Duck Hill and Winona

We said goodbye to Vardaman's sweet potatoes and headed west, toward Jake and Rip's. For the uninitiated, that's a restaurant just off I-55 in Grenada, and it serves some of the best restaurant-fried okra ever. We love fried okra, but experience has taught us that restaurant okra is almost always disappointing. We eat it anyway, of course, because it's okra, but it saddens us. So, we were happy to find that Jake and Rip's okra, while not as good as homemade, is far better than any we've found in a restaurant. We weren't hungry, having just gorged on sweet potato everything, but it was lunch time and we don't often find ourselves at Jake and Rip's around lunch time, so we took that as “a sign.” We ordered okra and catfish (with assorted carbohydrates) and stuffed ourselves shamelessly before setting off for our next stop: Duck Hill.

Duck Hill is a town of some 700-800 people sitting on U.S. Route 51 between Grenada and Winona. Although we are not particularly knowledgeable about such things, we are told that it hosts a very good Grassroots Blues Festival every July.

Duck Hill's name is interesting in that it has nothing to do with ducks; it's named after a Choctaw chief (and medicine man) named Duck. He held war councils on a large hill near town, so - Ta Dah! - Duck Hill.

The town is so small that it's hard to believe the “City of New Orleans” once stopped here on its run between Chicago and New Orleans. It did though. The old depot no longer stands, and there is nothing that makes us sadder than to learn that there “used to be” a depot. They lend such charm to a town.

There is, however, a Union Pacific caboose parked on a bit of track alongside the main drag. It's in a small, park-like area, and there is a statue of Chief Duck standing next to it.

While checking out the train and statue, we spotted a museum nearby, so we zipped over.

The building had obviously been a country church in another time,  but we couldn't discern what kind of museum it is now, or even if it is still open. We noted a broken window or two, so it may no longer function as a museum. Oddly, we never saw anyone to ask about such things.

Well, not so oddly, really; the town's not deserted by any means, we just didn't knock ourselves out. There is a beautiful new bank on the main street through town, and there were cars parked around the hardware store, too. We feel sure anyone at either place would have been happy to help us. Unfortunately, however, the sweet potatoes, sweet tea, okra, cornmeal-coated catfish, hush puppies, french fries, etc. had lulled us into carb comas by then and we were having a really hard time staying awake and focused. That's sad as it would have been nice to chat up a few locals and learn more about Duck Hill.

We did manage a stop at their lovely Civil War Memorial, but after that, the best we could do was turn the car's AC way down to keep us awake and continue on to Winona.

We were most impressed with Winona, by the way. It reminded us of Aberdeen, Water Valley, or one of the many fine old towns that exude the elegance of an earlier era. The town has lovely old buildings and some gorgeous old homes, and they have made a concerted effort to save some of their old murals. We love that.

But here's what we loved most about this pretty little town: they have their train depot. Thank you, Winona.

Actually, it would be shameful if they didn't have their depot, given that Winona was one of Mississippi's many "railroad towns." And, Winona not only kept its depot, it has apparently made good use of it by leasing it to businesses. The whole scene is enhanced by the train cars permanently parked there!

We drove around town admiring things for a little while, but this was a visit with a specific purpose - we wanted to see The Wisteria Hotel. We had seen a picture of this beautiful place in its heyday and there are so few old wooden hotels still standing that we didn't want to miss a chance to see one. Unfortunately, we couldn't find it. We didn't have an address and it's not listed under "Places of Interest" on the GPS, so we had to ask for directions. A very nice lady  gave us explicit directions, although she seemed a bit puzzled as to why we wanted to see it. Apparently, it is in a state of decline. We don't know what extent of decline because, even with directions, we couldn't find it. We were still too comatose to process sequential  information...and probably unfit to be operating heavy machinery (like a car).

We had only planned to stop over briefly in Winona anyway, as the town is part of another planned Tiny Travel trip - one we intend to undertake fully lucid. But when we realized we  couldn't follow directions well enough to find a large building in a town of 5,000 people, we knew it was time to go on to Greenwood and lie down for a little while.


