A Void in Vaiden

Vaiden, Mississippi is a town on Highway 51 in Carroll County, and since 1873, the county seat of the second judicial district of that county. Carroll is one of a handful of Mississippi counties that have two county seats, generally due to historic difficulties of travel. Several years ago, I had explored the other county seat, Carrollton, with my friend Travis McFetridge, but when Sherena Boyce and I passed through Vaiden a week or so ago on our way to the Neshoba County Fair, I noticed an old juke joint on Highway 35, and decided that the town was worth a visit to see what was worth photographing.

The juke joint was the best find. Called the 21 Up Club, it was located right on the highway in town, with a sign decorated with music notes, and I took quite a few photographs of it. East of Highway 51, on Court Street, I found the ruins of a Greer’s Bar-B-Que restaurant, along what was otherwise a residential street, although many of the residences seemed abandoned.

But the downtown area was largely a loss, with the business district largely gone altogether, and no trace of the stores on Front Street, or the crowds of Black men I recall from a bus journey to Gulfport in the 1980’s. Vaiden suffered a tornado in 1990, and apparently it pretty well destroyed the downtown area. Of course the town had been suffering a degree of decline ever since Interstate 55 was completed to the west in 1973, but the tornado finished what had been started. Even the historic courthouse I could remember is gone, made into a Vaiden Community Park instead, with a Confederate monument in one corner the only trace that a courthouse had been there at all. The new courthouse is an ugly, garish 1990’s monstrosity with pointed roof, located on Front Street where the business district had been years ago. It is an incongruous modernism in the old town.

Also depressing is the fact that both of Vaiden’s schools appear to have been abandoned. The former Black high school, North Vaiden High School (later Percy Hathorn High School and then a Headstart center) seems to have been made into an antique mall or thrift store called The Prissy Hen. All the same, it was not open, and the entire building was gated off and closed. The former white high school, Vaiden High, appeared to have been turned into a community center. A few trucks and trailers were pulled up to it, and I could hear music coming from it, although whether a DJ or a live band I could never determine.

The only thing really left of value in Vaiden are some historic churches and homes, some of which seem to date from the 1870’s, judging from their architecture. A couple of these were located on hills, and might have survived the tornado as a result.

Briefly, I rode out to the southeast along Highway 35, taking some pictures at Carmack, the next town along the road. Like Vaiden, Carmack too has seen better days. Its school has been turned into a community center, and other than that, there is a Carmack Fish House that seems to do a brisk business.

Back in Vaiden, there was one club along Highway 35 that was beginning to get a crowd. A group of men were barbecuing under a tent, and cars were pulling up. I was not sure whether it was a special party or a usual Saturday afternoon at the club, but it looked as if it was going to be fun. But even with the windows down, I didn’t hear any music playing, and didn’t see a stage of any kind or any instruments. So I resisted the temptation to pull in there and see what was going on, and decided to head on west toward Greenwood.

A Splash of Brilliant Color On Yazoo City’s Main Street

While driving from our hotel room in Yazoo City toward the Bentonia Blues Festival, we came into downtown Yazoo City on Main Street, looking for ice cream, as it was such a hot day. We didn’t find any frozen desserts, but we did find that the historic downtown buildings had been painted in an array of tropical colors. The scene almost resembled a Caribbean shopping district, such as Aruba or Curacao. Like other Mississippi cities, Yazoo City has had a hard time redeveloping its downtown, but there is starting to be some progress. We saw an antique mall, a restaurant and a small hotel. For my part, I was surprised by the massive size of Yazoo City’s downtown area. Although the city is only 40 miles from Jackson, it must have been a place of major importance at one time. We ended up having to backtrack to Sonic out on the bypass for ice cream, but I was glad we had stumbled onto the beautiful buildings downtown.

Historic Remains of Duncan, Mississippi

I had recently come across a company called Southern Coffee Roasters on social media. They are based in Lexington, Mississippi, and I found that the nearest retail store to Memphis selling their products was a supermarket in Cleveland, Mississippi called Vowell’s, so when I left the Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival, I decided to head down to Cleveland, buy some coffee, have dinner and then head back to Memphis.

My path took me down Highway 61, and so I decided to head into Duncan, a community I had often seen from the road, but never ventured into. What I found was a village of beautiful houses, with some historic downtown buildings, but much has been abandoned. Even the old Town Hall, which looks quite historic, is abandoned and vacant. Even so, I found some great photos to shoot in the little village, and then headed on my way to Cleveland.

