Aside from the main festival stage area, the center of activity during the King Biscuit Blues Festival is Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Usually a ghost town, during the festival the street is as busy as Memphis’ Beale Street, and with good reason, as the street is lined with vendors and performers, as are several of the side streets. Stands, carts and trucks sell everything from CD’s and clothing to food, and a few belong to blues musicians and performers. There are also a couple of outdoor stages, one directly on Cherry Street and the other near the dead-end of Rightor Street in front of Bailee Mae’s Coffee House, which is a popular place indeed during King Biscuit week. This year’s festival was helped by the pleasant, unseasonably warm weather which had crowds outside by the hundreds.
Hughes, Arkansas, the second-largest town in St. Francis County, has by all accounts been a resilient town. It was the home or birthplace of many great blues musicians, including Johnny Shines. It survived the Flood of 1937, an event so severe that it sticks in the memory of the area, and it has survived fires and the decline of agriculture. But it could not survive the decision of the Arkansas State Department of Education last summer to dissolve its school district and forcibly consolidate it with West Memphis, over 26 miles away on poor, two-lane highways. Hughes is merely the latest town to be victimized by a vicious state law that ought to be repealed, which requires the dissolving and merging of school districts whenever a school district falls below 350 students. The law makes no provisions for the wishes of the town’s residents or the students, either with regard to keeping the local school district open, nor with what district they would prefer to attend if their district must be closed. Nor does the law require the receiving district to keep local schools open, even when students would otherwise have to travel long distances, such as the 50-mile roundtrip per day that Hughes students now face, unless their parents decide to relocate to West Memphis, which is why this law is a town-killer. Hughes has lost an estimated 400 residents since 2010, and doubtless are losing many more by the day, largely because of the school situation. The local shopping center, which contained the town’s only food store, is now completely abandoned. Downtown looks even worse, with many old, decrepit and abandoned buildings. Hughes High School is abandoned, including the football field that was renamed for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn with such fanfare just two years ago. And even more shocking is the ruins of Mildred Jackson Elementary School, the campus of what was once the Black high school in Hughes. Not only is it abandoned, but in ruins, as part of the building has collapsed, likely from fire after it was abandoned. It is clear that the building has been vandalized and broken into. Not that the school situation is the cause of everything that has happened in Hughes. There is little industry there, and St. Francis County is not a rich county. Agriculture is not what is was, opportunity is limited, and close proximity to West Memphis and Memphis has encouraged many young people to move away. But the close proximity to Memphis could have been an asset rather than a curse. With proper planning, a better road link to Memphis, and a local school system, Hughes could conceivably have become a bedroom community for those who work in Memphis. It has many historic buildings and homes. But first, the draconian law that caused this kind of destruction needs to be repealed. Local communities that want to retain their own school districts should be allowed to do so. And in areas like many counties in Eastern Arkansas, where declining populations are wreaking havoc on local school districts, the state ought to consider the formation of county-based school systems, such as those in Tennessee and Mississippi, which would allow local high school like the one in Hughes to remain open. Without schools, no town can ever be renewed.
We speak often of the Mississippi Delta, and to some extent of the Arkansas Delta and the Louisiana Delta. But we don’t usually speak of a Tennessee delta. Yet if we were to use the term, it would largely be the counties of Fayette, Haywood and Tipton, with perhaps some portions of Lauderdale, Shelby and Hardeman Counties as well. The towns of Gallaway, Braden, Mason and Stanton lie right in the center of this region, and given the importance of juke-joint-like cafes in Mason, and the proximity of Fayette County to Marshall County, Mississippi, which produced a lot of famous blues musicians, I set about to see if there was any sort of blues culture in the region, and to document what remains before creeping progress destroys it.
I started in the Fayette County town of Gallaway, a railroad town that incorporated and industrialized during the 1960’s. Time has not been kind to Gallaway, but some historic buildings still remain along Main Street and the railroad tracks. From Gallaway, Feathers Chapel Road runs toward Somerville, but in the rural outside Oakland, I came upon the ruins of a cafe called Murrell’s Cafe, although I was unable to determine whether it had been a restaurant, or, like the cafes in Mason, was a juke joint. At a nearby crossroads was a general merchandise store, still open and operating. Nearby Braden is also an incorporated town, but it never developed as much as Gallaway. Its one two-story building was always the C. T. McGraw General Store, which has in recent years become a seafood restaurant that I have been meaning to try called Braden Station. Passing through Mason, which I had photographed extensively in the past, I headed on to Stanton, which in my youth had had a historic downtown that resembled Mason’s. Unfortunately, fires have devastated most of downtown Stanton, and not much remains. So I headed further out into the rural Douglass Community to the northeast, and took some pictures there, then headed on to Dancyville.
Dancyville is in Haywood County, and has a handful of historic houses and churches, as well as a few small businesses. From there, I headed southeast along the Fayette Corners Road, stopping to photograph some abandoned rural stores, and ending up at another former railroad town called Laconia, where a single light burned on the porch of the local general store and post office. The railroad that ran through Laconia toward Jackson, Tennessee is long abandoned, but there is a small pavilion or bandbox, an antique store, a former gas station in the back of the post office building, and a large colony of cats that walk to and fro around the village. While I didn’t discover any unexpected blues venues or learn of any special events, it was a good first day of photography on the backroads of the Tennessee Delta.