Our latest adventure has taken us almost all the way across the state, and much of the fun in so long a drive is that we get to see so many places on the way. So, our first stop was in Vardaman, surely one of the most delicious stops in the state. We'd visited in 2010, because we just had to see “The Sweet Potato Capital of the World.”  (See Vardaman article from 2010)

We went to Sweet Potato Sweets that first trip, a delightful little bakery/store on Highway 8 (AKA 117 E. Sweet Potato Avenue). Three women married to sweet potato farmers opened it in 1996 to use/market this versatile veggie. What a good idea that was! Two of the wives still own the store and their husbands provide the sweet potatoes. You just can't shop more  "local" than that. It serves/makes sweet potato everything...and by everything, we mean everything. There are sweet potato pies, pound cakes, layer cakes, bread, muffins, cookies of all types, fudge, candy, cheese straws, sausage balls, jam, butter, marmalade, quiche – the list goes on and on. These women know their sweet potatoes. We graciously tasted several of these items for you (bonbons, yum yums, bread, jam, and fudge), just so we could give an honest assessment. So far we haven't stumbled upon anything we wouldn't jump for joy at having again. You are welcome...really...we were happy to do it.

It occurred to us after we left Vardaman the last time that we had overlooked one of the main reasons we visit these Mississippi towns: actually seeing the town. This is somewhat embarrassing, given that “town” is located pretty much next door to Sweet Potato Sweets. Seriously, from the store, you pull right onto the highway and take the first or second street on your right and – Voila! There it is.

Like so many small Mississippi towns, there are a lot of empty storefronts in Vardaman, something that saddens us more with every town we visit. However, we are happy to report that  "Vardamanians" appear to be on top of this. We were impressed with the good things about downtown Vardaman. And one of those good things was that they not only have murals – like so many cool Mississippi towns –  but that they have the only sweet potato murals we have ever seen. Given that murals generally celebrate something special or unique about a town, that's not surprising, but we love how they pictured what is important to them. And sweet potatoes are really really important to Vardaman, so much so that we are giving serious consideration to checking out their Sweet Potato Festival in November.

The street running through the strip of downtown stores and businesses is actually a boulevard – medians planted with lines of identical trees bisect the road, and that's always an attractive look. At the highway end of town is a small park-like area that obviously serves some social function – there's a small stage area, benches, tables, etc. But here's the part we love the most: the majority of the nice things we saw were paid for by individuals for the benefit of all. While it would be wonderful if city leaders could simply wave a wand for such things, this seems like a fine alternative.

We particularly loved the street lamps that had "Donated by..." plaques on them, but benches and other things did as well.

We saw quite a few buildings in dire need of revamping, but there are buildings in good shape too, and some with really good "bones."

The buildings that have been renovated have been done really well! We were particularly taken by Front Porch. We have no idea what it is/was. A venue for receptions, maybe? It is completely empty, but beautiful inside and, obviously, beautiful outside.

And, another beautiful mystery storefront!

Then there's the tee shirt store. We can't tell you how disappointed we were that it was closed (for vacation) as it looked like a fun place to browse. Marian especially loved the farm implements and things stacked on the walkway out front - a taste of old Mississippi if ever there was one, and a testament to the honesty of local citizens. We both grew up knowing these old-timey implements with varying degrees of intimacy, but Marian seems to remember them far more fondly than I do, so it gives her great joy!

We left Vardaman with happy hearts at what a town of only about 1,000 people can accomplish. And we want to note that, although we didn't have time to scour Calhoun City again, as we drove through we noticed that they have the same sort of street lights and that they, too, appear to be provided by locals. Good for them, too!

The Help Tour in Greenwood

We've been to the Delta - Greenwood, actually. We really packed a lot into this trip, including a tour of the places where they filmed the movie "The Help". We missed a few stops on the tour, but we had so much fun that we'll be back!


Given that the movie came out years ago, we almost blew it off from lack of interest. Really, we just took the tour as kind of an afterthought, but we're so glad we did! We relied on the color brochure, “The Help in Greenwood. A star-studded tour through the filming of 'The Help' during summer and fall 2010.” It's available all around town and includes a map and photos, and it's really easy to follow, so who could resist? And, by the way, although the featured houses are actual homes and are not open to the public, tours of the interiors can be prearranged.

