Home Travelogues City Travel Logs King and Country: Okolona, Pontotoc, Tupelo, Baldwyn, Booneville

King and Country: Okolona, Pontotoc, Tupelo, Baldwyn, Booneville

Elvis Presley BirthplaceConquistadors came but couldn't conquer, and a paradise not taken at gunpoint was snatched finally with the stroke of a pen… A cavalry leader won his reputation in a pair of bloody and dramatic battles that left more than 1,000 dead, their bodies at rest in the nation's "Little Arlington."  Yet that leader's victories could do nothing to change the course of a losing cause…

And then, at last, in the midst of a crushing Depression, on a January morning in a tiny shotgun house, history was not merely made but changed forever in the birth of two babies:  one stillborn and the other destined to live on and on in the radical changes he brought to the culture.  On that cold morning the mother, Gladys, couldn't know this.  She was shaken; the rest of the world will never be the same. So, now it's time head for that rich radius in the Mississippi hills where battlefields still blaze with gunfire, where burial grounds and sacred mounds open a majestic pathway to the past, and where a visit to a temple doesn't mean you're in the land of the pharaohs-no way, darlin'.  You've just arrived at the birthplace of the King.

While archeologists are still sifting through the evidence, it's clear that DeSoto came through this area on his way to the Mississippi River. In fact, on Christmas day in 1540, the first Christian marriage ceremony in America was performed here, when Juan Ortiz, a member of DeSoto's party, exchanged vows with Sa-Owana.  (It's hard to determine the bride's feeling about the marriage since she was an Indian captive of the Spaniards.)

Later, French trappers arrived, followed inevitably by the French government.  The Chickasaws did not relish their new role in New France; the French did not appreciate the Chickasaws' lack of cooperation.  The founder of New Orleans and Colonial Governor of New France, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Beinville, determined that "some bold and remarkable blow be struck, to impress the Indians with a proper sense of respect and duty toward us."  However, it was the French and their army who found themselves on the receiving end of a bold blow, with their defeat at the Battle of Ackia, when the Chickasaws easily repulsed the invaders at the a collection of villages called Long Town.

Ultimately, the Chickasaws would forfeit their six million acres east of the Mississippi with the stroke of a pen at the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek, and afterward, railroads arrived and rampant speculation created fortunes and towns for the new settlers.  Many of those fortunes were lost during the Civil War, as the area suffered through a number of skirmishes, large and small.  At the Battle of Okolona and the Battle of Brice's Crossroads, the Confederates won decisive and dramatic victories, which, while they did not affect the outcome of the war, cemented Nathan Bedford Forrest's reputation as a peerless cavalry leader.

Presley FamilyAfter the war, dairy farming took hold, and the area's agrarian culture was gradually supplemented with industry, so that to the lowing of cattle and blast of the train whistle came the hum from garment factories.  And then in one horrible night in 1936, the awful roar of tornado swallowed everything and left the town with hundreds dead.

One whose tiny home survived, though others nearby were destroyed, was a garment worker named Gladys Presley and her husband Vernon, and their young son Elvis, barely over a year old.  After the stillbirth of Elvis' twin brother, and now this tornado, Gladys Presley probably thought she had already experienced the most earth-shaking events in her life.

But there will be plenty of Elvis and his huge talent ahead for you.  Right now start your tour, further south, where you'll hear-if your ears and your imagination are sharp enough-the strains of a fife and drum wafting over the grounds of "Little Arlington."

Hallowed ground in Okolona.


Colonel Jeffery ForrestBy 1864, with the Union closing in on victory, General William Tecumseh Sherman turned his eye to the rail line at Meridian. His plan was to take the city, then sweep south to Mobile. To achieve this, General William Sooy Smith, who was stationed with his army at Memphis, was to meet Sherman in Meridian. Smith, however, dawdled, and when he finally began his advance, he also began to pick up escaped slaves; this in turn changed his attitude about when and where he might engage the Confederates. The enterprising Confederate Colonel Jeffery Forrest took advantage of the indecision and was able to draw Smith into the swamp at Okolona. In the end, with reinforcement from Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederates forced a Union retreat, and Smith was harried back across the Tennessee line.

