Golden Triangle continued: West Point

Of our three incredibly enjoyable Golden Triangle destinations, it was West Point that knocked our socks off. We just hadn’t expected it to be such a little jewel. We’d passed through town years ago, but we had come in from a different direction and hadn’t seen anything very interesting, so we had just kept driving. Apparently, on that trip we happened upon the only part of town that isn’t impressive and mistook it for the whole town. This time was different.
We began to suspect that we might be in for a surprise as soon as we hit the city limits and began passing by one lovely, well-tended home after another. Hmmm. Then we took a drive around a cove – West Point is known for it’s outdoor activities, primarily those centered around water, although we’re told they have some world-class golf at the Old Waverly Golf Club. We saw neighborhoods built right on the waterways and many houses have their own little docks. Lucky them and Hmmm again. Our thoughts were leaning toward, “This is a really nice place.” Then we headed back toward town on Main Street, turned onto Commerce Street, and gaped open-mouthed at this pretty little town. There is a beautiful park, complete with the requisite Civil War Monument and some stellar landscaping.
Civil War Monument in West Point, MS
City Hall, West Point
Re-purposed Bank of West Point

Interesting...Oldest National Bank in Mississippi is located in West Point.
Just couldn't pass up this picture....Closed but not forgotten.
Remember these? This was on the street outside the bank building.
I had trouble getting far enough away from this Weeping Yaupon to get a picture showing how tall this was! It was all decked out in its Christmas finery in downtown West Point. There were 3 or 4 of these trees -- all standing about 20' tall. A beautiful sight!
How about an antique neon sign on the local hardware store?

Nearby, we found the monument honoring Blues great Howlin’ Wolf, AKA Chester A. Burnett, who was born just north of West Point. The city honors him with a Howlin’ Wolf Blues Festival in conjunction with their annual Prairie Arts Festival on Labor Day weekend. There is also a Howlin’ Wolf Museum (and a transportation museum) but we’ll have to come back for those – we had way too much to see in one day on our Triangle Tour.

We were thrilled to see that West Pointers did two of our very favorite things: They preserved their old downtown theater as well as an old multistory downtown hotel. This is what we love to run across in our travels – towns that had the foresight to save their theaters and hotels. So many small Mississippi towns either didn’t see the value in it or didn’t have the funds to do it.
Not only did someone purchase the fine old Henry Clay Hotel, it’s obviously been restored, refreshed, and refurbished. And, it’s been transformed into a retirement home! Brilliant, positively brilliant. Best use of an old downtown hotel we’ve ever seen. We had a first-floor walk-through and it’s enchanting, as only a fine old hotel can be. They just don’t build buildings with bones like that anymore.
Henry Clay Hotel, West Point, MS
Henry Clay Hotel -- now a retirement home.
Inside hallway of retirement home in the Henry Clay Hotel.
As we proceeded down the block – toward food – we passed a recessed building entry with a ticket booth set into the exterior wall. The theater has been refurbished and is now a restaurant – the Cafe Ritz – with an adjoining meeting space. It’s a nice place for lunch, and an incredible place to go to the bathroom. Seriously, we didn’t expect to just stumble across such luxurious accommodations. Another nice surprise in a surprising little town!
They left the old ticket booth just for eye-candy....
Beautiful restroom at the Cafe Ritz

The Golden Triangle: Columbus

We’ve been touring the Golden Triangle: Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. First stop was Columbus’s Welcome Center, located in the house where Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams was born in 1911. The home was originally the rectory of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Tennessee’s maternal grandfather was pastor. It’s a beautiful Victorian, built in 1875 and recently restored to its original paint colors.
Tennessee Williams' birthplace is the Welcome Center for Columbus, MS.
The foyer of the home -- note the beautiful hardwood floors.
Mrs. Williams' antique pipe organ.

The house was actually built next door to the church, but it was moved a block or so away to 300 Main Street and refurbished several years ago. Tours of the house are free, it being a Welcome Center, and they’ve done a wonderful job of making Tennessee’s story/history interesting. What a fascinating life! The house is furnished to the period, with many pieces that actually belonged to Tennessee’s mother. And, by the way, he wasn’t Tennessee when he lived in Columbus, he was Thomas Lanier Williams III, Tom to his family.

