Growing up, my family used to meet in October for family reunions in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the “big city” in Mississippi; it had a zoo, malls, a large football stadium, a downtown with reasonably tall buildings, and a number of hotels and restaurants. There was also a large reservoir out to the northeast of town that provided a fair amount of recreation opportunities. But if we thought of Jackson as the “big city,” one thing we never thought of it as was hip. But that began changing over the years, and recently the hipness has been growing ever more rapidly. I discovered that a few weeks ago when I decided to stop at a new coffee bar called Il Lupo while on my way from Monroe to Memphis. I could not even place the location of this new coffee bar, which seemed to be located about where the old School for the Deaf and School for the Blind campuses were. I found that the area had in fact been turned into a mixed-use development called The District, which looked like something straight out of Austin, Texas. A number of apartments, with retail shops on the ground floor sat across a park-like courtyard from an upscale burger restaurant called Fine and Dandy, and another retail building which included something called Cultivation Food Hall, inside of which was the coffee bar.
Cultivation Food Hall, a bright and attractive space, is owned by the same firm that redeveloped the St. Roch Market in New Orleans as a food hall, and features a broad array of different food options. Although I went inside looking for the coffee bar, I soon came upon a gelato stand at Whisk Creperie as well, so I ended up going there first. Then I walked next door to Il Lupo to get a pour-over coffee, which was quite good. There’s no better preparation method if you want to enjoy the full flavor profile of high-quality coffee beans and coffee roasts. Had I not already eaten, there were other attractive food stalls in the hall, including one that was selling authentic Italian-style pizzas, and another that seemed to specialize in breakfast.
The District is currently not easy to get to from I-55, but it is certainly worth paying a visit to.
On my last venture into downtown Vicksburg, I recall that an old building on Clay Street was collapsing into the street. A large pile of bricks had fallen, and the city had simply put workhorses around the pile to warn motorists to drive around it. I got the impression that like many cities, Vicksburg’s commerce had fled the downtown area to the outskirts, and I expected that the downtown would continue to deteriorate. But my Sunday afternoon visit en route from Monroe to Memphis showed me that a remarkable transformation has taken place. I am not sure if it is due to the casinos, or other forms of tourism, but Vicksburg is now home to downtown restaurants like Cottonwood Public House, and the Biscuit Company, a microbrewery called Key City, the Highway 61 Coffee House, museums, the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad depot, and many other restored buildings. The place that had so resembled a ghost town on that visit years ago is now booming, and certainly worth a visit. However, almost everything other than restaurants is closed on Sundays. Tourism or not, this is still Mississippi.
Rooftop restaurants used to be fairly common, circa 1973 or so, but have become far rarer in the modern era. Memphis, for example, does not have even one, after having had three in the 1970s, and only in Atlanta and Charlotte am I familiar with places of that sort in the South. So, the idea of a rooftop bar and grill in the small city of Vicksburg, Mississippi had intrigued me after I first heard about it several years ago, and when I learned that it would be open for Sunday lunch on my trip home from Monroe to Memphis, I made plans to stop by.
The rooftop bar, called 10 South, sits atop the First National Bank building in downtown Vicksburg, and is part of a renaissance that has seen the restoration of what was largely a decrepit area along Washington Street. The restaurant has temporary flaps that can convert the outdoor seating to indoor seating in cold or inclement weather, and although the day was sunny, it was chilly, and the flaps were down so that we were inside. But the views of the downtown area and the river were beautiful even so, and to my surprise, the place was quite crowded. Attractive Mississippi artwork adorns the walls, along with quotes about the Delta from famous authors.
But, of course, all the beautiful settings in the world cannot make up for bad or mediocre food, so, happily, 10 South does not disappoint in that department either. The menu leans toward “contemporary Southern,” with Gulf seafood, burgers and more. Making a choice was actually difficult, but I ultimately chose a barbecue burger, and 10 South’s is fairly different from your average barbecue burger. It features candied bacon, and potato straws, the latter innovation one that I was skeptical about. As it turned out, the burger was delicious, potato straws and all. Prices, if not cheap, were hardly as expensive as the elegant surroundings would lead one to expect.