Later that same year, Nathan Bedford Forrest would once again deliver a fatal strike to Union strategy, in his surprise victory at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads.

Today, in downtown Okolona, behind the arched wrought-iron gate, you can walk among the graves at the cemetery that some have called "Little Arlington," the final resting place of more than 1,000 soldiers who were killed at these two battles. While 300 markers indicate the graves of unknown soldiers, all the rest of the markers give the buried soldiers' home states and infantry. If the adornments are spare, the resulting atmosphere is deeply affecting to many.

After you've paid your respects to the men who gave up their lives, head west toward Pontotoc where before they gave up their lands, the Chickasaws enjoyed a remarkably vibrant culture, some of it still preserved for you to explore.

A gallop through history in Pontotoc.

Davy CrockettAt the Ingomar Temple Mounds, archeologists have found a fragment of green glass bottle and another artifact carrying a Spanish coat of arms, discoveries that have led to the belief that DeSoto made his second camp here in 1541 before he started for the Mississippi. Here in this area there is also history to be explored at the Chickasaw Village, which is situated not far from Long Town, where the Chickasaws won the Battle of Ackia. The Cates Place was used as a council house, archeologists believe, or the home of a chieftain.

There are a number of site markers and some actual structures of pioneer schools and homes for you to explore in and around Pontotoc. At the old Toccopola School grounds you'll find a marker for Betty Love Allen. Court action over property given to her by her father Thomas Love resulted in the establishment a Mississippi law allowing women to own property outright.   It was the first law in the nation granting women such a right. (The property in question, by the way, was a slave.)

There is some noteworthy history in this area that remains unmarked. After he was defeated for reelection to Congress in Tennessee, Davy Crockett drove a herd of horses down the Natchez Trace and built a horse corral in what is now Trace State Park. He ran a thriving horse business there until he heard of the fight in Texas and closed down the corral to join the combat.

A trip to Pontotoc would not be complete without a drive by the mansion romantically named Lochinvar, the pride of a Scotsman, naturally, and the birthplace of Robert Gordon, poet, Civil War hero and U.S. Senator. Another must-see is Pontotoc's antique post office and museum, the only working antique post office in the nation; on the wall is a mural commemorating that first marriage ceremony in the DeSoto camp.

From the post office, your route heads north, to the land of the King.

Deep into Elvis at the Birthplace.

Birthplace ChapelEvery year, more than 50,000 people visit the Birthplace, and every year there are 50,000 different impressions of this strikingly humble structure. The Birthplace speaks to people, in a universal language that strikes a chord with visitors from all over the world. For some, the spare simplicity offers a moment of poignancy, for others it makes for sheer disbelief.

After you step out of the Birthplace, prepare to wade deep into the early life and influences that helped shape a budding genius. At the nearby Elvis Museum, also part of the 15-acre Birthplace center, the scene is vividly set for young Elvis to take his bow. The true source of any genius is a mystery, but the Elvis Museum lets you see the sights, hear the sounds and explore the beliefs that animated Elvis' world.

Learn about the gospel at Gladys' Assembly of God church where Elvis sang, the blues that simmered into his soul as he wandered through Shakerag, the now legendary African American community. And to these, tap your foot to the blue grass Elvis heard on the Singin' and Pickin' Hillbilly, the radio show of Tupelo DJ Mississippi Slim. Elvis idolized Mississippi Slim, and the DJ would in turn encourage the young boy to make his first appearance on the Black and White Jamboree, a kind of amateur hour broadcast every Saturday from Tupelo's Courthouse lawn.

Finish your Birthplace journey with a stroll past the statuary-a life-size bronze of Elvis at 13, the year his family struck out for Memphis-then go down the commemorative walkway and through the "story wall." There's also a gift shop and a chapel, built from funds donated by Elvis fans.

Tupelo HardwareFrom the Birthplace, it's time to start your self-guided Elvis driving tour, to cruise through town to other important Elvis sites. One special highlight is the Tupelo Hardware Store, where the tall ceilings and the wide planks floors welcome you much the way they greeted Elvis and Gladys when they came in to pick out Elvis' 12th birthday gift. Elvis looked longingly at the shotguns, but eventually Gladys convinced him to choose a guitar instead, from a glass case just like the one in the store today.