A bronze bust of Tennessee Williams.
The Poet's Laurel Wreath that lay on Tennessee Williams' casket during visitation at Campbell's Funeral Home in New York City, 1983.

Columbus is a lovely old town, one of the few Mississippi cities that fared well during the Civil War. It was never occupied by the Union army because it was a hospital town; wounded soldiers were brought in from nearby battles. Its status as a hospital town is the reason there are so many Civil War graves in a town where no battles were fought. We can all be grateful the town served the purpose it did, because it resulted in the plethora of gorgeous old homes and buildings standing today. In fact, there are actually three National Register Historic Districts in town, with a jaw-dropping 676 properties.

Just an example of some of the beautiful homes in Columbus.

A drive through these districts is a real treat for the eyes, and Columbus’s annual pilgrimage (which has been going on for over 70 years) is one of the most important in the state – it’s second only to Natchez in the number of antebellum homes. The 2012 pilgrimage will be held March 26-April 7. It’s a fun time to be in town, with locals attending parties and dances in period costumes, and antebellum homes, gardens, and churches open for tours. There are also carriage rides, walking tours – even a 10K run and a picnic. But, for those who visit at other times, there are seven homes open year round (Waverly is open every day, the others only on certain days). Tickets and reservations can be arranged at the Welcome Center. (8:30-5:00 M-Sat, 12:00-5:00 Sunday)

Downtown Columbus store fronts

Next door to the Welcome Center was this beautiful mural depicting Columbus of old.

We plan to go back and make the whole pilgrimage, but this time we just wanted to tour Waverly Plantation. It’s some ten miles outside town on the way to West Point, however, and we had a few things to do before leaving, beginning with a quick stop at a local coffeehouse. We’d hoped to do a little shopping too, but we’d gotten such an early start that even after we toured the birthplace, nothing was open except the coffeehouse. However, Columbus is a friendly town, and the owner of the Fashion Barn saw us and invited us in anyway. So, we shopped amidst the vacuuming and straightening and found some great earrings and an incredible necklace. We really enjoyed looking at their huge selection and talking to the friendly owner, who gave us each a free tee-shirt! Then, rejuvenated by our purchases – and that muffin and coffee from our first stop – we set out to see a few other sites around town.

The little cafe - Cafe Aromas - was colorfully decorated -- this area just caught my eye. The painting shown above the sideboard are for sale. Acrylics by Cynthia Mutch.
This is a head shot of one of Cynthia Mutch's paintings -- acrylic and so life-like -- beautifully done. Many of Cynthia's paintings are for displayed in Cafe Aromas and are for sale -- well priced for original paintings....

The place we most wanted to see was Mississippi University for Women, AKA “The W,” the first (1889) public university for women in the whole country! Our last trip, in August 2009, was a huge disappointment. Apparently, they had recently experienced a tornado or major storm or something because the college was in a pitiful state: stained, seemingly abandoned buildings with blinds drooping haphazardly in dirty windows; a campus in dire need of landscaping. There was a black iron fence I’d never seen before encircling the campus, and it looked like it was there for protection, not decoration. I didn’t recognize the place – which I had always thought was the most beautiful campus in the state. It was depressing.

But – oh, happy day! – it’s beautiful again! Both the campus and the buildings – twenty-three of which are on the National Register of Historic Places – have been cleaned up, fixed up, and spruced up until it is a showplace once more. My old sophomore dorm had workers coming and going like bees from a hive. In fact, there were workers everywhere and the landscaped grounds were immaculately tended. Although the work isn’t complete, it’s far enough along that you can see The W I remember – Mississippi State College for Women – with buildings so enchanting and a campus so gorgeous that it could give the Ivies a run for their money. What a relief. So glad we went back. (Marian -- I was so mesmerized by the changes since our last visit that I forgot to take any photos! Oops!)

Marked graves of Civil War soldiers in Friendship Cemetery.

