Periodically, I receive sponsored messages in my Facebook timeline, and on one afternoon, a message from a restaurant called The Biscuitry caught my attention. The restaurant turned out to be in Bolivar, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, and the message was to the effect that they were going to start opening for happy hour and dinner on Fridays (the restaurant was otherwise open only for breakfast and lunch). With Bolivar only about an hour from my house in Bartlett, I decided to drive over there on the following Friday and try it out.
Like many other West Tennessee towns, Bolivar is historic, built around a typical Southern town square. A statue of Simon Bolivar, for whom the town is named, stands in front of the courthouse. As it turned out, The Biscuitry was located across the street from a historic Big Star supermarket, and next door to the historic Luez Theatre. I found the restaurant lovingly restored and decorated, and the place was full, with an upbeat and convivial atmosphere, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
My waitress was also cheerful and upbeat, and she helped me greatly in negotiating all the various menu choices. Indeed, one of my difficulties was in deciding which of the many delicious menu options to try. Ultimately, I tried a burger, which, uniquely, was seared with a sugar-based dry rub. This caramelized and crusted on the outside, which made the burger absolutely amazing. It came with bacon and cheese on it, and nearly a whole plate of french fries. Afterwards, I enjoyed a slice of dark chocolate cake and a cup of coffee before heading back out to the square.
There was actually a live music concert on the court square as I was coming out of the restaurant, but it was country music, which is not my cup of tea, and it was beginning to drizzle somewhat. Instead I drove down into the southside of Bolivar, where I finally managed to find the old lodge hall of the United Sons and Daughters of Charity, which was a Black benevolent society in Bolivar. The historic building seems abandoned and in poor shape, but it was amazing to see it and photograph it. Altogether I had a satisfying meal and an enjoyable evening.
Shelby County, Tennessee is largely dominated by Memphis and its suburban satellites, but it was not always so. The county had a long past as an agricultural and rural region, and a few areas still retain that atmosphere, perhaps none so much as the twin communities of Rosemark and Barretville in Northeast Shelby County between Millington and Arlington.
Rosemark, originally called Richland but renamed when it became apparent that there was a Richland elsewhere in Tennessee, was a good-sized place with a telephone company, gin, school and several churches, but Barretville, just to the north, was something of a one-man town, or at least a one-family town. The Barret family dominated this area of Shelby County, opening the J. H. Barret Company store, the Barret cotton gin and the Barretville bank. The nearby Black high school was named Barret’s Chapel, probably after a church the Barret family had donated the land for, and the Barrets were deeply involved with the Bolton Agricultural High School located to the south and east of their community.
Of course, times change. The Barretville Bank became Patriot Bank, and the general store closed, and Millington placed both Rosemark and Barretville in its annexation reserves. Barret’s Chapel High School was closed and merged with Bolton High School. Most recently, the general store had been a cider brewery called Long Road Cider Company. Although the place also featured some light salads and sandwiches and live music, I never had occasion to visit it.
But here, during the summer of the pandemic, the cider company closed and was replaced by a new J. H. Barret & Company General Store, also known as the Barretville General Store. Although the building features some gourmet grocery items for take-home, and a few locally made arts, crafts and clothing items, the place is primarily a restaurant, and one with a number of different choices. Pizza is at the top of the menu, and the pizzas look absolutely delicious, but on my visit, I decided to try one of the burgers. There are two options, including one with bleu cheese called the “Bobby Blue” (Bobby “Blue” Bland was born in nearby Rosemark). I had that burger, plain except for bacon and bleu cheese, and found it delightful. The fries it came with were good as well. In addition to the two burger choices, there is a patty melt, and then two chicken sandwich options. Besides that, Barretville General Store offers barbecue, and a whole sandwich menu as well. At a time when many restaurants are suffering from the pandemic, I was amazed at how many people were enjoying the general store, and the atmosphere was fun and upbeat. Of course, masks are required everywhere in Shelby County.
As for the surroundings, the place has been restored to its former glory. Plenty of wooden chairs and benches have been placed on the front porch for sitting, which was, of course, the main feature of any rural country store back in the day. The primary color scheme is black and white, but the aquamarine benches offset that and add a dash of color. Despite progress in the area, Barretville has changed little, and the area still has the look of a small rural community. For fun and good food, the drive out from Memphis is worth it. Plan a weekend trip to Barretville General Store, eat a great meal, and buy some baked goods to take back home with you.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.
With my birthday falling on Monday December 2, I decided to celebrate a day early by going to New Orleans for the Dumaine Street Gang second-line, since I knew that the To Be Continued Brass Band would be playing in it.
The TBC Brass Band, as it is usually called, is one of the bands that first attracted me to New Orleans’ street brass band culture, and is the band that most typifies the modern brass band sound and style. Although the band has a youthful, defiant hip-hop swagger, its music is firmly rooted in both the brass band tradition and the standard soul tunes of the Black community.
Waking up at 8 AM in Jackson, Mississippi, I had to stop for breakfast, which I did at Cultivation Food Hall, where I had chicken and waffles at a place called Fete au Fete, which I didn’t realize was a branch of a New Orleans restaurant chain. However the food was great, and with a cup of coffee from Il Lupo Coffee I got back on the road headed for New Orleans. Unfortunately, the parade was set to begin in the Treme neighborhood at noon, and I only made it across the causeway at 11:45, and by the time I made it to Treme and found a place to park (under the I-10 overpass on Claiborne), the parade was already underway. However the weather was a pleasant 70 degrees, and the sun was out, and as a result, crowds were everywhere. The club members and bands were just coming out of the Treme Community Center when I arrived, and although I would have liked to have grabbed a coffee at the Treme Coffeehouse before following the bands into the parade, I decided it was better not to be left behind.