In Cleveland, after picking up my coffee at Vowell’s, I had intended to have dinner at a place call Sea Level Oyster House, but to my shock, I found it closed permanently. It had only opened in November of last year, and didn’t make it six months. Nearby, a restaurant called Backdraft was open, but the menu items were fairly expensive, and I decided that I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I returned to Airport Grocery, where I often go for a good steak or burger when in Cleveland. A waitress there explained to me that Sea Level had been shut down abruptly because they sold alcohol to minors. What a shame.

On the way back, I stopped in Winstonville, because it seemed like something was going on. Cars were everywhere, and people were standing out on the sidewalks by the hundreds. It was only with difficulty that I was able to enter the little town, and when I did, I found that it was Winstonville Homecoming, when people from the town return from all over the country. Although lots of people were out, and certain streets were roped off, there did not seem to be anyone performing, so I headed on up the road to Shelby, hoping that something might be going on at the Do Drop Inn. Nothing was, and in fact, it was locked and dark. So I gave up on finding any live music, and headed back to Memphis.

More Blues and Roots Music at Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival

At one time, as far as music festivals went, Clarksdale, Mississippi had one, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August. Later, after former advertising executive Roger Stolle came to town, a second one, the venerable Juke Joint Festival took root, becoming the city’s largest festival, attracting people from all over the world. But now, Clarksdale’s burgeoning tourism business is driven by a succession of festivals, stretching nearly all year long. Music, film, art….all are celebrated in different events. The Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival is one of these newer events, held in May, with performances at Cat Head Delta Blues and at the New Roxy.

Like the better-known events, the Clarksdale Caravan is primarily about blues, although it is in a much more intimate setting, with only two stages, and therefore a lot more interaction between the artists and performers. On this year’s festival, there had been a considerable amount of rain up in Memphis, and I feared that could disrupt the event, as the Cat Head stage was outside, but in Clarksdale the sun was out, and shining.

My primary goal was to catch R. L. Boyce at the Cat Head stage, and I did. He was performing with Lightnin Malcolm and a violinist with whom I was not familiar. A small crowd had gathered under the tent in front of the store, and due to the threat of rain, I decided to do my photographic work with my iPhone instead of my Nikon. Indeed it did start raining briefly, and I eventually took refuge in the Meraki Coffee Roasters shop a block down the street.

In the afternoon, Lightnin Malcolm was scheduled to perform on the stage at New Roxy, a former theatre in the New World district of Clarksdale, but I arrived early, and nothing was happening yet, so I spent some time walking around the area shooting pictures of the buildings, many of which are sadly beginning to collapse. Local artists have attempted to brighten the ruins of what remains, with painted images and slogans, such as “I am of this city and this city is of me,” but the loss of such history is not easy to bear. The New Roxy is a better story, however, as it has survived, despite the loss of its roof, to become a popular music venue in Clarksdale.

Perhaps because of the rain threat, Malcolm’s performance took place in the smaller, lounge portion of the New Roxy, within the former box office of the theatre, rather than the larger outdoor stage. He performed primarily with his drummer, but also did a couple of tunes with R. L. Boyce, with whom he had played earlier at Cat Head. The crowd was fairly small but enthusiastic. It was ultimately a great day of music, and the rain threatened but never actually disrupted anything.

A Dinner at Molly’s Place in Grenada

I had read several months ago that a new restaurant had opened in Grenada, Mississippi called Molly’s Place. I had seen that they shared a courtyard with another Grenada restaurant called Orleans Bistro, and that Molly’s had on at least one occasion booked live music. So, in the hopes of finding another place for my jazz group to play, I decided to head down to Grenada for dinner.

Grenada, unfortunately, has seen better days. Many of the buildings around its square are vacant, and there is a considerable amount of abandonment. Molly’s proved to be in a block where an uncertain downtown revival seems to be fighting to be born. There are rental lofts on the square nearby, sort of an AirBnB kind of thing for tourists, and a few restored buildings that house an art gallery, some local businesses, and the bar and grill. The restaurant proved to have an aviation theme, and the inside was fairly dark, modernistic and sleek. Unfortunately, the menu was quite limited. I had intended to order a hamburger, but I soon learned that Molly’s does not have bacon to go on a burger, so I decided to opt for something else. I ended up ordering the ribeye, which was fairly expensive, but it was in fact quite good, despite ribeye not being my favorite cut of meat. It came with french fries that were also quite good, and a decent crowd of locals was gathered at tables and around the bar.

