David Baker loved Tupelo. Aside from time spent serving his country during WWII and a year in New York, Baker lived his entire 93 years in his hometown as a tireless promoter of the Arts and Humanities. In this episode, he looks back at the people and events that shaped his life with a keen and engaging wit.
Baker’s father opened a furniture store in downtown Tupelo in the 1920s. He recalls how they stayed open late on Saturday nights, and describes the downtown farmer’s market where his mother would shop for produce, haggling with vendors through the car window while he watched.
Not all of the memories were pleasant. On the evening of April 5th, 1936, a tornado struck Tupelo, killing 216 and injuring 700 more. Baker recounts how the storm ripped the roof off their house, and a neighbor’s cry for help.
In this interview, conducted in 2000, Baker discusses some of Tupelo's most notable characters, including Ms. Pledge Robinson. When Baker was growing up, Tupelo was known as the Jersey Cow capital of the world. He describes the cattle drives through downtown and Robinson’s crafty way of cashing in.
PODCAST BONUS: The success of Elvis Presley was always a source of pride for the residents of Tupelo. Baker remembers the Presley family and awarding Elvis his first prize as a singer.
PHOTO: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal obituary 2-12-16
Helen Rayne grew up living in her grandfather’s antebellum home in Natchez during the Great Depression. In this episode, she remembers the genteel lifestyle and how they entertained themselves without a lot of money. She also describes the dedication of her teachers and how much they were respected by everyone in the community.
During her lifetime, Rayne witnessed many changes, both in her hometown and the world in general. She recalls taking walks with friends, stargazing with her grandfather, and the lessons he tried to teach her. And Rayne reflects on how the depression affected the way people socialized as they looked for ways to hang on to beloved traditions in the once prosperous river town.
Podcast Extra: The Historic Natchez Tableaux was started in 1932 as a way to attract tourist dollars and celebrate the city’s cultural heritage. It features a tour of the city’s antebellum homes, plays and musical performances, and the crowning of a king and queen. Rayne reflects on the humble, early days of the tableaux.
PHOTO: Landowne, Natchez, 1938, by Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952, Library of Congress. Wikipedia.
In 1917, Mississippi passed the Bone Dry law, prohibiting the sale and consumption of all forms of alcohol. In this episode, LeGrand Capers remembers Vicksburg’s fifty saloons, and how the city reacted to their closing. After alcohol was outlawed in the U.S. in 1920, bootleggers began making and selling homemade liquor. Capers describes Vicksburg’s moonshine marketers and how police looked the other way.
Until it was shut down during WW I, Vicksburg was also home to a thriving red-light district. Capers recalls the city’s ornate palaces of gambling and prostitution. Born in Vicksburg in 1900, Capers came of age as the glory-days of the red-light district were waning. He discusses selling shoes to the ladies of #15 China Street as a boy, and spending time there when he was older.
May not be suitable for young historians.
PHOTO: Washington Street, Vicksburg, 1915
On August 7, 1975, LeGrand Capers sat down with the Center for Oral History for the first part of a two-day interview. A lifelong resident of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Capers or “Doc” as he was known to his friends, was considered the town historian. His natural curiosity, love of the Arts, and memory for details made him the right person for the job. Born in 1900, Capers knew many Civil War veterans and folks who had survived the months-long siege of the city President Lincoln considered essential to a northern victory. In this episode, Capers remembers the hours spent as a young man, listening to stories of battles fought and hardships endured.
The Vicksburg National Military Park was established in 1899 to commemorate the siege of the city during the Civil War. Capers remembers the construction of the various state monuments and searching for relics on the battlefield as a boy. In 1916, a movie about the Civil War was filmed in the park. Capers describes joining the Mississippi National Guard in order to work as an extra on the film. After filming was completed and the country prepared to enter WWI, Capers’ father had to pull strings to get his under-aged son’s enlistment in the Guard struck so he could return to school.
In 1917, a joint reunion of Confederate and Union veterans was held at the national park in Vicksburg. Capers recalls the raucous arguments between the former foes and one old-timer who was a little too frank for polite company. There is a bit of profane language in this last story so parents beware.
