Most people, when they think of Louisiana, think of New Orleans. Monroe is a whole different experience altogether, yet it has a couple of things in common with the better known city four hours to the South—plenty of rivers, lakes and bayous, and great restaurants. In a few of Monroe’s best restaurants, those two things come together, and the most recent example of this is Miro’s, a trendy new waterfront bistro in downtown Monroe.
Formerly a Mexican restaurant called River and Rail Cantina, Miro’s takes its name from Fort Miro, the original French name for the outpost that would eventually become the city of Monroe. It is a large building with the Ouachita River on the west, Walnut Street on the east, and the railroad bridge across the river on the south, and as such, it features beautiful views of the river, both from inside the restaurant and from the outdoor tables on the patio and deck. But it is the food that should lure you to Miro’s. Hamburgers might not seem like a fancy lunch or dinner, but Miro’s makes fancy hamburgers. My barbecue bacon cheeseburger was truly huge, cooked perfectly to order, with crispy bacon and a pleasantly-sweet barbecue sauce. Perhaps most interestingly, they burned a fleur-de-lis into the top of my burger bun. I saw others ordering pizzas, and they looked delicious as well. Prices, while not cheap, were reasonable, considering the quality of the food and size of the portions.
My waitress told me that Miro’s features live music on weekend nights, and it would seem to be a great location for that. Altogether, Miro’s seems a great addition to the North Louisiana dining scene, and should not be missed when in Monroe.
On old Highway 80, heading west from Rayville toward Monroe, one comes to a community with a most unusual name—Start, Louisiana. It’s not an incorporated town, but it has gained a degree of notice for being the hometown of country star Tim McGraw. The town got its unusual name when their request to establish a post office with the name of Charleston, Louisiana was denied by the postal authorities, as apparently there was another Charleston in Louisiana at the time. Stymied by the decision, the local store owner and some others debated what other name to try. Legend has it that a teenaged girl contributed the name by saying “Now we will have to start all over.” There’s not a whole lot to Start, just a volunteer fire department, some apartments, a couple of stores, a school, a water tower and a few houses. But it has managed to spawn a suburb, or perhaps, more correctly, a twin city.
Just to the west of Start is Crew Lake, a shaded community strung out along the banks of a bayou of the same name. Both Start and Crew Lake seem to have begun around the early twentieth century as flag stops on what was then the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railroad, but the latter community seems to have been little more than a name until 1937. That was the year that the Farm Security Administration (formerly the Resettlement Administration) acquired the Melrose Plantation and divided it into what they called “farmsteads,” small acreages with modern, electrified homes. A number of poor farmers from Northern Louisiana took advantage of the opportunity to move into these new houses and try their hand at co-operative farming. The FSA formed the Crew Lake Co-operative Association, to provide for supplies, cotton ginning and other necessaries for the success of the experiment. And, indeed, for those who moved to Crew Lake, the experiment proved to be a success. On the other hand, conservative Southern congressmen were not so pleased. They saw the whole scheme, and other FSA projects like it, as socialistic or even communistic, and their objections succeeded in abolishing the Farm Security Administration by 1942. The replacement agency, the Farmers’ Home Administration, was more geared to making low-interest loans available to farmers, but it did nothing to build new farm communities or to convert tenant farmers into landowners.
Today, the quiet community of Crew Lake would almost seem like a resort. There are no businesses in it, and no sign of the co-operative association, and if the houses were once all remarkably similar, government-designed structures, they have now been either replaced or altered in such a way that no discernible pattern remains. But Crew Lake remains a vibrant community.
Across the Mississippi River Bridge from Greenville, Mississippi, a traveler immediately gets a view of a beautiful blue lake to the northwest. This long lake, for which the Chicot county seat of Lake Village is named, is a former channel of the Mississippi River, and is known as Lake Chicot. Lake Chicot is what is known as an oxbow lake, a lake formed when a meander stream cuts off loops and bends in shortening its channel to the sea. This particular lake is lined with gorgeous houses and boat docks, as well as an occasional motel, restaurant or bait shop. Boating and fishing seem to be the main attractions.
