Archive for the ‘Mississippi’ Category

Jack Cristil calls it a career

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

I loved to listen to the great Southern college play-by-play men on the radio when I was growing up.

There was Larry Munson at Georgia.

There was John Ferguson at LSU.

There was Cawood Ledford at Kentucky.

There was John Ward at Tennessee.

Mississippi State’s Jack Cristil outlasted them all.

When the Bulldogs take on the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville on Wednesday night, Cristil won’t be behind the microphone.

For listeners across Mississippi and other parts of the South, it just won’t be the same.

“We knew Jack Cristil couldn’t go on forever,” Rick Cleveland of The Clarion-Ledger at Jackson wrote last week. “Here lately, he has sounded tired, worn out — certainly not himself. So maybe Wednesday’s news that Cristil is stepping down after 58 years as the voice of Mississippi State University’s football team and 54 years calling basketball wasn’t totally unexpected. Still, we don’t have to like it.”

Cristil called his final game in Knoxville on Saturday as the Bulldogs beat Tennessee.

Prior to that broadcast, Cleveland wrote: “For many of us, it will be like listening to Sinatra sing his last song. For three generations of Mississippians, our introduction to the Deep South’s regional pastime of college football often has been Cristil’s gravelly, baritone voice telling us about a 6-tall, 180-pound halfback from Amory or Ackerman or Moss Point.

“Doesn’t matter which university you pulled for, you listened to Cristil. You listened because he put you there in the stadium. He described the weather and the setting. Told you which team was going which way. He gave you the uniform colors and the context of whatever game he was describing.

“His voice was so distinct, you could almost taste the cigarettes he was smoking.”

Yes, it took many packs of cigarettes through decades to get a voice like Jack Cristil’s.

Cristil will require four hours of kidney dialysis three times a week and will no longer be able to travel.

Here’s how Ole Miss play-by-play man David Kellum reacted to the news of Cristil’s retirement: “It sort of left me with an empty feeling, to be honest. That’s a weird feeling to even think that Jack Cristil’s not going to be at Mississippi State. He has been extremely good to me. I know that people like to place us in the rivalry and all that, but he has been a really good friend to me.”

Kellum called Cristil “probably the best technician I’ve ever heard.”

He was that and more. You always knew what was going on when listening to Cristil.

“He gave you down, distance, score and how much time was remaining,” Cleveland wrote. “He did it regularly.”

In my 30 years of broadcasting college football on the radio, I’ve tried to use the lessons I learned by listening to Cristil. People tend to tune in and out on the radio. You need to give the score a lot. You need to give the time on the clock a lot. You need to tell what direction the team with the ball is headed so listeners can picture the game in their minds.

Far too few announcers these days remember to do those things.

I was on the broadcast level of the press box at War Memorial Stadium when Mississippi State played Arkansas in football in November 2009. I stood next to the Bulldog broadcast booth and watched through the window as Cristil worked (during the longer timeouts, he would light up a cigarette).

Jim Ellis, who will handle the play-by-play duties in Fayetteville on Wednesday night, worked with Cristil for 32 years.

“You could tell he was a Mississippi State guy, and maybe a little more now, but he was always right down the middle,” Ellis said. “If the other team was doing something good, he would talk about it. If Mississippi State wasn’t playing very good, he would talk about it. … He has always sort of told the story like it was. That’s one thing that endeared him because I hear so many people from other universities say they like to listen to Jack because he’s not so biased like a lot of today’s announcers are.”

Cristil was hired at Mississippi State in August 1952 by Dudy Noble.

Cristil, the son of immigrants from Russia and Latvia, grew up in Memphis and remembers listening to the radio at age 6.

“Here I was in Memphis, and I was absolutely enthralled with the idea that a man could be sitting in some stadium in New York or Chicago or Boston, telling me about a game,” he once said. “It was like magic. I was enchanted by it. It captured my imagination to the extent that I knew right then and there that’s what I was going to do. I was 6 years old, but I knew what I was going to do for a living, and I never changed my mind.”

Archie Manning is an Ole Miss icon, of course,

Heck, that son of Drew, Miss., in the Delta is a Southern icon.

This is what Archie has to say about the voice of the Bulldogs: “Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting at the kitchen table with my daddy, listening to Jack Cristil describe Mississippi State football games. He made the games come alive for me. I loved his voice and the way he described the games. It was like he put you in the stadium. He was, in many ways, my introduction to college football. And, still, when I hear his voice, I think about those afternoons with my daddy. Jack Cristil’s voice, to me, is college football.”

Cristil was living in Clarksdale at the time he applied for the Mississippi State job. He asked for directions to Starkville and headed east in his 1948 Plymouth.

This is how Cristil remembered it when Rick Cleveland paid him a visit back in 2002: “I had envisioned a young, energetic, business-type person in a trim suit and a neat hairdo,” Cristil said. “But Dudy Noble was a big man, over 6 feet tall and quite hefty. He was attired in an old cotton flannel shirt and baggy britches. He had an unruly shock of gray hair that stuck out.

“He said, ‘Boy, I understand you want to do these football games,’ and I said, ‘Yessir, I surely do,’ and he said, ‘Well, we’ve decided we’re going to give you an opportunity. I’ll tell you what I want you to do,’ and I thought to myself, ‘Here come words of wisdom.’

“He said, ‘You tell that radio audience what the score is and who’s got the ball and how much time is left, and you cut out the bull.’ I was aghast, but it turned out to be the best advice I ever got. But that’s all the people want. They want the score, who’s got the ball and how much time is left. They don’t want the bull.”’

Cristil’s father died when the boy was 12.

“What I know about my daddy is that he was strict,” Cristil told Cleveland. “We were Jewish. Both my parents spoke Hebrew and Yiddish as well as Russian. But my father wouldn’t allow anything to be spoken in the house except for English.”

As a boy, Cristil would broadcast imaginary baseball and football games.

“I had a rubber ball, and I would be out in the street bouncing the ball off the house and telling about imaginary games,” he said. “I can’t begin to tell you how many games I must have broadcast like that, but I will tell you this: My high school football coach lived across the street from us, and I’ll never forget how he almost killed me the first day of practice in the ninth grade. He later said he was just paying me back for all those years of having to listen to me out in the street broadcasting those imaginary games.”

Cristil called 636 Mississippi State football games and 1,538 Bulldog basketball games. He lasted through 12 football coaches and eight basketball coaches at the school.

Cristil has a wit that Cleveland describes this way: “As dry as the Sahara.”

One year, there was the sponsored Sonic Drive of the Game as one of the postgame show features. The Mississippi State offense hadn’t had a decent drive that day. So Cristil said on the postgame show that the drive of the game would be “my drive back home to Tupelo.”

He described the weather at the 1963 Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia as “colder than a pawnbroker’s heart.”

One year, a Bear Bryant-coached Alabama team was whipping the Bulldogs. Bob Hope was attending the game at Tuscaloosa, but Cristil didn’t know it.

A man walked into the radio booth and said, “Hope is available at halftime if you want him.”

Cristil replied: “Fellow, I need some hope right now.”

Italians of the Delta

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Paul V. Canonici was born of Italian immigrant parents in the heart of the Mississippi Delta — Shaw to be exact.

After being educated in the public schools of Shaw, Canonici headed to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to study with the Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La.

He also studied at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana.

Canonici obtained a master’s degree from Notre Dame and his doctorate in sociology from Mississippi State. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1957 and was the superintendent of Catholic schools in the state of Mississippi from 1970-83.