Relieved, we zipped over a few blocks to Friendship Cemetery, with its wonderful ancient monuments and quite a number of Civil War soldiers’ graves. We didn’t go just to see another cemetery, however, as much as we love them. We went there because it was there, on April 26, 1866, that four local war widows gathered to honor the dead on Decoration Day. Not only did these women decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers, but they left flowers on the graves of Union soldiers as well. An admirable gesture indeed, given that the war had ended only the year before. The local newspaper wrote an article about the women’s kindness that inspired Francis Miles Finch to write the poem, “The Blue and the Gray.”

Local legend has it that the women’s kind act was the origin of the modern-day Memorial Day, and maybe so. A number of cities and towns (something like 25!) lay claim to this honor, but in 1966 Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, to be the official “birthplace” of Memorial Day, leaving Columbus and the other towns none too happy, we imagine. It seems that on May 5, 1866, Waterloo formally honored its Civil War veterans by closing local businesses and flying flags at half-staff, and that official observance pushed them to the front of the Memorial Day line. Regardless, local Daughters of the Confederacy periodically stage reenactments of the women’s Decoration Day actions anyway, honoring both Confederate and Federal dead and the women whose actions transcended the bitterness of Reconstruction.

A beautiful crying angel in the Friendship Cemetery, Columbus.

When we left the cemetery, we drove around to admire some of the gorgeous homes – and there are some truly spectacular ones – and then it was on to Waverly. Let us state at the outset that Waverly is technically in West Point. We know that. But, we have chosen to include it in the Columbus write up – it’s actually out in the country between the two towns – simply for convenience since we’re talking about pilgrimages and such and it’s kinda, sorta, almost in Columbus anyway.

The Waverly Mansion

What a grand house it is! Granted, we tend to be enamored of anything old enough to qualify as historical, but Waverly is truly special, outstanding even among exquisite homes. It’s been featured on A&E’s “American Castles.”

The Waverly Mansion's cupola -- 4 stories above the impressive entryway.

The octagonal cupola is impressive from the outside, astounding from the inside. The entry is ballroom-sized. Upon stepping into the house and taking your first look up at the cupola and the swirling, unsupported staircases, your breath catches in your throat.

Built in 1852 by the George Hampton Young family, it was lived in and loved till 1913. Then it sat empty for almost 50 years, until Robert and Donna Snow from Philadelphia, Mississippi, happened upon the downtrodden and overgrown mess sitting in the middle of a field. It was love at first sight for the couple, who bought it, moved in, and set about restoring what was, in effect, a feral house. (And, supposedly, one with a ghost!)

Incredibly, despite the years of abuse and neglect it suffered when it served as a home for wild animals and a party spot for Mississippi State University fraternity boys, there are a lot of original things in the house, including fireplace mantels, heart of pine floors, several gas chandeliers, a couple of mirrors in the entry, even the doors with their porcelain door knobs and swinging porcelain fobs to keep people from peeking through the key holes! Structurally, the house was sound when the Snows bought it, but every inch of it had to be cleaned, mostly by hand. And that’s what the Snow family did. Probably every minute of every day for years on end, because that’s what it takes to restore a magnificent old house that size.

Mrs. Snow passed away twenty years ago, but Mr. Snow is alive and well in his mid-eighties and still lives in the house. Consequently, the home, with its resident three-legged cat, large sweet dog, and flock of peacocks, still radiates an aura of a home well-loved. It’s time for another renovation as far as paint and plaster go but, regardless, we felt about the same way the Snows did when they stumbled upon this place – this is a magnificent home. We can’t wait to see it again in the spring. (9:00-5:00 daily, $10.)

The Tourist Center has a lot of information on various sites, both local and statewide, but there is also a Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau at 318 7th Street North.

Canton Flea Market

Well, we just had to do it again. Go to the Canton Flea Market, that is. It isn’t really a flea market, by the way, it’s really a craft fair, and what a craft fair! Although we’ve been several times, it’s a guaranteed good time and we couldn’t resist hauling ourselves down the Natchez Trace and back to do it again. It’s just fun. The anticipation is particularly fun, and that may actually be our favorite part. We felt like we were kids again, headed to the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on children’s day – that wonderful Wednesday in September when school let out so everyone could go to the fair without playing hooky. And, just like on Fair Day, we were up early and on our way.