Some twelve miles to the south is the town of Eudora, an old and fairly-typical Delta town that has clearly seen better days. Once a refuge for people escaping river flooding, Eudora has a history of racial conflict, and in more recent years, white flight, mysterious arson fires, and wholesale abandonment of the downtown area. Like so many towns in eastern Arkansas, Eudora has also had its schools closed by the state, and its children are bused to Lake Village. But the stretch of old juke joints and cafes along Armstrong Street has always made me believe that Eudora might have blues stories to tell. One of them, Harris Cafe, still remains, although whether the place ever features live bands is unclear, and there are a couple of buildings nearby that look as if they once were clubs. Although the available newspapers do not tell much of the story of Eudora’s nightlife, aside from an occasional shooting or stabbing, I am hoping to eventually determine some of the community’s music history.
I had agreed to drop off a co-worker at work on my way out of town, so I ended up getting on the road at 5 in the morning. I had intended to grab breakfast at the well-known Blue and White Cafe in Tunica, but I found them closed, as they don’t open until 7 AM, and while there was a breakfast restaurant in Helena, Arkansas, I didn’t know a lot about them. So, after looking on my Yelp app and seeing a place called Jim’s Cafe in Greenville, I decided to head that direction, and at Lula, I got on Highway 1. The morning had been totally dark up until that point, but as I approached the community of Rena Lara in Coahoma County, beams of light began to appear just above the horizon of the flat Delta land. The Great River Road Country Store was open, and I stopped there for a soft drink before continuing down the road. Each mile brought an increase in light to the east. Dark lakes, bayous and swamps were steaming in the winter cold, and the road passed through occasional clouds of dense fog. At Beulah, the sun finally appeared, and I stopped there to take pictures of an old, decrepit general store.
When I finally reached Greenville, I came upon Nelson Street, which had a different look than when Sherena Boyce and I had seen it a few years ago. This street had of course been the Main Street for Blacks in the Delta, serving a similar role in Greenville as Beale Street had in Memphis or Farish Street in Jackson. While the redevelopment of such streets in bigger cities have become political briarpatches, in Greenville, nobody has ever really discussed redevelopment of Nelson Street in any normal sense of the term. The Flowing Fountain, its most famous blues club, had burned several years ago, and although a building was rebuilt on the site, it remains closed. Several other sports bars, clubs and cafes remain, all seemingly intended to serve the residents of the nearby neighborhoods. No tourists venture to Nelson Street anymore except to go to Doe’s Eat Place.
Downtown Greenville shocks these days by its emptiness. There were hardly any cars at all, and free parking still does not attract shoppers or visitors to the area. An old Elks Lodge on Washington Avenue was collapsing, despite its obvious historical value. It had been surrounded by a fence to protect passersby and nearby buildings. Jim’s Cafe was in the next to last block before Lake Ferguson, and was relatively crowded. Some men with northern accents were sitting at a table talking about the upcoming elections. I could not tell if they were reporters or political consultants for one of the candidates. Jim’s specializes in breakfast, and I was not disappointed. It is of course not a fancy place, but my bacon, cheese and mushroom omelette was delicious, and they gave me so many hashbrowns that they had to use a second plate for them! The biscuits were great as well.
After breakfast, I walked around the area shooting some pictures. The opening of a brewery and the Downtown Grille a couple of years ago had led me to believe that Greenville was experiencing something of a downtown renaissance. I learned on this morning that nothing could be further from the truth. The brewery closed in late 2018, and although the Downtown Grille has remained open, many other places were closed, including the former Key West Inn, which was boarded up, the adjacent Cajun Shot Gun restaurant, and the Columbus and Greenville Railroad depot, with its old kitchen equipment left outside to rot. A block to the north of Washington Avenue on Broadway was a beautiful Victorian wood-frame house which had also been abandoned and left to rot. One of the eaves had a beautiful rising sun pattern in the woodwork, and the house was clearly historic, despite the lack of a historic marker, or any effort at preservation. The current state of Greenville is tragic and depressing, especially considering the area’s deep cultural and music history, and the considerable tourism potential of the city. Clarksdale has learned how to leverage its culture and history for tourism; Greenville seems unable or unwilling to do so.
