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….)

1 comment:

  1. A lovely article. Thank you for giving an update about the Park for those of us who may never get to see it in person.