Monday, March 16, 2015

DRIVING THE DEEP SOUTH PART TWO--MORE INTERESTING STUFF IN MS,. LA., TN, AR. MO

JEFFERSON CITY, MO

We  were still in the frigid January weather when we lighted by the Missouri State Capitol.  Jefferson City, named after our Third President, is one of the least known state capitols.  Jefferson's connection to Missouri is that he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803.  The Capitol Building is very impressive, 238 feet high.  In the surrounding outdoor plazas are bronze and stone statues commemorating the Louisiana Purchase and other major events in the opening of the West.

We visited the Lewis & Clark Trailhead Plaza across from the Capitol Building.  Named after the Sunshine Boys, Lewis & Clark, the monument features larger than life bronzes of Lewis and Clark, of course, as well as Clark's man-servant York (no last name), George Druillard, their French Canadian Shawnee interpreter, and Seaman, Lewis's Newfoundland dog.

It was lunchtime, and after a long search for a decent restaurant, we ate at Wendys, using our coupons.  We befriended a developmentally disabled man who worked at the restaurant.  With some difficulty, he walked over to every diner in the restaurant and welcomed them.    He was difficult to understand, because of his speech patterns, but I looked him in the eye and started a conversation with him.  He told me he worked there for 20 years busing tables.  I think most people tend to blow the guy off, but to me, it doesn't cost anything to show kindness.  When we finished our lunch, I put my arm around him and gave him encouraging words.  His face lit up.

BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS

Bentonville, in far Northwest Arkansas, was named after the 19th Century statesman Thomas Hart Benton.   The town's nickname is "the Fruit City", and I'm not touching that one.  Actually, in the 1800's, Benton County was the largest apple producing county in the U.S.  Today, it is best known as the world headquarters, not of Apple, but of Walmart, the world's largest retailer. 

Sam Walton was newly discharged from the service in 1946 and opened a variety store in nearby Newport, Arkansas in 1948.   He was a franchisee of the Ben Franklin stores.  Walton's landlord refused to extend the lease, probably because he thought Walton would never amount to anything.  Walton then opened his Bentonville store in 1950 on the town square across from the courthouse.  Today, Walton's 5 and 10 store is a Walmart museum with a soda fountain and a gift shop.  Its exhibits illustrate the history of the Walton family and significant events in Walmart's journey to the pinnacle of retailing. 

The dime store carries a large variety of sundries including books to read.  We bought a sock monkey puppet for our friends back home.   I picked up Fun with Dick and Jane for my nighttime reading.  I read the book once before--when I repeated first grade.  The dialogue is stuff like "see Spot run" and "funny, funny Jane".  The books were used to teach reading to young children from the 1930's to the 1970's.  The characters included Mother; Father; Spot, the dog (originally a cat in the 1930's editions; and Puff, the cat.    The book was so popular, it was made into a 1977 movie.  The movie was a comedy starring George Segal and Jane Fonda, who embark on a life of petty crime.  The cast  includes Ed McMahon and even Jay Leno in an uncredited bit part.  The similarity to the book  ends with the title. 

A mile or so down the road from our hotel, we entered historic Rogers, Arkansas.  Rogers promotes its Historic Downtown, with its Historical Museum, the Daisy Airgun Museum, the Fire Department Museum and even the Pea Ridge National Military Park.  No mention of the most well known historic event that ever took place in Rogers--the opening of the original Walmart store in 1962.  Of course, it wasn't perceived as historic when it opened, but then none of the other historic sites would have been also. 

FERRIDAY, LOUISIANA

We returned to Ferriday for the second time in a year.  Last year, everything was closed because of snow and ice.  We decided to try it again. 

Ferriday, you may recall, is the hometown of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, all related to each other.  When they were young, the three cousins often  jammed together, Lewis playing the piano (which his folks mortgaged their farm to buy).  Truth be told, everyone in town may be related.  In a small town like Ferriday, it was common for several members of one family to marry several members of another family.  The relationships can get complicated, and the Delta Music Museum provided us with a family tree to figure it all out if you wanted to take the time.  The Museum was created to preserve their musical heritage and that of other musicians from the area. 

We watched a 20 minute video featuring the many colorful musicians from the Delta region.  When I say colorful, scandals are what makes them interesting.   Jerry Lee Lewis, for example was an icon of rock 'n' roll in the 1950's, performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, playing the piano with his hands, feet and other parts of his body.  His brief time in the limelight ended when the 22 year old Lewis married his 13 year old cousin, his third marriage.  One problem was that he was still married to wife number 2--his divorce was not final.  At that point, his acolytes headed for the exits as fast as they could.

Lewis was 14 (and his wife 17) when he married for the first time.  At least he is willing to make commitments.  The curator of the museum told me Lewis is now married to his seventh wife.  I didn't ask how old she is.  After the scandal blow over, Lewis moved on to country music where he enjoyed a long and successful career.

Swaggart was a hugely successful Christian evangelist but was also a musician with a wonderful singing voice.  His preaching career ended abruptly a few years back (1987) when it came to light that the married Swaggart spent too much time and money courting prostitutes.  If he had been a politician, he would have been handily re-elected.  But he wasn't.  Today, he has a small congregation in Louisiana and appears occasionally on TV. 