After leaving that post, Canonici became the founding pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Madison, Miss. Following his retirement in 1999, he devoted much of his time to researching and writing the book “The Delta Italians.”

The book provides an in-depth account of the lives of the Italian immigrants, their children and grandchildren in the Delta regions of Arkansas and Mississippi.

In an earlier post, I discussed the Chinese immigrants to the Delta. Far more than Arkansas towns to the west, Delta towns along the Mississippi River were melting pots. There were the Jewish merchants who came up the river from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis. There were the Syrians, the Lebanese and the many other immigrants who used Ol’ Man River as their artery to travel into the American heartland.

Places such as Chicot County became the home of Italian immigrants, Chinese immigrants and others whose ancestors continue to contribute to their communities. Canonici writes extensively about the Sunnyside Plantation, which was near Lake Village.

A New York speculator named Austin Corbin had purchased more than 10,000 acres in far southeast Arkansas in the late 1800s. He consolidated several plantations in the area and named Sunnyside after an earlier plantation that had been established in the 1830s.

Corbin soon found that he was short of labor. Cotton is a labor-intensive crop, and there weren’t enough people to farm the huge plantation. So Corbin entered into an agreement with the mayor of Rome, Prince Ruspoli, to bring 100 Italian families to Sunnyside each year for five years.

The first party of more than 500 Italians reached the plantation in late 1895. Corbin died in 1896, but another group of Italians arrived in January 1897.

Canonici says his book is “based on the premise that Italians who went to the Sunnyside Plantation, and subsequently to other plantations in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, had similar characteristics and experiences. … Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces. Most were experienced farmers in a well-structured farming system called mezzadria.”

Under this system, extended families lived under one roof on land that belonged to the man known as the padrone. They shared the harvest with the owner of the land.

“They worked hard and lived simply, but generally there was sufficient food to sustain the family,” Canonici writes. “There was a saying in the Marche region that one might work himself to death but he did not starve to death. Their reason for leaving their native soil was to search for a better life. Many crossed the Atlantic with the intention of returning and would have returned if they had had the means.”

Canonici notes that unlike some cultures, where the men came first for several years, Italians immigrated as family units.

“Once in the Delta, the extended family maintained close ties but no longer lived and worked under the same roof,” he writes. “Most had become indebted to Delta planters before they arrived because they had been forwarded travel and living expenses. They began as tenant farmers, and although disillusioned by the living conditions they encountered, they continued to work hard.

“Italian settlers in the Delta had large families, an advantage for farmers who wanted to save money and improve their lifestyle. They formed their own social and religious communities, retained their Italian language through the first generation in America and remained faithful to their Catholic faith. They married among themselves, and there was minimal divorce.

“Once in the Delta, the Italians struggled to free themselves from debt. Those who were unable to pay off their debts sometimes escaped in the dark of night to avoid foreclosure. Families made numerous moves in search of the better life. Eventually many saved sufficient money to free themselves from tenant living. Some established themselves on their own farms, some found work in cities in the North, East and West, a few returned to Italy. Most did eventually find the better life they sought, although not in the exact model of their dreams.”

Canonici recounts a visit to the historic Hyner Cemetery near Lake Village that he made late on the afternoon of Sept. 7, 1994. It was his first visit to the cemetery, which is about six miles north of the bridge that connects Mississippi and Arkansas.

Here’s how Canonici describes the scene: “Soybean fields border the front and west sides of the cemetery. Fifty yards to the front are the road and the power lines that seem to follow the river. … Across the road, cotton fields are almost ready for picking, a reminder of the early days when these rugged, precious Italians were introduced to the crop that would be their livelihood for posterity. Occasionally a car or truck speeds by, breaking the silence of this holy place that contains the dust and bones of our brave ancestors.

“The sinking sun is surrounded by light clouds, forming a bright, flaming horizon. I am totally imbued by the spirit of Sunnyside as I brush my feet against the sandy loam dust just outside the cemetery gate and gaze on that eternal flame over the horizon. The spirit of the settlers of 1895 cries out to me from every side: ‘Come and see, come and see.’ So I walk past the historic marker, down a cotton row. The cotton stalks brush against my armpits and healthy cotton bolls slap against my legs. I think to myself, ‘What would they say about this crop?’ Then, as the sun sinks completely over the cotton fields of Sunnyside, I hear those voices again. Now they say, ‘Write on, write on, Paul.'”

Write he did.

Canonici produced a volume of more than 200 pages with dozens of historic photographs. The book finally came out in 2003 with a second printing in 2005.

“For years I have wanted to write an account of the experiences of my people, who came from the shores of the Adriatic to settle the swamplands of the Mississippi River, which form the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta,” Canonici remembers thinking during that cemetery visit. “Through the years, I seemed never to have found the time to write, or rather I never took the time to write. How shall I begin? What shall I write?

“I realize that I’ve procrastinated too long. Our original settlers are dead. I do have some taped interviews, begun in the ’70s, of people who were children at the turn of the last century. This task should have been accomplished 30 or 40 years ago when the old-timers were still alive. Nevertheless, there’ll be no better time than today to start. So I begin my account this evening, standing on the dust of those courageous people who paved for us the way to that better life they sought. How sad that most of them never lived to experience the better life.”

The story of the Delta Italians is fascinating. Go to a Delta town such as Lake Village and visit with some of them. They’re rightly proud of their roots.

Chinese grocers of the Delta

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

I attended a meeting of the Arkansas Lottery Commission today. While reading the minutes of the commisson’s December session, I found a reference to a memo from Joe Dan Yee, the chairman of the lottery’s retail advisory board.

Seeing that name made me think about the Chinese grocers of the Arkansas Delta and the Mississippi Delta.

During the four years I worked as one of the president’s appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I found it fascinating how many Chinese groceries still exist in the region.

Our headquarters was in Clarksdale, Miss., and I occasionally visited Wong’s there.

On the Arkansas side of the river, there was a Fong’s in Marianna and also in Hughes.

The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, which does such a marvelous job of documenting the food cultures of the South with oral histories and much more, has transcribed a series of interviews with Chinese-Americans in the Delta.

Those interviews can be found at the SFA website at

Joe Dan Yee of Yee’s Food Land in Lake Village is among those who were interviewed last summer.

“Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain,” the SFA wrote. “When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guangdong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations.

“Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominately African-American clientele, the Chinese-American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

“Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains. Added to that were the stresses that they endured as immigrants navigating the complex socio-political structure of a region that historian James C. Cobb has called the most Southern place on earth. … Though the numbers of Chinese grocers diminish year by year, family stories tell an important history of immigration. They also speak to the formation of a unique food culture in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.”

Joe Dan Yee is described as someone who “bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market.”

Yee’s Food Land at 605 Main St. in Lake Village is now a southeast Arkansas institution.

The SFA described it this way: “Hanging above the checkout lanes of Yee’s Food Land, you can find an aging photograph of three generations of the Yee family. There is the father and mother who started the store back in the early ’50s and the children who run it today. For more than 50 years, the Yees have owned and operated a grocery store in the Arkansas Delta town of Lake Village. The town may have changed around them, but the Yees still pride themselves on the same hometown service that has kept them in business for so many years.

“What has also remained unchanged is the family commitment to preserving their Chinese heritage. Both Joe Dan and his siblings can speak Cantonese, something his parents insisted they learn growing up. And twice a day you can find them all eating a hot, multicourse Chinese meal (all prepared by his sister, Xing) in the back of their store.”

I love this quote from Joe Dan Yee: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: ‘Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.’ So I get a big kick out of that.”