As it turned out, TBC had not yet come out of the community center, and they were marching behind the Divine Ladies, a social aid and pleasure club that apparently parades with the Dumaine Street Gang every year. This year’s parade actually featured no less than five bands, and as we headed out Orleans Avenue, with the sun beaming, I felt the wave of exhilaration that I always feel when starting out on a second-line. At first there were fewer onlookers along the sidewalks, but eventually the crowds picked up, including those on horseback that always seem to appear at any downtown second-line. One difference with this particular second-line was that there were almost no route stops at all, and the bands and marchers had little time to rest. One exception was a brief stop along Broad Street, where a group of Mardi Gras Indians began setting up a chant “They got to sew, sew, sew” with tambourines, which Brenard “Bunny” Adams, the tuba player for TBC, ended up picking up, and soon the whole band was playing their brass band version of it. Not long afterward, the Divine Ladies instructed their members to move forward, and we were soon on the march again.
Walking down Esplanade, I noticed the ruins of Le Palm Ballroom, at which once I had seen TBC play at a funeral. Now the roof had caved in, and the building seemed destined for demolition. Heading up Claiborne Avenue, past Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, we came to St. Bernard Avenue and headed up it past Celebration Hall and the Autocrat Club, where a lot of motorcycle clubs had posted up with their bikes. The parade went as far as the Dollar General and T-Mobile stores, and then u-turned to head back down toward Treme, with TBC breaking into a joyful and upbeat song that I had heard them play before but which I didn’t know the name of.
However, I was filming video footage with my iPhone 7, and it soon ran out of battery life, so when the second-line started down the final push along Claiborne, I fell out of the line and went to my car, in order to begin charging the phone. I had thought that I could grab a coffee at Treme Coffeehouse, and meet up with Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC, but I was frustrated on both counts. About 5000 or so people were at the second-line, and the resulting gridlock and chaos made getting anywhere impossible. The police had the whole area around the community center and coffeehouse blocked off, and not only could I not get into the area, but Darren could not get out. The end result was that he could not go with me for my birthday dinner in New Orleans.
Instead, I headed across the river to Gretna to the Liberty Kitchen Steak and Chop House, which was one of the few steakhouses open in New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon. Darren and I had eaten at one of their sister restaurants in Metairie a few years ago; that location had closed, but we had been impressed with the food. I was impressed again on this particular evening; my filet mignon was delicious, as were the sides. The food was not cheap, but I have had inferior meals at higher prices, and the easy access and free parking were an added benefit.
After dinner, I wanted dessert, so I headed over to Freret Street to a place called Piccola Gelateria, where I had a peanut butter and fudge gelato in a cup, and by then, it was time to head back over to Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, where the TBC Brass Band was playing their weekly Sunday night gig.
The Mother-in-Law Lounge was founded by the late Ernie “K-Doe” Kador, who named the place for his biggest recorded hit ever, “Mother in Law.” After he passed away, his widow had kept it open until she also passed away. Kermit Ruffins, the world-famous trumpet player who is also well-regarded as a chef, had closed his jazz lounge in the Treme neighborhood, but when the Mother-In-Law Lounge closed, he acquired it, restored it and soon had it back open. There was already a significant crowd in and around the lounge when I got there, despite the fact that the live music had not yet started. Somewhat incongruously, the center of attraction was at first a DJ playing New Orleans rap and bounce. But it was the older, classic stuff and contributed to the feel-good vibe of the place, which was painted in vibrant colors and with numerous slogans and quotes from the late K-Doe.
Although I feared that the weather would turn colder, at least when I arrived, it was still fairly warm and pleasant out on the patio where the stage was located. The TBC members had largely stayed in the area, as they could not get out of the massive traffic jam that had accompanied the end of the second-line, and they soon began trickling into the club and setting things up on the patio. There was a large television screen outside with the Sunday night NFL game on, but most of the attention was focused on the stage once the To Be Continued Brass Band started playing. Ruffins’ love of marijuana is no secret, and when the TBC band played a new song about “getting so high,” Kermit suddenly appeared on the roof and shot off fireworks, to the thrill of the patio crowd. The band also broke out with a new song, “I Heard Ya Been Talking,” which is aimed at the Big 6 Brass Band, a newer band that has allegedly been talking smack against TBC. Such rivalries, which resemble rap group rivalries, are a usual thing in the New Orleans brass band culture.
As the night progressed, things got chillier on the patio, and TBC broke out with some smoother sounds, a pleasant reading of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm.” Then they closed out, all too soon, with a funky version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” that seemed to owe something to the Jackson 5’s “The Love You Save.” It was a great way to end the evening.
But by now, it was fairly chilly indeed, and fog was developing. I met Darren Towns in Marrero, and we headed back over to the French Quarter in New Orleans to the Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets. In previous years, my move would have been to the Morning Call at the Casino in City Park, but the City of New Orleans had evicted Morning Call in favor of the Cafe du Monde, but the latter had decided to not be open 24 hours a day in City Park, and the location had already closed for the night. Fortunately, we were able to find a free parking place along Decatur Street, and we sat at the table enjoying our beignets and coffee. Bunny had called Darren from Frenchmen Street, but he didn’t come through where we were, and so when we left, we drove down Frenchmen Street to see if anything was going on, but there really wasn’t much of anything, and the fog and chill were in the air. Ultimately, we headed back across the bridge to Marrero. But it had been a great day to celebrate my birthday with my favorite brass band in New Orleans.
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.
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.
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.