Friday, October 5, 2012

The Mississippi Delta


For those of you, who are not familiar with  "The Mississippi Delta" or just "The Delta", please read here for details. One of my best gal's, whom her inner circle calls "B"-short for Brantley was born and raised in the mighty Delta. She came to NC to attend Grad School at North Carolina State University. After graduation, she moved back home to figure out what would be the next step in adult hood. After multiple conversations, thoughts, interviews and consideration; "B" figured it out. Her next step was to move to Greenwood. Greenwood is about an hour  from Greenville, where she grew up. So she was just far enough for parents not to 'drop in' but still close enough to have the comforts of home. Greenwood is now where "B" resides, does landscape architect contract work and writes for her landscape architect blog. This is also where she made new friends, bought her first home, plays in (but not limited to) soy bean, cotton and corn fields and has reinstated her love for her homeland. Oh yeah, she also landed a cool job as the Executive Director of Main Street Greenwood, Inc. After visiting and seeing "B" in her element, I can not think of a better person to do this job and for a better place for her to live right now.





Greenwood is made up of about 15 thousand residents. Therefore it is a  very small town. It's a town where everyone knows everyone, where most places you visit are still "Mom & Pop" shops and people like it that way, where one is happy being left alone and where God's country truly shines. It's also one of those towns that are perfect for movies that want/ need an old school small Southern feel them. The Help people thought so too. At some points, I literally thought I was in a different time. It was oddly cool.

I flew into Jackson, where "B" scooped me. I knew things were different down there from the first conversation I had with "B" when I landed. I called to let her know I was there and she said ok, me too. The rest of our chat went a little something like this:

Em: "What car are you in? Where should I meet you?"
"B":  "Well, I am in my new black car, but I'll come get you"
Em:  "What do you mean you will come in and get me?"
"B":  "Just follow everyone else, I'll meet you outside your gate"
Em:  "Ok, I trust you"

I follow the others and sure enough right when I turn the corner of my gate there she is! Apparently, the Jackson airport lets people come right on up to greet you. Not like any other airport I had been in, lately. From here we head to a very cool and eclectic part of Jackson for some supper. Old buildings turned into shops, eateries, lofts. Across the street sat an old school bowling ally, pharmacy, tin overhangs, churches and galleries. Other than the little area we were in, it was shut down and a ghost town. It was only 9:30pm. Bablau was where we dined. It was clearly the hot spot and I was pleased with Brantley's choice. Tacos, table side guacamole (I can not use 'guac' around "B") and just delicious margaritas! The interior was happy, retro, hip and inviting. The major theme was I Love Lucy. On one of the walls, there is a huge projector that was playing the I Love Lucy show. String bulb lights and candles light the outside area where we sat, chicken wire served as walls for the liquor cabinets at the bar and the smells coming from the kitchen make you hope there is not a wait.



From Jackson it took about an hour and 45 min to reach Brantley's house. Since it was pitch black and very little road light, I was so pumped to wake up and see The Delta! The only part of the drive with any significance, even in the dark, was when we actually entered The Delta. At one point we went down a small slop and that was it. I had entered this enriching part of our country, just like that. No more hills, no more slops or bumps. From here on out it was FLAT. We drove through downtown Greenwood on our way to "B"'s. It was very much the small, quaint, hushed town I expected. We crossed the Yazoo River by way of The Kessler Bridge, which is lit with tiny white lights.

Kessler Bridge

Kessler Bridge up close at sunset. Photo taken by Thomas Gregory

Brantlye's house!



Brantley had to work Friday, but that was ok. We slept in and then set out for a day in the life of Brantley Snipes in Greenwood. First we go to "B"'s office, which is in an old Greyhound Bus station. The station was in business from 1939 to 2001. The interior design and structure is nostalgic. Teal and white checkered floors and cool fixtures give it character. The entrance still has the check in/ ticket booths. Yes, plural. One side for blacks and one side for whites. Since her job revolves around promoting downtown Greenwood, she promoted it to me. We walked the streets of downtown, visited shops and talked with shop owners. All along the way, "B" told me stories and shared some of the town's (and state's) history.



I hail from North Carolina, still a "Southern State" - but in Mississippi, it is a different Southern. Mississippi has Southern cultural, historical stories, tales, facts unlike any other state. It was very strange to be in a small town like this where, not that long ago, slaves and the "help" had a strong existence.  Downtown Greenwood is in the process of giving all the store fronts face lifts and trying to bring a new updated feel, while keeping to its small town roots. Another objective of reconstructing the downtown area is to bring all people of Greenwood together via festivals, art walks, concerts and other community activities.  The end goal: revitalize the town while making new relationships with the people living there... come together as one community, not separate ones. I think it is a remarkable and brave task that Brantley and her team are taking on. I have full faith that they can do it!