He talked about how Chinese restaurant owners often will come out to his table in New York and San Francisco to hear him speak, noting that “we never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent.”

The SFA noted: “After graduating with a degree in marketing at the University of Arkansas, Joe Dan Yee could have gone to Dallas, maybe gotten a job with a big department store there. He had already interviewed for a job and been accepted, but in the end he gave all that up to go back home to Lake Village to take over the store his father built with his brother, Joe-Joe. He has never looked back.”

Joe Dan was interviewed in August by Kevin Kim. He talked about how his father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working in a grocery store there for a man named Eugene Lee. Eventually, the father found his way to Lake Village.

“Back in the early ’60s there were at least eight to 10 (Chinese) families that were in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then,” Joe Dan told the interviewer.

He said that for many years, the store would open at 4 a.m. and sometimes remain open until midnight.

“The city of Lake Village was so busy you couldn’t even walk down Main Street,” Joe Dan said, remembering the hundreds of sharecroppers and tenant farmers who would come into town to shop.

He remembers how the Chinese families in Lake Village would have cases of Chinese food shipped all the way from San Francisco.

“You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs between the families,” he said. “That’s how they did it.”

The store hours are now from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 8 a.m. until noon on Sundays.

Joe Dan said his family never has had strong relationships with the Chinese families on the Mississippi side of the river.

“A different culture, you know,” he said. “It’s just like they did their thing and we did our thing. … We never got together and partied that much or associated that much with the Chinese people in Mississippi.”

His favorite Southern meal?

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cornbread.

His favorite Chinese meal?

Pepper steak or the Peking duck his mother makes.

Those interviewed in Mississippi included Frieda Quon of Greenville, who grew up in the back of the Min Sang store on Alexander Street, and Raymond Wong of the excellent How Joy restaurant in Greenville, which closed in 2008.

“Today’s consumer of Chinese cuisine may have a refined knowledge of the regional specialties of the country, but back in the early 1960s, a time when even chopsticks were seen as new and exciting, what Americans knew of Chinese food mainly consisted of chop suey and chow mein,” the SFA writes. “Though you could have ordered a plate of either of those dishes at How Joy Restaurant in Greenville, Raymond Wong and his family were proud to serve you other, lesser-known dishes of their Catonese heritage. Opened in 1968 by his parents, Henry and Pon Wong, How Joy was one of the first Chinese restaurants to open in the Mississippi Delta.”

Also interviewed last summer was Luck Wing, who grew up in the Mississippi community of Jonestown, became one of the first Chinese men to attend Ole Miss and went on to open the state’s only Chinese-run pharmacy in Sledge, eventually serving as the town’s mayor. He’s now retired in Oxford.

Finally, there’s an interview with Tony and Monica Li, the owner of Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale. Their story is an amazing one.

“Born and raised in Hong Kong, they left their comfortable office jobs (Monica was a bank employee and Tony was an industrial engineer) in the late 1980s for the Mississippi Delta to run a grocery store,” according to the SFA. “For about 12 hours a day, seven days a week, you can find them running Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale, where they have tended shop since 1995. Monica usually keeps the books and helps stock items, while Tony can be found cutting up steaks, chops and roasts in the meat department. This life may not be the American Dream of their youth, but for the Lis it’s all worth it. Operating a grocery story has allowed them to send their children to college.

“Tony and Monica Li are the face of the third wave of Chinese immigration to the Delta that occurred during the 1960s and ’70s and continues through today. Mainly consisting of the educated middle and upper-middle class of Hong Kong and Taiwan, they arrived in this country not on steamers but on shiny new jumbo jets. For the Li family and many others, they left comfortable lives in their homeland in the hopes of giving their children a better life in the United States. Though they may not have faced the same kind of hardships as those who came before them, life for this middle generation is difficult as they try to maintain the ties with their homeland while forging new ones in America.”

The Chinese of the Delta — a fascinating piece of Southern culture that lives on.

Curtis Wilkie untangles the tale of Zeus

Monday, December 27th, 2010

I spent much of the weekend reading Curtis Wilkie’s “The Fall of the House of Zeus.” Time to read has become a rare commodity, so the four-day weekend created by Christmas presented a golden opportunity. I picked the right book.

Wilkie has done a masterful job of chronicling the downfall of one of the country’s most prominent trial lawyers, Dickie Scruggs.

Wilkie is a Delta boy, born in Greenville and raised by a single mother who taught school. His father was an alcoholic who died when Wilkie was young.

Wilkie was a student at Ole Miss when violence erupted in the fall of 1962 over James Meredith becoming the first black to attend the school, one of the landmark events of the civil rights era. He witnessed history at a young age and decided to be among those writing history’s first draft as journalists.

Wilkie graduated from Ole Miss in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and headed back to the Delta to work as a reporter for the Clarksdale Press-Register. Though I continued to call Little Rock home during my four years with the Delta Regional Authority, the DRA headquarters was in Clarksdale and I spent dozens of nights there. I generally would work late, buy a Press-Register from the box in front of the federal building while walking to my car and then take the newspaper with me to read while having dinner at Rest Haven, Abe’s, Ramon’s or the Ranchero.

Many of that Delta city’s residents remember Wilkie’s stint there from 1963-69 as integration and other aspects of the civil rights movement played out across the South.

After receiving a fellowship from the American Political Science Association, Wilkie headed to Washington in 1969 to work on Capitol Hill for Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota and Rep. John Brademas of Indiana. In 1971, he returned to newspaper work in Wilmington, Del.

Wilkie was hired by the Boston Globe in 1975 and would stay at the newspaper for a quarter of a century. He covered seven presidential campaigns for the newspaper and was the Globe’s White House correspondent from 1977-82. He also served as the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief.

The Globe later established a bureau in the Middle East, and Wilkie worked out of Jerusalem from 1984-87. He returned South in 1993 to open a Southern bureau for the newspaper in New Orleans. Wilkie teamed up with the late Jim McDougal to write “Arkansas Mischief: Birth of a National Scandal,” which was released in 1998.

In 2001, Wilkie’s second book was published, “Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South.”

After leaving the newspaper business, Wilkie was a journalism professor at LSU in 2003 and was appointed to an endowed chair in journalism at Ole Miss in 2004. In 2007, he became the first Overby Fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss.

As more and more successful Ole Miss graduates came back to Oxford to live, Wilkie found that he often crossed paths with Scruggs, who had relocated his law practice from Pascagoula to Oxford. Wilkie readily admits that he considers Scruggs a friend. But in more than 300 pages of investigative journalism, he turns over all the stones of this tangled affair, which goes to the heart of the Mississippi political, legal and business communities.

Having spent much of my time in Mississippi for four years and knowing many of the book’s characters, I found it fascinating. Yet anyone who loves reading about Southern politics will enjoy this book. Mississippi, you see, is much like Arkansas — a small state where personal connections run deep.

During Bill Clinton’s eight years as president, national reporters would parachute into Arkansas and be amazed at how connected everyone is. A state of fewer than 3 million people and the interpersonal relationships that engenders was something many of them could never fully grasp.

Here’s one example of how Mississippi is also a small state: I was reading a newspaper column about the book. The column was written by Bill Minor, who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947 and for many years was the Jackson correspondent for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Bill Minor’s son, former Biloxi attorney Paul Minor, is a figure in Wilkie’s book. Paul Minor, now in federal prison, also was one of the state’s most successful lawyers until he was convicted in 2007 along with two Harrison County judges on numerous corruption charges. Paul Minor is serving the longest sentence of the three, 11 years.