Since we were setting out from The Alluvian hotel, which is downtown, we stopped by the County Courthouse first. We'd been admiring its clock tower from blocks away and had driven past often enough to see that it is a real beauty, so we would have stopped to take pictures anyway, but it turns out it was used for exterior shots for The Benefit. Remember The Benefit, where sweet, drunk Celia was abused by mean Hilly and mean Hilly got her comeuppance with the pie?

Sure you do!

While we were downtown, we worked in a quick photo op at the “Junior League of Jackson,” which is really the Mississippi Garden Club Headquarters (401 East Market Street). Yet another lovely old downtown house that someone had the foresight to save.

From there, we drove over to 613 River Road, where Skeeter's interior shots were filmed. What a gorgeous house! The pictures really don't do it justice since they can't capture the setting...a lovely old shady Southern street...a river view...trust us on this.

Next stop was Grand Boulevard, a lovely residential neighborhood and home to the infamous Hilly Holbrook. Okay, really 413 belongs to the Johnson family according to our “paperwork,” but that's beside the point; it is a gorgeous house! (And, by the way, they have carted off all those toilets.)

Hilly's friend Elizabeth, it turns out, lives right down the street. Well, the Leefolt home is at 1101 Poplar actually, but they're awfully close. I don't remember it looking so big in the movie, but it's really a huge house, much larger than it appears in the photo.


Our next stops were supposed to be Minny's and Abileen's houses, but for some reason the GPS – into which we had loaded all the addresses we wanted to see – sent us to Minny's and Abileen's church instead. At first, we were disappointed (and a bit confused), but we were soon distracted by the charm of the place. Not only is it the sort of old country church that warms your heart, but we are both suckers for old  church cemeteries. This particular one is not only charming in the way of rural church cemeteries but, according to the sign, it may be the final resting place of Robert Johnson. For anyone unfamiliar with The Blues, it was Robert who famously sold his soul to the devil – at the junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49, no less! – for the ability to play the guitar better than anyone ever had.

And those soybeans growing right in the front yard aren't something you see everyday!


The church is located on Money Road, and since we were all the way out there anyway, we decided we wouldn't go back into town, we would just swoop by the house used for the outside shots of Skeeter's home, including the shots of Skeeter's and Constantine's conversation in the yard. We were just hoping the house and yard would be visible from the road, so imagine our surprise when we spotted this sign on their fence. (You can't read the bottom part, but it invites you to tour the yard.)

Can you believe it? Only in Mississippi. Anyway, we are not ones to argue when things are going our way, so we turned right in. It's a loooong driveway – that wasn't a camera trick – and so we puttered along, admiring everything until we got to the front of the house, which we just had to stop and admire separately. It is truly lovely...the house, the setting, their Fourth of July decorations, just everything.


From there we moseyed down the road to Tallahatchie Flats, another plantation-cum-hotel similar to Clarksdale's Shack Up Inn. It's another brilliant example of "making do," something Mississippians are quite good at, thank you. Collect a few old sharecroppers' cabins, plumb them, wire them, add a window unit air conditioner and a good bed and rent it out..We didn't go inside any cabins here, but having stayed at the Shack Up Inn, I can assure you the cabins are as honest as they can be and still attract guests. Blues fans love the opportunity to "live the Blues," if only for a night or two. 

The Flats sit just off the highway, down a red dirt road. And for what it's worth, there is nothing - except perhaps the slam of a screen door - that tugs at the hearts of Mississippians like the sight of a red dirt road. There just isn't.

Tallahatchie Flats is surrounded by soybean fields. And, when we say surrounded, we actually mean surrounded. Soybeans are everywhere in the Delta. Well, everywhere cotton and corn aren't.

These are some of the cabins/hotel rooms, all lined up and complete with porch furniture. The outhouse is for effect (we hope).

The plantation's old commissary is now Tallahatchie Tavern, which we understand was very popular with The Help's cast and crew. So popular, in fact, that they chose it for their wrap party. There appeared to be a store on the grounds as well, but we were running short on time and couldn't nose around as much as we might have liked. And we really would have liked to snoop around the whole property. Although neither of us grew up in the Delta, there are things still there that are so familiar that we find ourselves instantly transported back to our childhoods, and sometimes that's just not a bad place to be.