Thursday, March 6, 2014


We disembarked from the cruise ship in Miami, retrieved our car and headed for the West coast of Florida--Naples and Fort Myers.  The highway across Florida is aptly named Alligator Alley.  There is not much to see there, driving across the thousands of square miles of sub-tropical wetlands they call the Everglades.  The Everglades is actually an enormous, slow moving river 60 miles wide and 100 miles long, starting at Lake Okeechobee and flowing South toward the Gulf of Mexico. 

Periodically, there's been talk of draining the Everglades and planting sugarcane, and even building an airport there.  Environmental studies determined that these projects would kill the ecosystem in South Florida, and the environmentalists ultimately prevailed.  Congress agreed, at great expense, to restore much of the wetlands that had been previously diverted. 

We ate lunch at the Cracker Barrel in Naples and then continued on to our motel in Fort Myers.  Our friends who were on the cruise with us winter in Fort Myers, and we agreed to meet them for dinner. 

But first we had to see the main attraction in Fort Myers--the Fleamaster flea market with over 900 vendors including a food court.  They even have stands selling fruits and vegetables.  A huge complex, they bill it as the world's largest flea market.  The demographics are ideal--the average age in this area is about 82.  The market is open only on weekends, and we arrived on Saturday afternoon.

Most of the merchants sell new merchandise, some of which may have fallen off the back of a truck.  Don't buy any big ticket items--you can probably get them cheaper online.  Unlike most flea markets, the state collects sales tax.  However, if you pay cash--not credit cards--they look the other way and don't charge sales tax.  Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this.  We bought some tchotchkes and were happy to get out of there.


The other thing to see in Fort Myers is the Edison and Ford houses which are next door to one another.  That wasn't a coincidence.  Edison came to Fort Myers in 1885, presumably for health reasons.  He was only 38 years old.  He was already famous for inventing the electric light bulb--which he didn't really invent.  Actually, the English scientist Humphry Davy invented it in 1800; Joseph Swan later improved it, but neither bulb was practical because it burned out too quickly.   Edison perfected the light bulb filament and then created a power plant so that everyone in town could have electric lights. 

One of his employees, a guy named Henry Ford, 16 years his junior worked at Detroit Edison.  Ford was an ambitious young man and was eventually promoted to plant manager.   He met Edison at a convention and cornered him to pitch his quadricycle, a 4-wheeled contraption that would operate without a horse.  Edison said, "go for it!"  To Henry Ford, that was like getting the go ahead from God. 

Ultimately, Ford started his own company but continued to look up to Edison as a mentor or father figure.  Ford wanted to be just like Edison.  He often ran ideas by Edison for inspiration.  For example, he sought advice on how to build cars more efficiently.  He was told to visit the Chicago Stockyards and see how cattle were processed.  Ford was inspired to create the reverse--to assemble a car.  Once again, Edison said to him, "go for it!"

By this time, money was no object for Ford, and he bought the house next door to Edison, after making sure Edison wasn't Jewish.  The men became close friends and took road trips together by car--without their wives.  These were outings--like camping trips, and they often brought along Harvey Firestone (the tire guy) and author John Burroughs.  On one trip they even took President Harding. 
Their servants followed them in a separate car, so they weren't really roughing it. 

One time, they came upon a motorist whose car had stalled.  Ford got out with his tools and helped the guy get his car running again.  The motorist offered him some money, but Ford said, "I have all the money I need."  The motorist replied, "If you did you wouldn't be driving a Ford!"

We toured the Edison Museum to take in all the accomplishments of this remarkable man.  He was the only American to obtain a patent in 65 straight years.  How many Americans do you know who  have even one?   His favorite invention was the phonograph.  Edison lived to age 84 and kept his mind busy the whole time.  The public treated him like a rock star.  When he arrived in  Fort Myers by train each year, crowds of people would surround him. 

We know about his successes, but his failures were instructive also.  He experimented with making synthetic rubber after World War I.  Across the street from his house, he planted banyan trees and other trees in the same family which produce latex.  Business wise, he was doing OK with this until others produced synthetic rubber much cheaper, using petroleum.

Edison also bombed in the iron ore business.  He had large holdings in iron ore, but when the Mesabi Range was discovered in Minnesota, he couldn't compete. 

He even had a cement company--Edison Cement.  He built a cement house and painted it to look like a wood house.  Unfortunately for him, the consumer market wasn't there.  Aesthetically, it just wasn't a comfortable house.  However Edison Cement got the contract to build New York's Yankee Stadium in the 1920's. 

Edison did have a heart.  Although he and Henry Ford were friends and neighbors, Edison was reportedly appalled at Ford's anti-Semitic views. 