We’ll let Bill Minor summarize has Scruggs became one of the richest lawyers in the country: “Scruggs amassed his multimillion-dollar empire by becoming a master at class action lawsuits against big corporate adversaries and assembling a legal team to do practically all the courtroom work while he devised overall strategies aimed at forcing a settlement.

“His first big coup came in the 1980s by representing hundreds of shipyard workers who contracted asbestosis at Pascagoula’s Ingalls Shipbuilding. Then, in the 1990s, he became nationally recognized as ‘King of Torts’ and subject of a movie. Acting as special counsel for state Attorney General Mike Moore, Scruggs forced previously impenetrable Big Tobacco into a multibillion-dollar settlement on grounds their product had cost states millions in Medicaid health care payments.”

Scruggs later would receive a five-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to a ham-handed attempt to bribe a state circuit judge. His son, Zach, also would receive federal prison time and serve his sentence at Forrest City.

It’s a classic tale of greed run amuck. Scruggs had far more money than he would ever need to live comfortably. Wilkie, in fact, laments the fact that so many of that poor state’s best and brightest have entered the legal profession through the years, often choosing to sue and countersue each other rather than becoming entrepreneurs and creating jobs.

With a bright son who is a senior in high school and says he eventually wants to attend law school, it certainly gave me food for thought while reading the book.

It was fitting that Wilkie’s tome was released Oct. 19 at Square Books, that great independent bookstore on the Oxford square just down the street from where Scruggs’ law firm had its offices.

“Richard ‘Dickie’ Scruggs liked his friends close and his enemies closer,” Patsy Brumfield of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal wrote in a review earlier this year. “His wife, Diane, lived in dread that they would be his undoing. She was right. … Few of the chief actors in this book come out looking very well. They range from aggressively calculating or naively stupid to ruthless power lovers. Its main character, Dickie Scruggs, rises from the world of poor boy from a broken home to the pinnacle of his profession and its riches. But along the way he acquires or befriends associates who help pave his road to ruin.”

She says Mississippi’s “incestuous and close-knit political, legal and social circles, especially the old network of the late Sen. Jim Eastland and the University of Mississippi’s Sigma Nu fraternity, prove to be breeding grounds for his troubles.”

When asked by Brumfield what surprised him the most in researching the book, Wilkie said: “The scope of the story. What I originally thought might be a book about the investigation and a highly charged trial turned into more of a tale of Mississippi politics, how Dick Scruggs became ensnared in a network of influence peddlers, movers and shakers and fixers who have been doing business in this state for decades.”

Brumfield asked about the difficulty of writing about people one knows well. Wilkie answered: “Almost any journalist is going to be confronted with writing unfavorable stories about friends. I’ve had to do it a number of times. Sometimes you may lose friends altogether or bruise friendships. But usually, if the writer is handling the story as accurately and fairly as possible, the relationship survives. In this case, Dick Scruggs and I continue to correspond. I believe he agreed to talk with me — under no conditions — because he felt if a fuller account of the story were told the public would have a better understanding of how he ended up in the mess he did.”

Greenwood in the Delta — Part 2

Friday, November 19th, 2010

It was a major economic development coup for Greenwood, Miss., when that city was chosen as the site to film a major motion picture, “The Help,” which is based on a best-selling novel by Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett.

The estimated economic impact of the project is almost $12 million.

“Preserving our historic buildings has been our No. 1 asset other than the people,” Mayor Carolyn McAdams told the Delta Business Journal earlier this year.

As I noted in a recent post, Greenwood is a treasure trove for those who love historic preservation, Southern heritage and good food.

“The city is revitalizing downtown’s Howard Street with brick pavers, light fixtures and traffic lights more fitting with the historic feel of the area,” Greta Sharp wrote in Delta Business Journal. “Where possible, the city is placing utilities underground. The city parking lot on Fulton Street is getting a facelift and construction on a multimillion-dollar airport control tower begins soon.

“Additionally, Main Street Greenwood is working with property owners to restore and renovate building fronts in the Johnson Street and Carrollton Avenue area thanks to a facade grant project. … There are 14 facade projects in the works for this year with four already completed. In the 42-block downtown area, Main Street focuses on organization, design, promotion, economic restructuring, recruitment and retention.”

The 2004 New York Times article that I referenced in the earlier post on Greenwood mentioned Ben Hussman of Little Rock and Little Rock native Ann Jennings Shackelford, who now runs the wonderful B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Miss. They were attending the Viking Cooking School in downtown Greenville when the article was written. The cooking school, a spa, the wonderful Alluvian Hotel and much of the downtown revitlization is all thanks to Fred Carl’s decision to locate Viking Range Corp. in his hometown of Greenwood.

In the process, he has attracted thousands of culinary pilgrims such as Hussman and Shackelford during the past seven years to a town that just keeps getting better.

Taylor Holliday wrote in that New York Times article: “Mr. Carl originally planned to locate Viking in Jackson, Miss., where it would be easier to recruit top management, but soon, feeling disloyal and guilty, he said to himself: ‘To heck with it. I’m going to do it in Greenwood or I’m not going to do it anywhere.’

“In addition to building the factory, he turned his attention to the center of town, restoring a 1903 opera house and former cotton market buildings to be Viking’s headquarters and later renovating the old car dealership. Then (in 2003), the Alluvian opened in what had been the Hotel Irving, ‘an abandoned, horrible eyesore,’ Mr. Carl said. He saw the restoration as a ‘chance to do something special for Greenwood.’

“While the outside of the hotel is now pristine 1917, the inside is elegant 21st century — a cream-and-wine-colored decor accented with bold local art. The lobby’s first and lasting impression is made by Bill Dunlap’s large canvas ‘Delta Dog Trot,’ in which a larger-than-life dog seems to be stepping out of the dramatic, orange-hued alluvial plain of the Yazoo basin, whose inhabitants Tennessee Williams is said to have once called Alluvians.

“Building a $175-a-night hotel in the poorest part of the country might seem a little risky, but Viking knew it would fill the rooms Sunday through Tuesday with dealers in training, and it populates them the rest of the week with executives on corporate retreats, stove groupies in town for custom tours, cooking-school enrollees and travelers on the hotel’s Delta Discovery packages featuring food and blues tours.”

Carl told an interviewer earlier this year: “My initial intent was to provide lodging for our dealers and distributors who were coming to the Viking headquarters in Greenwood, but also to bring more in-depth exposure to the company and its products.”

Holliday ended the article on this note: “One evening last month, a friendly man at the high-style Giardina’s bar issued a visitor a coveted invitation to his other regular hangout, the Cotton Row Club. It’s a men’s social club of sorts, an ancient dive in the alley behind the Viking offices that’s seen decades of poker playing and chewing the fat, where five quarters buys a beer out of the Coke machine and a bit more gets a shoeshine from a popular old-timer called Hambone.”

Back on June 28, L.V. “Hambone” Howard died at age 72 following complications from a stroke. It marked the end of an era.

If you go to the Southern Foodways Alliance website at, you can find more about “Hambone” and the Cotton Row Club.

“The Cotton Row Club has been a fixture in downtown Greenwood for as long as anyone can remember,” says the website’s introduction for a series of interviews that were recorded back in 2003. “Located just off the Yazoo River and behind the legendary Cotton Row, this building is rumored to be the second oldest building in town. Once a stable and blacksmith shop, it eventually became a hangout for cotton buyers and other businessmen sometime during the first half of the 20th century.”

The owner at the time of the interviews was Stacy Ragland, who began coming to the club in the 1950s, began working there in the 1970s and later bought the place.

