coke machine to get an isolated picture...just too nice not to share!

We went straight into Meridian then, and made our first stop at Hamasa Shrine Temple Theater. It’s a Moorish revival-style theater that has been in operation continuously since 1928. That’s no mean feat. The entire theater is original, which is incredible if you think about it. Even the seats! The plaster on the walls is original as well, but unfortunately, in the 1970s someone colored most of it in hippie-dippie rainbow hues. Not a pretty sight.

The theater has seen vaudeville and movies, and nowadays it sees all sorts of plays and concerts, in addition to various events (wedding receptions and the like in its huge ballroom). Basically, they rent it out for many things because they get no federal or state funds. The theater is privately owned, and it has to be a huge financial drain. The man who owns it (who may be from Meridian originally, I’m not sure about that) lives in Texas now and keeps an apartment in the theater that he uses when he’s in town. Now, that has to be one spooky place to stay! All alone in an old, empty 9,000 square foot building in a town that’s almost deserted at night. Shiiiivvverrrrr.

We found the theater closed, although the internet site we had visited said it would be open. But, there was a man out front changing the marquee and he let us in and the lady who runs the place took us on a personal tour. She didn’t miss a thing! We even went onstage where – had either of us had any talent at all – we would have performed a little something.

Marian -- It is very obvious that Susan has been able to put my on-stage performance away in her memory bank......no, I didn't belt out "Tomorrow" like I would have like to have done, but, I did sing a few lines... The acoustics are phenomenal, outstanding, remarkable. I would love to hear a performance in this building!

The place is a treasure! It really is. There is nothing more wonderful than a building with soul, and this place has been around long enough to truly have soul. There are a couple of things about the place we found particularly interesting. One of those things sits in the lobby. It’s a big wooden box – about the size of an ancient television set – with a musical roll in it like old player pianos have. When the woman turned the box on, it lit up, the music roll started turning, and the accordion inside started to play all by itself. It went in and out like it was being played by a ghost. It’s the sort of thing that fascinated people in the 1930s, bored people in the 1970s, and is fascinating again in 2010.

The Temple also has one of only two theater organs in public buildings in the state, and it’s a whopper! We got to see its innards, and believe us, you’re not likely to see a bigger one. And, something that is totally unimportant, but fascinating to us nonetheless, is that Zoltar the Fortune Teller from the movie “Big” is there. The theater’s owner is a movie buff, and he bought him and put him in the old ticket booth once used at the “colored entrance.” (The box has been moved inside the building now, it doesn’t open to the outside.) Like all places in Mississippi back when the theater opened, there was a colored entrance with a set of stairs that went up to “their” balcony area which, by the way, has the same wooden fold-up seats as downstairs – sans padding.Ouch.

We had a wonderful time at the Temple and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, but by the end of the tour we were hungry in a major sort of way. We were directed to Jean’s, a “home-cooking” type place near the train station. We stuffed ourselves with country vegetables and cornbread until we just couldn't eat any more. Then we ordered pie! Yum.

Our next stop was the most important of the trip – at least to Marian. We went to the Highland Park Denzel Carousel. Marian does love a carousel. It’s located indoors – surely one of the most brilliant moves ever, and not just because the carousel is so valuable that it couldn’t really be left outside either. (Although it is.) July is just no time to be outside in Mississippi.

Gustav Denzel was, for those of you who don’t know, one of the finest carousel builders of his time (turn of the 20th century), and I must say, he outdid himself here. It’s gorgeous! Just gorgeous! Not only are the animals magnificent – and there are lions, tigers, mountain goats, and giraffes in addition to the horses and sleigh seats – but the actual carousel itself with its painted scenes decorating the carousel top are magnificent too. The closer you look, the more exquisite it is. It’s a jewel. And…it goes really really fast. For a carousel, that is. I don’t ever remember going so fast on a merry-go-round.

A ride on the carousel costs 50 cents, yet apparently they still have a hard time selling those seats (or saddles, if you will). Marian and I rode it by ourselves. And so did the four people who started riding when we were leaving. We picked up a couple tee shirts on our way out – pink, of course.

Marian -- I have been wanting to see this carousel forever and I would have stayed there for hours looking at it. Meridian bought this treasure in 1909 for $2,000 and had it completely restored between 1984 through 1995 -- the artist who restored it had to cut through 6 to 10 paint layers to find the original colors. Wow... the highlight of my trip, for real...

When we left the carousel, we went to see the old opera house, although it’s not called that. It is now the Mississippi State University Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts, and all sorts of concerts and events are held there. Built in 1889, it is a Victorian Grand Opera House, and we hear it’s magnificent (although the lady at the Temple says they have actually gutted and refurbished the place and, therefore, it’s not truly original). We don’t know if she’s right or not, because we were wandering around the public areas, trying to find the main auditorium to take a quick look inside when, lo and behold, we bumped right into a security guard. Our personal, self-guided tour ended then. We must say, the pictures of the auditorium/stage are grand.

