On our way home from the Canton Flea Market, we passed right by Kosciusko and thought – Why not? After all, we’ve been loyal Oprah followers for years and it is her hometown. Turns out, there is a lot more to Kosciusko – it’s a beautiful little town. We pulled off the Trace at the Kosciusko Museum and Information Center, a lovely modern building with friendly, knowledgeable staff and a really clean bathroom. Among their many exhibits on display is a collection of artwork by the late folk artist, L.V. Hull. People used to come from all over to see – and purchase items from – Mrs. Hull in her stuffed-to-the-gills-with-her-artwork little house at 132 Allen Street. Her yard was full, too. Mrs. Hull’s preferred medium was, to put it politely, “salvaged junkyard artifacts,” and there was no paint too bright for her taste. Yet, there is something really fetching about her work’s honesty and integrity. We can only imagine that Kosciusko was a brighter place when she was alive, and a quick google of her name will convince you too!
From the Museum/Information Center, we drove around the town square to admire their gorgeous courthouse. We found a lot of nice stores operating on the square, and far fewer empty storefronts than many other small Mississippi towns.
|The brickwork on this building had been blasted and cleaned. |
|The beautiful courthouse in Kosciusko's square.|
A block or so off the square is Redbud Springs Park, a pretty little “pocket park” similar to those found in large cities. It’s beautifully landscaped and features a statue of General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the man Kosciusko is named for. The town had originally been called Redbud Springs, but it was renamed in the late 1830s and it happened that the person in charge of renaming the town had heard his relatives talk about General Kosciuszko. A Polish engineer, Kosciuszko served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Afterward, he went home to fight the Russians for Poland’s independence which, sadly, he didn’t live to see.
|General Thaddeus Kosciuszko in Redbud Springs Park|
Kosciuszko never set foot in Mississippi, much less in the town that bears his name – without the Z. And he certainly wasn’t brought back from Poland to be buried in Kosciusko. He rests in Krakow, but dirt from his grave was brought over and used in the park’s landscaping. How cool is that?
Personally, we’re glad that Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s name was chosen to grace this pretty little town because it resulted in there being a statue of him, and that statue reveals that he was one handsome man. Really handsome. As in, if you look that good in bronze, what must you have looked like in person handsome?!?
The statue of the handsome Kosciuszko whetted our appetite for more statues, so off we went to the Kosciusko City Cemetery on Huntington Street. Our first stop was at the statue of the lovely Laura Kelly, a woman who was truly beloved – and we really mean beloved. When she died in 1890, her distraught husband, C. Clay Kelly, sent an Italian sculptor her photograph and either her favorite dress or her wedding dress (there are conflicting accounts) so that he could recreate her in as much detail as possible. Consequently, the statue is stunning. It’s also positioned – on a pedestal no less and we don’t think that’s just a coincidence – so that it appears to be presiding over not just the Kelly family plot, but their whole side of the cemetery. Driving into the cemetery and seeing Laura standing there is really an enchanting sight.
|Laura Kelly -- Kosciusko City Cemetery -- missing her right hand and walking stick. In February 2011, the historic statue was broken by someone -- probably trying to climb onto the pedestal. Parts of the statue remained missing until Sunday, September 11, 2011. Locals are currently raising money to finance the repair.|
The Kellys were building a home at the time of her death, and her forlorn husband had a third floor added so that he could see her monument from the comfort of his home. True love. The house still stands, by the way, at 309 East Jefferson Street. It’s now known as the Kelly-Jones-Ivy House, but unfortunately, the grave can no longer be seen from the house.
|Mrs. Laura Mitchell Kelly, preserved in marble by an Italian sculptor.|
Update: we revisited Kosciusko on May 10, 2012, and Laura's hand and walking stick have been replaced, beautifully.
We visited another grave too, a very large grave that is the final resting place of the late Mr. and Mrs. W.E. Burdine. Her name is listed as Mrs. I.G., there’s no first name engraved on her stone. It seems that the Burdines were really, truly in love, too. Or something, because they had nineteen children. I.G. bore children regularly for an astounding twenty-nine years. Twenty-nine years! Apparently number nineteen was the straw that broke the camel’s back, however, because she died shortly after that birth. W.E. lived and, we assume, parented, for another thirteen years. All those children are almost too much to comprehend nowadays, but this was apparently a source of great pride for them, as they had it engraved on their headstones.
|Nineteen Burdine children|
Sadly, not all of the children lived. Consequently, several did not receive names (we imagine the Burdines were running out of names they could agree on). Three are listed only as Baby Boy or Infant Son. Then apparently they ran out of non-names too, as witnessed by the name of their seventeenth child, Seventeen. Seriously. They named their baby that. We are only assuming that he/she was stillborn and that – surely – no one had to go through life with that moniker, but who knows? Someone may have. Once you get over the shock of the name, however, it does seem rather practical, and practicality is probably a necessary trait for anyone with nineteen kids.