Kent Wyatt’s dad became the Delta State football coach in 1945, when Wyatt was 10 years old. In this episode, he recalls how their entire family lived in the Men’s dormitory while all the boys were off fighting in WWII. After the war was over, enrollment numbers spiked as returning veterans took advantage of the GI Bill. Wyatt discusses how the older men would play tricks on the young freshmen and sophomores.
Having attended the Delta State Demonstration School as a child and later, Cleveland High School, it was only natural that Wyatt would pick Delta State when it was time for college. He remembers playing basketball and becoming a cheerleader to spend time with the girl he liked. In 1956, the Delta State men’s basketball team won the regional tournament and advanced to the Nationals as Wyatt and his fiancé, Janice, tried to make time for a wedding and honeymoon between quarters. After postponing the honeymoon and preparing to compete in the Nationals in Kansas City, they were devastated when the Governor forbid them from participating because they might have to play against racially integrated teams.
PODCAST BONUS: Dr. Kent Wyatt served as President of Delta State University from 1975 until 1999. He reflects on how the school has grown since he first moved to Cleveland.
Founded in 1889, the Neshoba County Fair is the largest campground fair in the nation. In this episode, Mac Alford discusses his family’s long history with the fair beginning with the story of how his grandparents built their first fair cabin in the early 1900s. According to Alford, the early fair cabins were primitive structures built with reclaimed materials. He explains why the cabins require yearly maintenance and recalls how his father enjoyed the work.
Alford began coming to his family’s cabin when he was just a toddler. He recounts his earliest memories and the family food traditions that made their time at the fair so special. One of the traditional entertainments at the fair is harness horse racing. Alford remembers how his family would travel to different events to watch their friends compete.
One of Alford’s favorite things to do at the Neshoba County Fair is to sit on the front porch of his family’s cabin. He describes the peaceful mornings there and the joy of watching friends and former students pass by.
As the son of a Noxubee County sharecropper, Aubrey Freshour learned to be self-sufficient at a young age. During harvest time, he and his six siblings would pick cotton after they got home from school. Then it was time to do the chores and finish their homework by the light of a coal-oil lamp.
In this episode, Freshour recalls how his family grew their own food and cured their own meats. In the 1940s, living in the country meant finding creative ways to have fun. He remembers how they would swim during the summers, hold impromptu dances and spend New Year’s Eve serenading the neighbors.
As a teenager, Freshour looked for opportunities to make extra money. He remembers helping to build a new highway near his house and the primitive roadbuilding equipment they used.
Photo: Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History
The Illinois Central railroad and eight affiliated Harriman lines had traditionally dealt separately with each craft union (boilermakers, blacksmiths, etc.) giving the companies an unfair advantage during contract negotiations in the minds of the unions. When the unions formed a "System Federation" in June of that year, the companies refused to recognize the group and began preparing for a system-wide strike.
Harry Marsalis was a seventeen year old machinist apprentice working at the Illinois Central railroad maintenance shop in McComb when the strike began on September 30th. In this episode, he describes how the company prepared in advance of the strike by building walled compounds and hiring northern strikebreakers. According to Marsalis, when the strikebreaker train arrived in McComb three days later, 100 strikers responded to the rock-throwing strikebreakers by shooting the train cars to pieces before the train would escape to New Orleans. Reports of 30 dead and 100 wounded strikebreakers were denied by the company
Marsalis describes how the town became an armed camp as martial law was declared by the governor, complete with hundreds of state militiamen, machine gun towers and searchlights around the company offices.
After two long years the strike was considered a failure and many of the strikers including Marsalis were forced to leave town looking for work.
Carl Walters was born in Laurel, Mississippi in 1904. In this episode, he recalls life growing up there and covers a variety of topics including the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art (which opened in 1923 as a memorial to Lauren Eastman Rogers), as well as, the town’s leading families and their connection to the timber industry.
Walter’s best friend growing up was a boy named James Street, author of Tap Roots and The Biscuit Eater. He discusses his famous friend’s career as a newspaper man and novelist.