Mile after mile of trees stripped of bark, some with small outcroppings of new growth, line the Natchez Trace for approximately 10 continuous miles north of Highway 82. The site was eerily upsetting.
The Trace is beautiful this time of year. Well, most of it. There is one ugly patch, one huge ugly patch, bracketed by signs reading, “Tornado Damage, April 2011.” That was the line of tornadoes that all but destroyed Smithville before it hopped over the state line to ravage Culman, Phil Campbell, Pleasant Grove, and Huntsville. There is a good 150-yard swath running down the Trace for approximately ten miles. It looks like a Halloween-scape, and surely there could be no more frightening or dangerous place to be in a tornado than on the Natchez Trace, surrounded by huge old trees with no safe place to hide for miles around. We saw pine tree trunks of every height standing alongside the road, the bark stripped clean, the tips twisted like matchsticks; 30+’ trees lay on the ground, pulled up by their roots; scores of 30+’ trees still stood, but the winds had bent them all so far in one direction that they appeared to be growing sideways; and always, always, every mile or so there was the one lone tree standing virtually unscathed. Freaky.

We got to Canton around 9:30 or so and found that, incredibly, we were among the last to arrive. We had wondered why we didn’t see a caravan of cars headed down the Trace – or even one car that appeared to be carrying other craft fair junkies. We didn’t see anyone who appeared to be going our way until we got almost into Canton, where we found our favorite parking lot already full – along with several others. We paid $8 to park in someone’s “lower 40” and hiked into town, passing folks (i.e., women) headed to their cars loaded down with purchases or pushing carts/wagons/strollers filled to overflowing. We assumed they were making a run to dump their heavy loads before rejoining the fray, but many of them were actually leaving because they were through by 9 or 10 o’clock. Believe it or not, there were some people, strange as it seems, who arrived shortly after 6 am. And there were vendors there to sell them something!

But here’s the thing: Unless you have to go to work later in the day, there is no need to do that, no need to wake up in the middle of the night just to end up sitting in your car waiting for the sun to rise so you can start shopping. As far as we could tell, the vendors had plenty of everything, more than enough to go around. Maybe there were a few pottery people who didn’t have an unlimited supply of some pieces, but most vendors seemed to stock 6,000 of every item. And there was a lot of repetition. A whole lot. And any repetition seems like a lot of repetition when there are hundreds upon hundreds of vendors. The first time we went, several years ago, there were 1,000 vendors. There didn’t seem to be that many this year, but nearly.

So, you’re probably wondering, what’s big this year? Birdhouses. Birdhouses, birdhouses, birdhouses. And little girls’ dresses that tie at the shoulder. And monogrammed anything. Fluffy net wreaths were selling well too. We each bought a monogrammed necklace, a couple hand-carved wooden spoons, and some painted ceramic gift tags. I bought a soy candle and Marian bought a metal elf from one of the best booths at the festival and…well, that was it.

Metal elf can hang from the mantle or be used in a wreath. He's about 24" tall, green, and adorable.

We enjoyed seeing everything, but we never planned to buy much. As we are fond of saying, we already have two of everything and we spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning out and giving stuff away, so it seems counter productive to shop ourselves silly. Canton can’t count on us for much beyond being reasonably presentable and behaving ourselves. Actually, everyone behaves themselves at these things. Nice people go to craft fairs.

Oh, and we ate something wonderful. It was called Chicken on a Stick: a chunk of chicken, a dill pickle slice (!!!), a piece of onion, a chunk of chicken, repeat, repeat…. Then the whole thing is dipped in batter and tossed into a vat of hot grease. Yum. Finding out they had tucked a few fried pickles into our lunch just made our day. Don’t worry, we had diet drinks with that. Then we got bags of candied pecans and almonds for dessert. It was worth the drive just for that.

This building was refurbished to be used in A Time To Kill as the lawyer's office above a bank. The traffic cop and the portable johns are strictly there for the flea market.

