The Most Southern City on Earth

In 1992, historian James Cobb’s book on the Mississippi Delta came out.

The title: “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”

Having spent four years as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I have no doubt that Cobb got it right.

The city at the heart of the Delta — the place that serves as a regional hub for east Arkansas, north Mississippi, west Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel — is Memphis.

That must make Memphis the Most Southern City on Earth.

Thousands of Arkansans will descend on Memphis next week to watch the University of Arkansas football team play Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. Many of them — especially those from the northwest part of our state — will have no idea of the strong ties between the Bluff City and eastern Arkansas.

For decades, those who lived in the eastern half of the state read Memphis newspapers.

They listened to Memphis radio stations.

They watched Memphis television stations.

They went to Memphis to eat out and have a good time.

They went to Memphis to visit the doctor.

They went to Memphis to do their Christmas shopping.

A friend who grew up in the Arkansas Delta was fond of saying, “We thought that when you died, you went to Memphis.”

The connections between east Arkansas and Memphis have frayed some in recent decades.

As the newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat heated up in the 1980s, people who once had subscribed to The Commercial Appeal from Memphis began getting one of the Little Rock newspapers since subscription prices were steeply discounted.

Cable television opened up new worlds.

The perception became that Memphis was a dangerous, crime-ridden place. People in small towns in the northeast quadrant of Arkansas who once had driven to Memphis to go to the doctor and shop now went to Jonesboro to do those things. As a result, Jonesboro prospered as a regional center.

The late Willie Morris, who’s among my favorite writers, joked that the two most important cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans.

In some ways, despite the growth of Jonesboro, Memphis remains the most important city for east Arkansas.

It was 1935 when writer David Cohn from Greenville, Miss., penned these words: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby … ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.”

Those words still ring true. I can’t count the number of famous people I’ve seen in the Peabody lobby through the years.

Razorback fans will hang out there in force next week, turning that ornate lobby into an Arkansas family reunion.

Julia Reed, the talented New Orleans-based writer who grew up at Greenville, describes the Peabody as a “legendary hotel where my great-grandfather stayed when he came to town to get hot-towel shaves and meet his cotton broker — and where he once dropped a pint of contraband liquor (this was when Tennessee was still, supposedly, dry) on the marble floor of the grand lobby. The doorman swept up the glass so fast no one was the wiser, and the current staff remains now as attentive.”

Reed went on note that the Delta “probably doesn’t officially begin at the Peabody’s address on Union Street, but there is no mistake that Memphis was the Delta’s spiritual capital and the Peabody its clubhouse. Jackson, our actual state capital, was two hours south of my hometown of Greenville, and therefore an hour closer, but we never even thought of going there. Like the bluesmen before us, we headed north, following the river on old Highway 1, before cutting over to the blues highway, U.S. 61, that takes you almost directly downtown.

“To us, the difference between the two cities could be summed up with a line from Peter Taylor’s excellent novel ‘A Summons to Memphis,’ with Jackson standing in for Nashville: ‘Nashville … is a city of schools and churches and Memphis is — well, Memphis is something else again. Memphis is a place of steamboats and cotton gins, of card playing and hotel society.’

“We knew exactly where we’d rather be, and we made the three-hour trek to Memphis with astonishing regularity. We went for school clothes and allergy shots, the Ice Capades and trips to the zoo. We saw movies, got our hair cut, ate barbecue. When we felt especially festive, we’d go just for dinner at the late lamented Justine’s, a justifiably famous Frenchish restaurant in a gorgeous old mansion, where we’d eat lump crabmeat swathed in hollandaise sauce and run into everybody we knew.”

The first Peabody Hotel was built by Robert Campbell Brinkley in 1869. He named it in honor of philanthropist George Peabody. The two men had met several years earlier on a ship bound for England. Brinkley’s reason for going to England was to find financing for a railroad linking Little Rock and Memphis. Brinkley later gave the hotel to his daughter, Anna Overton Brinkley, and her fiancé, Robert Snowden, as a wedding gift.

The Snowden family would have a connection to the hotel for the next 96 years (in addition to developing the Horseshoe Plantation across the river in Arkansas and building a home on Horseshoe Lake).