Altogether, the service, view and food were impeccable, and I cannot wait until my next time in Vicksburg to visit 10 South again.
As I headed east on Old Highway 80 from Monroe on a sunny Sunday morning, I decided to spend some time looking for things to photograph in Rayville and Delhi, primarily. One reason was that I had already thoroughly documented Tallulah a few years ago, so I decided that I should look more closely at other towns in the Delta. At first glance, Rayville looked promising. A sign at the edge of the Black community read “Tribe of Judah Block Club” and there were a number of juke joints on the east side of the town south of the railroad tracks. But I was soon disappointed, as there were a number of men sitting out in front of Queens Hall and Club Suga Ray’s. I don’t generally photograph jukes if people are sitting or standing in front of them, as the people generally don’t want to be photographed. They tend to be suspicious of outsiders in general, and white people in particular, and often seem to think that I must be the police. So I only shot a couple of pictures of the cafes that were closed and didn’t have anyone around them, and then I headed on to Delhi, which was even more disappointing than Rayville. There were no clubs or jukes in Delhi, only the old 80/20 club that used to be outside of town, and it was not something that would look cool in a picture. But at Thomasville, west of Tallulah, I came upon an abandoned church called Peter’s Rock Missionary Baptist church, and the sprawling ruins of abandoned Thomastown High School. The latter school had been merged with McCall High School in Tallulah in 2001, and then that school had also been closed and abandoned when Madison High School was opened. Both McCall and Thomastown schools have been simply allowed to rot. At Thomastown, a nearby farmer is using the campus to store his hay, but the vines have grown up all the way over the two-story building, which is truly sad and shocking. Doors to the dangerous buildings are wide open, and there is evidence online that explorers have gone inside and taken photos. Judging from what they found, books and equipment were simply left behind to rot with the building. All of this represents a considerable amount of taxpayer expenditure in what is one of the poorest counties in America. The powers that be will tell us that the children of the eastern part of Madison Parish are better off this way, despite the forty-mile round trip to school each day. They will point to the newer and more modern building at Madison High School, and the larger enrollment. But is it really better? Louisiana is full of such abandoned schools, rotting along rural roads, almost all of them former Black schools before integration. Is there a correlation between closing and consolidating schools and worsening student performance? I think it is worthy of study.
Eastern Ouachita Parish, Louisiana is loaded with pecan trees. They cover the land in great rows for miles and miles. These perfectly straight rows exist amidst subdivisions, new construction, and overgrown woods. Some of the trees are clearly 50 or more years old, and many of them have clearly not been cared for in years. On a satellite image, one is even more amazed; the perfectly straight rows of trees cover literally square mile upon square mile. What is the story of all these pecan trees? How did they get there?
Monroyans today have heard of Pecanland Mall, but long before there was a mall, there was Pecanland, an old rambling mansion of a house along Highway 80, about nine miles east of Monroe, with a metal arch bearing the name over its driveway and pecan groves as far as the eye could see. The story of the place begins with Francis Palmer Stubbs, a Georgia man who resettled in Monroe, Louisiana and soon began growing acres and acres of cotton. He was a Colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and had a son named Guyton Palmer Stubbs. In 1917, Guy (as he was known) was running the family plantations, and cotton was still the primary crop. But an article that year indicated that the family was diversifying their crops, and as early as 1923, Guy Stubbs was advertising in the Monroe newspapers that he had excellent pecan trees for sale. By 1931, he had the largest privately-held pecan groves in the United States, with four plantations, including one called Nutland and one called Pecanland. The farm manager in the 1970’s claimed that Guy P. Stubbs had planted the best available trees on the best available land, and that many of the trees were 50 years old and still bearing.