Canton is a pretty town, by the way. It has cute stores, a stately town square, lovely old homes, and it claims to be where more movies are filmed than anyplace else in the state (A Time to Kill, My Dog Skip, The Rising Place, O Brother Where Art Thou…). We don’t know which came first, the movies or the paint, but many storefronts on the square are done in pretty pastels that would lend themselves well to film. But mostly we just have to admire Canton for coming up with the whole idea of the flea market in the first place – only two disruptive days a year, no infrastructure needed, thousands upon thousands of dollars added to the economy, a chance for locals to line their own pockets to boot – what a brilliant idea!

Holly Springs

Holly Springs is a surprising place. Although we had taken a TTTM tour of the town in September 2009, that visit was merely a stopover on the way to Tunica and our riverboat ride up the Mississippi. To keep to our schedule, we’d had to restrict ourselves to a brief tour of Rust College, ogling Graceland Too, and eating a burger at Phillips Grocery. We didn’t see much of Holly Springs, so there were a lot of surprises in store for us this time. We had just turned off Highway 78 when we got our first surprise, such a great “old Mississippi” photo op that we had to pull over. There was a like-new 1937 Chevy parked against a backdrop of kudzu. The car’s owner, who also owned the repair shop where the car was parked, came out and gave a little history of his pride and joy, which he drives to work every day. The entire car is original, including the fan attached to the dash – a 1930s air conditioner. It even comes with its own “owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sunday” story, except that this little old lady only drove it to the grocery store once a week.

1937 Chevrolet, 44,000 actual miles, nothing new except the tires.

The interior was cooled by that original-equipment fan on the dashboard

Once we had thoroughly admired the car, we drove on toward downtown Holly Springs. It has a town square, something we love and wish every town had. And just off that square is the Chamber of Commerce/Tourist Bureau (148 East College Avenue). We hadn’t spent more than a few minutes there talking with Assistant Director Suzann before we realized that Holly Springs is on the ball. Unlike so many towns that effectively closed down when their industries did, Holly Springs revamped itself. The factories may have moved elsewhere, but the historic homes, churches, and businesses stayed put and, as long as they were there anyway, the city marketed them. According to Suzann, who knows such things, Holly Springs has become a destination, a great weekend escape, especially during the annual Spring Pilgrimage (usually the second weekend in April). We can see why – there is so much to do there.
We started our tour with a quick walk around the square, a mixture of charming stores and empty storefronts. The first place we passed was the Court Square Inn, a beautifully restored Italianate building dating to 1865. It’s a Bed and Breakfast featuring three luxury suites overlooking downtown and it’s gorgeous. (The town has a surprising number of B&Bs, by the way.)

Court Square B & B entrance.

This little mystery house is on the square, nestled next to the bank building shown on the left. Exquisite fencing.

Beautiful stained glass over the entrance to Tyson Drug Store.

We stopped by Tyson Drugs, which has sat on the corner of Market Street and Van Dorn Avenue longer than anyone can remember. It was a bank before it was Tyson’s, and before that it was another pharmacy. The floor shows the building’s age – it’s covered in a zillion tiny tiles, a typical old drugstore floor. And the standard soda fountain counter is still there too! What wasn’t around originally was The Funky Monkey, the gift shop attached to the drugstore. It’s full of cute things, several of which hitched a ride home with us, including several Mississippi wine glasses – canning jars attached to a crystal stem. And yes, the metal lid is included.

Booker Hardware

Continuing around the square we passed Booker Hardware, where we were stunned to see a window full of churns. Yes, churns. Big churns, little churns, middle-sized churns – they were all there. Apparently, the national move toward a simpler life is alive and well in Mississippi, and churns are a part of that. At least until the actual churning begins and folks realize how loooooooong it’s going to take that milk to turn into butter.

Butter churns of all sizes....$25 and up.

The original store burned during the Civil War, so this is the “new” Booker’s. There’s no mistaking that the plank floor is original to the new store – down to the squeaks and creaks. In fact, plenty of things about the store are original to that second store, or at least very, very old, including the wooden display and storage cases ubiquitous to all old hardware stores. The folks at Booker’s have been offered thousands of dollars for these beautiful relics, but the drawers in their quaint wooden cabinetry are full of nails and screws and such and they aren’t anxious to part with those cabinets just to have to find somewhere else to put all their stuff.