“You can’t get food here,” the introduction stated. “Sure, there are peanuts at poker games and a potluck during the Super Bowl, but this is not a restaurant. Rather, it’s a private little hideaway and watering hole for local businessmen and their friends. … Stop in, though, and get a beer out of the Coke machine.”

Last year, a 16-minute documentary titled “The Last Kings of Cotton Row” was created by Matt Boyer for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. The documentary features “Hambone” along with Ragland (who owned the club for almost 40 years) and Tommy Gregory Sr., the last remaining old generation cotton broker on Greewood’s Cotton Row.

“Hambone” is gone, but his memory lives on.

In the October 2007 issue of Here’s Greenwood, Laura Barnaby wrote: “L.V. Howard, or Hambone as he is universally known, has been preaching almost as long as he has been shining shoes, both of which he started doing as a youth. … Unless you attend McKinney Chapel Baptist Church, where he is assistant pastor, you’re most likely to see Hambone cruising the streets of downtown Greenwood, running errands for various folks and delivering newspapers. It’s hard to catch Hambone not in constant motion, but your best bet is to track him down early mornings or late afternoons at the Cotton Row Club down Ramcat Alley, where he has been shining shoes since 1986.

“The Cotton Row Club and Hambone — both downtown fixtures — are a good fit. The club, which was owned by W.A. ‘Smitty’ Smith, used to be a favorite gathering place for cotton brokers and other businessmen during the cotton capital’s heyday. Stacy Ragland, who started working there in the 1970s, had just bought the place from Smith when Hambone started there.”

Someone posted this during the summer as part of an online discussion about the Cotton Row Club: “The golden age of the Cotton Row Club was really something by all accounts — a way of life and business that is gone forever. In many ways, it is very sad to those of us who knew Greenwood many years ago.”

Yes, things change.

The cotton era ended in Greenwood. But thanks to Fred Carl and Viking Range, a new era has begun in recent years.

Greenwood is well worth a visit.

Expunging a racist past

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

On its website, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., describes reporter Jerry Mitchell this way: “He has been called ‘a loose cannon,’ ‘a pain in the ass’ and a ‘white traitor.’ Whatever he’s been called, Jerry Mitchell has never given up in his quest to bring unpunished killers to justice, prompting one colleague to call him ‘the South’s Simon Wiesenthal.’

“Since 1989, the 50-year-old investigative reporter … has unearthed documents, cajoled suspects and witnesses, and quietly pursued evidence in the nation’s notorious killings from the civil rights era.”

I listened to Mitchell, a Texarkana native and a 1982 graduate of Harding University, speak last week at the Clinton School of Public Service. As I sat there, I thought of the role he continues to play in transforming the image of what once was perhaps the most racist daily newspaper in America.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Hodding Carter III once described the former owners of the Jackson newspaper this way: “The Hedermans were to segregation what Joseph Goebbels was to Hitler. They were cheerleaders and chief propagandists, dishonest and racist. They helped shape as well as reflect a philosophy which was, at its core, as undemocratic and immoral as any extant. They weren’t hypocrites. They believed it. They believed blacks were the sons of Ham. The Hedermans were bone-deep racists whose religion 120 years ago decided that question.”

Brothers Thomas M. Hederman and Robert M. Hederman migrated to Jackson from rural Scott County about the turn of the 20th century and found work as printers.

“They were hard working and parsimonious, and it wasn’t long before they took on the biggest printing job in town,” Kathy Lally wrote in The Baltimore Sun. “They bought The Clarion-Ledger in 1920 and left the paper along with their Baptist, teetotaling legacy to their sons.”

Lally wrote that the Hedermans “asserted their moral authority through their newspapers and their control of the First Baptist Church, the most powerful congregation in Jackson. They were able to proclaim themselves devout Christians while holding many of their fellow men — those of color — in contempt.”

A third-generation member of the publishing family, Rea Hederman, went to work at the newspaper in 1973 when he was only 28 and began trying to change things.

“It was really a terrible paper, about as bad a paper as you can get,” said former Mississippi newspaperman Lew Powell of Charlotte, N.C. “It was a mixture of incompetence and malevolence, especially on racial issues.”

Rea Hederman, embarrassed by his family’s past editorial positions, made significent changes before the newspaper was sold in 1982 to the Gannett Corp. Taking his part of the proceeds from that sale, Hederman bought a liberal icon among the Eastern elite, The New York Review of Books.

In a 2006 New York Observer profile, Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote: “The powerful attachment of adulthood can often be traced to the indignities of youth, and Mr. Hederman’s played out in the Deep South during the civil rights era. It was then, as a young editor, that Mr. Hederman learned about the dangers of editorial interference from above. … His relatives, and by consequence their newspapers, were pro-segregation and rabidly racist (as well as journalistically inept) — all of which mortified young Rea, even as he joined the family business.

”’Growing up in Mississippi, I went to an all-white school, and segregation was in full force, and I think at some point you just feel like you have to make a decision,’ Mr. Hederman said of his ideological split from those he grew up with. (Even some of his five offspring veered rightward, with one of his grown sons now ensconced at the Heritage Foundation).

“Mr. Hederman eventually became an editor at The Clarion-Ledger, where he proceeded to infuriate many of his family members by beefing up the news staff and by hiring, and covering, black people. His muckraking tendencies were unleashed on corrupt local figures — and sometimes on friends and members of the Hederman clan itself. Mr. Hederman described the period as ‘very rough,’ among other things: ‘I mean, the number of death threats I had, and reporters who worked for me had, was enormous. This was through 1982. It was way past the initial integration of public schools.’

“The newspaper’s turnaround was widely praised and won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. But all the while, Mr. Hederman had to wage daily battles with an extended network of relatives who felt that they had the right to decide what went into the paper. … The whole experience led to Mr. Hederman’s lifelong horror of editorial meddling and his ready eagerness not to do so at the Review.”

When the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 (after the sale to Gannett, though the project that won the prize began while Hederman was still in charge), Time magazine began its story this way: “When 200,000 people marched on Washington in 1963 to urge jobs and freedom for blacks, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger noted the rally dryly but reported the litter-clearance effort the next day under the headline: Washington Is Clean Again With Negro Trash Removed.

“Times have changed in Mississippi — and at the 146-year-old Clarion-Ledger. The state capital paper, whose modest daily circulation of 70,000 is Mississippi’s largest, crusades against corrpution and police brutality toward poor blacks. Last week the paper’s campaign for reform of the state’s allegedly inadequate, segregation-tainted public schools won the most coveted award in newspaper journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for public service.”

Two years ago, the newspaper endorsed Barack Obama for president.

“If Col. Robert McCormack, the longtime publisher of the arch-Republican Chicago Tribune, is spinning in his grave as a result of that paper’s endorsement two weeks ago of Democrat Barack Obama, imagine what sort of posthumous somersaults the brothers Thomas and Robert Hederman must be doing after this morning’s editorial in the Mississippi paper they controlled for a half century,” historian Robert McElvaine wrote at the time. “… No major media organ was more intransigent in its support for segregation and its opposition to the civil rights movement. … In the days when the Hederman brothers owned the paper, it frequently warned of the horror of ‘miscegenation.”’

In a 2002 PBS interview, Bill Minor (who for many years was the Jackson correspondent for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans) called the newspaper “an instrument of perpetuating the system of segregation on a daily basis. … The owners, the Hederman family — none of them wrote anything as far as I know, but they hired people who would write and express that point of view. And some of the worst things were some columnists that they had. And some of them had daily columns, and they would insult blacks on a regular basis.

