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.