Update: We got busy on ancestry.com and learned that I.G.'s real name was Ida Gertrude; W.E.'s was William Earl, and he was one super handsome man. Seventeen (a male) did indeed live a long, and we hope happy, life answering to Seventeen; he passed away in 1998.
Yet another update! We've been contacted by several Burdine descendants, including child number 15, Delores Burdine (Haley). And it seems that the family was truly as happy as these lovely headstones indicate. Mr. and Mrs. Burdine married in 1906 and were truly in love; each child was wanted. Mr. Burdine worked 12-hour days at the textile mill and Mrs. Burdine's job is obvious. After Mrs. Burdine died of blood poisoning following the birth of her nineteenth child, Mr. Burdine never remarried. He did not want another woman raising their children - even the family members that offered to take in some of the children. He said he would raise the rest of his and Gertie's children at home, like the others. I'm sure he had some help here and there from the grown children, but the fact that he readily shouldered the responsibility for his children is really heartwarming!
Mrs. Haley also mentioned that the Burdines did not name Seventeen - the doctor who delivered him did! A few friends called Seventeen Buddy, but the family and everyone else always called him Seventeen and I bet he had a good time with that.
The children listed as Baby Boy and Infant Son were indeed stillbirths. Apparently, at that time it was not the custom to name stillborn babies, and in fact you do occasionally still see that in local obituaries.
As an interesting aside, she also mentioned that Mrs. Burdine had brassy red hair (brassy is her word, not mine!!!). Mrs. Burdine's mother and five of her brothers also had red hair, but not one of the Burdine children had red hair and there were no blonds either. Mr. Burdine was of Spanish, English and Indian extraction, and all of the children got their coloring from him. (We can only hope at least some were as good looking!)
The Burdines' grave is well known among local travelers and makes for an interesting stop for someone touring Kosciusko. But, to learn about this wonderful family adds so much to the experience, and to learn that the family is/was as exceptional at they appear at first glance was an added bonus. Thank you, Burdines.
From the cemetery, it was straight to Oprah’s birthplace in the Buffalo community just outside Kosciusko on MS 12. We turned onto Oprah Winfrey Road and immediately found ourselves face to face with the little white wooden church she attended through the age of six, when she left her grandmother’s home to live with her mother in Milwaukee. It was in this little white church that she gave her first performance, reciting the Easter story. My, how that snowballed!
|Oprah Winfrey Road -- located off of Highway 12 east of Kosciusko|
|The Buffalo Community Center -- location of Oprah's childhood stage debut.|
The building is now the Buffalo Community Center, but it has changed very little and still looks like the quintessential old Mississippi country church. And truthfully, it looks better in person. In its bucolic setting, the less attractive facets of an aging building are just less noticeable.
And, guess what we found right by the church? Another cemetery! Oprah’s family cemetery, no less. There is almost always a cemetery on the grounds of a country church, of course, but this one is different. It has to be the nicest country church cemetery we have ever seen – much fancier than the usual collection of small concrete or wood tombstones – and it doesn’t appear to have been recently revamped. It looks – as so many things in Kosciusko do – like it was just done well from the beginning.
|Could not find a headstone or a name on this interesting grave -- located just outside the Buffalo CC|
Just down the street from the church is the site of Oprah’s birthplace and former home – torn down long ago. Its setting is typical Mississippi: woodsy, green, and very serene. (Full disclosure here: We suspect that her actual home did not look like the charming craftsman depicted on the sign below!)
|Located just down Oprah Winfrey Road from the Buffalo Community Center|
|House probably stood in the small clearing behind and to the right of this sign|
The church is only seventy-five yards or so down the road, and is clearly visible from the house. Standing there looking at the church building, with your back to the woods where the house once stood, it’s not hard to imagine little Oprah, dressed in her Sunday best, her hair in pigtails, walking with her grandmother to church on Sunday mornings.