This 6-sided wooden rotating fastener storage case was still in use.

After a good look around Booker’s, we walked two blocks down to 220 East College Avenue to the Marshall County Historical Museum, three floors of memories that could easily fill a museum five times the size. The 1903 building was originally a dormitory at Mississippi Synodical College, the first women’s junior college in the state and surely the college with the most unfortunate name ever. We were escorted on this tour through time by the lovely Lois Swanee, the tiny ball of fire that oversees – and is intimately involved in – every single aspect of the museum, from its origin to the most obscure donation.

Understandably, the museum allowed no pictures inside.

This marker is in the front yard of the museum -- history is everywhere in Holly Springs.

There is no way to adequately describe this museum. Each room in the house is dedicated to one or more topics, and while there are usually a few random objects thrown in for good measure, there’s a method to the madness – it’s actually quite well organized and the items themselves are in excellent condition and lovingly maintained. There are display cases at every turn and items hang, quite literally, from floor to ceiling. But, while the museum is stuffed to the gills, things don’t appear to be junky as much as crowded. This is possibly due to the fact that Lois genuinely values each and every donation, including things like the senior class compilation photos from schools that no longer exist or haven’t the room to keep decades of these photos, glimpses back in time that would probably have been thrown away if not for Lois.

Several years ago, the museum’s roof leaked so badly that the entire building had to be evacuated for repairs, and it took months to clear out the place. Literally, like six months. Lois and helpers moved her favorite exhibits into a store on the square that served as the temporary home and the rest went into storage for the duration. Lois, meanwhile, busied herself penning a letter to Warren Buffett (No, she didn’t know him, and no, he has no ties to Holly Springs.), asking if he would fund an elevator for the building to make it more accessible. He did it! So, they installed the elevator, fixed the roof and the damage, and moved back in. The museum’s War Room is exceptional. There are uniforms and memorabilia from ten wars in this one room, most of which belonged to a son or daughter of Holly Springs. There’s also a Library full of ancient books, a Doctor’s Room full of yesteryear’s medical supplies, a School Room that takes you back 100 years or so, a Toy Room with one of the very first tricycles and an incredible collection of doll houses and dolls, a room dedicated to native animals (stuffed bears, armadillos, etc.), an Indian and Cowboy Room, and so on and so on. And, while these rooms give some idea of the range of exhibits, they don’t begin to describe the uniqueness of some of the items. The Indian and Cowboy Room, for example, contains mementos from Holly Springs native George Anderson, Admiral Byrd’s pilot to Antarctica. In the collection of women’s fashions is a paper swimsuit distributed by Holiday Inn when they opened the first indoor swimming pools and discovered that no one thought to bring a suit except in summer. There’s an original Gibson Girl dress. And a 20-star American flag (and 42-, 46-, and 48-star flags too!). And dancing rocks from Iuka – round rocks that really move. According to Lois, Mississippi has the fewest rocks of any state except Louisiana.

Most memorable, possibly, is the Vaseline Glass display near the elevator. In the same case there is a lemonade serving set that glows in the dark (and in the light!) because it contains uranium. Yes, people used to enjoy a little radioactivity with their lemonade. And their lamps. And their vases. Incredibly, people don’t do this anymore.

And then there’s the museum’s display of Hair Art. Did you know people used to cut their hair to use it for artistic purposes? Well they did. Whole families used to cut off their hair and wrap it around thin wires that could be molded into flowers and such. Then they passed these lovely objets d’art down through their families. Incredibly, people don’t do this anymore either.

We could have amused ourselves in the museum forever – it has to be seen to be believed – but we were soon starving and had much more to see in Holly Springs, so we each purchased a jar of Kudzu Blossom Jelly from the museum’s gift counter and set off for Annie’s, reputed home of the best fried chicken in town.
Annie’s (198 North Memphis Street) is a buffet, a little bit of Southern heaven. We were greeted with a hug from Annie herself. It took us a bit by surprise, but apparently everyone is greeted with a hug! Despite all that hugging, Annie looks like she just stepped off the set of her own television show, dressed to the nines. We each chose fried chicken, boiled okra, limas, corn bread and chow-chow from among the many options. We also tried Annie’s cooked cabbage, which has to be – seriously – the best in the world. And neither of us really likes cooked cabbage, or didn’t before this anyway. We were stuffed but still managed to polish off a bowl of pecan cobbler. It was wonderful. (This place is one of my favorites -- Southern cooking heaven.)

