Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Natchez Trace to Tupelo & Oxford, Mississippi

Fri, April 15th - Wed, April 20th

There was a tornado in Jackson yesterday just a few miles from our campground. It did considerable damage, but luckily we just got a little wind and rain at the campground. Friday we drove part of the Natchez Trace Parkway from Jackson to Tupelo. It's a scenic drive with very little traffic, no trucks allowed. Springtime is awesome here with the Dogwood trees, and the wildflowers in bloom along all the highways. The Natchez Trace is 444 miles from Natchez, Ms. to Nashville, Tn. Trace is a French word meaning animal tracks. The trail has been worn over thousands of years by animals, ancient tribes, Native Americans, pioneers, fur traders and outlaws. The Kaintucks, farmer-boatmen, from the Ohio River Valley (Kentucky to Pennsylvania) took their crops and goods by boat to Natchez or New Orleans. They sold their goods and boats for lumber, and walked (30 days) or rode horse (20 days) along the Trace to get back home. We saw 6 or 7 wild turkeys, three wild pigs with a bunch of little ones, a heron, an egret and a coyote along the way. You can see Pharr Indian burial mounds in the distance near the trees made by nomadic Indians 100 to 200 AD.

The Jeff Busby Campground along the Trace is free. It is named in honor of a senator whose efforts made the Parkway part of the National Park System. We hiked up to the observation point here and all we could see was trees. It was once part of the largest hardwood forest in the world. A squirrel could have traveled from Maine to Texas without ever touching the ground.

We took a short walk into the woods here to see these 13 unknown Confederate gravesites. The original markers probably had names, but were long since gone, so a Senator had marble headstones put up in 1940. They were stolen, so the Park Service put these up. In the 1830s steamboats made travel faster, easier and safer. The Trace was pretty much been abandoned, but the soldiers marched, camped and fought along portions of it.

We saw lots of trees down from yesterday's storm, so we were not surprized to come upon this scene. It couldn't have fallen long before we got there, as there was only one pickup waiting and he had just passed us a few minutes earlier.

As we were waiting, the guys on the motorcycles arrived. I wanted to invite them in out of the rain, but John said if they were stupid enough to ride in the rain without a jacket, they deserved to get wet. It took less than an hour for them to get equipment there, cut up the tree, clear the road and get us on our way again.

We arrived at Trace State Campground just before sunset and it was beautiful. I can't say enough good stuff about the state campgrounds in Mississippi. Every site had a picnic table, stone fire ring and grill. They were busy mowing, trimming and blowing leaves while we were there and they had very nice shower rooms and laundry facilities.

Saturday morning we drove over to Oxford. I had never seen a square like their's. It had two streets going around the courthouse, an inner street and an outer, and each of them had parking on both sides of the street and it was full. We asked the lady in the visitor center about it being so busy. She said it is usually much busier during the week. There was lots of stuff on campus that day including tennis matches, spring football game, baseball game, Easter Egg Hunt and alumni stuff. So by afternoon the traffic downtown was backed up a block or two on all eight of the streets leading to the square. A lot of towns we have been in are struggling, but Oxford has over 100 businesses within a block or two of the square, not to mention several miles of businesses along the main roads thru town.

On campus this guy was serving box lunches of chicken tenders, catfish or BBQ. We got a kick out of the sign on the side, "EAT or we both starve". The guy standing in front didn't look like he was in much danger of starving anytime soon.

The first class at the University of Mississippi was held in the Lyceum in 1848. It was also used as a hospital for Confederate and Union troops. It is famous for the night-long civil rights riot in 1962 with Federal Marshalls standing guard. President Kennedy sent the National Guard, but they got lost on the back roads. It was considered the Federal Marshalls' finest hour. The next morning James Meredith was the first African American student to enroll at U. of Ms. With all the people on campus, we didn't see more than a half dozen or so African Americans. In 2008 Barack Obama and John McCain held their first presidential debate here in the Performing Arts Building.

Behind the coliseum is an old cemetery for over 700 Confederate and Union troops. At some point, a caretaker took all the markers down, so he could mow and forgot where they belonged. So they just put up one monument with the names of some of the men they knew were there. I thought this was bizarre. Who would move grave markers in the first place, much less forget to put them back?

There is a street along all the sports fields and buildings with a big concrete sign declaring it Manning Way in honor of Archie Manning. The speed limit on that street is 18 mph, which just happens to have been his jersey number.