We were a little disappointed about not getting to see the old Opera House, but we consoled ourselves with a visit to Rose Hill Cemetery. No, we have no relatives buried there. Rose Hill Cemetery is home to people far more interesting than anyone Marian or I are related to. It’s the final resting place of “Emil and Kelly Mitchell, king and queen of all the gypsies in the United States!” Now, who knew? Certainly neither of us could tell you how Meridian, Mississippi came to be home to gypsy royalty, or why gypsy royalty would have such…uh…pedestrian…names. I mean, Emil’s okay, but shouldn’t the rest of the names be more Romanian, or European, or something a little more exotic than Bob, Joe, and Mitchell?

The grave of Kelly Mitchell -- Queen of the Gypsies

Emil Mitchell -- King of the Gypsies

A good number of Emil and Kelly’s family members share their small cemetery home with them – probably just as they did in life: Bob Sharkie, Joe Sharkie Mitchell, Diana Sharkie Mitchell, and Flora Mitchell are there too, and they’ve been able to make the most of Emil and Kelly’s status because some of the many gifts Emil and Kelly receive overflow to them. We were told that we HAD to take a gift to the king and queen, although we don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t left anything. And, while we don’t actually believe in gypsy magic, one just can’t be too careful these days, so we thought…why not? Actually, the many gifts that adorn their graves were how we were able to locate them – we saw a ton of Mardi Gras beads draped over some headstones and figured it had to be them!

Some people – people as ambivalent about (or as unprepared for) honoring gypsy royalty as Marian and I were – leave coins rather than gifts, so King Emil and Queen Kelly’s graves are all but covered in money (very low denominations of money). Other people get real creative – we saw a few empty beer bottles and a cell phone, and Marian and I would have been equally creative had we had even a stick of gum to leave, but we didn’t, so we paid our respects with a shiny new penny for each of them and went on our way. By the way, the headstones had photos on them, and they were very attractive people!

Diana Sharkey Mitchell

With that, we had seen all we came to see in Meridian. I must say though, we were really impressed with the town and the brightly painted carousel horses that decorate its sidewalks. It has the most bizarre street layout of anyplace I’ve ever been, really confusing, but the town must have one heck of a historical society – they are to be commended for saving so many downtown buildings. We learned that Meridian used to be a major railroad crossroads, and that is the reason for all the old, high-rise hotels downtown. And, miraculously, a large number of them seem to have been saved. We saw a couple of fine Art Deco buildings too, one of which is being beautifully restored. Meridian’s not a big town, but it has a lot to offer, including train service! I’m terribly jealous about that. Amtrak serves Meridian, and they have a really nice train station.
One of the old Hotels -- it appears that they have repainted some of the signs

One of the old hotels that they are refurbishing--apparently for condos.

But my favorite thing about Meridian – the thing that made me laugh out loud – is a billboard. There’s a huge billboard downtown with a picture of a very attractive woman (40? 50?) smiling and holding a large platter of fried chicken. It’s an ad for a restaurant, her restaurant, I’m assuming, and it says, in huge letters: I sell chicken and chicken accessories!
(Okay, sorry to all of you who have never seen King of the Hill, but I just loved this and had to put it in.)

We spotted this place on the map – it’s just outside Meridian – and decided we would stop on our way home. We really like checking out Mississippi towns with strange names and, quite frankly, there’s no shortage of them. Usually, we find that the names are the most interesting part of the experience, although we found that the greater Toomsuba area is quite large. Toomsuba proper, on the other hand, consists of a post office, a nondescript brick one at that, so there’s really no reason to go, and certainly no reason to go three times, which is what happened to us and we still can’t figure out how. It was partly the fault of a side trip to the Simmons Wright General Store (located in Kewanee), and partly the fault of the atlas we used which added one teeny-tiny grey line of a road. It was frustrating, but worth it to see the store. It is really an old country store, and upstairs, they have shelves of old shoes from the 1920s (a sign was posted that priced some of the shoes for $30 to $60 a pair). They’re all brand new – lots of brown/white, black/white saddle oxfords and other shoes you’d see in old movies – and they’re all still in the boxes! I don’t recommend saving shoes for 90 years though. They get really dusty, and when you try to take the lid off the shoebox, it falls apart in your hands. Cool shoes though!
Picture from the second floor (from the Simmons Wright website)

Built in 1884 (picture from the Simmons-Wright website -- mine wasn't nearly as neat)

Marian -- I was driving when we went through Toomsuba...all three times ... it is very unsettling to explain how it happened. Each trip was going east to west, each trip involved a stint on the nearby Interstate, each trip resulted in the same realization -- something isn't right. I will not speak of it again. As a caution to all who drive using an atlas in Mississippi ---- don't believe everything you see --- oddly, our GPS was more accurate ! And, no...a GPS in the backroads of Mississippi isn't normally overly helpful, it must be tempered with an atlas and a gazetteer. We've heard the phrase "recalculating" so many times, it's now our mantra.

Now here’s a town that spell check will never come to terms with, another town whose name lures people like Marian and me, and, by the way, it’s pronounced “sugar lock.” Who would have guessed? It appears to be a sleepy little place, but it does have a huge lumber business right downtown. And, just to add a little Mississippi geography lesson here, Shuqualak is home to just under 600 people (70% black, 30% white, negligible % other) about half way between Meridian and Columbus.

Marian -- I just can't ignore old buildings -- not that I would ever go into one without backup, I just love the old paint, brick, vines and dirty windows. E.F. Nunn must have had a bustling business across the train tracks from the downtown area of Shuqualak.