“Bigotry would be at the soul of it in my estimation, although I would say 90 percent of them would go to church on Sunday and be in the amen pew, so to speak. They would give to some charitable causes of the church, maybe to do something over in Africa, you know, and so they absolved themselves in their own minds. But in their own town, in their community, they were bigots.

“They really promoted segregation through their paper in different ways. And of course we learned in later years, and suspected back then, that they were being fed these reports from the State Sovereignty Commission, which I used to call the KGB of the cotton patches. I mean, it was this arm created in the state supposedly to maintain a segregation strategy, but they had these investigators. And they would hire some private eyes to follow all sorts of people who were civil rights workers. But they would also watch some people who were not civil rights workers, even some whites, and there was a file on everyone that they thought was doing something to break down the system of segregation.”

For more than two decades now, Jerry Mitchell has worked to uncover buried stories from the civil rights era and bring former Ku Klux Klansmen to justice. In that sense, this Harding graduate continues the redemption of The Clarion-Ledger, almost 30 years after the newsroom reformer Rea Hederman left the South for New York.

“I think Jerry Mitchell deserves a great deal of credit,” Minor said. “And you have to give the newspaper credit for giving him the time, the liberty and the freedom because he’s a one-man operating team. He doesn’t have an investigating team working with him. He’s working by himself, working the telephone and working sources. He meticulously builds all these files and knows all the people. … It’s redemption, it really is. It has a redeeming value for the state. I wish more people appreciated it down here.”

Greenwood rocks!

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Are you headed to Starkville for the University of Arkansas’ Nov. 20 game against Mississippi State now that it looms large on the schedule?

I have a suggestion: Take U.S. Highway 82 across the Mississippi Delta and stay in Greenwood on Friday night before the game and Saturday night after the game.

For those traveling from Central Arkansas, the “southern route” is much more relaxing than fighting the big-truck traffic on Interstate 40 along with the traffic in Memphis.

The route many Arkansans take is Interstate 40 east to Memphis, Interstate 55 south to Winona and U.S. Highway 82 east to Starkville.

Here’s the “southern route”: U.S. Highway 65 south to Lake Village and then U.S. Highway 82 east all the way to Starkville. U.S. 82 will take you through Greenville, Indianola, Greenwood and Winona on your way to Starkvegas.

From Greenville to just east of Greenwood, you’ll be in the Mississippi Delta. The rest of the trip is across gently rolling hills. U.S. 82 is a four-lane road all the way across Mississippi. The only thing that really slows you down are the many stoplights at Greenville.

It’s just 53 miles from Greenville to Greenwood.

Greenwood to Starkville is only another 86 miles.

Greenwood has become one of my favorite towns in the South.

A 2004 New York Times story by Taylor Holliday described it this way: “Highway 61 has long beckoned lovers of the blues, who head south out of Memphis into the Mississippi Delta to the towns and plantations where blues was born and the juke joints where it lives. Only recently, however, has a new breed of traveler turned off onto Highway 82 and driven past billowy cotton fields and glistening catfish ponds to the small town of Greenwood. These visitors are on a Delta pilgrimage of another kind — to the home of the Viking range.

“Once known as the cotton capital of the world, Greenwood, a town of 18,000 people, is now becoming a cooking capital with worldly aspirations, boasting not only some legendary Southern restaurants, but the factories where Viking products are made, the kitchens where they are demonstrated, a first-rate cooking school and a Viking-owned luxury boutique hotel called the Alluvian. … Not that old times have been forgotten. Strolling around downtown Greenwood is like walking into one of those 1970s William Eggleston photographs that invoke a faded version of the 1940s Delta.

“Not a building has been built or torn down, it seems, since Greenwood’s last heyday, the post-World War II years when cotton was still king. Not far from the grand Leflore County Courthouse, several blocks of sturdy early-20th-century red-brick commercial buildings, from modest to modestly magnificent, sit in various states of use. Some are boarded up, and many are just hanging in there — weathered, dusty thrift stores sell women’s white dress gloves and vintage T-shirts while 1970s-style storefronts house throwbacks like the Super Soul Shop, which sells church suits for men and boys. But other buildings are newly refurbished, several of them now housing various parts of the Viking empire.”

Things have only gotten better in the years since that article was published.

If you can still get a room at the Alluvian (, by all means do so. The hotel — which will remind you of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel — boasts 45 rooms and five suites. Its walls are filled with an art collection featuring Mississippi’s finest artists. It also allowed one of the Delta’s most famous restaurants, Giardina’s, to be reborn. The restaurant features steaks, seafood and Italian cuisine.

If you can’t find a room at the Alluvian, there are plenty of nice motels out on U.S. 82. There’s a Best Western, a Comfort Suites, a Hampton Inn and a Holiday Inn Express.

You can then drive downtown to have Friday dinner at Lusco’s, Giardina’s, the Delta Bistro, the Crystal Grill, Webster’s or Yianni’s. Let’s take them one at a time:

1. Lusco’s — This is, quite simply, one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Here’s how Michael Stern tells its history at “Cotton planters around Greenwood came to know Charles ‘Papa’ Lusco in the 1920s when he drove a horse-drawn grocery wagon to their plantations, bringing supplies from the market he and Marie ‘Mama’ Lusco ran. Mama sold plates of her spaghetti at the store, and Papa built secret dining rooms in back where customers could enjoy his homemade wine with their meals. The clandestine cubicles remained, giving Lusco’s a seductively covert character that Karen Pinkston, a third-generation Lusco, and her husband Andy don’t ever want to change.

“Mama and Papa were Italian by way of Louisiana, so the flavors of the kitchen they established are as much Creole as they are Southern or Italian. Gumbo, crab and shrimp are always on the menu, and oysters are a specialty in season — on the half shell or baked with bacon. Because so many regular customers are big spenders from well-to-do cotton families, the menu is best known among them for its high-end items. Lusco’s T-bone steaks are some of the finest anywhere: sumptuous cuts that are brought raw to the table for your approval, then broiled to pillowy succulence. Pompano has for many years been a house trademark (when available, usually the spring), broiled and served whole, bathed in a magical sauce made of butter, lemon and secret spices.”

Give me the pompano whenever it’s available and pull the curtain on my private booth.

2. Giardina’s: “Giardina’s, in fact, has humble roots,” Stern writes. “It opened in 1936 as a fish market. Gradually it became popular among cotton growers, known for those private booths where bootleg booze could be drunk in secrecy. As King Cotton lost its economic hegemony late in the 20th century, Giardina’s fortunes waned along with those of Greenwood, the South’s cotton capital, and eventually it closed its doors. But then Viking came to town in 1989 and the presence of the stove maker turned everything around. The Mississippi Heritage Trust awards Viking has won for rehabilitation of local properties include the transformation of the historic Irving Hotel from a ratty embarrassment to a stylish boutique called the Alluvian. For us, the Alluvian’s greatest attraction, beyond its feather beds and 300-thread-count sheets, is the fact that is the new home of Giardina’s, a Mississippi Delta legend.”

Give me tamales here as an appetizer. Again, I’ll go pompano for the entree — same as Lusco’s. And, again, pull the curtains on my booth.

3. Delta Bistro — Chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts is a Mississippian who was born in Oxford and raised in Jackson. She stayed in Oxford after graduation from Ole Miss to help friends open several restaurants. Those included Proud Larry’s, Yocana River Inn and Jubilee. This place doesn’t have the history of  Lusco’s, but the food is as good as almost anything you will find in Memphis or Little Rock.

