I mentioned in an earlier post that Clarksdale, Miss., just might be the most Southern place on earth.
If isn’t Clarksdale, it must be Greenville.
The new U.S. Highway 82 bridge over the Mississippi River between Lake Village and Greenville is scheduled to open to traffic late this month. It will be an exciting day for the Delta.
When the current bridge was dedicated on Sept. 17, 1940, more than 5,000 people gathered for the ceremony. At the time, it was the longest span for a highway bridge anywhere on the Mississippi River (Dubuque, Iowa, would break that record three years later).
Seventy years later, many Arkansans dread crossing the aging, narrow, two-lane bridge. That’s about to change with a four-lane, cable-stayed structure that will have wide shoulders in addition to those four lanes. The bridge itself cost $110 million. The approach on the Arkansas side over the Mississippi River levee and floodplain cost almost $66 million. The approach on the Mississippi side over the levee and floodplain cost about $86 million.
As you can see, we’re talking real money.
In a post on a website that’s maintained by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (www.greenvillebridge.com), Jean Horton Armstrong of Pelahatchie, Miss., wrote: “I was born in Greenville, spent most of my young life there, and the bridge is one of those things in life that was awe inspiring (the largest thing around Greenville in 1955). The class ring design of the 1955 graduating class of Greenville High contains a replica of the bridge. After all the wear and tear, I still enjoy taking out that old ring and sharing stories about the bridge, Greenville Air Force Base, the beautiful trees on Main Street and two-way traffic on Washington Avenue with my grandchildren. When the old bridge comes down, all of the above will have disappeared. There will be only memories surrendered to different elements.”
Greenville Air Force Base was established in 1940 and originally known as Greenville Army Airfield. Thousands of airmen received their instruction there. Cadets from U.S. allies were even shipped to Greenville, as were firefighters and emergency medical personnel. These days, there’s a museum devoted to the base at the Mid Delta Regional Airport.
A couple of other places those interested in the history of the Delta should visit are the Flood of 1927 Museum at 118 S. Hinds St. between Main and Washington streets downtown and the Greenville History Museum at 409 Washington Ave. The flood museum is a project of the city of Greenville, the Mississippi Levee Board, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and numerous volunteers. The museum opened in March 2009 in a carriage house built in the 1850s. There’s an excellent 12-minute video presentation for visitors. The flood museum is open each Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
The Greenville History Museum is a project of Benjy Nelken, who has spent many years collecting items dealing with the history of Greenville. The museum is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. until noon on Saturdays.
I’ve already written extensively in an earlier post about my love for McCormick Book Inn (check out the store’s fact-filled website at www.mccormickbookinn.com) at 825 S. Main St. No visit to Greenville is complete without a stop at the bookstore.
Other points of interest in downtown Greenville include:
— The Hebrew Union Temple at 504 Main St. The temple was erected in 1906 and boasts some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows anywhere. The temple houses the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum for those interested in the history of Delta Jews. The city’s first elected mayor, Leopold Wilzinski, was Jewish.
— The Greenville Writers’ Exhibit in the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library at 341 Main St. More than 100 published writers called Greenville home at one time or another during the 20th century. The exhibit celebrates the work of William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Hodding Carter, Shelby Foote and others.
— The First National Bank Building, built in 1903 when Greenville was thriving. Its marble and its stained-glass windows were imported from Italy. The building now houses the city’s municipal court.
— The Greenville Inn & Suites at 211 S. Walnut St. If you’re a history lover, you’ll be spending the night here since this building, constructed in the 1880s, long was the levee board’s headquarters.
— The building at the corner of Main and Walnut streets where Hodding Carter penned editorials for the Delta Democrat Times advocating racial tolerance. You can’t go in the old building, but you can read the historic marker out front.
— St. Joseph Catholic Church at 412 Main St, which was erected in 1907. It was designed and financed by Father P.J. Korstenbroek, a Dutch nobleman who served as the parish priest for 33 years. William Alexander Percy wrote about him in “Lanterns on the Levee.” The stained-glass windows in the church were obtained from the Munich studio of Emil Frei.
Of course, your day must end with dinner at the original Doe’s Eat Place at 502 Nelson St.
Michael Stern writes at www.roadfood.com: “There is a special magic about the original Doe’s in Greenville. Located on the wrong side of town in the back rooms of a dilapidated grocery store, it does not look like a restaurant, much less a great restaurant. Many of the dining tables are in fact located in the kitchen, spread helter-skelter among stoves and counters where the staff dresses salads and fries potatoes in big iron skillets. Plates, flatware and tablecloths are all mismatched. It is noisy and inelegant, and service — while perfectly polite — is rough and tumble.
“Doe’s fans, ourselves included, love it just the way it is. The ambience, which is at least a few degrees this side of casual, is part of what makes it such a kick. Mississippians have eaten here since the 1940s; for regular patrons the eccentricity makes the experience as comfortable as an old shoe. Newcomers may be shocked by the ramshackle surroundings, but Doe’s is easy to like once the food starts coming.”
Amen. Don’t ever change a thing. It’s not just the Mississippians who are comfortable. It’s a lot of us from Arkansas who make regular pilgrimages there.
Dominick “Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie started the place in 1941. Doe’s father had moved to Greenville in 1903 and opened a grocery store in the building that now houses the restaurant.
The restaurant’s website at www.doeseatplace.com goes on to explain: “The family lived in a house behind the store. The grocery, which the Signa family called Papa’s store, did well until the 1927 flood. After that, Big Doe Signa went into bootlegging to help the family get back on its feet. After several years, he sold his 40-barrel still for $300 and a Model T Ford. Around 1941, Mamie received a partial recipe for hot tamales. She improved the recipe and began selling them. That was the beginning of Doe’s.
“At first, Signa ran a honky-tonk in the front part of the store. It was strictly for blacks. He had things like buffalo fish and chili. Ironcially, the carriage trade arrived by the back door, like segregation in reverse. One of the local doctors began coming for a meal between calls. Big Doe would cook him up a steak and feed him in the back. Pretty soon the doctor brought another doctor, then a lawyer and before he knew it, Doe had a regular restaurant in the back. After calling in family and in-laws to help with his thriving restaurant, he eventually closed the honky-tonk and focused on the eat place.”
Big Doe retired in 1974. His sons, Charles and Little Doe, took over. Big Doe died in 1987, but the family tradition lives on along Nelson Street.
Plan on crossing that new bridge when it opens and spend a day in Greenville. It struggles economically like the rest of the Delta. Yet for those who love history and tradition, it remains a magical place. You don’t even need to step foot in one of its three casinos.
Get there in the middle of the morning for a cup of coffee and a long visit at McCormick Book Inn. After leaving the bookstore, drive a few yards south on Main Street and take a walk through the Greenville Cemetery. Go a little further south for lunch at Sherman’s at 1400 S. Main St.
After lunch, visit the downtown sites listed above. They’re all within walking distance of each other.
End the day with dinner at Doe’s. I might see you there.