Just outside Fort Myers, the bridge to Sanibel and Captiva Islands (which are joined to each other by a small bridge) was about a mile down from our hotel.  The toll was 6 dollars, a little steep, but it keeps out the peons who have to go to Fort Myers Beach instead.  I considered swimming across to save the toll, but Dianne wouldn't consider it.  The temperature was in the 40's.  We paid the toll and drove the 15 miles or so to Captiva Beach where the shelling is best because few tourists are willing to drive that far.  There is only one way in or out unless you have a boat.  These islands have no high rise condominiums, no McDonald's and no Wal-Mart.  Why did we even waste our time going there?   Dianne collected a lot of seashells. 

We had to get back to civilization and we drove North to Sarasota which is a real circus.  Everything in town is named after the Ringling Brothers.  They used to have the Clown College there to train clowns for the circus.  The Clown College football team didn't win many games, but they sure scared a lot of people.  We arrived too late to visit the circus museum--it had just closed--so we'll have to come back next year.

We spent the night in Brooksville, North of Tampa at a Hampton Inn.  The next morning we checked out and narrowly avoided an uncomfortable situation.  We had gotten 10 miles down the road when the hotel called and told us we left our toiletries bag with all the makeup and toothbrushes in the room.  We came back to retrieve them.

Somewhere in Northern Florida, we stopped at an authentic barbecue for lunch.  At the next booth, we overheard a good ol' boy explaining to his friends how he got 6 months in jail for a string of over 100 traffic tickets.  What got our attention even more was his next story about going on a blind date with a young lady and getting lucky--until he learned that the girl was his cousin.  Talk about the ick factor!  He was very upset.  As you can see, Northern Florida and Miami are on different planets. 

We walked into a Walgreens to buy some snacks.  Behind us in line was an elderly man wearing a USAF cap.  I thanked him for his service, and he explained that he is a World War II vet who flew bombers and fighters in the Pacific Theater.  He grew up in Iowa and always wanted to fly.  He had come close calls with the Japanese, and after the war, he gave up flying completely.  To me, he was a hero!


Crystal River Archaeological Park is not well known but worth visiting.  It is billed as the "Real Florida", whatever that means.  The site has 6 mounds built by pre-Columbian Indians--burial mounds, temple mounds, and a substantial midden.  If you don't know what a midden is, you probably don't want to know.  The paved trail is 3/4  mile long with signs explaining the significance of the sites in the Indian culture.  The visitors center is a museum.

We walked up approximately 40 wooden stairs to the top of the temple mound.  We had a beautiful panoramic view of the coastal marsh and the forest.   If you're into bird watching, this is an excellent opportunity, but don't expect to see many ivory-billed woodpeckers. 

That evening, we got as far as Pensacola, Florida  which is home to a huge Navy base and other sights worth seeing, but unfortunately we didn't get to see them.    It was starting to get cold, and the Weather Channel was predicting a dangerous Winter storm.  We wanted to get out of town ASAP so we didn't get stranded there.   We might have done better to stay longer, but hindsight is 20-20.

At the front desk of our hotel, a young man, also a guest, asked me if I was a union man--as in labor union--not the Union side in the Civil War.  I asked him why he wanted to know.  He said he was an organizer for the Teamster's Union--probably a lonely job in the Deep South.  I told him I used to be a member of the United Steelworkers Union (true)--and he gave me a fist bump.  I thought I had made a friend for life. 


The 260 mile drive from Pensacola, Florida to Natchez, Mississippi was the most hair raising auto trip I've ever driven.  Sixty mph on an ice road is an experience you probably don't want to repeat, but
it's not as unsafe as you would think, because there was little or no traffic.  As I said, we knew an ice storm was in the forecast, so we made a prepaid hotel reservation at the Hampton Inn for that night in Natchez.  The problem was getting there.   The hotel clerk in Natchez called us and asked if we really were going to make it.  I thought that was s silly question.  It wasn't.  We were driving through Winter Storm Leon.  I didn't know they had names. 

As we left Florida that morning, the thermometer dipped below freezing.  The icy rain was pelting out windshield and icing up the wipers.  We drove through Mobile, Alabama around noon, with the temperature hovering in the low 20's.  It had been 70 degrees the day before.   U.S. Highway 98 West through Southern Mississippi was covered by a sheet of ice about an inch or two thick.  Snow and ice are a big deal in the Deep South because road crews in that area don't have snow removal equipment or rock salt.  Fortunately, most of the road was a divided four lane highway and our car is a 4-wheel drive.  Traffic was very light, as most people stayed home.  The downside was that most service stations, restaurants and everything else was closed.  Even McDonald's was closed.

Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the home of Southern Mississippi University--where Brett Favre played college football--looked like a ghost town.  We stopped into a WalMart in nearby Columbia, MS, and after a few minutes, the store manager came on the loud speaker system and announced that the bridge West of town was going to close, and if you're going that way, you'd better do so NOW.  Immediately, if not sooner!  They closed the store so the employees could go home.

After a grueling seven hour trip, we arrived in Natchez to find that most of the restaurants (and all the tourist attractions) were closed.  A teacher's convention was in town, staying at our hotel;, and they recommended a decent restaurant, Breauds, which stayed open to serve them.  The restaurant is located in downtown Natchez, in a New Orleans French Quarter style building.  The restrooms are outside, across a courtyard covered by ice.  The restaurant serves delicious creole dishes.  The appetizers included fried dill pickles and fried crawfish tails (which in Chicago used to be sold as small lobster tails).  I ordered shrimp and crawfish corn chowder which was very good.  For the main course we had salmon and tilapia, and we were very satisfied with dinner. 


The next morning in Natchez, we obtained a tourist guidebook at the hotel and drove around to the ten antebellum mansions for which Natchez is so famous.  All were closed, but I was able to photograph them on the outside.  Our hotel was just down the street from the Rosalie Mansion, built in 1823 by Peter Little, a cotton broker.  The mansions are all within a mile or two and have Southern names like Magnolia Hall, Stanton Hall, Auburn, Ellicott's Hill and Longwood.  Most were built in the Greek Revival style so popular at that time.  All charge admission of approximately $12 a head and are open daily--except when it snows. 

Rosalie Mansion served as the Union Army Civil War headquarters after 1863.  General Walter Gresham stored the furnishings in the attic under guard to protect them.

We decided to stay a second night in Natchez in the hope the houses would open the next day.  They didn't.  Maybe we'll go back next year.

Two attractions that were open,  however were the two casinos in town.  Both casinos are on the river, and to get there you have to drive down a steep road which at most times is not covered by ice.  We visited the Isle of Capri Casino--we could park higher up and ride a shuttle bus.

We waited for the bus in the small shelter with a few other people.  One young man couldn't understand why he was so cold as he sat on the bench.  It turned out his pants were down to the extent that his bottom was uncovered.  I know that's the style today, but this is getting ridiculous.  Dianne and I thought that was pretty funny, but we dared not laugh.  We weren't looking for problems.  Inside the casino, it was as loud as a morgue.  All the table games were closed--dealers couldn't get to work.  We played a little video poker, lost a few bucks and got the heck out.

For fine dining, Fat Mama's Tamales was open for dinner that night.  We arrived just before closing time.  This place had actually won some culinary awards for their tamales, so we wanted to try them.  The restaurant is not real classy.  You have to go up to the counter to order.   The tamales were very tasty, but the owner and employees were nervously pacing the floor as we were eating.  Do you ever feel rushed?   By now, it was after 9 o'clock and they wanted to go home.  We probably should have taken the food back to our hotel to eat.

Natchez is also famous for the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444 mile road to Nashville which is operated by the National Park Service.  It dates back centuries--the local Indian tribes, the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations used it.   In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson designated the Tract as a national post road for mail delivery between Nashville and Natchez.  The road was instrumental in the settlement of the Old Southwest; by the white man.  Soldiers in the War of 1812 and also the Civil War used the Trace.  On it is the gravesite (at the 385.9 mile marker) of Meriweather Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame, who died on the Trace in 1809.  Birthplaces along the route include two music icons--W.C. Handy in Florence, Alabama and Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi.  The Natchez Trace, as a National Park, has no motels or service stations, although you can find them nearby.


The next morning, our third day in Natchez, the mansions were still closed.  We got out the map; and saw that, just 10 miles away, across the Mississippi River bridge is the town of Ferriday, Louisiana.  To most people, that doesn't mean much.  Not to us!  Rock 'n' roll fans know Ferriday as the home of Jerry Lewis, or was it Jerry Lee Lewis.  In the entertainment industry you can't have a similar name to another entertainer--you have to either change your name or add a middle name or initial.  Great Balls of Fire!

Ferriday is a sleepy town of 4000, most of them related.    It has the Delta Music Museum, and we were determined to visit.  I called the museum, and the lady answered that it would open at some point during the day, as soon as they could clear the ice and snow off the steps.  We're from Chicago; that doesn't sound so hard.  Maybe we could help, so we decided to take our chances and visit whether it was open or not.

