Home Travelogues City Travel Logs Trail Blazers: Kosciusko, French Camp, Starkville, West Point

Trail Blazers: Kosciusko, French Camp, Starkville, West Point

Louis LefleurOne makes best-sellers, one creates best sellers. One defied the bigotry and violent hatred of a region to pave the way for education and opportunity for all. Others hacked a trail through the woods, founded a school for women, then created not just a chance to learn but a life's path for at-risk children. Some are saving the world's oceans, others are creating new worlds of artificial intelligence. And one transformed the bitter fruit of an impossibly sad and lonely childhood into an intoxicating brand of blues.

These trail blazers saw a path where others saw only impenetrable wilderness and insurmountable odds. They embraced the challenge of opening the road, accepted the cost, overcame the hardships.  And at the end of it, when others might have stopped, rested and said, "I have arrived," these pioneers simply "lit out" in new directions, their energy undiminished. Dreamers, doers, with paths old and new that are calling. What made them? What drove them? Let's hit the road-their roads-to find out.


The Choctaws were the first in this area, growing so much corn in these fertile hills that they were able to sell it to neighboring tribes. Eventually whites began to travel the Natchez Trace, and with these migrations came a French Canadian named Louis Lefleur who established a trading post on the bluff above the Pearl River. In what became known as Lefleur's Bluff, the enterprising trader married a half-Indian woman and together they had 11 children; by his second wife, he would have more children, including his fourth son, named Greenwood.

When Greenwood was 12, the family moved north from Lefleur's Bluff to another spot on the Natchez Trace where they established a tavern that became known as "Frenchman's Camp" and eventually "French Camp." Andrew Jackson stopped there with his men on the way to the Battle of New Orleans in 1812.

In that same conflict, Louis Lefleur served under Pushmataha, then the Choctaw chief. However, by the time the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed in 1830, Greenwood Lefleur-now known as Greenwood Leflore-had become the chief of the entire Choctaw tribe. The shrewd son of a shrewd trader, Leflore believed his mission was not to oppose the treaty, which called for the removal of Indian tribes to Oklahoma.   Rather, he believed his duty was to negotiate for the best possible Oklahoma lands for the tribe. This he did, but while most of the rest of the Choctaws were forced on to the long march of the infamous Trail of Tears, Leflore stayed behind in Mississippi on the 1,000 acres he had negotiated for himself. He built a grand plantation home on the land and turned his political skills toward white society, rising to become a state legislator and a personal friend of Jefferson Davis.

In the meantime, new settlers flooded the area made available by the treaty, many of them Scotch-Irish from Georgia and the Carolinas. These people were not so trusting as those who had lost the land, but they were not without ideas of community. And they were industrious. Towns and schools were established, and a certain characteristics began grafting to one another in the rich soil: hardiness, self-sufficiency and an impressive capacity for productivity. Gumption, as it was called in the Hills.

This regional character is exemplified in Kosciusko's most famous son and daughter, civil rights leader James Meredith and tv phenomenon Oprah Winfrey, whose ancestry showed resilience and strength, not to mention loads of gumption.

Built with pride.

James MeredithWhile the plantation system and the plantation mentality were a reality of the Mississippi Hills, small farming also flourished here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the state. At a time when sharecropping and tenant farming were miserable norms for many state residents, particularly African Americans, James Meredith's father, Moses Meredith, owned an 85-acre farm. "The greatest intangible that the house had to offer was pride," Meredith has said.

On the other hand, Oprah Winfrey's great-great-grandfather, a former slave, was able to buy a large plot of land and build a school on it, while her great-grandmother helped raise money for a school for African American children.

After entering Ole Miss in 1962 to threats of violence and eventually deadly rioting, and after being shot during his March Against Fear only a year later, Meredith has gone on to create his own path that has been as unexpected as it has been uncompromising. Oprah has now, famously, opened a school for girls in South Africa, and here in Kosciusko, she has also donated the funds for the gleaming new Boys and Girl's Club. The Club has become a surprisingly popular visitor attraction, as adults from around the nation have flocked to see both the attractive facility as well as the state-of-the-art approach to starting children on the right path to adulthood. Oprah Winfrey Road offers a parade of Oprah-related sites: the Buffalo Community Church, where Oprah first attended church, the Buffalo Community Center, the Winfrey family cemetery, and Oprah's birthplace.

