Rossville, Tennessee, in Fayette County, was once called Lafayette Depot, but there was another Lafayette in Middle Tennessee, so sometime during Reconstruction, the town was renamed Rossville. For most of its history, it has been a small, quiet settlement of three or so streets, with some historic homes. A frozen foods plant came in the 1970’s, as did a Federally-funded community health clinic, which the Reagan administration eventually removed from the control of local community activists. Although proximity to Collierville is fueling a fair amount of suburban growth in Rossville, the main attraction is still the Wolf River Cafe, a local eatery famous for catfish that opened in 1989.
What people may not know is that the Wolf River Cafe is a great place for breakfast, too. They serve it until 10:30 AM, and on a summer morning, the place is fairly crowded. Like many rural cafes, prices are low, and the biscuits, omelettes and breakfast potatoes are truly amazing, and worth a drive from Memphis.
Also worth the drive is the little town itself, shady but full of historic houses. Little signs in front of some of them name them and give their dates. Some were built in 1860 or 1869, and some have dates that show they have been continuously added onto or improved. Rossville is best traversed on foot, as the historic district is only a few blocks wide. There is also a battlefield of sorts, the site of a small Civil War skirmish at what was once Lafayette Station, as well as a city park and a sort of boardwalk leading back across a creek to a lake behind the cafe. Altogether, Rossville makes a pleasant destination for breakfast and exploration.
Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas.
Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city.
Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991.
One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely.
I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason.
Somerville, Tennessee is not exactly close to the Gulf of Mexico, and yet the new Big Fish restaurant at Highway 64 and Jernigan Drive effectively creates the ambiance of a waterfront seafood restaurant in Destin or Panama City Beach. The restaurant, built by an architecht around his formerly-mobile food truck, has only outdoor seating, but the dining area is covered with a sort of roof, and the whole area is attractively landscaped in a way that suggests the beach is not far away. On my first afternoon visit, great New Orleans music was playing over the loudspeakers. I had come with the intent of trying a shrimp po-boy, but I was soon intrigued by the special, a Surf ‘N Turf Burger. This proved to be a 100% Black Angus burger, topped with cheese, lobster, shrimp and crab. It would have normally been topped with cole slaw as well, but I am not a fan of cole slaw and asked them to omit it. As strange as the concept might sound, the Surf ‘N Turf burger was absolutely amazing, and a decent value at $8.99. It came with equally delicious french fries. The weather was pleasant, and at my table, it was easy to forget Highway 64 off to the north, or the shopping center across the street at my back. It felt like being in Florida. I finished off my meal with a slice of key lime pie, which was also delicious. I don’t think it is made in-house, but it is still really good.
Unfortunately, on a more recent visit, the food was still amazingly good, but the owners told me that they will be closing at the end of October. With no indoor dining options, I had wondered how they would deal with the onset of cold weather, and what I learned is that they had decided to close altogether, during which time they will be renovating an old house on the premises. The project will result in an indoor dining area, and should be completed by April of 2019, at which time they plan to reopen. In the meanwhile, I strongly recommend that you get out to Big Fish for at least one last time here in October before they close for the winter.
On a Friday evening, after meeting a friend for dinner in Memphis, with nothing in particular to do, I headed out Poplar Avenue through Collierville and into Fayette County, which is the Tennessee county that most resembles the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Fayette County (Rossville to be exact), and if there is any fife and drum activity left in Tennessee (and there does not seem to be), it would likely be in that county. So I often venture out there to ride the backroads, take photographs, and see if I come upon any events, or flyers announcing events on the various stores along the roads. People in Fayette tend to be old-school and don’t use social media much to promote blues or gospel events.
One of the reasons that this has taken on such urgency with me is that the western portion of Fayette County is undergoing a process of suburbanization, as people move away from Memphis into the country. The resulting growth and subdividing has the net effect of destroying historic locations and buildings, so I want to photograph what is still around while I can.
Posters on the outside of stores in Rossville and Moscow announced a barbecue festival in Rossville and a car show in Somerville, as well as a Jubilee Hummingbirds concert at a church south of Moscow in Slayden, Mississippi. There was a also a poster announcing some kind of rap show at Saine’s, which is ordinarily a blues club. Signs along Highway 57 also announced that Terry Saine, the club’s owner, was running for the state legislature.