The museum was highly informative.  I was pleasantly surprised to see exhibits about artists from the 1960;s whom I had long forgotten.  They included Aaron Neville, Fats Domino, Dale & Grace (I'm Leaving it All Up to You), Clarence Frogman Henry, Conway Twitty, John Fred & the Playboys (Judy in Disguise), and Johnny Horton (Battle of New Orleans and Sink the Bismarck)..    

NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI

Like Ferriday, LA, we returned to Natchez to see if the mansions were open.  They were.  We stayed for 3 days and 2 nights.  We arrived in town in mid-afternoon on a cold, rainy January day.  We made arrangements to visit 4 ante-bellum mansions the next day.  While exploring the town, we came upon the William Johnson homestead, a substantial brick building in the city, operated by the National Park Service.  Our thinking was that if it's a National Park, there must be something to it, so we went inside.  We were the only tourists there.

William Johnson had an interesting history.  He was known as "the Barber of Natchez" which doesn't have the same ring as The Barber of Seville, but it is worth the visit.     In the 1850's, just prior to the Civil War, Johnson was a freed Black man who opened a string of barber shops in Mississippi.  He owned 15 slaves.  (That wasn't so unusual--nationwide there were about 3000 Black slave owners) . As a Black man in the South, he had to walk a fine line between freedom and slavery.  His father, also named William Johnson was a white slaveholder who emancipated William who was 11 at the time.  His mother and sister had been freed earlier.  The significance of this site was that Johnson wrote a daily diary from 1835 until his death in 1851 which became a treasure trove for historians of the era. 

As I stated previously, Natchez is famous for its spectacular, columned ante bellum mansions, with names like Stanton Hall, Longwood, Melrose, Auburn and Rosalie.  The Civil War drove the owners into bankruptcy, but at least the houses were spared.  Our house tour took us to Stanton Hall, Melrose, Auburn and Longwood.    We missed the tour of Rosalie because we couldn't coordinate with their hours.  We missed the tours last year because of the severe ice storm.  (For more on this see KENSUSKINREPORT, March 6, 2014).

Longwood is a house with a compelling story.  It is an octagon shaped house, maybe the largest octagon house in the country, with an onion dome on top.  The Nutt family began construction in 1859, and the neighbors were convinced they were all nuts.  Be that as it may, their timing was awful because when the Civil War broke out soon after, all the workers walked off the job.  Dr. Haller Nutt, the patriarch died of pneumonia in 1864.  Prior to the Civil War he owned 43,000 acres of cotton and sugar cane as well as 800 slaves.    Mrs. Nutt as a single mom had to raise the 8 little Nutts who continued to live in unfurnished rooms for the next 30 years.  But at least they were able to keep the house.  To this day, the house is unfinished above the ground floor, but is impressive from the outside.  There are 5 unfinished stories above the living area.

We stopped for lunch at the Cotton Alley CafĂ©, a small bistro restaurant on the main street.  Their specialty is fried turnip strips.  What could be more Southern than fried turnip strips?  I never ate a turnip before  in my life, but this is better than fries with dip. We struck up a conversation with a good ol' boy sitting nearby at the bar.   He and the bartender were talking football.  The guy was a LSU alum.  They were agonizing over a trivia question:  what college team went undefeated and unscored upon?  I piped in "Michigan, 1902". 

They gave me that deer in the headlights look and frantically consulted their smartphones.  The answer was Michigan who won the 1902 Rose Bowl, defeating Stanford 49-0.  Incidentally, touchdowns only counted for 5 points at that time, and the game was ended by agreement 8 minutes early.

All of a sudden, I was the go-to guy in the bar.  I don't know much about LSU football, but I remembered a Heisman Trophy winner from the '50's, Billy Joe Cannon.  The guy informed me that Cannon's blocking back was Jim Taylor who went on to star for Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers championship teams.  I didn't realize that.  You learn something every day. 

For dinner, we dined at the highly recommended Roux 61 Restaurant a few miles south of Natchez on Highway 61.  Nobody left the place hungry.  We ate fried oysters and shrimps, hushpuppies, catfish.  We also had oysters in the half shell and coconut shrimps.  The soup was cream of shrimp and corn soup.   Next time, I'm in Natchez, I'm going back.

NATCHEZ TRACE

Natchez is also known as the end of the road for the Natchez Trace which is a historic 444 mile scenic highway operated by the National Park Service.   The other end of the road is in Nashville.   The highway began as an ancient Native American footpath used by the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations.  Later, it became a postal road and pioneer trail, linking up the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

We drove the 100 or so miles from Natchez to Jackson where we had to exit to eat lunch.   There are no commercial businesses on the Trace, no traffic lights, and the speed limit is 50 mph. 