But there are plenty of other reasons to stop in Kosciusko, and you'll see many of them in the historic Downtown Square.

Beauty and charm squared.

Downtown KosciuskoBeautifully restored buildings set the scene for delightful day of shopping and dining in Kosciusko's Downtown Square. The Square's centerpiece, the Attala County Courthouse, celebrates its 110th anniversary in 2008. This majestic Greek Revival masterpiece, along with the Mary Ricks Thornton Cultural Center, an elegant gothic gem once a Presbyterian sanctuary, are both Mississippi Landmarks listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

From downtown, take the walking/driving tour of the town's more than 25 historic homes, all built before the turn of the century. Soon you'll understand why painters and artists have named Kosciusko one of the "Prettiest Painted Places in America."

"Pretty unusual" might be a way to describe L.V. Hull's Ethnic Yard Art. Be sure your tour includes a turn through this one-of-a-kind collection. While Ms. Hull's approach to creating art from found objects has not made her famous, it definitely qualifies her as a trail blazer in her own right for a vision that is singular and altogether charming.

From the cultural and social trail blazers, it's time to take a step backward to yesterday and forward to tomorrow. Sound impossible? Not at French Camp, a meticulously preserved piece of history that is in the business of creating brighter futures.

A refreshing slice of history.

French CampAs you drive through the pristine landscape along the Natchez Trace from Kosciusko, you come upon it almost suddenly, this small hamlet of historic log homes and cabins, looking very much the way it must have when Andy Jackson stopped with his men. In those days the Trace was known as the "Devil's Backbone"-tough, dangerous going, and for those travelers thirsty and tired from the road, the French Camp tavern offered a welcome place to refresh.

Today, the French Camp Natchez Trace Historic District is still a refreshing stop, offering a delicious taste of pioneer life for those weary of modern humdrum. In this unique collective, you'll experience living, breathing history, where you can see how handmade quilts are made, or how a Revolutionary soldier once lived in a 19th century farmhouse; discover why molasses-making was a real "grind," see how pottery was thrown and how blacksmiths plied their trade. Sound like a lot of chores? Don't worry; all you'll work up is an appetite, and that's easy once you catch the aroma of the homemade sandwiches and soups and mud cake at the Council House Café. For a delightful getaway, French Camp's B&B offers a welcome as soft and warm as a feather pillow.

On your way out, be sure to buy a loaf of French Camp Academy bread, a heavenly treat that supports this faith-based collective. Where once the town of French Camp pioneered in the education of women-it opened an academy for women in the 1880s- today dedicated residents provide a home, school, and a road to the future for troubled children from broken homes.

From French Camp, head north toward another school, this one founded in a former mill town, and whose first president was the man in command of Fort Sumter when those first fateful shots were fired.

On behalf of first Mississippi A & M president Stephen D. Lee, best-selling writer John Grisham, former New York Times editor Turner Catledge, and a few other notable alums, Mississippi State University and its home city welcome you to a thrilling visit.

Time to book it.

Mississippi State UniversityBoardtown was the community's first name because of the clapboards produced at a sawmill nearby, but in 1835, the city became Starkville to honor of Revolutionary War hero John Stark. It took an act of Congress, the Morrill Act in 1862, to get plans underway for a college, and in1880, under the presidency of former Confederate General Stephen D. Lee, Mississippi A & M College admitted its first student.

Over the next century, the college became a university, offering agricultural and engineering programs that took the lead in scientific advancement with cutting-edge programs of worldwide renown. The city grew, too, but kept its charming and laid-back college atmosphere even as it became a haven for high-tech startups, thanks to a high-energy town-gown collaboration with Mississippi State University.

A tour of the MSU campus should probably begin at the Mitchell Memorial Library where two collections in particular are worth a look-and a listen. In the John Grisham Room you can peruse literary manuscripts, signed photographs, international editions and even legislative files of this best-selling phenomenon. (Before he wrote novels, Grisham was a state legislator and wrote some pretty novel bills, like the resolution he introduced commending Tiny Tim!)

Elsewhere in the library, the Charles H. Templeton, Sr., Music Museum contains a collection of more than 200 self-playing musical instruments, 22,000 pieces of sheet music, 15,000 recordings and other items that make for a fascinating history of the music business since the mid-1800s.