Although some of the pecans were harvested by hand, Stubbs Pecanland did not particularly like pecans sitting on the ground for any length of time. Instead, they employed mechanical limb shakers to knock the nuts down, and had a fairly elaborate mechanical nut grading system, which was used to separate pecans of varying grades based on how much meat they had. At the time, Monroe was famous for pecans, and for pecan-based candy, and Louisiana was the second-largest pecan producing state.
What happened to Pecanland, on the other hand, is not exactly clear. Guy P. Stubbs had two sons, Guy P. Stubbs Jr. and William King Stubbs. The latter chose to leave the pecan business and become an architect, becoming famous enough to have a book written about him. By the time I happened to see the house at Pecanland one day on Old Highway 80, it was clearly abandoned. I was curious, and figured that the mall had been named for it. It is possible that over time the price of pecans declined to the point that the business was no longer profitable. But it is also true that the city of Monroe began to more and more encroach on the massive groves. Stubbs Pecanland Inc. began to sell more and more of its land to developers, including the ones who built the new mall along Interstate 20. Soon, little was left except the old house and the groves in the immediate vicinity.
On a recent trip, even the old house is now gone, apparently torn down to make way for Pecan Haven Addiction Recovery Center, a youth drug rehab facility that nearby residents opposed. An old creole-style cottage still remains, with a driveway leading back to some other buildings, but as trucks were parked there, it is still private property and I didn’t walk back into it. There is no trace of the old overhanging arch that read “Pecanland” either, although there is a strange stone structure on the south side of Highway 80 across from the driveway. It resembles a fireplace, but might have once been some sort of fountain or water feature. Could it have had something to do with Pecanland? Was it perhaps built by William King Stubbs? At least the Stubbs name is preserved by a couple of road names in the vicinity, as well as Stubbs Avenue in Monroe. A junkyard nearby on Highway 80 proclaims itself Louisiana Pecan Shelling Company and sells bags of pecans and pecan candies, but due to its curtailed hours, I did not manage to make it there. It’s a far cry from the beauty of Guy Stubb’s old Pecanland place, of which soon there will be nothing left but the trees.
Anyone who has ever eaten at Monroe’s Waterfront Grill knows how beautiful Bayou Desiard is at sunset. But the bayou has a complete different set of beauties in daylight. Herons and other water birds stand in the water, and songbirds perch in the tree branches. Fish jump. Time seems to stand still. Where I was standing was in fact a boat launch, but on this particular morning, there were no boats to be seen. The only noise was the traffic behind me on Desiard Street.
For many years, it has been my tradition to follow the Grambling homecoming game with dinner at the Waterfront Grill in Monroe. This year, things were somewhat crowded in the area, as it had been the University of Louisiana at Monroe’s homecoming as well. The sun was nearly down when I arrived at the restaurant, but there was still enough red-orange glow in the western sky to produce some beautiful photographs of Bayou Desiard.
People have been going to this lovely spot on the bayou for great food and fun as far back as the 1930’s, when the place was called the Three Mile Inn. It was located three miles east of the corporate limits of Monroe, and people went for great food and the music of big bands. Occasionally, special dinners were scheduled by a new and budding Monroe area business called Delta Air Lines.
World War II put a stop to the fun, at least for civilians, as the Army built an air force base at Monroe called Selman Field, and the Three Mile Inn became the Non-Commissioned Officers Club. Later the place became something of a college bar and hangout for students of Northeast Louisiana State University, now known as ULM, but in the mid-1990s, it was purchased by the owners who would convert it into the Waterfront Grill. Under their watch, it has turned into an odd amalgam of sports bar and upscale dining restaurant with gorgeous water views. The bar has television screens that generally show sports, and the bar area is covered with ULM sports memorabilia. But the dining area is fairly dark and romantic, and picture windows highlight Bayou Desiard. Memorabilia on the walls in this area celebrate Selman Field, the Three Mile Inn and Delta Air Service/Delta Air Lines.