In the early days, when Tennessee was just becoming a state, Memphis had two rivals for dominance of the trade on the Mississippi River. Randolph, on a bluff some 30 miles north of Memphis, was the county seat of Tipton County, and about 30 miles north of Randolph was Fulton, in Lauderdale County. Since I had never been to Fulton, nor to Fort Pillow State Park, I decided to head out there one afternoon after a day of substitute teaching at Arlington Elementary. So I grabbed a late lunch at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason and then headed out through Covington to Henning, and from there out to where Google Maps told me Fulton should be. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed, as there is really no trace of the town of Fulton. There is a Baptist church, although the building looks fairly recent, and a few houses, all of which also look fairly recent. If there was a business district once, there is no trace of it now. But I did enter Fort Pillow State Park, and got a beautiful view of the Mississippi River from a bluff inside the park. From there, I headed north through the Wildlife Management Area until I got to the beginning of Highway 19, and a community called Ashport. While Ashport is never mentioned as a rival river port to Memphis, it must have had some significance, as it was on the river, and there was an Old Ashport Road that clearly ran from Jackson, Tennessee to the area. But there was little trace of Ashport, just as there was little trace of Fulton, with one exception- an amazing, monstrous ruin of a building on Highway 19. Covered with soft drink and beer signs, it appears that the building was most recently called Pop’s Place, and must have been either a beer joint or a grocery store, or perhaps some sort of combination of both. But the old brick two-story building with a wide set of steps in the center was clearly built to be something else, perhaps a school, although a check of the internet yielded little information, and it is hard to imagine the need for a school that big in the sparsely-populated flatlands near the river. Just beyond the ruin, the road climbed a fairly steep cliff on its way toward Ripley, and the view back toward the river in the sunset was beautiful. Unfortunately, there was no good place to pull over and try to grab a photograph of what I was seeing, and no guarantee that my camera could capture it either. So I headed on into Ripley, grabbed a blizzard from the Dairy Queen, and hit the road back to Memphis.
From the end of the 19th Century to the beginning of the 20th, Mississippi began to industrialize, and one of the main industries that emerged was logging. Particularly south of Jackson, the state was covered with virgin forests that were thought to be hundreds of years old, and as the areas was opened up by railroads, cutting that timber became feasible and extremely profitable for the lumber companies that emerged. Most of these firms built company towns, in keeping with the usual practice in the early 20th Century, but by 1929, when the stock market crashed, most of the best timber had already been cut, and since companies in that day did not worry themselves with renewable resources, they had not planted any trees to replace those cut. As a result, most of the sawmills began to shut down, and few of the company towns survived in any great degree. An exception seems to be the sleepy but well-preserved community of Bogue Chitto, Mississippi in Lincoln County, Mississippi (a smaller community with the same name exists in Kemper and Neshoba Counties in North Mississippi). While a community seems to have existed called Bogue Chitto prior to the coming of the railroad and sawmill, the current town with its grid of streets along the railroad likely dates from 1879, the date on the United Methodist Church’s sign. Although nothing of the original business district remains (it was likely along the railroad), the houses and churches, with beautifully ornate architecture and distinctive tin roofs are worth a detour off of I-55. The reason why Bogue Chitto survived the boom-bust cycle of the lumber industry is unclear, as its southern neighbor of Norfield was not nearly so lucky and hardly a trace of the latter town remains. At least part of it may be that Bogue Chitto, unlike must lumber towns, was an incorporated town from 1892 to 1944 and had a municipal government. At any rate, Bogue Chitto is a remarkably well-maintained example of what a Mississippi logging town looked like in the early 20th Century, and should probably be promoted as such to visitors to the state. Of course, perhaps those who live there prefer it to maintain its solitude and quiet.
During the 1960’s, the new interstate highways began to bypass the old US highways and the towns along them, and gradually these towns began to fade into obscurity. But a trip along the old highways can be extremely rewarding, revealing ghost towns and historic buildings. On last Friday, August 1, I decided to make my trip to Jackson along Highway 51 from Batesville, and found some interesting and intriguing places. The tiny town of Pope, Mississippi in Panola County, aside from residences, was mainly one street along the railroad with a couple of old historic buildings, one of which had been turned into a restaurant called The Place, that looks as if it might warrant further investigation. But I was especially impressed with the town of Enid, from which Enid Lake draws its name although the lake and the town are in different counties. The town, in Tallahatchie County, seems barely above ghost town status these days, but its only remaining downtown building is now a performance space known as the Enid Music Hall, which features live music on weekends, often blues. On the other side of the railroad tracks was a very old wooden church, which certainly appears to be historic, although there is no historic marker. A sign on the building is rusted, but I could still make out that the building had been the Bethany Baptist Church. A nearby building looks as if it had been a one-room school, or perhaps an education building for the church. Down the road just below the city of Oakland, Mississippi, I came upon a large, abandoned school complex along Highway 51. With no signage there, I had no way of knowing what school it was, but I never fail to see these abandoned schools in Mississippi and Louisiana without being depressed. After all, these are poor states with great educational needs, and to see these taxpayer-funded investments rotting away in the Mississippi sun is not a good look at all.