Every October, the town of Mason in Tipton County, Tennessee sponsors a Unity Fall Festival on the square, in front of what is left of a row of old juke joints known as the Lower End. Last year’s festival was a large celebration, with a stage and live music, as well as numerous vendors. This year’s event was sadly smaller, as the town government was not the sponsor this year. The festival was instead sponsored by the Whip Game Car Club, which of course had far less money to spend on it. They chose to have a DJ instead of a band, and there were fewer vendors this year, and the attendance seemed smaller as well. On the other hand, the weather was warmer, and people seemed to be having a good time.
Sadder is the loss of most of the old “cafes” (as the juke joints were euphemistically called, since Tipton County was dry). The Black Hut collapsed last winter, and is now only a vacant lot, and Saul Whitley closed his Blue Room at some point in the early months of this year, and it has morphed into a more hip-hop-oriented club called Queen and King Lounge. As for the two old historic jukes, the Green Apple and the Log Cabin, they drew fairly large crowds during the day. As always, I would have liked to have taken pictures inside the jukes, but the opportunity just didn’t present itself. The cafes are relatively private and draw a regular clientele, one that probably would not feel comfortable being photographed. On the other hand, I fear that if I don’t get an opportunity to photograph them soon, they may not be there down the road. It would seem that the city is slowly condemning everything and tearing it down.
It was a blistering hot summer’s day, probably about 1977 or so. The ice cream truck had come past our house but I missed it, and I managed to convince my dad to take me out in the Mustang to see if we could catch up with it. It had turned left from Sycamore View onto Raleigh-LaGrange and then promptly disappeared. Dad supposed that it had turned onto a road called Henrietta, so he turned down that road and into something neither one of us have ever imagined was there—a rural Black community, frozen in time, right within the city of Memphis.
We never found the ice cream truck, but there was an old grocery store. It wasn’t open, and I can’t recall the name, but I can still remember the Coca-Cola signs on it. Next door was a church, and I can recall that a sign in front proclaimed it Washington Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. Not finding what we came for, my father turned around and headed back out toward the house.
I never knew what the name of the little community was, and still don’t, but I had occasion to visit it another time when a woman in my church, Ruby Kaufman, went to visit her employee, an older Black woman who lived off of Henrietta on a street called Twine Street. I recall the woman’s house as being a wooden house off the ground on blocks. I remember her telling us that the older people were quiet and decent folks, but that there were younger people at the back of the community who were into drugs and were wild. The neighborhood had something of a sinister reputation.
When I got old enough to ride my bike, I rode down Henrietta one day. I don’t recall what I saw, except that I remember a group of younger people in front of a house, and one of them saying, “Where you riding to so fast, white boy?” I had begun to remember the old lady’s words, and began to feel I should not have ridden down there. The neighborhood sort of continued across Raleigh-Lagrange along a road called Joe Brooks. But I could never determine exactly who Joe Brooks had been.
I literally don’t think I had been down that road again until September of this year. It occurred to me that the old church building, which had been abandoned even back in 1977, and the old store, if they were still standing, were landmarks that I ought to photograph, lest they disappear like so much else has. So I went, and found them still standing, although all signs and markers are gone. It is a quiet neighborhood now, a far cry from the wildness and drugs that people warned about in the 1980s. There is only one way in and one way out. But I was saddened by the fact that not only was the church sign I had recalled gone, but the cornerstone had been removed as well, a fairly selfish act that obliterated history. I had hoped to find a date of founding for that church, and a list of the deacons at the time it was built. But it was not to be.
I suppose the community is historic, and I hope to one day figure out what it was called and when it was founded. It has held out against all odds.
2019 was the 71st anniversary of a community institution in the town of Bentonia, one of the last Mississippi juke joints. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ family opened the Blue Front Cafe in 1948, and from that point forward, it has been a place for great food, friendship and great blues. Duck is not young anymore, but he can still perform, and the cafe is doing as well as ever.