Brantley at the office!






After all the walking around, we had worked up an appetite. Malone, Brantley's best gal pal meets us for lunch at  Delta Bistro. Holy cow  that was some good food at the Bistro! The decor was perfect: local artist, open floor plan and small details that kept your eyes wandering the entire time  you were there.

On our way back to the car, we took in some more of the downtown streets. Along the way we found an office space full of wood art. The artist used old planks of wood as the canvas for painting musical icons. I wanted badly to purchase one. Old churches and beautiful brick buildings grabbed the attention of my camera as we strolled.

Old firehouse






Local school

inside vacant building/ warehouse
From here we head to the Cottonlandia Museum. It. was. Terrific. Not too large and provides a load of information about Mississippi. As "B" stated, the only thing that would make this place better, would be to bring life back to the front yard of the museum. Now, there are just two lonely trees, a couple dead areas in the grass and that is it. The space as so much potential... interactive gardens, picnic tables, tiny cotton fields,   etc.. I told "B" to add that to her to do list! It was here where the best $10 purchase in a long while happened. I bought an old school hat with the Cotton symbol on it.






It was now time for me to get my own tour of The Help. With a Cotton hat on my head and The Help guidebook in hand, we were off. We drove around for about an 2 hours locating and photographing:
-Home of Elizabeth Lefolt
-Home of Hilly Holbrook
-Home of Eugenia "Sketter" Phelan
-Home of Minny
-Home of Constantine
-Little Zion Church, church of Minny & Abilene
-Garden Club building

We found them all, along with another hidden gem. We started with The Lefolt's and Holbrook's homes, since they were down the street from "B"'s house. From here we head out of town to Money, Mississippi. Here we found the best of the best. First we found Sketter's home. It's located probably 3/4 mile off the road and is a private residence, so we could not drive up the driveway but you can see it from the road. It's a big, strong, beautiful white Southern mansion. Close to the road sat a large tree with the stone bench under it, like in the movie. A couple miles down the road tucked in between corn and soy bean fields sat Little Zion Church. This was, in the movie, Abilene & Minny's church. It is also the resting place of Robert Johnson blues king from the Delta. His 1961 album is considered to be one of the greatest blues albums ever released. That alone is a pretty impressive fact. Give a listen here, here, here and here. Like so many other talented people to grace this Earth he was taken too young, at the age of 27. While walking around the old cemetery, looking for his grave I saw something I thought was a little odd. Cactus, and a lot of them. To both of our surprise, there was indeed a small village of prickly pear cactus resting by the dirt road at the back of the cemetery. While walking back to the car, we spot Robert Johnson's grave, sitting nicely under a oversize tree.


Soy bean




From here we were on the hunt for Constantine's home. Constantine was Skeeter's adorable maid. While driving looking for her home, we came across another import real life landmark. The building were the Civil Rights Movement started. Bryant's Grocery is the building. Here a 14 year old boy, Emmett Till, was shot and killed. The reasons vary, however, none of them justify murder of  a child (or anyone for that matter). The most common was because Emmett made suggestive remarks and whistled at Mrs. Bryant who was working at that grocery that day. The shooting of Emmett helped jump-start the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Even 57 years later, it was still an eerie place to stand. We found Constantine's home- an old shack. So warn down, hard to believe it was a home to anyone- film or not. Just as we were heading back into Greenwood over the Money bridge, we saw a glimpse of a big white house at the back of a soy bean field. Curious to what is was, we cruise down the dirt road to check. Here, sitting at the top of a long circle drive was the most beautiful old white mansion. This hold house was not livable but full of exceptional potential. Of course I wanted to get out an walk around. "B" was hesitant, but reluctantly agreed. Several large columns support the front and side porches, the ceilings are painting a sky blue, rocking chairs decorate the floors, hand blown glass windows make spying in a little difficult- but able to see the old rugs, antiques, and furniture housed inside. The presences of this old beast was breathtaking. After I rocked in the chairs while "B" watched the drive a little nervously we walked around the side of the mansion. Here we found two large columns full of thousands of bees swarming. From the holes in the columns they had made huge hives! Walking back to the car a large pick up tuck pulls up. An old man hops out to greet us. We told him we stumbled across his home  and just had to take a look around. He chuckled and told us it was fine. He was coming out there to mow the grass. He then told us he purchased the home about 20 years ago. It used to sit in downtown Greenwood and he decided she needed to live out in the country, so he moved her out there and has been been slowing working to restore it. We again thanked him for letting us snoop around and headed back into town to get ready for supper.