Just a short path thru the woods from campus is William Faulkner's home. Rowan Oak was built in 1848. He bought it in 1930 and lived there until his death in 1962. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived in the area since the 1820s. His novels about the fictional Yonapatawpha County with characters and places based on local people and this area won him a Nobel Prize. I especially liked this quote of his as we walked through the house.

He also said, "My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food and a little whiskey." Judging by his grave, the rumors about more than "a little whiskey" might not have been exaggerated.

Tupelo National Battlefield was the last major Civil War conflict in Mississippi. A monument erected in 1918 says, "To our Confederate dead that gave their lives in battle here on July 14, 1864 for their rights". The larger monument says, "In memory of the Federal and the Confederate Armies who took part in the battle of Tupelo or Harrisburg July 14-15 which resulted in a victory for the Federal forces under Major General Andrew J. Smith".

At the Tupelo Courthouse there is a Confederate soldier facing south and a monument for the Tupelo Women's Christian Temperance Union in memory of statewide prohibition Jan. 1, 1908. There is also a monument to honor all Lee County citizens who worked, served and participated in the 50s, 60s and 70s civil and human rights movement. They placed their lives, families and jobs in jeopardy to fight for justice and equality.

And of course, we can't forget the "King". These guitars are all around downtown on arrow-shaped bases that point toward places of interest such as the schools, library, courthouse and so on.

This is the two-room home where Elvis was born in 1935. It was built by his father, grandfather and uncle in East Tupelo. There is a stone timeline along the walkway of the 13 years Elvis lived in Tupelo, a statue of a 13 year old Elvis in overalls, a 1939 Plymouth like the one they had when they moved to Memphis, personal stories from family and friends on the outside walls of the museum and a chapel built from fan's donations with gospel songs by Elvis playing continuously. That much is free. If you want more, you can pay to go in the house, a small (but very nice) museum and watch a slide presentation in the Assembly of God Church his family attended. The church was moved to the park from a block away and restored. The slide re-enactment of a 1940s church service done by locals is very good. They pull three large screens down that cover the whole front and sides of the church. People appear to be sitting in pews on either side of you and you feel like you are right in the middle of the service.

A cousin of his does the tour in the house. She said the neighborhood for several blocks in all directions was overflowing with Presleys. Their grandpas came from a large family and they all had between 8 and 17 children. Elvis's father sold a pig to the man who loaned him $180.00 so he could build his house. His father was upset because he felt the man had not paid him enough for the pig. He got to drinking with some buddies that evening and decided to alter the check to a larger amount. He ended up spending 8 months in prison at Parchman and lost their house. Elvis was three at the time and took a five hour bus trip with his mother several times to visit him.

One of the places they lived after that was Shake Rag, a historic African American community, where the shanty-like homes made their previous home seem like a mansion. In Shake Rag the blues and jazz from the restaurants, house parties and jukeboxes and the gospel music of the churches inspired Elvis. In the 60s an urban renewal project got rid of these old neighborhoods and the fairgrounds, making room for a new City Hall, Convention Center, parks, etc. The East Heights Garden Club got busy fixing up Presley Park renovating the home, church and grounds. It now says Presley Heights on the water tower.

Elvis had returned in 1956 and 57 to do concerts at the Fairgrounds. He donated the proceeds from the 1957 concert to buy a park for the children in his old neighborhood, because there had never been a park in that part of town. It was at that time that the 15 acres including his birthplace was purchased. A swimming pool, children's complex and lake for fishing were put in for the children. More parks were added during the urban renewal and this park was turned into a memorial for Elvis after his death. They get 100,000 visitors a year. A couple from Germany were in the house when I was there.

We stopped at Johnnie's Drive-In for a burger, where Elvis used to stop for a cheeseburger and RC Cola after school with his friends. I couldn't resist buying a Johnnie's Drive-In t-shirt.

As we left town, we went by the Tupelo Hardware Store where Elvis went with his mother on his 11th birthday to get a bike. He saw a 22 rifle he wanted instead, but his mother wouldn't buy it because she didn't think it was safe. After some heated discussion and guidance from the salesman, he settled for a guitar. His parents bought him a $7.90 guitar and the rest, as they say, is history.

Thank you. Thank you very much.....

for reading my blog.

Elvis has left the building, and I am going to bed.

Tarra, the RV Queen

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