What to order at the Waterfront Grill? It’s all good, but my favorite is the filet mignon. It isn’t cheap, of course, but it is delicious, and the baked potato it comes with is delicious as well. Food and service is always impeccable. The Waterfront Grill is a restaurant that you simply must experience—one of America’s truly great restaurants.
When I woke up in West Monroe, the first thing I noticed was how extremely chilly it was, and that didn’t improve all that much as I drove over to Bayou Brew House for breakfast. The coffee house actually looked closed, but fortunately, it was open. Although I was the first customer, others trickled in as I was enjoying my meal, and my food was very good indeed.
The previous night in Grambling, I had noted the much smaller crowds than what I was used to seeing on previous homecomings, and that continued to be the case on Saturday morning. There were not nearly as many people lined along Main Street, not even by the Favrot Student Union and the McCall Dining Hall where in most years the bulk of the students gather. At least one factor might have been the chilly weather, but there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm as well. In addition, the parade was much shorter than previous years. Starting at 9 AM, it was over by 10, and there were not very many high school bands in it at all. In fact, there were none from Monroe at all, which I found shocking. The bands that did march included Lincoln Prep, which apparently is the old Grambling High School, Ferriday High School, Southwood High School from Shreveport, General Trass High School from Lake Providence, Madison High School from Tallulah, and Madison S. Palmer High School from Marks, Mississippi.
The four-hour window between the end of the parade and the kickoff of the football game led to me spending a lot of time in the bookstore, and then in the food court. But Grambling had evicted their former food service company and replaced them with Sodexho, and nearly everything in the food court was closed for construction. The exception was Pizza Hut, so I waited in line to get a pepperoni pizza, and it was fairly decent. Some of the band kids from the high schools had had the same idea. With plenty of time left to kill, I walked up into the Village to Black to the Basics bookstore, a reincarnation of a shop I remember in the early 1990s, and although I was interested in a book about the civil-rights era Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana, I decided against buying it and walked back down to the student union.
Eventually, I made my way to the stadium. It was warm enough that I had come out of my jacket and hat, but around the stadium, I was shocked by the reduced numbers of tailgaters, compared to what I used to see. It appeared that the university had increased the fees both for parking and tailgating, and this may have been one reason, but throughout the day, I noticed smaller attendance at events than normal. But outside the band hall, the alumni drummers were playing cadences; this year was a commemoration of the legendary Grambling band director Conrad Hutchinson, and there had been nearly a week of events in his honor. As the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band marched into Eddie Robinson Stadium to the drummers’ cadence, I headed into the stadium as well.
Early on, it appeared as if Grambling’s band would have no rival, other than their own alumni band across the field. During Quarter Zero, as bandheads call it, Grambling came out playing not a march, as is typical, but rather a ragtime piece that I did not recognize. This year’s Tiger band was tight and impeccable in tune and tone. But at about the start of the second quarter, the Texas Southern University Ocean of Soul band marched into the stadium, and from that point, the two bands battled back and forth to a certain extent, although SWAC rules keep the bands from playing during football play.
Unfortunately, about halftime, the sun moved to the extent that the west side of the stadium where I was sitting was in shade, and it soon became downright cold. Despite the stadium being set down in a valley, the winds blew and made things much colder. After halftime, the Chocolate Thunder drumline from Grambling and the Funk Train drumline from Texas Southern battled back and forth with cadences across the field, but I was too far away to get great footage. I had hoped to capture the Fifth Quarter battle after the game, but my Iphone soon ran down to 3%, and my backup battery was also depleted, so I decided to leave out and head back to my car. As is usually the case, the late afternoon after the game resulted in the biggest crowds of the day, but even these seemed reduced this year, and there were few if any custom cars compared to the typical homecoming. Police were far more in evidence, too, and from a number of communities, including Hodge and Monroe. By the time I had reached the car, I was so chilled that I turned the heater on full blast.
