The I-55 Corridor: Grenada, Tillatoba, Courtland, Batesville, Sardis

 Our trip down the I-55 corridor was an eye opener – we were taken aback by the beauty of Mississippi’s great outdoors. But between stops at various lakes and campgrounds, we paid visits to a few towns. We didn’t have time to really examine any town in-depth, but we enjoyed getting even a glimpse of places we’ve always heard about.

We made our first stop in Grenada – at Jake and Rip’s, a barbeque restaurant we read about in Mississippi Magazine. WOW! We expected good barbeque, but we were blown away by how good everything we ordered was. The menu piqued our interest with its fried okra appetizer. An okra appetizer. Who thought of that? Whoever it was, we love them. But mostly we love whoever cooked our personal plate of okra – the closest to homemade we’ve ever had in a restaurant. No pre-frozen, thickly-floured, industrial-flavored puff balls here; Jake and Rip’s okra tasted fresh and came coated in cornmeal and fried like Mama used to.

Okay, we’re not sure Jake and Rip’s could even find fresh okra in April, so maybe theirs did come out of a freezer…we don’t know. What we do know is that if they can buy frozen okra and turn it into what we ate, they have magical powers. And by the way, their catfish is outstanding.
The front door of Jake and Rip's takes you to some fine cooking.
When we finally finished eating – and it took a while – we waddled off toward downtown Grenada. It’s a pretty little town of about 15,000 and it’s done a lot of historic preservation work. There’s a beautiful town square with a gazebo, some well-restored storefronts, and a couple of lovely murals. They also have an extensive (35 properties) Historical Walking and Driving Tour – go to http://www.grenadams.com/ for a brochure.

The John Moore house c. 1856, 201 Margin Street

The John Lake House c. 1880, 425 Margin Street
The Golladay House -- said to be haunted -- c 1850, 501 Margin Street
The First Presbyterian Church, established 1838.

One of the two murals in downtown Grenada depicting its history.
 It’s a great tour, but we recommend walking parts of it if possible, especially the eleven or so stops on South Main Street. A lot of homes are close together, necessitating a really slow drive – much slower than the cars behind you want to go – to really see and enjoy them. Plus, we found it difficult to maneuver the one-way streets and remain oriented to the tour.(Marian --hey folks...I don't think I've ever been as confused by one-way streets in a town. They all seemed to lead away from the square.  Honestly, walking would have really been the very best way to make this tour.)
The town square in Grenada has a clock tower, statue and gazebo.

Full disclosure here: Although we were touring the I-55 corridor, we didn’t actually take I-55. We don’t like interstates. Oh, we use them when we need them, but we prefer not to so we stayed with Highway 51 – a fine road that runs right alongside the interstate – and we’re glad we did. If we’d been on the interstate, we would have missed the tiny hamlet of Tillatoba. There are only something like 100 Tillatobans, and we actually spotted one. He waved. And, had we been on the interstate, we would have missed the little town of Oakland, and the beautiful house whose owner spied us as she was leaving and told us to come back anytime and she would show us around inside. We wouldn't have seen Courtland, either, and its pretty United Methodist Church. What a charming little church and what beautiful stained glass windows.
Courtland United Methodist Church

This beautiful early 1900 mansion in Oakland has been lovingly restored. 

Turn around in their driveway and you'll get a bouncy barky greeting, too...had to share.

Batesville’s really been busy renovating their downtown, sprucing up buildings and painting murals. They’ve also done a beautiful job of hardscaping and landscaping their (courthouse-free) town square. It’s really lovely – an open and airy park, very green, with gazebo-like structures that have a “railroad depot” vibe. 
Town square in Batesville.
 Actually, Batesville has a railroad history – it owes its initial growth to the Illinois Central Railroad that once came through town en route from Memphis to New Orleans. And by “came through town” we mean just that; the railroad tracks run right through downtown!  That’s only fitting for a town named for a railroad man: Mr. Jim Bates, a conductor on the Illinois Central’s predecessor, the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad.   http://www.cityofbatesvillems.com/

Yep -- Susan got the camera and took a decent picture of me in the square in Batesville. 

Sardis’s tiny downtown has a lot of potential, and revamping seems to have gotten underway recently. Some of the original brick facades have been uncovered already and it’s looking good.

The Panola Playhouse

Sardis is home to the Panola Playhouse, “A Historic Community Theater.” It’s a live theater company that has been around about fifty years – remarkable for a town of some 2,000 people.  http://www.panolaplayhouse.com/

Nettleton, Aberdeen, Amory, Mantachie

A couple years ago we took a quick trip through Amory on the tail end of a day-long zip around North Mississippi. We arrived late in the day and everything was closed, so our visit didn’t amount to much more than a fine home-cooked dinner at Wilson’s Family Restaurant and a drive through downtown. We were impressed by what we saw though and made plans to return to see the Amory Regional Museum and eat at Bill’s Hamburgers.