A driving tour of antebellum homes/churches was next on our agenda, using the CD Suzann had given us. It’s beautifully and professionally done and includes a bit of local history along with interesting descriptions of various sites. Holly Springs has a rather unique history. It, along with Jackson and Vicksburg, was occupied for a record ten years after the Civil War (referred to hereafter as “the war”). For various reasons, the city wasn’t burned during the war, or, at least, houses weren’t, so there are an incredible number of antebellum homes near downtown – which is even more amazing considering that these fine homes were often located on plantations miles from town. The downtown area was torched by Confederates in an effort to destroy stockpiles of Union supplies and, historically speaking at least, no one seems to hold this against them. In fact, one of the Confederate descendants' groups dedicated a marker to honor Confederate General Van Dorn and his brave troops for doing the burning! Shortly after the occupation ended, a yellow fever epidemic struck the town and wiped out more folks than the war had, so generally speaking, the late 1860s – 70s were tough times for Holly Springs.
Airliewood as it is currently pictured on Loopnet.com. It's offered for $1.4 million. The home was auctioned off in October 2010 after $5 million worth of renovation.

The homes on the tour, while not open (with one exception, they’re only open during Pilgrimage or during the Christmas tour) are worth admiring from the street. Most are in the Federal or Greek Revival style, but a couple are unique: Airliewood, where General Grant established his headquarters, is a pink Gothic Revival, and Grey Gables is a stunning Italianate. But the most astounding home on the tour is Walter Place, a house so grand that it was where General Grant housed his wife and child during the war. And his wife’s slave. Yes, you read that right. The head of the Union army’s wife brought her slave. Hmmm. Well, as they say, history is written by the victors.

We had planned our day around a visit to Walter Place – it’s open daily (except Sunday) for one tour at 1:00 pm. The present lady of the house is…drum roll please…Lois’s daughter! (For the record, Lois lives in an antebellum home too.) The daughter and her husband bought Walter Place years ago and have restored it and it’s incredible gardens to their former glory, but her husband hasn’t been well of late and Lois had warned us that sometimes her daughter had to cancel the tour. Unfortunately, it was one of those days. Oh well, we’ll be back. (Marian --The grounds and the Walter Place home are said to be exquisite -- I can hardly wait for the opportunity to see this place.)

This is the picture of the Walter Place on Trulia.com website. $15 million will get you a fine antebellum estate in the heart of Holly Springs -- monthly payments of just under $90,000.

Hillcrest Cemetery

Charlie died at 4 years old. Such an odd headstone...so sad.

We had to console ourselves with a visit to Hillcrest Cemetery, a wonderful old cemetery but no Walter Place. Then we drove over to Graceland Too, the shrine to Elvis Presley we tried to visit the last time we were in Holly Springs (no one answered the door).

There is just no way to describe this place. I found myself humming "Blue Christmas." The house is surrounded by these pots of funky blue Christmas trees.

We had planned to visit this trip, but the house has recently been painted honkin’ blue with black trim and it’s…it’s…forbidding. Scary even. (Marian -- After enjoying Holly Springs so much, I just couldn't go into Graceland Too...I just couldn't.) So we finished the driving tour and drove a few miles out of town to Strawberry Plains Audubon Center. antebellum Davis House sits on the property, and it was the last of the Davis family who entrusted their home and its 2,500 acres to the Audubon Society. It’s now famous for its annual hummingbird migration. Each year in September, millions of hummingbirds stop at Strawberry Plains on their way south. We missed the big to-do by a week or so, but plan on making a concerted effort next September. (http://strawberryplains.audubon.org/ shows this beautiful place) And when we do, we also plan to visit more of the sites we had to miss this time, among them the Ida B. Wells Art Gallery and the Kate Freeman Clark Museum and maybe Graceland Too. Maybe.