The person I would have needed to speak with about booking music was not there, but the bartender indicated that when summer came, they would be booking some music for the outdoor courtyard.

After dinner, I decided to do some driving around Grenada before heading back, as this is a town I have rarely spent time in. The main thing I noticed was the degree of desolation and abandonment throughout the downtown area. Down a street, I came to the ruins of the Pioneer meat packing plant, and then into a warren of tiny, run-down hovels that looked like a throw-back to a different (and worse) era. People were out and about within the area, but I decided that it was probably not a good place to attempt to take pictures, and I headed out.

The railroad depot was absolutely amazing. It was built in 1870 by the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad to replace one that had burned, and is probably the one thing in Grenada worth seeing. Made of brick, it is a rare two-story railroad station, with large, long platforms on each side. In the early evening, it seemed eerily quiet and almost abandoned, although it is still in use.

Far to the east, I came upon a road where there were some large night clubs like the Rolling Stone, a laundromat and some convenience stores. But nothing much seemed to be going on, so I rolled on. Highway 51 however was a different story, with a lot of cars and people about. Wilson’s Electronics, the record store, was still open, with a lot of cars parked in front, and I debated going inside, but I decided against it. Further north, near downtown, there were a lot of people in and out of a game room on a side-street across from a store. But the place seemed to be primarily a pool hall and not a live music venue, so I gave up on finding any nightlife on a Friday night in Grenada, and headed back to Memphis instead.

Molly’s Place

120 Green St

Grenada, MS 38901

(662) 699-0498

The Ruins of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, Amanca, Arkansas

West Memphis, with its dog racing track/casino and industries obscures the fact that Crittenden County, Arkansas was once Delta country, with plantations and sharecropper shacks. The road toward Waverly, south of West Memphis reminds you of that fact, and in fact resembles the long, flat roads of the Mississippi Delta. Here and there a silo or white-frame church is visible across the flat fields, divided by occasional bayous lined with trees and brush. To the right about four miles south of West Memphis, however, I came upon the ruins of a church that looked historic. A modern Pentecostal church had been built beside it, and presumably the new church owns the building and grounds, but there was no sign of the name of the older church, or when it had been built. With the sun going down, the old white structure looked majestic, despite its deteriorated condition, and I would have liked to have investigated it more closely, but I soon found that bees or wasps had made a nest in the structure, and were literally pouring out of it. With discretion being the better part of valor, I beat a hasty retreat.

The mystery as to what church it was I ultimately solved by looking at the Fletcher Lake Quadrangle map from 1966 of the United States Geological Survey. It showed that the church was called St. John’s Church, and that there was also a cemetery on the site. When the map was reprinted in 2010, only the cemetery is shown.

As the event at Waverly I was on my way to had started at 5 PM, I decided it was best to be on my way, but I captured some photos of the church, as it will likely eventually collapse from neglect. The community where that church was is shown on the 1966 map as Amanca, Arkansas, but there seems little of that community either nowadays. Evidently, it is just a name.

The Remnants of Hulbert, Arkansas

Crittenden County, Arkansas, despite being across the river from Memphis, has struggled to develop over the years. Although there were frequent attempts to develop a town on the west side of the river from Memphis, few of those efforts succeeded. Hopefield, the first town on the Arkansas side, was burned in the Civil War. Although it was rebuilt, it ultimately became unstable, due to changes in the Mississippi River, and apparently its site disappeared beneath the waters. Its nearby rival Mound City avoided that fate, but ended up on an oxbow lake called Danner Lake, removed from the river altogether. Almost no trace of that place remains. Later, in the 1880’s, Memphis papers mentioned a park called West End Park in a new town called West Memphis, but that location was probably not the city we know of today, and I have been unable to determine exactly where it was.

Instead, the first community to actually gain a degree of permanence was a railroad station called Hulbert, at some distance from the Mississippi River. It apparently consisted of a store, post office, railroad station and some houses, and eventually became substantial enough to form a school district (in Arkansas, school systems are formed by local communities and not by counties).