In 1963, Pete Johnson’s uncle, Paul B. Johnson, Jr, ran for Governor of Mississippi. In this episode, he discusses how his father managed his uncle’s campaign and the strategy they successfully employed. He also recalls his uncle's unflappable demeanor.
Because of term limits in place at that time, Gov. Johnson was unable to run for a second term and decided to run for Lt. Governor, instead. That year, Pete Johnson campaigned with his uncle. He shares some humorous stories of the characters he met as they went around the state like “Stiff” McCaffrey and “Blowtorch” Mason.
PHOTO: Moncrief Collection - Miss Dept. of Archives & History
F.W. Bishop was born on a farm near Shaw, Mississippi in 1897. In this episode, he recounts how as a boy, his job was to chase bears out of the cornfield. He remembers a steady diet of smoked bear meat. Growing up, Bishop worked a variety of part-time jobs to make ends meet. After high school, he married and spent his life in Cleveland. He discusses opening the town’s first filling station and being elected mayor.
During WWII, women took jobs traditionally held by men. Bonnie Stedman of McComb began working for the railroad at the age of 17. In this episode, she shares her memories of working nights in remote railroad offices around Mississippi and Louisiana, relying on a toy gun protection and catching a ride on a troop train to get back home.
In a podcast extra, Stedman remembers when the dairy strike of 1945 turned violent, resulting in broken cameras and spilled milk.
Samuel Olden had just graduated Ole’ Miss in the Spring of 1941 with a Masters in History when he saw a notice posted on a bulletin board that the State Department was seeking candidates for service in South America. When the Japan bombed Pearl Harbor seven months later, he was stationed at the legation in Quito, Ecuador.
After serving in the Navy during WWII, Olden returned home to Yazoo City. He recalls being invited to join a new government agency called the Central Intelligence Agency in 1948. In this episode, Olden discusses his first field assignment spying on the Russians in Vienna and why he finally decided the life of a spy wasn’t for him.
Glenn Hughes is the Extension Forestry Professor at Mississippi State University. In this episode, he discusses the importance of the Longleaf Pine to our state’s history.
Up until 1890, harvested trees were transported by teams of oxen. Hughes explains how advances in technology led to the clear-cutting of our pine forests. He also reveals South Mississippi's connection to America’s most famous battleship – the USS Constitution –commissioned in 1797 and known as Old Ironsides.
PODCAST EXTRA: Early in our state’s history, pine tree sap was harvested for a variety of uses. Hughes defines the term “naval stores” and explains its importance.
Fewell Thompson was born in Hattiesburg in 1891. In this episode, he recalls how, as a child, he frequented the home of his neighbor, Captain Hardy and his wife, Hattie Hardy, the town’s founder and namesake.
Thompson’s father had a horse and mule business in downtown Hattiesburg in the early 1900s. He discusses how his father would have the livestock shipped by train from Saint Louis and how people would come to town for supplies and spend the night camping in the "wagon lot" on Main Street.
During WWI the US Cavalry still rode horses into battle. Thompson remembers serving in the Army’s Veterinary Corps and the first time he tried to give a horse ether.
Hattiesburg’s role as a transportation hub earned it the nickname “The Hub City.” In a podcast extra Thompson recalls the many railroads that crisscrossed the town.
Charlie Barrett is the former Mayor of Shuqualak (Sugar Lock). It this episode, he recounts the story of how his great grandfather donated the land for the train station. He also recalls how the farmers would bring their cotton to be ginned on Saturday mornings and stay all day.
As a boy, Barrett knew all of the merchants in Shuqualak. He remembers one who would speak to him in Choctaw. Years later, Barrett, now a young business owner himself, struggled to make ends meet until one day, an old merchant made him the offer of a lifetime.
Photo credit: hickoryridgestudio49.blogspot.com
John Ellzie Carr joined the Tupelo Police Department in 1921 and served as the town's chief of police from 1925 until 1952. In this episode, Dudley Carr remembers his father’s natural talent for law enforcement. He recalls the city’s primitive jail and even more primitive alarm system.