4. Crystal Grill — If you go to dinner on Friday night at Lusco’s, Giardina’s or Delta Bistro, make sure and have lunch Saturday at the Crystal Grill before heading over to Starkville for the 6 p.m. kickoff. Here’s how the Southern Foodways Alliance describes the place at “Food has been served on this corner of Carrolton Avenue and Lamar Street for almost a century. The place began as a little diner called the Elite Cafe and evolved into the Crystal Grill under the ownership of Jim Liollio. His brother-in-law, Mike Ballas, who was raised in Greece and came to Mississippi in the 1940s, soon became a partner and eventually took over and shaped the Crystal Grill into what it is today: a 200-seat restaurant with the biggest menu around. … Some of the waitresses have been there for 40 years, and locals have brought their children and their children’s children through the same front doors for Sunday dinner for decades. Sunday dinner is an experience in itself and a great way to get some local color.”

Whatever you order, make sure to save room for a slice of chocolate or coconut pie.

5. Webster’s — Viking employees Matt Gnemi and Robert McBryde bought this restaurant, which has been around since 1975, in 2005. It was orignally known as Ricky’s Bar and later as Jubilee’s. It has been Webster’s since 1979. The new owners filled the inside with Delta photographs and refinished the hardwood floors. There’s often live music here.

6. Yianni’s — It will be about 11 p.m. before you get back to Greenwood from Starkville on Saturday night, so you might save Yianni’s for Sunday brunch. A reviewer at wrote back in June: “The Sunday brunch at Yianni’s from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. is the best brunch buffet ever created in the South. This is not your chain restaurant brunch. This is a Southern remedy fantastic food treat for all generations — home cooked, excellent variety of egg casserole, grits casserole, fried chicken, Cajun shrimp and an amazing bread pudding. I brought my family there, and we loved it. I recently went to New Orleans to a big brunch place, and the brunch at Yianni’s was far superior in quality and Southern fare.”

We’ll see you in Greenwood.

Spanning the Big Muddy

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

In March 2003, retired Air Force Col. Joe Pope wrote this on the website from his home at Fair Oaks Ranch in Texas: “In February 1943, shortly after the Greenville Bridge opened, we moved to Montrose, where my mother and father lived until their deaths in the 1980s. I graduated from high school at Lake Village in 1951, the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956 and spent 22 years in the armed services. During these years, I crossed the bridge many times visiting my parents and even ‘bombed’ it electronically several times when I was a navigator on B-52s at Columbus, Miss., in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“In 1989, my wife and I moved back to Lake Village and lived there until 2001, when we moved back to Texas for family health reasons. I know firsthand how much the old bridge has meant to generations of people on both sides of the bridge and to millions of travelers who have used the bridge through the years. When we left, we sold our home on Lake Chicot to the project engineer for the new bridge. I am sure he is overseeing the building of a fine and unique new bridge that will serve many more generations of local residents and travelers. May God bless their endeavors.”

On Monday, that “fine and unique new bridge” will be dedicated between Lake Village and Greenville.

On Wednesday, traffic will begin crossing it on U.S. Highway 82.

The old bridge will be demolished. A contract in the amount of $22.4 million was awarded in January to Granite Construction Co. to remove the bridge. Demolition is scheduled to be complete by Sept. 21, 2012. At that point, the 1940 Greenville Bridge will be nothing but a memory. But what a story it was as Delta leaders worked during the Great Depression to find the money needed to build a bridge between Arkansas and Mississippi.

“The bridge was intimidating and fascinating to me,” Dr. Clyde Brown of Memphis wrote in 2002. “I always thought of it as a powerful steel horse perched in the Delta sky. When I got my driver’s license, my parents trusted me enough to drive them across the bridge to Lake Village. I must say that this experience was as unnerving as landing an F-16 on an aircraft carrier at night.”

In the comments section of an earlier post I wrote about Greenville, Jack Rhodes recalled the day in 1951 that a jet from nearby Greenville Air Force Base, which is no longer in operation, struck the bridge and exploded. The pilot was killed, and there was a large fire. The crash caused $175,000 in damage, a huge amount at the time, but the bridge was reopened to traffic after 22 hours.

Greenville, known as the Queen City of the Delta, was a booming place in the 1930s, but Mayor Milton C. Smith knew there needed to be a bridge to Arkansas rather than just a ferry for growth to continue. He joined forces with John A. Fox, the secretary of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, and spent weeks at a time in Washington during 1937-38, lobbying for congressional funding.

According to the history posted at “The two spent so much time at their efforts, Smith’s Queen City barrel hoop business would eventually go bankrupt from his continued absence. The first order of business was to get Congress to pass a law authorizing the bridge. Fox, whose national network of friends reached all the way to the nation’s capital, wrote to Mississippi Congressman W.M. Whittington about the matter in May 1937 and was told the timing of his request was not good.

“While considering what to do next, Fox was agreeably surprised to pick up the newspaper days later and read that Congressman Wade Kitchens of Arkansas had introduced a bill requesting permission for the bridge. Fox worked Capitol Hill with Kitchens, Whittington and other friends, including Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi and Sen. Joe. T. Robinson of Arkansas. The governor of Arkansas, Carl E. Bailey, had been an ally from the early days of the bridge campaign.”

Fox met with chambers of commerce from Birmingham in the east to Lubbock in the west, explaining what the bridge would mean for the South. Everywhere he spoke, he urged people to send telegrams to members of Congress. The bill authorizing bridge construction was approved in August 1937 and signed by President Roosevelt.

“With all permissions granted, Smith and Fox turned their focus to financing,” the website history states. “How much would a new bridge truly cost? Smith and Fox hired Ash Howard Needles & Tammen of Kansas City, an engineering consultant with a large portfolio of major bridges, to conduct a study and make the estimate. The consultant determined that Warfield Landing, the site used by the Greenville fairy, was not a suitable site for a bridge. Their recommendation was to build the bridge downstream, below Lake Chicot on the Arkansas side, in a straight stretch of the river with stable banks. The new location meant long and expensive approaches to the bridge would be needed. The new estimate for construction: $4.25 million.

“Where Fox succeeded as a master of politics, Mayor Smith succeeded as a master of finance, and during the year that followed, the mayor’s skills would be tested to the fullest. A survey of traffic volume, commissioned to satisfy possible investors, concluded there wouldn’t be sufficient income from tolls to warrant construction of a $4.5 million bridge and that the project merited only $2.55 million in financing. The Reconstruction Finance Corp. would lend the $2.55 million, but this left Smith and Fox some $2 million short.”

In September 1938, Smith and his city attorney, S.B. Thomas, went to Washington to seek money from the Works Progress Administration. They had to make the case to the WPA that construction of a bridge would create lots of jobs for men who otherwise would be unemployed in the Delta. They made that case successfully.

On Sept. 21, Smith and Thomas sent a telegram to Greenville stating that the trip had been a success and that “we can now look forward to the actual materialization of our fondest dream, the construction of the mammoth bridge.”

The Delta Democrat Times reported, “And so it was that exactly at 11:30 a.m. on that day, Greenville received the joyful news with the blasting of every steam whistle in the city, a prearranged signal.”

On Oct. 2, 1940, the bridge was officially opened to traffic. It was named for former Congressman Benjamin G. Humphreys of Greenville, a co-author of the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917 that established a national flood control program along the Mississippi River. His granddaughter, Mildred “Maury” McGee, had cut the ribbon during the earlier dedication ceremony in September.