Out on the Cowan Loop between Moscow and LaGrange, I came to an old and somewhat historic-looking church called Anderson Grove. The place, set far back off the road in a grove, looked almost abandoned, but the area was fairly peaceful. Further west along the same road was another church, obviously abandoned, with no sign to indicate what its name might have been. Not far away, back on Highway 57 was an abandoned grocery store that must have at one time been a bustling place indeed. But I found no evidence of juke joints, ball fields or picnic spots.
North of Moscow, along Highway 76, I came to Saine’s Blues Club, and stopped there, in the hopes of perhaps catching up with Terry Saine. Saine was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and in my belief likely old enough to have been aware of Black fife and drum bands in Fayette County during his youth, and perhaps also able to fill in some gaps about the Fayette County blues musician Lattie Murrell. But Saine was not there, perhaps out campaigning for office, so I headed on into Somerville.
There, around the square, young people were setting up stages, booths and barricades, getting ready for the Cotton Festival, which was to be held the next day. Nothing was going on at the moment however, so I headed over to Betty’s After Dark blues club, but found it fairly quiet, although open. They were having a large T. K. Soul show the next night, after the Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis. Nearby, however, was a restaurant with outdoor tables and colorful lights, that seemed to be packed with people. It looked like something transported from Destin or Orange Beach to Somerville, and proved to be a new seafood restaurant called Big Fish that I realized will deserve a future visit.
On out Highway 59, Fayette-Ware High School was clearly playing a football game at their stadium, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, and I headed on to Brewer Road where I knew there was a club. But all I found was a group of young people at the end of the road on four-wheelers just hanging out, and if there was anything going on at the club, it was obviously a hip-hop event geared to youth.
Likewise at Mason, the Log Cabin and Blue Room had large crowds, but just DJ’s as best I could tell, and by now I was thoroughly tired. So I gave up looking for anything to get into and began driving back toward Bartlett on Highway 70, as lightning and rain began to develop.
Fife and drum music once flourished in West Tennessee, but similar to what happened in Georgia, disappeared rapidly in the 1970’s. The last evidence we have of any fife and drum activity in West Tennessee is the recordings made of a Fayette County band in 1980, although I have always considered it likely that some fife and drum activity took place in Tipton and Haywood Counties as well. Last summer, the Tennessee State Department of Archives and History decided to sponsor a mentoring project that seems intended to reintroduce the fife and drum band style to West Tennessee, by having a Mississippi fife and drum musician mentor a young Tennesseean. The program ended up hiring Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce and having him work with a young female drummer in Brownsville named Kesha Burton. Boyce is a nephew of the late Otha Turner, and began his music career as a snare drummer for various fife and drum ensembles in Panola and Tate Counties in Mississippi, so he was a good choice to teach the drumming styles of this music to young people. On December 12, 2017, we carried him up to Brownsville for his first lesson with Kesha, which took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville. After the lesson, I had an opportunity to walk around Brownsville taking pictures of the square and nearby streets and neighborhoods. I especially enjoyed walking down South Jackson Avenue, which had once been the heart of the Black community in Brownsville, although there are no longer any juke joints or cafes still operating. Perhaps the oddest visit of the day was to a massive outdoor art installation called the Mindfield, the long-term work-in-progress of folk artist and visionary Billy Tripp. Somewhat in the same vein as the Watts Towers or St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple in Memphis, the Mindfield is an autobiographical work, although it also contains bits of slogans and symbols that indicate something of Tripp’s philosophies about life and society. Next door to it is a restaurant called the Mindfield Grill that seems to warrant a future visit.
Braden, Tennessee is a small village in northwestern Fayette County, roughly halfway between Gallaway and Mason. Unlike those towns, Braden never really developed, basically consisting of some houses, a church, a cemetery an elementary school and the C. T. McGraw General Store. When that store closed in the early 2000’s, it soon became home to a catfish and seafood buffet restaurant called Braden Station, yet in all the years it had been open, I had never taken the opportunity to try it. So on a beautiful September evening, a Thursday, I decided to check it out before heading to Somerville for another installment of Music on the Square. Braden Station is a bright and cheerful space on the ground floor of the historic general store building, whose walls are covered with historic signs and photos, many of them related to the area. The old, wooden shelves on the northern wall that once held all kinds of general merchandise now hold old board games, toys, books, photos and other knickknacks. On a Thursday night, the restaurant was fairly busy, with most of the patrons enjoying the large all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, which costs $18.99. Not believing that I could eat enough to justify the price, I chose instead to order a catfish dinner with french fries and hushpuppies. This is a meal that I have ordered frequently from a number of restaurants over the last year, and Braden Station’s stacks up fairly well. With lots of catfish choices in the Mid-South, the field is fairly competitive, so restaurants that offer catfish have to put their best foot forward. Unfortunately, where Braden Station fails is in affordability. They are just very expensive. A three-piece catfish dinner is $14.99. The full buffet, as mentioned above, is four dollars more. Of course, seafood costs a little more, but the prices sadly make Braden Station more of a special occasion restaurant than a regular go-to. That being said, it is certainly a place that everyone should take the time to experience at least once. The friendly service, great food, and cheerful atmosphere are worth the splurge, at least every now and then.