Tour of Tupelo #2 - Elvis Presley Park

The summer of 1972, I worked at the pool in Elvis Presley Park. Countless tourists – really, they were pilgrims – came to my concession stand window to ask about seeing Elvis’s birthplace. Most of these people had traveled a long way, only to be greeted by scruffy turf, a generic swimming pool, a birthplace that might or might not be open, and a Youth Center. That was all there was back then – or maybe there were tennis courts, I can’t really remember. The city, which bought the birthplace and surrounding land with money Elvis donated from his famous 1956 Tupelo Fair appearance, gave the park short shrift. To be fair, that was just the way things were back then – people weren’t prone to glamorize stuff or blow it out of proportion in those days – but still…Elvis was the indisputable King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and had been for some time.

A definite stop on the Mississippi Country Music Trail!

Most pilgrims were either going to or coming from Memphis – Graceland, really – but Elvis lived there then, so a glimpse of his house through the front gate was about all they could hope for. Consequently, they were excited about seeing the inside of Elvis’s first home. The problem was, there wasn’t anything else to see at the park and the birthplace wasn’t always open. If memory serves me, it was staffed by a small group of volunteers then. Even if the volunteer had only stepped out for an hour, it never failed that a carload of people from Wisconsin would pick that time to turn up. They’d soon show up at the pool asking to be let in the house.

My, how times have changed! When Marian and I walked onto the property, we were gob smacked. Full disclosure: we’ve both been there since 1972…but it’s been years. As in decades. We didn’t recognize the place. Gone are the shabby grounds, the swimming pool, and the Youth Center – but there’s plenty to see. The birthplace is still there, of course, but it’s now joined by a chapel, a church, a museum, a gift shop, a fountain, and a memorial garden with a bronze statue of thirteen-year-old Elvis – the age he was when he left Tupelo for Memphis in 1948.

Elvis -- at age 13.

Close up

Generous Elvis fans donated money to build the chapel that stands in the park, a lovely little building with gorgeous stained glass windows. It’s available for weddings, and while a few Elvis impersonators have probably been wed there, you’ll not find one performing ceremonies.That would be tacky, and great pains have been taken to see that there is nothing tacky about the park. After all, it wasn’t a group of promoters who came up with the idea of building a park on the site where Elvis was born. It was Elvis’s vision, shared by his childhood friends, a way to give something back to his old neighborhood. Everything about the park reflects that.

Note the white-suited Elvis!

We followed the forty-two granite blocks that make up the Walk of Life – a timeline of Elvis’s life. It circles the birthplace and leads to that beautiful fountain. Then we read what Elvis’s friends had to say about him on the Story Wall.

Along the outside of the Chapel -- posted memories of Elvis's friends and relatives.

Even the church he attended – where he learned to sing “Old Shep” – now sits in the park and it’s a real trip back in time. It’s an old, white, country-style Assembly of God church and, inside, you can hear the sort of music Elvis grew up with.

Elvis Presley began his singing career in this church. It was moved to park grounds several years ago and shows a video depicting a normal church service.

Attention to details -- this outhouse came with the church. Most country churches had outdoor plumbing.

The old home in which Elvis was born. It is a "shotgun" type -- two rooms.

We didn’t tour his birthplace, the home his father, uncle, and grandfather built for $180, as we had both done that and, while it’s interesting, we didn’t really feel like doing it again. It would be more enticing if the furniture had really belonged to the Presleys rather than just being authentic to the period. That said, it has never looked better. Like the rest of the park, it’s beautifully landscaped – to an extent that would render it unrecognizable to Elvis today.

Presley Park is one of the major tourist draws in Mississippi – every year some 50,000 visitors come to this big-city attraction with the small-town feel. There's even an annual Fan Appreciation Day every August, with local entertainment and speeches by city bigwigs. Everything about the park bespeaks love and respect for Elvis the person, along with a near reverence for Elvis the entertainer. And despite the crowds and the occasional “Elvi” sightings, a true sense of serenity pervades the place. There’s a dignity to the park that’s unmistakable and very touching. (Okay, maybe the gift shop does stock a few souvenirs that couldn’t be described as dignified, but still….)