The anniversary took place on the weekend of September 20 and 21, and featured appearances by a number of blues and Southern Soul artists, including R. L. Boyce, who performed with his daughter Sherena and Duck on Friday night in the small cafe, which was packed to overflowing. One unique feature of the event was that the cotton gin next door to the cafe had been restored, and was being used as a much larger concert venue for the southern soul acts that were playing with full bands.
There were food stands around, but I prefer to sit down to dinner, so I drove a few blocks away to a place called Bentonia Bugs, which was also packed to overflowing. There I had a filet mignon and baked potato which were absolutely delicious, and then I headed back to all the fun at the Blue Front. As it turned out, R. L. played late into the night. He was feeling good, and really was not ready to go to the hotel. But we were, and we did!
While browsing online one afternoon, I came upon a 1965 United States Geological Survey topographical map of the Ellendale area east of Bartlett, and along Highway 64, this map showed there being a cemetery called Toll Gate Cemetery close to modern day Wolfchase Mall. Having never seen a cemetery in that area, I wondered if it had been built over, or if the bodies buried there had been relocated. After searching the name on Google however, I discovered that although thoroughly hidden behind car dealerships, a lighting company and a Lowe’s store, the Toll Gate Cemetery, also called the Oak Grove Cemetery and the Ellis Burying Ground, still exists. The name Toll Gate seems to refer to the cemetery being close to a toll booth on the Old Stagecoach Road, which in early Tennessee history was a toll road.
This cemetery, which thousands of motorists drive past daily without knowing it is there, is one of the oldest in Shelby County, and seems to have been a burial place for both white and Black residents. At least one grave is of a Confederate soldier named Berryhill, for whose family Berryhill Road must have been named, and another is for a woman named Erma Dorsey. A man named Thomas Dorsey owned a juke joint on Germantown Road north of Highway 64, and the family name is associated with the Black community of Oak Grove. Also, at least one grave bears the Ellis name, for whom, presumably, Ellis Road was named.
Although the cemetery does not belong to them, the members of Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church have voluntarily made a point of picking up the trash in the hidden and forgotten burial grounds, but more and greater preservation efforts are needed. A historic marker should be put up, and efforts need to be made to maintain the location, and prevent any further encroachment on it.
The historically-Black college band tradition of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the corps-style tradition of the University of Memphis are vastly different, and while Memphis often plays SWAC schools in basketball and other sports, it does not appear that they had ever played a SWAC-member college in football until this fall, when they played Southern University of Louisiana on September 1, in what amounted to a sort of early Southern Heritage Classic. Needless to say, the Liberty Bowl was full.
In the old days, such a band matchup would have been pointless, as Memphis could not have held their own against any SWAC band. As it is, the Mighty Sound of the South has started borrowing elements from the HBCU band tradition, including playing “I’m So Glad” after touchdowns, and including more current popular hits in their repertoire. Even so, although Memphis sounded clean and well-rehearsed, they also sounded truly small and puny against Southern’s much larger numbers. The Human Jukebox was able to blast the stadium with tremendous power, and still sounded in tune and relatively clean. Memphis surprised to some extent by playing a Willie Hutch tune (they certainly would not have done that in my day) and an Adele song. But they proved to be no match for the Human Jukebox.
After the game was over, Southern’s band played their school’s alma mater, which is a mandatory tradition for all historically-Black colleges after a football game. To my surprise, Memphis’ band played their school’s alma mater as well, something that does not usually happen in predominantly-white college bands after football games. Clearly Memphis seemed to have done some scouting of SWAC band traditions. But when Southern kicked off the traditional Fifth Quarter of band battling after the game with a rousing, upbeat tune, we looked over to see how Memphis was going to respond and they were gone, having left the stadium quickly after the final buzzer. Evidently, they wanted none of the competition, and Southern fans were quick to say that the Mighty Sound of the South made the right decision rather than face the musical beat-down that was coming their way. Still, it was a milestone in Memphis band history, and Memphis’ band didn’t look as bad against the Jukebox as they would have in 1989 or so.