189 Highway 59
Braden, TN 38049
Due north of Marshall County, the quintessential county of the Mississippi Hill Country is Fayette County, Tennessee, which perhaps could be considered Tennessee’s only Hill Country county as such. Geographically and demographically similar to the county in Mississippi below it, Fayette should have been a hotbed of blues, and apparently was, but was much less studied than its Mississippi counterpart. Otherwise, the two counties are remarkably similar, right down to their charming county seat towns with courthouse squares that could be the setting for some epic movie of the American South. Holly Springs in Marshall County is known for its Blues in the Alley events each Thursday night in July and August, so when Fayette County began announcing Music on the Square events on Thursdays in September, I decided to drive out to Somerville and see what was going on. The weather was beautiful and perfect for such an event, and a crowd of about a hundred people had gathered on the northwest corner of the courthouse square along Market Street, where a stage had been set up. There were cookies and lemonade provided by local business sponsors, and some custom cars and trucks had been parked closer to Fayette Street on the west side of the square. Unfortunately, the band that had been chosen to play on this particular Thursday was a country band, and country music is not my cup of tea, but at least this particular country band was from Fayette County, and had a certain rock edge to their style. Somewhat disappointed in the music, I spent the rest of the evening walking around the tiny downtown in Somerville, snapping pictures of a number of landmarks before heading back to Memphis. Even so, the court square makes an excellent background for live music performance, and those who attended had a great time.
Driving through Somerville on Labor Day weekend, I had noticed a sign on the courthouse square announcing live music on the square every Thursday night in September, and since it was a beautiful day, and I had discovered online that there was a new restaurant in Somerville called Market Company , I decided to drive into Fayette County and see what was what.
Although Somerville’s Market Street leads to Market Company, the restaurant is actually located on Midland Street, in a warehouse located northwest of the square in an old industrial area near Somerville’s former railroad depot. The building was pleasantly decorated, and perhaps due to the nice weather, the front door near the bar was wide open. There was a $5 cover charge for the live music, a guitar and singing duo that seemed more like background music for dinner than a featured act, but the front door was open due to the pleasant weather, and the overall atmosphere was bright and upbeat. Although reviews on the internet had discussed Market Company’s great steaks, I was disappointed to learn that the restaurant has different menus on different days, and that the steaks are only available on Fridays and Saturdays. Thursdays, the menu is largely limited to boiled seafood, wings, tacos and burgers. As such, I opted for a bacon cheeseburger, and I was not disappointed. The food was quite good. However, when the cover charge and tip were added, my burger and fries dinner cost $25…really expensive, even by Memphis standards. That being said, Market Company is certainly the nicest restaurant in Somerville, really the only one of its type. And I will be looking forward to trying it again on a Friday or Saturday night when I can have a steak.
401 Midland St
Somerville, TN 38068
On Labor Day, after breakfast at Huddle House in Senatobia, I decided to head out into Benton County on a search for the possibility of more blues or fife-and-drum picnics. After driving to Holly Springs, I headed out Highway 7 until I came to the town of Lamar, Mississippi in Benton County. There wasn’t much at Lamar other than an abandoned store and a post office, but the next town up the road, Michigan City, was more interesting, to say the least.
I have never determined why a town in Mississippi was named Michigan City, but the years have not been kind to the place. The few business buildings on Main Street have been abandoned, as have the railroad tracks that once ran through the center of town. However, on the opposite side of the tracks are some historic homes and church buildings, most in good shape, but a few abandoned. The streets are narrow, and local residents traverse them with golf carts, as the whole community is fairly compact and easy to get around in. Unfortunately, like all of Benton County, Michigan City seems like a community that has been largely abandoned. Yet, with available historic homes and buildings, it seems as if it could be redeveloped by people committed to a vision for the community.