We opted for the old route out of Tupelo (two-lane Highway 45) because we wanted to have a look around Nettleton on the way. Neither of us has ever spent time there, but it isn’t exactly uncharted territory either. Marian’s mother used to teach there and I used to pass through on my frequent trips to Aberdeen in the ‘60s. It had grown a bit and there had been some laudable attempts to spruce things up/gentrify the downtown area with cute storefronts.

Downtown Nettleton -- south side of the street -- Holland Funeral Home

On to Aberdeen, a beautiful old town that has seen some hard times but appears to be on its way up. Aberdeen is on the Tombigbee River, a fact that is much more important than it seems at first glance. Before there were interstates, before there were highways, before there were railroads, everything was shipped by boat and those boats had to dock and load/unload somewhere. Consequently, port towns were prosperous places inhabited by important people: shipping magnates, bankers, store owners, etc. Such affluence tends to leave a legacy of beautiful buildings and fine houses and, judging by the number of gorgeous historic homes – many of them antebellum – Aberdeen must have been a prosperous town indeed. There are over 200, an incredible number given the size of Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Court House

We made our requisite stop at Monogram Magic on the way into town – it’s one of our very favorite places (seriously, google this place, it's great!) – and left with shopping bags overflowing with shoes, purses, earrings, candles…and fudge! Then we drove around and looked at the beautiful homes.

Aberdeen hosts a Pilgrimage every April, although it’s overshadowed by the one in nearby Columbus, only thirty miles away. Columbus has a much larger to-do, but while Aberdeen can’t build more antebellum homes, they can fix up the plethora of historic homes they do have and they seem to be very busy doing just that. Aberdeen native Billy Brasfield is generally credited with putting this gentrification into motion, and that may well be true.

Billy Brasfield completed this clapboard renovation.

Billy, who grew up in Aberdeen and then moved to New York and became a makeup artist, remodeled one of Aberdeen’s smaller old houses a few years back, and now many people seem to have jumped on the revitalization bandwagon. It sure makes for a jaw-dropping drive.

Beautiful old home in Aberdeen

We zipped over to Amory next, to Bill’s Hamburgers. It may seem silly to make such a big deal over a burger, but our theory is that any restaurant that can last 80+ years – even with changes of ownership – deserves a visit. Not to mention that we like to eat. Bill’s is famous for its burgers; it is one of two Mississippi restaurants mentioned in the Hamburger America book (Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs is the other). It’s a step back in time to visit Bill’s, but we’re comfortable stepping back in time – we've already been there; it’s familiar to us – so we plopped down at the counter and ordered off the menu, a plastic sign on the wall. We had our choice between burgers with onions and burgers without onions. Things used to be so much simpler. The burgers tasted just like Mom used to make, and the total tab for a burger, fries and an iced tea was $4.85.

Burgers aren’t all there is to Amory though. Amory is a railroad town, or used to be back when railroads wielded life or death powers. Actually, Amory is the state’s first planned community, established because the railroad needed a stopping point between Memphis and Birmingham back in the late 1800s. It’s even named for one of the railroad bigwigs and there’s still a certain “railroadiness” about the town in things like its motto, “A Community on the Right Track,” and its downtown park, Frisco Park, a beautiful expanse of green where they hold their annual Railroad Festival every April.

Engine 1529 is said to have been the last steam engine to pull a passenger train on the Frisco line. The engine is displayed at the Amory Museum.

After Bill’s, we dropped by the Amory Regional Museum, an interesting collection of photos and exhibits covering a variety of topics relating to Amory. There are Indian relics, military paraphernalia, and antique medical instruments among the displays and, amazingly, it’s free. It’s a good little museum, but we were more interested in the building it’s in, a beautiful old house that once served as Amory’s sanitarium/hospital. We were also taken with the train car attached to the back of the museum. It’s a passenger coach, the Frisco’s Pasadena Hills No. 1251 for you train buffs, and it houses railroad memorabilia. There is a little log cabin, circa 1850, behind the museum too, an interesting place to snoop around.

Amory Park Hotel -- the ground floor is the restaurant.

We’d been real excited about seeing Amory’s Park Hotel because we have a soft spot for old hotels and towns that have the foresight to preserve them. We’re hoping the Park is as nice on the inside as it is on the outside, but we don’t know because it was locked up tight as a drum. Even the restaurant – where we had been planning to enjoy a little ice cream. Granted, it was Wednesday afternoon and several things were closed, so we’re hoping that was all it was and that the hotel will be around a long time, but it’s worrisome.

We still had a couple hours of daylight left, so we headed north out of Amory and about forty-five minutes later we were greeted by a sign welcoming us to Itawamba County: “Native American Name, Classic American Community.” Our destination was Mantachie, which is much larger than we had thought it would be and much nicer. There’s even a sign posted along the highway into town noting, “Deaf Child Area,” which makes Mantachie seem like a very thoughtful community too.

Welcome to Mantachie
Jim "Buck" Murphy Store -- now an antique store in a quiet setting


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.