“The hotel was magnificent,” a history of the Peabody states at www.historic-memphis.com. “It had 75 gas-lit rooms with private bathrooms, a first-class dining room, shops, entertainment, a large and beautiful lobby and a grand ballroom, where lavish balls were held. It was the place to see and been seen. The hotel was highly successful. Guests paid $3 to $4 for a room with meals included in the price. … After the turn of the century, the Peabody constructed a $350,000 addition at the back. It was an all-steel structure, the first of its kind in Memphis. But it wasn’t enough. In 1923, hotel management decided it was time for a new and larger building and closed the Main Street Peabody. They had negotiated with Lowenstein’s, who wanted to take over the corner and build a grand new department store.

“A block away at Second and Union, a new, bigger and better Peabody was scheduled to open within two years. Construction began on the new Peabody within a month after the old Peabody on Main closed. The new hotel was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager with a plan for 625 rooms with baths. … The cost in 1925 was $5 million. For the 1925 opening of the Peabody, 1,200 preview party invitations were sent to the who’s who of the South. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be seen at Second and Union during the event. Once again the hotel established a reputation as the center of social life for the entire region. The grand new Peabody saw a steady stream of the wealthy and prominent congregate to dine and dance. It was the largest and most elegant hotel in the South.”

The story then picks up in the early 1950s: “During the 1950s, a nationwide move to the suburbs began. Memphians were no longer shopping regularly on Main Street, and downtown Memphis began to feel the pain. The Peabody was no exception. The hotel had many vacancies, and the restaurants were almost empty. The building was beginning to be in need of repairs, and by 1953 it was known that the Peabody was for sale. There were two bidders. … The hotel went to the Alsonett Hotel Group.

“It soon became obvious that the hotel would never be the same. Alsonett set aside tradition in favor of economy. Cost-cutting practices were evident everywhere. Downgrading was the name of the game. And any profits were used to upgrade Alsonett properties elsewhere. The profitable convention business completely disappeared. The hotel faced huge debts and was unable to get financing. In 1965, the grand old Peabody was forced into foreclosure.

“The auction began in December 1965. Robert B. Snowden placed the winning bid. Within 48 hours, he sold the Peabody to the Sheraton chain. … Snowden knew that Sheraton was going to improve the hotel. And Sheraton assured Memphis that all Peabody traditions would remain the same and set about restoring the old building. But they neglected to mention there would be a name change. For the next nine years, the hotel would be called the Sheraton-Peabody. Memphians felt this was better than nothing.

“Sheraton really tried. Unfortunately the steady decline of downtown Memphis continued, at a much faster pace after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In December 1973, Sheraton-Peabody closed the doors and posted a for-sale sign. … The Peabody had a short reprieve in 1974 when a group of Alabama investors reopened the hotel. But it was doomed to failure and by April 1, 1975, this group was forced to declare bankruptcy, and the Peabody was put up for public auction by the county.”

Belz Enterprises bought the hotel for $400,000 in July 1975. Six years and $25 million later, it reopened and has been going strong ever since.

A number of those Razorback fans next week will leave the Peabody lobby, cross the street and walk down the ally to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous for ribs. Though it has become fashionable for foodies to turn their noses up at the Rendezvous for being too touristy, it remains a Memphis landmark.

Vergos cleaned up a basement below his diner in 1948, discovered a coal chute and decided that it would give him a vent, allowing him to smoke ribs in addition to serving sandwiches. Vergos was a major force in the revival of downtown Memphis. When he died, the city’s mayor described him as an “icon for saving downtown.” His three children continue to run the restaurant.

The famous Peabody ducks even have an Arkansas connection.

Frank Schutt, the hotel’s general manager from 1925-56, and one of his friends had been duck hunting in east Arkansas one day in 1932. They had too much to drink that evening at the hotel and put their live decoys (which were allowed in those days) in the lobby fountain.

The guests loved it.

Schutt decided to train mallards to walk into the fountain each morning and exit the lobby each evening. The daily tradition continues.

Have fun in Memphis next week, Hog fans.

The Most Southern City on Earth has a knack for welcoming visitors from Arkansas.

Post to Twitter