Tuesday, August 30, 2011 (Northwest Mississippi)—I had a midday start for my annual birthday ride, so I decided to keep things close to home and explore old Highway 61 from Memphis down to Tunica.
Today’s modern, divided US 61 through northern Mississippi speeds casino traffic along a fairly straight course, passing by relatively new apartment complexes, gas stations, and schools built with casino taxes.
Old Highway 61 is a different story. The old road is a two-lane route linking one little crossroads with the next. The businesses are more likely to be old cotton gins than gas stations or groceries. The road is full of sharp 90-degree turns as it borders fields.
Modern US 61 is surrounded by modern crops, like casinos and golf courses and motels and tourism. Old Highway 61 is edged by cotton, milo (a type of sorghum used for animal feed) and soybean.
Modern US 61 has little to offer in terms on interesting vistas or historical sites. A trip on old Highway 61 is like a step back in time.
Leaving Memphis and Tennessee, US 61 follows the same path as old 61, down the bluffs that have provided natural protection from Mississippi River flooding. About midway down the hillside, the levee system that (usually) contains the river begins.
The top of the levee is a gravel road and in most places is marked as private property. Individuals farm and graze the land inside the levee, and cattle crossing grates are common along the levee road.
Next to US 61, at the levee road, is a monument to Thomas Gregory Dabney, the chief engineer of the levee in the “Yazoo-Mississippi Delta” region (from Tennessee down to Vicksburg). The Levee Board describes his contributions:
Thomas Gregory Dabney has been described as the “father” of the levee system in the Yazoo-Mississippi Levee District. A native of Raymond and educated there, he fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and after the war worked on both levees and the new railroad system in Louisiana. When he became Chief Engineer of the Yazoo-Mississippi Levee District in 1884, he found little more than the memory of a small levee. Before he ended his tenure, he had supervised the placement of two million cubic yards on a line almost 100 miles long. He established and followed plans and specifications which provided levees in the Yazoo-Mississippi Levee District that were 20 percent larger than those recommended by the U.S. government. One of his biographers wrote that Dabney negotiated levee building contracts totaling $15 million—a huge figure in those times—and that these negotiations were completed “without the slightest breath of suspicion as to any contract.”
Just after the levee road is Highway 161, a previous attempt to bypass the rural town of Walls. A marker designates the road as Fielding Wright Memorial Highway. Wright held several high-ranking elected positions, from senator to governor, between 1928 and 1952. In 1948, he ran for vice-president on the States’ Rights Democratic Party (“Dixicrats”) ticket with presidential candidate Strom Thurmond.
At Walls, Old Highway 61 heads due west. Taking a right on Norfolk Road (north), will take you to New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. The small cemetery at the church has some grave markers dating back to the 19th century, and is the final resting place of blues legend and iconoclast Memphis Minnie. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker is near her grave. (For more on Memphis Minnie, see my article at Postings.)
Back on old Highway 61, continuing south, you’ll pass through dots on the map, the historic towns of Lake Cormorant and Newport. Along this route, modern US 61 is generally about a mile east, on the far side of cotton or soybean fields.
Just before the Tunica County line, I passed one of several old pecan groves that I saw along the way. The trees in these old groves are still alive and producing pecans, but the undergrowth of weeds (including poison ivy) makes it clear nobody is collecting the nuts. Pecans can live for up to three hundred years, and these old trees likely date back to pre-Civil War days.
Another crossroads was once the town of Penton. An old cotton gin building still stands. Based on the insulation on the roof and some of the other items laying around, the building was used up until fairly modern times. A sign on the building is mostly faded, but it indicates the building once housed a “Hardwicke-Etter Cotton Ginning and Cleaning System”. Apparently this was the most popular brand of cotton gin in the first half of the 20th century. None of the equipment is left in the building.
At the Tunica county line, old Highway 61 turns off to the right, and is a parking lot for casino limos and shuttle buses. The road follows through the vehicles and along the very edge of the levee, the only place it does so along this route. A couple old escalators were stored alongside the road, left over from a remodeling, or perhaps damaged by this year’s floods.
On the other side of the levee is Harrah’s casino and one of the hotels. I used the old road to get a picture of the casino under about seven feet of Mississippi River water back in May.
On the far side of the casino, old Highway 61 picks up again at what was once the old town of Clack. The general store at Clack was where Son House recorded blues for the Library of Congress, and a Mississippi Blues Trail marker notes the spot. (See my article at Postings.)
Harrah’s also has a skeet shooting range for hunters practicing their gamebird (grouse, quail and pheasant) shooting skills. Each station had hundreds of shotgun shells, and skeet cannons were placed to send clay discs in a variety of directions.
Further along the old road, a side trip on Casino Strip Resort Boulevard took me to the business office of the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation office. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker commemorates the building, which dates back to the 1830s. (See my article at Postings.)
Back on old Highway 61 at the crossroads town of Robinsonville is the Hollywood Café. The restaurant is immortalized by Marc Cohn’s 1991 song Walking in Memphis, in which he mentions singing with a gospel singer named Murial who used to perform at the café on Fridays.
Before leaving the casino area, I stopped at the Tunica RiverPark, a river museum and aquarium. The main building is still closed for renovations following the May flooding, although the desk clerk said water was only about three inches deep inside the building. The river was about 41 feet lower than it was at its peak in May, and the far side of the river was a dry, sandy beach.
Heading back down old Highway 61 took me into the city of Tunica. Just north of the town is Indian Mound Road. An old mound sits in the middle of a field, and I rode out to it. It’s covered by mature trees, and you might not even notice it among the trees if you’re not looking for it. The Mississippian cultures that built these mounds were all but extinct by the time Hernando DeSoto and other European settlers arrived, and with no written records, it’s unclear whether the mounds were for the ruling class, for security, or for ceremonial purposes.
(The Silver Bullet finally turned 4,000 miles on Indian Mound Road.)
Finally arriving in downtown Tunica, I visited the Mississippi Blues Trail marker commemorating Harold “Hardface” Clanton. His marker faces the Tunica police station, which seems appropriate since Clanton’s wealth came from several illegal gambling halls and bars. (See my article at Postings.)
The day was getting late, and it was time to start making my way north for a shower and dinner, so I made my way back up the same route and across DeSoto County. My afternoon ride covered only 173 miles round-trip, but took about five hours. Having not spent much time on these roads in the past few years, it was nice to reconnect with Delta history.