Cotton!
Garden Club
Minny's 
Elizabeth Lefolts
Hilly Holbrooks
Bryant's Grocery
Ben Roy's Service Station, beside Bryant's Grocery



The drive to Greenville was delightful. The skies were pretty and the fields always gave me something to look at out the window. Along the way, we stopped at Kermit the Frog's birthplace in Leland, MS.



Friday night was go to Doe's Eat Place night, in Greenville. Lusco's in Greenwood is also another wonderful place to eat, however we did not have time to fit that in. "B"'s parents live in Greenville and were treating us to a good supper, so that was our Saturday night meal. I had heard and read about Doe's. But the stories or reading I had done prepared me for what I was walking into. I'll try my best to explain and give you a mental image. Mr. & Mrs. Snipes drove us to supper. I must say, I knew the night was going to go well, when Mr. Snipes, aka Charles Ed or Charlezz Eddd   hopped in that driver seat with a cocktail for everyone to share on the short 4 min drive to Doe's. We pull up to Doe's and the place is packed. On the outside of the old white painted wooden building yellow letters light up DOES EAT PLACE. One bench and one screen door where we entered. That's it, the entire exterior. Before you even swing open that screen door, you know something is different, as you see the boiler room. We walked in and I literally stop in my tracks. I am standing in the boiler/ meat cooking room. There are stacks of cups, plates, meat and large knives are everywhere. One man is cooking. Waitress come flying in slamming orders on the meat table. Beautiful  thick, perfect cuts of steak are sitting there with torn pieces of paper on them directing Mr. at what temp to cook them.From here we follow Tink, The Snipes' reg waitress to the next room. There is a sink with a lady washing dishes, a large stove top with all kinds of goodness cooking aka frying and in the center a large table where women are topping off tamales and preparing salads. Oh! There is a small fridge where you can grab your drink or put your own spirits in there to chill. Around and among this chaotic room sat patrons and we were about to join them. We get sent to the back room which is soon filled with a large table of birthday dinner attendees. Tink pays them little to no attention and serves us. We ordered everything on the menu... don't go getting amazed. There are only 10 things on the menu. Several different steaks, shrimp (broiled or fried) french fries, tamales,  garlic bread, chili & cheese and salad. I opted for the filet. It was by far the the second best steak I've ever put in my mouth.

















With full bellies we drag our selves out of Doe's. As we start to pull off, Mr. Snipes asked me if I would like to go to Arkansas for a minute. And the answer was, I sure did. We drive for about 10 minutes then cross over a tall bridge and boom, when you get to the other side, in Arkansas you are. After our short but excellent visit to Arkansas they take us back to the house and we say our buh byes and thank you's and then back to Greenwood we went. We had bars- ok one bar to check out, it was after all Friday night. Just like any other small town, Greenwood only has a couple of watering holes. One being Webster's. This is your run of the mill restaurant that after 10 pm turns into a bar. They do have a nice outdoor area with a local band usually entertaining the guest. I was very much entertained. When the bars kick you out around 1, late night begins. Late night in The Delta is a lot different than late night in the city. In the Delta, you go "around the world". This of course means, pack up the car with beer and bourbon and cruise the streets- ok , dirt roads of the fields, mostly in and around Money, MS. This activity clearly involves a sober driver. That night a thunderstorm decided to interrupt our plans so after about an hour or so, we brought it in and decided we would finish the other half of the world on Saturday night.