When we arrived around 9:30, a guy with a badge eyed us suspiciously as he supervised two men armed with a shovel and a long ice scraper attempting to remove the ice.  Three men to clean off 7 stairs!  This was something out of Mayberry!  It was a crisp, frigid sunny morning, 13 degrees above zero.  Louisiana is supposed to be warm.

We later noticed the Dept. of Corrections van parked nearby.  I'm not a rocket scientist, but I figured out the two workers were cons from the local prison who were happy to get outside for awhile, and the corrections officer was supervising.  I showed these guys how to clear the ice, explaining that rock salt works well for that.  Unfortunately, the hardware store in Ferriday doesn't carry it.  One of the prisoners said he had never seen snow before, so he didn't know what to do with it.

The museum is located in an old WPA post office building.  There was no handicapped entrance and they didn't want the liability of somebody falling down the steps.  So they didn't open.

Bottom line:  we couldn't go inside.  I was OK with that.  Outside are plaques honoring musicians Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, and former evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.  All three are Ferriday natives and related to each other.  As I said, the town is small enough that everyone in town may be related.


Vicksburg, situated on a palisade overlooking the Mississippi River was defined by a major Civil War battle in 1863.  It was subjected to a 47 day siege by General Grant's Union troops.  Finally, on July 4, 1863, within a day or so of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered his 50,000 tired and hungry troops to General Grant's forces.   Many Southerners today consider Gen. Pemberton either a traitor or an incompetent general (or both) for failing to anticipate Grant's tactics in the battles leading up to Vicksburg.  The fact that Gen. Pemberton, a West Point grad was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA, probably didn't endear him to Southerners either.  Realistically, by the time he got to Vicksburg, he didn't have many options.  Nevertheless, Pemberton was described as the "wrong man at the wrong place."  The effect of the battle was a disaster for the South--it split the Confederacy in two and opened the river for Northern commerce. 

Incidentally, years later, Gen. Pemberton's nephew, John Stith Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist, developed a formula for a carbonated soft drink.  Unfortunately for him, he didn't make much money from his invention.  He was addicted to morphine as a result of wounds suffered in the Civil War and, nearly bankrupt, he sold the formula for Coca-Cola to Asa Candler for peanuts.  By coincidence, Coca-Cola was first bottled in 1894 by Joseph Biedenharn in his confectionary in downtown Vicksburg, and we visited the small museum displaying his original bottling equipment.   Up until that time, Coke was sold only at soda fountains, and you couldn't drink it unless you lived in a city that had one.  By bottling the drink, they could ship it and sell it anywhere.

Vicksburg, like Natchez, has several antebellum mansions, most of which are bed & breakfasts.  We finally did get to see one, the Klein mansion, Cedar Point.  Klein was a jeweler, and he had a 3000 pound safe in the house disguised as a buffet cabinet.  During the Civil War, General Sherman used the house for a hospital and headquarters and somehow never noticed the safe.

Today, the National Park Service operates Vicksburg National Military Park with a Visitor's Center and over 1300 monuments and markers honoring the different states' units that fought there, as well as reconstructed trenches and 144 emplaced cannons.  The impressive white marble Illinois State Memorial, built in 1906, was modeled after the Pantheon in Rome.  It has 47 steps--one for each day of the siege.  Inside the circular structure, on 60 bronze tablets, are inscribed (in fine print) the names of all 36,325 Illinois soldiers participating in the Vicksburg Campaign, broken down by unit.  It is quite an amazing sight.  Other states--Minnesota, Wisconsin, etc. also have memorials in the park, but Illinois was the only one I visited.  The whole area is hallowed ground, and the Park Service strongly discourages relic hunting.   Close by are military cemeteries with thousands of Americans, both North and South buried in their respective cemeteries. 

We drove most of the 16 mile road through the park.  We also were able to examine the restored USS Cairo, a Northern ironclad ship which had been sunk by a mine in the Yazoo River.   The North built 7 ironclad ships which the South couldn't compete with.  The Cairo had the hard luck distinction of being the first U.S. ship ever sunk by a torpedo or mine. 


We booked a room at another Hampton Inn, this time in Cleveland, not Ohio, but Northern Mississippi.  The hotel clerk recommended a barbecue joint down the street, curiously named The Airport Grocery, known for delicious BBQ.   As we waited to be served, we leafed through the local tourist magazine and saw a piece about Poor Monkey's Juke Joint in Merigold, Mississippi.  I recalled reading about the place recently in the Wall Street Journal, of all newspapers!  I later learned the place had also been written up in the New York Times, National Geographic, and even Vogue.  I asked the waitress where it was, and she gave vague directions, but it was within 10 miles.  Better yet, it was Thursday, and she told us that Thursday is family night there.  We decided to go look for it. 

