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.
Part of my plan when I decided to go to Vaiden to take pictures on a Saturday afternoon was to try to make it to Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi before they closed at 6 PM and buy a copy of Michael Ford’s new book of photographs North Mississippi Homeplace, which I had read about online. Scott Barretta, the promoter of all things Mississippi blues-related, had been discussing the book and the film on social media, so I texted him on Facebook to see if he wanted to meet for dinner in Greenwood, but he told me he was going to Tallahatchie Flats to see someone called Ben Wiley Payton. I told him I knew the place and would meet him there.
But the first challenge was to get from Vaiden to Greenwood before the book store closed. The distance didn’t seem that far, but the road from Vaiden to Carrollton seemed to take awhile, and although I left Vaiden by 5 PM, it took until 5:45 PM to get to downtown Greenwood, and so when I got to Turnrow Books, I had little time to browse before they closed. It was just as well, because the store was full of books that I would have loved to have owned, and I had limited money. One of the peculiar things about Mississippi is the number of truly excellent book stores in the state. Square Books in Oxford, LeMuria Books in Jackson, Pass Christian Books in Pass Christian, and of course the store I was at in Greenwood. All of them are always full of treasures and it is hard to avoid spending too much money. Fortunately, Turnrow had plenty of copies of Ford’s book, signed by the author, and I was able to buy one, and then go on my way so they could close up the store.
Down Howard Street was a coffee bar called Mississippi Mo Joe Coffee House, which the people at Turnrow had suggested was likely already closed for the evening, but which I found wide open. There had apparently been a bicycle race in Greenwood on that Saturday, and so the coffee bar stayed open to accommodate the race visitors, and I was able to get a latte before I headed out Grand Avenue into the wilderness along the Tallahatchie River toward Money, Mississippi to the north.
I was headed to Tallahatchie Flats to meet my friend, but unexpectedly, I came upon an historic marker for bluesman Robert Johnson outside a church called Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Although I had always been told that the burial location of Johnson was disputed, I decided I ought to stop and take photos at the spot and I did. Apparently, the general consensus now is that Little Zion is in fact the burial place of Robert Johnson, with documentation available to support the contention.
Tallahatchie Flats proved to be not at all far from the Little Zion church, practically walking distance. It reminds one of a Greenwood version of Clarksdale’s Shack Up Inn, with rentable sharecropper shacks, and a big tavern building where Ben Wiley Payton was performing. Tallahatchie Tavern proved to be packed to the rafters with fans, some of them blues lovers and some of them people in town for the bike race. Ben Wiley Payton was not an Americana artist as I had imagined, but a Black bluesman, originally from Mississippi but who had lived in Chicago for a period of time. His repertoire was a mixture of traditional blues and soul and R & B covers, and the crowd was enjoying every minute of it.
The tavern itself was of interest. Scott had told me that it had once been owned in part by Steve LaVere, the blues researcher, and perhaps because of that, it was full of Memphis blues memorabilia on the walls, rare flyers and posters for events which I had never seen. I made sure to take photographs, particularly of a flyer that announced a sort of Barn Dance somewhere out in the Fisherville area, which featured performances from Furry Lewis and a band called Common Law Catfish, which sounded like another one of Jim Dickinson’s concoctions.
I had come to watch and listen, but Scott asked me if I wanted to sit in with Ben Payton, and since the tavern had a worn, beat-up piano that was yet reasonably in tune, I agreed. I ended up having a ball playing with Ben and his band, but when it got to be 8 PM, I reluctantly had to leave, as I had made reservations for 8:30 PM at Lusco’s in Greenwood. So I walked the long distance back to my car, and made the drive back into town.
West Memphis, with its dog racing track/casino and industries obscures the fact that Crittenden County, Arkansas was once Delta country, with plantations and sharecropper shacks. The road toward Waverly, south of West Memphis reminds you of that fact, and in fact resembles the long, flat roads of the Mississippi Delta. Here and there a silo or white-frame church is visible across the flat fields, divided by occasional bayous lined with trees and brush. To the right about four miles south of West Memphis, however, I came upon the ruins of a church that looked historic. A modern Pentecostal church had been built beside it, and presumably the new church owns the building and grounds, but there was no sign of the name of the older church, or when it had been built. With the sun going down, the old white structure looked majestic, despite its deteriorated condition, and I would have liked to have investigated it more closely, but I soon found that bees or wasps had made a nest in the structure, and were literally pouring out of it. With discretion being the better part of valor, I beat a hasty retreat.
The mystery as to what church it was I ultimately solved by looking at the Fletcher Lake Quadrangle map from 1966 of the United States Geological Survey. It showed that the church was called St. John’s Church, and that there was also a cemetery on the site. When the map was reprinted in 2010, only the cemetery is shown.
As the event at Waverly I was on my way to had started at 5 PM, I decided it was best to be on my way, but I captured some photos of the church, as it will likely eventually collapse from neglect. The community where that church was is shown on the 1966 map as Amanca, Arkansas, but there seems little of that community either nowadays. Evidently, it is just a name.
One evening, while sitting at a table at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason, I was looking at topographic maps of the Mason area on my phone, and I noticed that the map (which was from 1965) showed a cemetery on the St. Paul Road north of Highway 59, and I was surprised, because I had never noticed a cemetery in that area. So on a subsequent trip to Mason, I decided to drive up that road to see if I could find a cemetery there, and all I could see was a fairly dense wooded area surrounded by farmers’ fields.
Upon parking, I walked up into the woods as best I could, finding that the area had become overgrown, and that dumpers had left all kinds of old appliances and trash in the area as well. But I soon found what I was looking for- a gravestone, and then another, and then at least one more. They were hard to read, as they had been half buried in mud- apparently the area floods frequently, but I was able to make out the name “Taylor” on two of the three stones, and the word “Mother” on one of them. The one I could read the full name of belonged to “Charlie Taylor.”
Area historian John Marshall indicated to me that the cemetery had been adjacent to the original site of St. Paul Episcopal Church, a Black congregation which had moved out to a new building at Gailor near Keeling in 1965. The church still owned the old location, but many of the gravestones had been carried away by flooding, or perhaps buried in mud.
The current condition of the cemetery is disgraceful, and the area is desperately in need of clearing, cleaning and restoration. People’s loved ones are buried in this historic site, and it should be maintained.