Em & B at Websters

Late Night in the Delta!
Thunder/ lightening storm coming in
Saturday was a raining day in the delta. It poured all morning, which made getting out of bed that much harder. So we didn't .. until almost noon. Then it was time to eat. Crystal Grill was the place of choice. Here you could any anything from Oysters to burgers to clubs to breakfast and lets not forget the plentiful baskets of packaged crackers and packaged butter. The waiter brought these items to the table, which seemed a little odd, but I thought there must be some biscuits or bread coming out. B&B never came. When Thomas, who I now affectionately call 'Cousin', Malone's cousin joined us, he went to town on these ingredients  Soon, Malone and a "B" followed suit. I could not believe what I was seeing. Were they really spreading butter on crackers and eating it?! Could they not wait for the real food?! Was this a normal thing to do 'down there'!? After a full basket of crackers are gone, I had to ask...WHY are y'all doing this. It was like I was asking an absurd question. They informed me it was a very 'normal' thing to do. The rain finally gave us a little break as we drove over to Marigold, MS to check out a local "famous" potter, McCarty's. I was very into this since I worked at a NC Pottery Gallery all through on and off for many years while living in Raleigh. Along the way we made a stop or two. One being in Ruleville for a photo opp at the hot & cold water towers. I'm not sure when or why these two tiny- up high, but tiny- water towers are labeled as such, but of course I needed a photo in front of them. At first, this seemed like an easy task. However, reaching the towers close enough to get a picture proved a little more difficult. Two wrong turns, a short drive through the bad part of town, we arrived! on to the pottery we charged. His pottery was just beautiful. I bought a small dish and Brantley bought my mom a bird. Behind the studio and gallery is a garden. The gardens were full, lush, bright, intricate, and smelled perfect. I believe the fresh rain had a little something to do with it :)
 I kept seeing these snow cone stands. Literally, hunts everywhere with Snow-cone signs. It was making me reallllly want a snow-cone and I wanted one from those cute little stands. This again, another 'Delta normal'.  No, Malone and Cousin, we do not have Snow-cone stands all over town, all year long. It seemed however most of them were closed during my late afternoon craving. We opted for Sonic instead. Just wasn't the same :(











Greenwood is home to Viking - like the high end appliances. They even have a cooking school! "B" signed she and I up for a cooking class that evening. The menu: A Southern Supper from The Help, complete with Minny's Chocolate Pie! We walked into this pristine kitchen/ cooking/ dining area with large glass windows so onlookers could ooooohhhh and ahhhhhh at us. Everything was white, light natural wood or stainless steel. I had a smile on my face from the moment I walked in until the moment I left. Never in my life had I cooked Southern Fried Chicken, ha who are we kidding, any fried chicken for that matter. The chicken had been soaking in milk and spices since Friday afternoon, nothing less than Delicious was going to come from that prep. Buttermilk biscuits, homemade mac n cheese, collards and cornbread were also on the menu. Wine was flowing, music playing and smells surrounding the work place. It was going to be a great night! Now, the thing that happens when you have too many cooks in the kitchen and they are all drinking, is someone may forget a thing or two. I was one of those people for my group. While mixing the cornbread I forgot to add in the flour, you know, only a key part of the mixture. I thought it looked a little off, but I went with it b/c I had never made cornbread so I was not really certain how it was supposed to look. Just as I put the pan in the oven our teacher says, "what is this?!" old man Henry and I just start laughing. He was reading the ingredients and directions to me so the flour skipped us both! We rush to pull out our "cornbread" and mix in the flour really quick... still looking funky, we went with it. It actually tasted pretty good! Fired Chicken is a patient person's job. Once Teacher said "frying chickens a commitment  I know that was not the job for me! Brantley and I take this time to have yet another free glass of vino. Once all food is cooked we set the tables and sit. There are 16 people in the group total- we were broken into 3 groups for cooking, but for eating, we came back together.











Our cooking class wrapped up abut 9pm. From here we took our left overs to Malone's apartment so she and Cousin could taste our masterpieces. The Alluvian Hotel is a nice place to stay when you come to Greenwood. They also have the only other bar we went to, called Giardina's Courtyard. Pretty much, you go inside to hotel bar and order a scrumptious drink then enjoy that fountain and lights outside in the courtyard. Once this place kicks everyone out, the next stop is of course back to Webster's. Tonight we were determined to go all the way around the world for late night. We did this with much success  4:15 am rolls around and its time. We've been around the world, done graffiti on the bridge, played in soy bean and corn fields and dirt road dance parties to Taylor Swift, Journey, Mariah Cary, Toto,Wilson Phillips. The night was now complete.








To bed we went. Sunday was departure day. Sunday was a sad day. Sunday was a very hungover day. Sunday was Pizza Inn Buffett day. After eating pizza slices, salad and pasta we kidnapped Malone and made her drive with us to Jackson to say see ya later.

Greenwood surprised me with charm, good looks and a ton of good old fashioned fun. I will be back. If you are planning a trip to the area here are few fun things to consider along with things mentioned above! This website and this website are also helpful for Delta tips.

The Help Tour: Greenwood MS

River to Rails: Greenwood, MS


King Biscuit Blues Festival: Helena Arkansas

BB King Museuem: Indianola, MS (BB King's first live radio broadcast came from a radio station in Greenwood, in 1940)

Cross over to Arkansas

Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival: Greenville, MS

Take a cruise down the Mississippi!



Cotton in bloom!










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