A juke joint is defined as an informal establishment featuring music, dancing, gambling and drinking, primarily operated and attended by African Americans in the Deep South.  The term "juke" comes from the African Gullah word meaning rowdy or disorderly.  Essentially a juke joint would function as a community center for poor rural blacks.  In the old days, the plantation owners encouraged them because they provided entertainment for the slaves.  Today, there are very few juke joints still operating.

Finding the place was very difficult--we had to do it by trial and error.  It has no address, so we couldn't use the GPS.  I drove into downtown Merigold, a small town of less than 500 people, saw a road house and went inside.  The host there gave me directions, "across the main highway (Route 61) and down a gravel road about a mile outside of town."  We went across the main highway, turned onto an icy gravel road and drove far into the woods in the dark and decided to turn around.  Back at Highway 61 was a Dollar General store on the corner, so I went in--3 different times until we got it right.  Finally one customer, a young Black gentleman explained where it was and said "you'll know it when you see it."  He also said, "Do you REALLY want to go there."

Well we drove a mile and a half through the woods down the same gravel road and finally found it--a ramshackle sharecroppers' shack with posters all over it which covered over the peeling paint.  An advantage of this remote location is that the place has probably escaped the notice of the health and building inspectors.  A historic landmark sign was placed in front by the Mississippi Blues Commission. 

The joint--I can't come up with a more descriptive name--was lit up and quite a few cars were parked outside under the trees.  There is no parking lot and no handicapped parking spaces.  We climbed the metal stairs and went inside.  At the door, we were greeted by the owner, Mr. Poor Monkey, as he called himself.  The admission was $5 per person.  Everyone in the place was African American except us.  People were smoking and drinking beer they had brought in themselves.  It was apparent they had no liquor license.  A pall of cigarette smoke wafted through the brightly lit room   Hanging from the walls and ceiling were hundreds of stuffed monkeys almost obscuring the beer posters on the wall. 

We sat on benches  and picnic tables and listened to the music.  Men played pool in the adjoining room.  Dianne perceived that some of the patrons were uncomfortable with us in the room, but nobody was unfriendly.  The lady next to her asked where we were from.  "South Side of Chicago," which turned out to be a good answer because it gave us some cred. 

On the stage in the back, a disc jockey was broadcasting rhythm and blues music and singing along to it.  I was somewhat disappointed with the scene because I had expected live music--authentic blues.  In my mind was the 1986 Ralph Macchio movie Crossroads, in which Macchio's character, Eugene, was following the footsteps of blues legend Robert Johnson who was said to have made a pact with the Devil at the Crossroads, located in nearby Cleveland, MS.  It was rumored there was an undiscovered Robert Johnson song, and Eugene was determined to find it.  One memorable line from that movie:  Eugene told his aging Black mentor (played by Joe Seneca) that he had studied at the Julliard School, and Seneca's reply was "Julie who?"


Helena, also known as Helena West Helena, Arkansas (the two towns merged in 2006), is authentic Delta Blues country.  It was the home of such Blues musicians as Sunnyland Slim and Memphis Slim (no relation to gambler Amarillo Slim), and Roosevelt Sykes.  If you're a blues guy, you would have heard of them.  Black musicians, like Mr. Slim and Mr. Slim migrated from the farm to make a few bucks at the many music joints operating in Helena during the Depression.

Helena is located in Phillips County, one of the poorest in the whole country.  Most of the residents are African American although Country and Western star Conway Twitty grew up in Helena.   The town hosts the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival which attracts 100,000 people each October to see the likes of Muddy Waters and B.B. King perform. 

The deal was that a white businessman formed radio station KFFA in 1941 and agreed to give a group of Black musicians a one hour radio spot if they could find a sponsor.  A local flour mill agreed to sponsor it.  The result was King Biscuit Time, and the radio show continues to this day.  At that time, it was the only radio station to play songs by Black entertainers.  The show airs each weekday at 12:15 P.M. because that is during the lunch hour for its main audience--African American laborers. 

It was time for lunch, and we made our way to Old Sawmill Cafe in Forrest City, Arkansas  where we were treated to some of the best fried chicken we've ever tasted.   Our bellies were full, our vacation was over, and we headed for Chicago as fast as possible to beat the next snow storm.   But it turned out to be like the rest of our trip--we drove smack into the storm in Central Illinois.   We considered finding a motel to spend the night, but the forecast for the next day, Saturday was even worse.   We soldiered on, arriving home after Midnight.