The brochures provided by the National Park Service describe the historic sites along the way with the mile markers to plan your trip.   They make a big deal of some of the people born along the Trace.  For example, Oprah and Elvis (do we really need last names?) were born near the Trace in Mississippi, Elvis in Tupelo, and Oprah in Kosciusko.  W.C. Handy, father of the Blues was born in Florence, Alabama where a museum honors him.  Helen Keller was from Tuscumbia, Alabama, where her home is a museum.   At the 385 milepost is the Merriweather Lewis (of Lewis & Clark fame) grave in Hohenwald, Tennessee.  We didn't get that far on the Trace, but maybe next year. 

MISSISSIPPI SPORTS HALL OF FAME, JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI

Driving through Jackson, we stumbled upon this one.  I find these local halls of fame interesting and informative.  We visited the Indiana one a few years ago and enjoyed it very much.

We paid our admission and were directed to the introductory video, a three screen presentation hosted by Robin Roberts, not the Phillies pitching great, but the Good Morning America newscaster.  This Robin Roberts was also a good athlete who starred in basketball at her Mississippi high school.

The museum features a Sports Illustrated Wall displaying SI covers with Mississippi athletes. For many of them, I had no idea where they were from.  It appears Mississippi is right up there with much larger states when it comes to sports.

The Hall of Fame Room is adorned with plaques of every member of the Mississippi Hall of Fame.  Many were high school or college stars who never made the national stage.  Others are household names like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and Archie Manning.  Brett Favre from Southern Mississippi is not (yet) an inductee--apparently he's not retired long enough.  His locker is there, however, along with the lockers donated by other athletes and their families.

The museum even honors the contributions of the native Choctaw Indians to sports.

A whole section is devoted to Jay "Dizzy" Dean, the great Cardinals pitcher of the 1930's.  Dizzy, a good ol' boy, acquired his nickname when, as a rookie, he pitched against the Chicago White Sox in the exhibition season and blew the hitters away with his great fastball.  The Sox manager said he was driving the batters dizzy, watching the ball whiz past them.  




















After his baseball career, Dean became a broadcaster on the Game of the Weak and drove the audiences dizzy with his off the wall observations and his fractured use of the English language.  Dean had only a 4th Grade education and liberally used the word ain't to the consternation of the suits back at the network in New York.   The viewing audience loved it.

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

We spent the night in Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss).  Back in the 1830's, the city fathers chose the name Oxford in the hopes of landing the state university in town. Obviously, it worked.  It was Saturday evening; we drove around the campus, it was getting dark and we were hungry.  We went to campus town and found the town square nearby.   It was crowded with students who had just returned from the Ole Miss basketball game. 

We looked for the most popular restaurant, and didn't have to wait long when the staff recognized that we were the oldest people in the place.  Southern hospitality!  We had an Epicurean feast of Southern fried chicken, catfish, hushpuppies and red beans and rice. To top it off, Dianne had her dessert favorite, pecan pie.

CASEY JONES MUSEUM, JACKSON, TENNESSEE

Casey Jones, the legendary train engineer is the subject of at least 2 museums in Mississippi and Tennessee.  We passed the sign for the one in Water Valley, MS (where Casey used to live) and instantly regretted not visiting.  Our redemption came about an hour later as we drove through Jackson, Tennessee.  Hey!  Another Casey Jones museum!

John Luther Jones (1863-1900) hailed from Cayce, Kentucky, hence his nickname.  He probably would have disappeared into history but for a song written by Wallace Saunders, his engine wiper.  I had to look that up:  The engine wiper is the guy who wipes the engine clean.  Saunders, as an African American could not aspire to becoming an engineer, but he idolized Jones who treated him right. 

Jones worked for the Illinois Central Railroad and was considered a real cowboy at the wheel.  For his risk taking, he was cited at least 9 times for safety violations (speeding!) and suspended for 145 days in his career.  Nevertheless, his reputation was such that he always got his train to the destination on time.  The penalties could be worse for running behind schedule than for the rules violations. 

One particular night, Jones finished his shift on the Cannonball Express carrying passengers, but the engineer on the next shift called in sick.  Jones agreed to work a double shift.  The trip began behind schedule, and Jones was determined to make up the difference.  It was a foggy night, and Jones was going full throttle when, approaching Vaughan, Mississippi, on a long curve, he encountered a stalled freight train on an adjoining siding, but it partially blocked the main track.  Jones did all he could to stop the train, but, seeing the imminent crash, yelled to his fireman Sim Webb to jump to safety.  Webb jumped, survived without serious injury and related the story many times until his death in 1957.  Jones, of course, was killed, and some of the passengers incurred minor injuries.  Jones was survived by his wife and three kids.

Saunders' song, which was never copyrighted, made Jones a folk hero.  Today, so many versions of the song have been recorded that we're not sure what the original words were, but the lyrics are certainly inspiring.  The song has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and the Grateful Dead, among others, and they often made up their own verses.  The tune was that of a popular song of the era called Jimmie Jones

The museum is a trove of railroad memorabilia.  Casey Jones' modest house was moved to the site.  There is a train in the parking lot.  I jumped into the cab of Casey's Engine No. 382 and dreamed of a long ago era when trains were king.

KEN SUSKIN
3/16/2015

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