One difference this year was that Grambling now has a supermarket in the new shopping center called Legends Square. But it was the most bizarre and truly spooky supermarket I had ever been in. Most of the shelves were nearly bare, and only a few were filled with products for sale. One employe was on duty, and I found nothing in the store that I wanted to purchase, so I returned to my car and headed back east toward Monroe.
West Monroe’s Trenton Street is one of the best places in the country to shop for antiques and ephemera. There’s not a whole lot with regards to music, as a certain man from Bastrop is a record collector and seller, and he routinely buys anything valuable he sees in the shops, but for old Louisiana books or Grambling State University ephemera, it is basically unbeatable. I spent about an hour browsing through the shops, while the city was setting up tables and chairs for some sort of evening event, and then I decided to head to the Bayou Brew House in Monroe for a cappuccino.
The Bayou Brew House had taken over the place on Desiard Street downtown where RoeLa Coffee Roasters had been, and I was hopeful that they still sold the RoeLa products, even though they had moved out by the Monroe airport. I was disappointed in that, but the coffee house proved to have a beautiful setting, in an old house under a number of trees, and the coffee options were awesome. Even better was learning that they sell breakfast, which is for some reason always a major challenge in Monroe.
With the sun going down, I decided to head out to Moon Lake, a resort and marina on an eponymous lake, north of Monroe and west of Highway 165. An article online said that the place featured amazing hamburgers and beautiful waterfront views, and it was a place I had never been. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the resort, I could find no trace of the restaurant. There were some people around, and some residents seemed to be barbecuing beside their RV’s and motor homes, but no crowds, or anything else to suggest a restaurant. Finally, I asked a man, who explained to me that the restaurant was closed due to the chilly weather, as all of its seating was on the open deck of a floating barge.
Disappointed, I made my way back into Monroe, and decided to head to Trapp’s, a place on the Ouachita River in West Monroe, where I had enjoyed a fried shrimp dinner a few years ago. The weather had been warm for the last several hours, and I made the mistake of choosing to sit out on the back deck overlooking the river and downtown Monroe. As the sun went down, it did not take long for the deck to become chilly indeed. But the food was as good as I had remembered it, and the place was crowded, inside and out.
After dinner, I headed to Grambling to spend some time with a friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, the journalism professor at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, who had formerly taught at Grambling. He was expecting a large number of relatives in town for the homecoming, and was getting things prepared. Down in the Village, Main Street was devoid of the people I would have expected to see during a homecoming in previous years. Perhaps the cold weather was keeping them away, but there was a bit more activity on the campus near the Quadrangle, where some young men seemed to be rapping on an outdoor stage. But there was no place to park, police were everywhere, and it was quite cold. So I headed back to my rental unit in West Monroe.
Monroe once had a downtown coffee bar, but the unexpected demise of RoeLa and the relocation of its successor, Bayou Brew House, means that for someone seeking an after-lunch coffee, there aren’t many options. An exception is Butter A Louisiana Bakery, in the lobby of the historic Vantage Tower. While you have to check in with the building’s front desk to explain that you are headed to Butter, because the building is basically an office tower, the bakery is worth the effort. Cookies, brownies, cakes are all there, as well as quiches and light lunch options. And, because the owner’s husband has celiac disease, all of the options are gluten-free. I chose something called a double doozie, a sandwich of two freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies with cream cheese icing and chocolate chips in between them. It was shockingly rich, and quite delicious, and a cup of coffee went well with it. The surroundings, lovingly restored by the Vantage Health Plan organization, are redolent of the Roaring 1920s, complete with marble floors.
Nearby, a short two-block walk away, is something called Art Alley, a two-block stretch of local galleries along a dead-end of North Second Street created when the city took out the rail crossing on that street. A beautiful painted pelican caught my attention, and of course the walls of buildings nearby were full of colorful murals. One of them read “Life is Messy,” which is certainly a true statement. Unfortunately, none of the galleries were open on a Friday afternoon, but I will have to make a journey to Monroe for one of the Art Crawls, which happen periodically during the year.