Humphreys, who was born in 1865 and died in 1923, was known as Our Ben to his constituents. His father, Benjamin Grubb Humphreys, had been a Confederate general who fought at Gettysburg and served as Mississippi’s governor from 1865-68. His great-grandfather, Ralph Humphreys, was the colonel of a Virginia regiment in the American Revolution. When Ben Humphreys married Louise Yerger, the daughter of Greenville’s mayor, Jefferson Davis was one of the guests at the wedding.

Ben Humphreys was elected to Congress in 1902 and was determined to make the folks in Washington aware of the flood problems along the lower Mississippi River. A paper he wrote in 1914 advanced the notion that the river was, in essence, the drainage canal for the nation and a federal responsibility. That paper swayed public opinion. Members of the new House Flood Control Committee toured the region in 1916 so they could see the problems for themselves. The act passed the following year, giving the federal government the responsibility of flood control along the Mississppi River.

The Delta Democrat Times later would write of the 1940 bridge, “It seems appropriate that the massive structure of steel and concrete which links two sides on the great river he loved should be dedicated to his memory. His life work had been the conquest of that river beside which he now sleeps.”

Beginning next week, there will be no traffic on that bridge for the first time in seven decades.

The Great Delta Bookstore Tour

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

I’ve led my own version of the Great Delta Barbecue Tour several times. You can never get enough barbecue, after all.

I’ve also led my version of the Great Delta Tamale Tour (I hope you saw the feature on AETN regarding that memorable trip with Kane Webb and Bill Vickery).

Next, I want to do the Great Delta Bookstore Tour.

There’s something special about independent bookstores. And we’re blessed with some fine ones in the Delta. Along the way, we can also eat barbecue and tamales. A man has to eat while visiting all of these bookstores, right?

Here are our stops:

1. We’ll start in Blytheville at perhaps my favorite bookstore of all, Mary Gay Shipley’s That Bookstore In Blytheville.

Mary Gay opened her store in 1976 in historic downtown Blytheville. There are 2,400 square feet of space and about 25,000 titles in stock.

As her website points out, “Browse while sipping a cup of coffee. You can relax in a rocking chair next to a wood stove, engage in conversation about the book you’ve just read or enjoy a spontaneous reading of the new favorite children’s book of the day.”

Sounds like heaven.

2. We head south from Blytheville and cross the Mississippi River to Memphis. The destination is Burke’s Book Store, which opened in 1875. Its oldest book in stock is from 1866: Two volumes written by Bayard Taylor titled “Northern Travel: Summer and Winter Pictures.”

Cheryl Mesler and her husband, author Corey Mesler, own Burke’s. They are only the fourth family to have owned the store in its 135 years of existence. Bill Burke was the third and final member of the Burke family to own the store. Diana Crump (got to have a Crump in there somewhere when you write about Memphis) owned the store from 1978-84. Harriette Beeson owned it from 1984-2000.

“Independent bookselling is never an easy thing to do, but we love it,” Cheryl recently told the Memphis Flyer.

The Flyer goes on to report, “The Meslers met in the store when both were staff members in the late ’80s and bought it in 2000. Though Burke’s has carried a variety of products over the years — toys, newspapers and literary journals and magazines — the Meslers have expanded what they feel is at the core of the business: buying and selling used books. … Their devotion to old books has served them well, as has the store’s most recent move, from a building on Poplar at Evergreen.”

The move to the funky, artsy Cooper-Young neighborhood gave them foot traffic again. People spend hours browsing there.

“Though they do stock some new books and magazines, it’s the couple’s attention to customer service that is a focal point,” the Flyer reports. “Burke’s carries textbooks for three local private schools, devotes an entire section to Southern writers and buys all their used books from people in the community.”

“I have no fear that the printed word is going to go out,” Cheryl says. “My husband says it’s the perfect little invention. You can’t improve on that.”

3. Our next stop is Square Books in Oxford. OK, OK, I realize that Oxford isn’t in the Delta. It’s in the north Mississippi hill country on the edge of the Delta. But it’s close enough for our purposes. The town square in Oxford is quite simply one of the best places in the South to spend the day.

Square Books was opened in September 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth, who had worked for two years at the Savile Bookshop in Washington, D.C., before returning to Richard’s hometown.

Here’s part of the history as published on the Square Books website: “While the Square Books customer base was centered in the Oxford and university community, the selection and display of books was focused upon literature about Mississippi and the South. Customers were pleased to find such books as a hardover edition of ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ or Shelby Foote’s ‘Civil War,’ books that at the time were not commonly available in a retail setting anywhere. Square Books also hosted book signings and readings as soon as the store opened. …

“Around the same time Square Books opened, Bill Ferris came to Oxford as the first director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, immediately creating great enthusiasm for academic and cultural interest in the South and Oxford. Ferris was a great friend of Square Books and was key in bringing such writers as Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alex Haley and Alice Walker to the store for readings and book signings.

“Willie Morris became writer in residence at the university in 1980 and also was a great friend to the bookstore who brought to town William Styron. … In 1981, Barry Hannah moved to town, a writer who was to literary fiction as Morris was to literary journalism. Hannah had an enormous effect on his students — Donna Tartt among them in those early days — and many writers came to town to visit Hannah and thus Square Books.”

The store expanded to its current location, the former Blaylock Drug Store, in 1986.

4. Returning to the real Delta, the next stop is Turnrow Book Co. on wonderful Howard Street in downtown Greenwood. You should spend the night just down the block at the Alluvian Hotel, visit the Viking store across the street and make an appointment at Viking’s spa while you are there. There also are antique stores and furniture stores on Howard Street. Head to Lusco’s for dinner and let them pull the curtain on your booth.

5. Head next over to Greenville and McCormick Book Inn. I discussed this delightful store in a previous post that I hope you’ll read if you have not already done so. While you’re in the store, make sure and ask Mr. McCormick what he thinks of John Barry’s “Rising Tide.”

6. Go south on U.S. Highway 61 to Vicksburg and spend some time at Lorelei Books on Washington Street in the historic downtown district. Stay at one of the bed-and-breakfast inns in Vicksburg to end your tour — Anchuca or Duff Green perhaps.

I’ll close with something that’s posted on the Lorelei Books website. It’s part of what novelist Howard Frank Mosher wrote about independent bookstores:

“A good independent bookstore always puts good books and good customers ahead of the bottom line. Interestingly, by doing so, passionately and knowledgeably, many (though, sadly, not all) independent bookstores have managed to stay in business in this economically depressed era when even chain stores are suffering.

“Of course, one of the reasons that chain bookstores are having their own difficulties is that many of them do not place a top priority on books and customers. In fairness, though, I have to say that, from time to time, in chain stores, I meet very independent booksellers who love books and respect customers and like to match them up.

“Good independent bookstores — like Tolstoy’s families — are all different. But they are very happy places. When I walk into one, the colorful jackets of books that are my old friends or may become new friends excite me the way walking out of the dim concourse of a major league baseball stadium onto the bright, geometrical familiarity of the diamond below excites me.

“Good independent bookstores are always welcoming. Customers are invited to browse. Booksellers make time to talk about — books! Go into any university English department at the end of the day. All you hear is people grousing about poor students, parking restrictions, pay freezes. Booksellers should be so lucky. Still, they’re as enthusiastic about Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed” and the new Raymond Carver collection at the end of the day as at 10 a.m. They just plain love books.”

At all of the above stops, you’ll find people who indeed love books.

These are six excellent independent bookstores in six historic, interesting towns.

Happy travels and happy reading.

Greenville on the river

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

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 (, 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 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 “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 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.