I soon crossed into the town of Grand Junction, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, a place where the blues musician Little Joe Ayers recalled fife-and-drum picnics in 1969 or 1970. But there was no sign of any festive activities in the small town, and the downtown area had lost some buildings just in the year or so since I had been there last.
I had driven extensively in parts of Fayette County in the fall of 2015, so I decided to focus on the southwestern quadrant of the county, an area I had not spent much time in back then. Starting at LaGrange, I drove the LaGrange Road into Somerville, and then Jernigan Drive back out to the southwest and ultimately into Hardeman County. Although I didn’t find any picnics or fife-and-drum bands, I did find some old abandoned stores, juke joints and schools along the route, and I stopped to photograph them all before ultimately ending up in Whiteville.
I recalled that Whiteville had been the site of a very important and early high school for African-Americans in West Tennessee, the Hardeman County Training School, which had eventually become Allen-White High School. In the earliest years, the high school had been something like a college, with dormitories, because Bolivar, the county seat, had no schools for Black children, and high school education for Blacks in West Tennessee was severely limited. Some children traveled far from their homes and stayed in dormitories on campuses like Allen-White in Bolivar, Gailor in Mason, or Shelby County Training School at Woodstock, and others arranged to stay with families who resided near the schools. So Allen-White, which had been built with funds donated by Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears & Roebuck, was extremely important as an opportunity for secondary education for Black students. Indeed, its long-time principal, J. H. White, went on to be the first president of Mississippi Vocational College at Itta Bena, now Mississippi Valley State University.
Given the school’s historical importance, I was curious what I would find when I arrived at the location of the old campus, but nothing prepared me for what I found. Although an old “Allen-White High School, Class of 1951” sign remained at the front of the campus, the buildings were largely ruins, having been burnt in an arson fire in 2012. The portions of the campus that were not burnt in the fire were abandoned and overgrown with high grass, weeds and bushes. I was thoroughly depressed with what I found, and all the more so when I read online that the community had been hoping to use the building for community purposes prior to the arson. The extent to which Black school campuses are abandoned in Southern towns is an annoyance to me, perhaps an unintended consequence of school integration. Given the thousands of dollars invested in these campuses by the taxpayers, it’s hard for me to understand why the local governments could not find a suitable public use for these campuses before simply abandoning them to ruin. Arguably, had the Allen-White campus not been vacant and abandoned, there might have been no arson.
From Whiteville, I ended up riding across the northwest corner of Fayette County, then through Dancyville and across to Stanton and Mason before I decided to head back to the house. While I had documented a lot of historic sites in the area, I found no trace of the fife-and-drum music culture I had hoped to find in or around Fayette County. I have come to the sad conclusion that it probably no longer exists.
After Bradley Hanson of the Tennessee State Archives sent me a link to recordings made of a fife and drum band in rural Fayette County in 1980, I spent several weeks trying to determine if any fife and drum activity remains in West Tennessee today. Ultimately, I was disappointed, in that I found no evidence of any, but there is still something of a live blues culture in the area around Mason and Stanton, Tennessee. Stores in Mason and Stanton often display flyers for the latest blues or rap events at area clubs or parks. Since Labor Day is arguably the biggest weekend for fife-and-drum picnics, I decided to roll the backroads around the area on Sunday, September 4, in the hopes that I might stumble onto something. Near Stanton, Tennessee, in Haywood County, is a small community across the line in Fayette called Fredonia, that was once a site of much fife- and-drum activity. That doesn’t seem to go on there anymore, but the Gilliam family still holds a large picnic there on Labor Day weekend each year featuring a live blues band, usually Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. This year there were already a lot of cars around the spot and a large crowd was gathered, but because R. L. Boyce was playing in Clarksdale, Mississippi later, I decided not to stop at the Gilliam picnic. Not far away, on Wagon Wheel Drive, I came to what had once been the Bonner Grocery. Now called Mike’s Grocery, it was otherwise largely unchanged from its historic past, even featuring a wood-burning stove in the center of the building. Such stores are common on Fayette County backroads, but while I found the place interesting, it didn’t get me any closer to any fife and drum activity. Ultimately, I headed out to Mississippi for the show in Clarksdale.