Hulbert was done in as well, but not by the river, or economic failure. Rather, the Bragg Lumber Company, taking advantage of the demand for famous Memphis hardwood lumber, formed a community in the early 1920’s which was initially named Bragg, Arkansas. Finding that the lumber from Bragg did not sell that well, the company sought to link its products to the famous hardwood lumber of the larger city of Memphis across the river, and thus renamed their new city West Memphis in 1926. So rapidly did the new city grow that it was soon nicknamed the “Wonder City.” Not long thereafter, the school system was renamed the Hulbert-West Memphis School District, and the day came when Hulbert was annexed into the city limits of West Memphis.

Today, few traces of Hulbert remain, but the ones that do are worth seeing. A few store buildings, noticeably the large two-story store facing the railroad that once belonged to the Dabbs family. Unfortunately, it is now a private residence, and cannot be toured, but it has been fully restored, and some whimsical decorations exist in the yard. At least one other building seems to date from that era. Sadly, new buildings have been allowed to spring up that have nothing in common with the original community or its aesthetics.

Delta Easter: Slow and Easy Is The Pace in Pace

I recalled Pace, Mississippi being the site of some degree of controversy in my younger days back in the 1980’s. Like the similar town of Tchula, Mississippi, the transition from white government to Black government did not sit well with some of the town’s white residents. I recall that some of the controversy was over the renaming of Pace streets for prominent Black citizens. But Pace today is a fairly sleepy and quiet town, although with several juke joints, probably one that jumps late at night on weekends. The local supermarket is vacant, and the downtown consists mainly of clubs- Club Escape, the Brass Rail and Bradley’s Place. The men sitting in front of the Brass Rail were friendly and amenable to my taking photos of the jukes, and told me a little bit about the town. There might have been live music at one time in Pace, but nowadays the clubs strictly have DJ’s, I was told. Although food was being grilled outside, I had decided to have dinner in Cleveland before heading back to Clarksdale for the blues show, and as it was nearly 5 PM, I got back on the road toward Cleveland.

Delta Easter: An Abandoned Church Near Symonds

The map showed a road called Pemble Road, a direct route from Merigold to a community called Symonds, which I had never been to, and which had enough streets on the map to suggest that it was worth a visit. Unfortunately, the map did not show that Pemble Road was gravel, and the further west I headed, the worse its condition got. Past a crossroads at Oak Tree Road, there was a farmhouse, out from which came two large dogs, chasing my car and barking furiously. I did not notice that the road was increasingly rutted and muddy, and I soon found myself hopelessly bogged down in a mudhole. The man whose house it was soon came out and offered to try to help pull me out of the hole, explaining to me that even if I hadn’t gotten stuck, it would have done me no good to have gone on, as the bridge was out ahead, and there was no way to get to Symonds from there.

He went to look for a rope, but soon another truck pulled up, driven by a deputy sheriff and his wife, who were on their way to a fishing hole and did not know the bridge was out. He had a chain on the back of his truck, and with that, he was able to pull me out of the mud. I thanked both men profusely, and then headed back to Oak Tree Road, and, giving up any ideas of going to Symonds, I headed for Pace instead.

The man who had first come to my rescue had mentioned an abandoned church on Oak Tree Road, and I soon found it near its intersection with Pemble Road. There was no indication of its name, but it seemed an old and historic place.

Delta Easter: Desecration of Po Monkey’s, One of the Holy Sites of the Blues

From Drew, I decided to head across to Merigold. I had wanted to see Po Monkey’s juke joint for the first time in real life, and possibly eat at Crawdad’s. I was disappointed on both fronts, as Crawdad’s is not open on Sundays, and Po Monkey’s proved to have been stripped bare. As I told someone later, it would have been better not to have seen it at all than to have seen it like it is now.

I had heard after Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry’s death that the family had decided to have an auction, but I had no idea of the extent. Everything both inside and outside was stripped away and sold, even the signs on the outside. The historic marker seems ironic in front of a boarded-up and stripped building, with draconian “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. The only decorations at the building seem to be votive offerings that fans have left behind, as a sort of commemorative shrine.

I have been told that “it’s complicated,” but given the power of organizations like the Blues Foundation and/or Delta State University, I cannot understand why this most important place could not have been saved. Even now, the building should be restored and redecorated, even if like Club Ebony in Indianola, it is only open at certain special times for special concerts or events. There are people worldwide who would be willing to donate to such an effort. It only needs an organized and co-ordinated effort to make it happen.