On the Saturday before Memorial Day, I had to play with a jazz group for a wedding in Pontotoc, Mississippi, and once it was over, I headed out for New Orleans for the holiday. As I was heading down Highway 15, I came to a town called Reform, Mississippi, or I should perhaps say a former town. Like most ghost towns in Mississippi, this place was still inhabited, but its community institutions, a church and school were rather spectacular ruins. Unfortunately the building that appeared to have been a church was fenced in and inaccessible for closer investigation, but I was able to get some decent photos of the school. The sheer number of abandoned schools one passes in Mississippi is truly disturbing. In the course of my drive on that afternoon, I passed an abandoned high school in Maben, an abandoned college in Mathiston, this abandoned school in Reform, and another abandoned college campus in Newton that has been turned into an institution for the mentally ill.
When I was young, I remember riding down to Starkville with my parents, and we went a route that took us through a small Clay County town called Montpelier, and I had remembered falling in love with it. It had the look of a very old town, and its buildings seemed to be historic, so I was looking forward to seeing it again for the first time since that day when I was little. Unfortunately, I was in for something of a shock, because Montpelier today has been decimated, and there is really very little trace of the charming village I recall from years ago. The building that I remembered as a store and post office is now abandoned, and the gas station next door to it is also abandoned. One tin-roofed seemingly historic house sits across the road, but it is overgrown with trees and weeds, and is behind a locked gate in the middle of a farm field and cannot be accessed. There are far fewer buildings than I recall from that childhood visit too, which suggests that a lot has just been torn down. Although when I checked in on my phone, the location read Montpelier Historic District, that truly seemed a cruel joke, since there was really nothing historic left. I headed on toward West Point in a rather depressed frame of mind, but the worst was yet to come. A complex of buildings on the road a few miles from the town proved to be an abandoned school. A still-visible sign on the gymnasium building told me that this school had been West Clay High School, but it was now sitting and rotting in the sun. I frequently come across abandoned schools in my travels, particularly in the South, and I never like to see them. Although I know that other provisions have been made for the kids involved, something about school buildings abandoned just seems wrong,as if we failed in our commitment to our young people. One wonders if the school was abandoned because Montpelier had been, or if Montpelier was abandoned because there was no longer a school.
Perhaps because Woodland had been a company town, there were few buildings there that were really photogenic, but a few miles south, the town of Mantee had far more to investigate. The tragedy in Mantee, though, is that the historic buildings that remain are largely vacant, and are being allowed to crumble. Particularly sad is the historic railroad station, which has suffered roof damage and is clearly in danger. Here’s hoping that someone decides to rescue it before it’s too far gone. As for the rest of the town, there is a bank branch, a water office and the town hall.
East St. Louis has been portrayed to the American people as a nightmare for years, but I’ve always found it far more sad and interesting than horrifying. Obviously, anyone taking the time to actually visit it (and few do) cannot help but notice the widespread abandonment and dilapidation of so many buildings and houses, and most people attach the stigma of that to the people who still live there, largely African-American. The scholar Andrew Thiesing produced a remarkably well-written and well-researched book called Made In The USA which thoroughly refutes that common view, outlining in detail the way corrupt government prior to the 1960’s and the machinations of big industry conspired to put the East Side in the shape it is today, but few Americans would probably take the time to read such a work, readable though it is. So mainstream media has largely contributed to a view of East St. Louis as extremely violent and dangerous, which not only keeps away any tourists, but also potential redevelopers and investors, and that despite the fact that large areas of the old city have beautiful views of the Gateway Arch.
Of course, if anyone actually gets off the interstate, what they are likely to notice more than anything is the sense of emptiness. East St. Louis was built for a population of 80,000, and only about 20,000 actually live there, so the city has the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town on most days, as it did on the Tuesday I was there. I headed down to 15th and Broadway, an intersection that had been the center of the city’s Black community in Miles Davis’ day (yes, he was from East St. Louis), but the intersection today, adjacent to the Orr-Weathers projects, doesn’t look like much of the center of anything. What hasn’t been torn down is largely vacant. But what caught my eye was two beautiful murals that I assume were painted by youths from the nearby projects. Amid the drab surroundings, these stood out, and what they told me was that there is a determination in the young people of East St. Louis that cannot be extinguished by poverty or hardship or even racism. To stand for any length of time and look at these works of art is to understand that talent abounds in places like the East Side. If we as a society squander it, the stigma should be attached to us, not these young people. (I took these pictures on Tuesday, May 13. One of the murals was on the wall of the Broadway Market at 15th and Broadway which I understand since has burned to the ground. I’m glad I got these pictures before that happened).