You may be tempted to hang around in this old-fashioned emporium, where nails are yours by the pound and friendliness by the bushel, but you've got lots more to see, and more people to meet-including more royalty.

Characters welcome in Tupelo.

Chickasaw Chief Piomingo statueAfter checking out the sites telling the story of Elvis the King, be sure you take a spin past the life size bronze statue honoring another famous king, Chickasaw Chief Piomingo, who in 1786 negotiated the Treaty of Hopewell, officially opening relations between America and the Chicksaw Nation. The bronze, created by Hills sculptor Bill Beckwith, is just one example of the seamless blend of history, art and culture that makes Tupelo unique.

At the Oren Dunn City Museum, more than 3,000 city artifacts dating back 150 years make up the collection that's highlighted by an old Memphis street car that once served as a Tupelo diner. Other great museums: the African American Historical and Cultural Society Museum, the World War II museum, and the Tupelo Automobile Museum. In Tupelo, you can also roam with the largest herd of buffalo east of the Mississippi at the Tupelo Buffalo Park.

More of the great outdoors-the truly great outdoors-awaits you on the Natchez Trace Parkway. A 444-mile scenic route leading from Natchez to Nashville, the Natchez Trace holds some of nation's most remarkable and important history, not to mention spectacular scenery around every bend. Hiking, biking, and camping are only the beginning of the fun of this recreational paradise. But to get the most out of the Parkway's great outdoors, start indoors at Trace headquarters, where the context and history of the roadway are explained in depth in a collection of newly redesigned exhibits. Organized around 9 major subjects, the exhibits tell an irresistible story populated by larger than life characters-conquistadors and mound builders and Kaintuck boatmen who walked the Trace on foot after selling their goods and flatboats in New Orleans. And there's more, from flora and fauna to military actions, all offered up in a compact yet complete and completely compelling journey that can make your trip on the Parkway all the more meaningful.

You'll find another compelling piece of history further north at the Brice's Crossroads National Battlefield.

A battle and the birth of a legend at Brice's Crossroads.

Brice's CrossroadsThe battlefield at Brice's Crossroads has been called one of America's "most beautifully preserved," with wooded vistas and panoramic views. The battle at Brice's Crossroads has been called the turning point, not in the war but in the reputation-the legend-that was Nathan Bedford Forrest. After his victory at Okolona, Forrest determined that he would advance north to strike at Sherman's supply lines in Tennessee, while Sherman, equally determined to insure the safety of his supply lines, sent General Samuel Sturgis and his army to head off Forrest and destroy his army. Facing two to one odds, Forrest brought off a sensational victory, one that is recreated every year at the annual Battle of Brice's Crossroads reenactment. Even if you can't make that event, the battlefield's excellent Interpretive Center and walking trails open year-round take you into right into the heart of the conflict.

On the eve of the Brice's Crossroads, Forrest and his officers camped in Booneville, in the Cunningham House, a small frame dwelling where today you can still see the original newspaper pushed into the walls as insulation.

While you're in Booneville, be sure to cruise the historic train depot, with 1930's train caboose, and check out the George E. Allen Library, named for Booneville native George Allen. A millionaire before he was thirty, Allen answered Franklin Roosevelt's call to become commissioner of Washington, D.C. in 1933, and subsequently served both Truman and Eisenhower in high-level posts. He wrote about his experience in the witty memoir Presidents Who Have Known Me.

Your own memoir is yet to be written, but after your experience here in the Mississippi Hills, one thing's certain: you'll have plenty of material. Now it's time to start collecting. Stand By Your Beauty School

Born Virginia Wynette Pugh in Tremont, the future Tammy Wynette attended beauty school in Tupelo when she was a struggling young mother trying to make ends meet. According to country music lore, Wynette renewed her cosmetology license every year until her death because she wanted to have something “to fall back on.”

Certainly, the First Lady of Country Music had her share of hard times before she reached the top; in a battle to force her to return to him, her ex-husband kidnapped her children and attempted to have her committed. When she finally got her kids and packed up to head for Nashville, he came by to taunt her about her plan.

“Dream on,” he said. She did. She did a little singing, too.
 

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