Herzer Diary Science Cheese FactoryFrom the library, it's time to book it, with the wealth of fascinating explorations available only by appointment. At the Herzer Diary Science Cheese Factory you can get the scoop on the department's famously delicious Edem cheese making operation, begun with hoops shipped out of Holland on the eve of World War II. Finish your tour with a sample of the ice cream and cheese for sale in the Cardwell Cheese Shoppe. And if you'd like some wine with that cheese, take the tour of the A. B. McKay Food Research and Enology Lab, where you'll see, and taste if you like, how local muscadine grapes are transformed into healing quaffs of alcoholic and non-alcoholic libations. Bon appétite.

Today, with world's oceans dangerously over-fished, environmentalists are looking to fresh-water farming, and in particular to MSU's Aquaculture Research Center, for eco-friendly ways to feed the world and save the planet. Take a tour and get a glimpse of the future (hint: it has whiskers!)

From water world to cyber world, at MSU's CAVETM, Computer Automatic Virtual Environment, engineering researchers are carrying out the latest in computational field simulation. Translation: when you take a tour you'll get to play with some really cool virtual programs, like riding a virtual roller coaster or flying through a virtual forest.

Off campus, there are some cool places to roll through as well, in the downtown area that still offers the old Boardtown atmosphere in quaint shops and restaurants; you may want to stay overnight in the 1920s Hotel Chester.

The rest of Starkville's historic districts are graciously and charmingly low-key, mostly dating from the early to mid-twentieth century, to which the Cotton District makes vivid exception. Once the site of small cotton mill shacks, the Cotton District is now one of the state's most interesting examples of New Urbanism, with its vibrantly colored row houses evocative of New Orleans and Savannah.

Old and new blended so that each half complements the other-that's the hallmark of this portion of the Mississippi Hills, true in Starkville and true in West Point, where a young man by the name of Chester Arthur Burnett was born. As a child, he would be forced to be loner, as an adult, he would become The Wolf.

Pack in some blues.

Howlin' WolfBefore he had the name and the legend of Howlin' Wolf, Chester Arthur Burnett was a poor boy in West Point, Mississippi, whose chances for success seemed bleak. Born in 1910 to teenaged parents who divorced a year after his birth, Chester found himself homeless when his increasingly unstable mother, who sang spirituals on the street corners of nearby Aberdeen, cast him out of her house with nothing but the love of music that she had passed along. He kept that gift alive, though it was hard. When he went to live with a great uncle, he sang only while he plowed behind a mule; work was unrelenting, the brutality nearly crushing. Finally, Chester left West Point and walked barefoot 85 miles to the Mississippi Delta to find his father.

Today, the spirit of Howlin' Wolf has been returned to his hometown with the full honors due him. Thanks to the efforts of the Howlin' Wolf Blues Society, chartered in 1995, a granite statue of The Wolf has been erected in the city park, and since 1996, the Society has also sponsored an annual blues festival in Howlin' Wolf's honor that has brought overflowing crowds of blues greats and blues lovers together in exuberant celebration. You can find out more about Howlin' Wolf at West Point's Friday House historical museum.

An amalgam of old and new, West Point has also been the birthplace of several Fortune 500 business leaders, and today the ambitious city plans to add several more museums to create a city-wide complex of cultural attractions. West Point is already making a splash as jumping off point to the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway.

So you can pack in some blues, or pack up a picnic to take scenic cruise down the Waterway; it's another terrific path that's already been cleared for you here in the Mississippi Hills.

Johnny Cash, Starkville Flower Child

When Johnny Cash played San Quentin, he shared his own 1965 experience in a correctional facility in a song based on actual events that occurred after Cash played a concert at Mississippi State (although the charge was public intoxication not flower picking). The lyrics began like this:

Well, I left my motel room, down at the Starkville Motel,
The town had gone to sleep and I was feelin' fairly well.
I strolled along the sidewalk 'neath the sweet magnolia trees;

I was whistlin', pickin' flowers, swayin' in the southern breeze.
I found myself surrounded; one policeman said: "That's him.
Come along, wild flower child. Don't you know that it's two a.m."

They're bound to get you.
'Cause they got a curfew.
And you go to the Starkville City jail.

In recent years, Starkville has pardoned Johnny Cash and holds an annual festival in his honor.

 

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