In 1932, the infamous bank robber, Machine Gun Kelly held up the Citizen’s National Bank of Tupelo. Dudley Carr explains how the robbery inspired the city to buy its own Thompson submachine gun.
In a podcast extra, Carr looks back with pride at his father’s legacy and what it’s meant to his own career.
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Italian emigrants were encouraged to come to the Mississippi Delta to farm. In this episode, John Bassie of Bolivar County shares his family’s story of coming to America and how they taught him to love their adopted country.
For those Italian emigrants who made a home in the Mississippi Delta, the Fourth of July was always a big deal. Bassie recalls how his family celebrated with lots of eating and singing. He remembers those Independence Day celebrations as a cultural melting pot of food, music, and fun that involved the entire community.
Photo: Digital Public Library of America
Dr. Rodney Bennett was named President of The University of Southern Mississippi on February 7, 2013. In this episode, he discusses how he felt when an EF-4 tornado decimated the campus three days later.
Bennett was happily serving as Vice President of Student Affairs at the University of Georgia when he was selected as USM’s 10th President. He recalls accepting the position with a sense of purpose.
The morning after the tornado struck, Bennett addressed the 900 students, faculty and staff that had gathered to assist with the cleanup. He remembers searching for the right words to say on the ride over.
Podcast Extra: Bennett credits USM’s recovery since the storm to loyal alumni like Chuck Scianna. He stresses the importance of graduating eagles returning to the nest.
Stone Barefield of Hattiesburg ran for the State House of Representatives in 1959. In this episode, he remembers his campaign committee and the only speech he ever wrote. He also discusses the days before televised debates, when politicians relied on “stump speeches” to get their message to the voters.
Running for state representative of Forrest County meant doing a lot of walking. Barefield remembers meeting good folks and eating good food.
According to Barefield, South Mississippi was not being fairly represented in those days. In this podcast extra, he discusses House Speaker Walter Sellers and the fight for reapportionment.
In later years, Barefield pushed legislation for the establishment of the Longleaf Trace fittness trail, a rails-to-trails conversion of 41 miles of abandoned railroad track between Hattiesburg and Prentiss.
Prior to 1936, Highway 49 was a narrow, twisting, gravel road. In this episode, Chrysteen Flynt of D’lo, recalls learning to drive on Old 49 back in 1922.
For years, Flynt served as the unofficial historian for the town of D’lo. She notes that the rocky banks of the Strong River there were home to a water-driven sawmill as well as a meeting place for the Choctaws.
The origins of the name D’lo have always been a source of debate for residents and visitors alike. Flynt, attempts to set the record straight.
The D’lo’s largest employer was the Finkbine Lumber Company. In this podcast extra, Flynt remembers the YMCA the company built for the town and the silent movies that played there.
For decades the Illinois Central Rail Road Maintenance Shop was one of the largest employers in McComb. In this episode, Ray Ward remembers signing on as a shop apprentice back in 1953. Ward recalls working in the car shop and the assembly line-like manner they used to rebuild the cars.
In order to save money and improve safety, Illionois Central offered cash rewards for employee suggestions at its McComb Maintenance Shop. Ward describes how the program worked and some suggestions he made for his job.
Podcast Bonus: When he wasn’t working, Ward loved riding horses. He relates how one late night ride turned into a practical joke on his co-workers.
Prior to the development of passenger jet planes, Americans travelled by train.
In this episode, Sam Page remembers when the Panama Limited came through Summit, Mississippi for the first time.
Years later, as ticket agent for the Illinois Central station in McComb, MS, Sam Page recalls being a very busy man selling tickets to destinations near and far. He discusses how many Mississippians rode The City of New Orleans to visit family members in Chicago, St. Louis and other northern cities.
The streamlined passenger train known as the Green Diamond ran from Chicago to St. Louis until 1947, when it was moved to Mississippi and renamed the Miss Lou.
Sam Page reminisces about riding the Miss Lou from McComb to New Orleans.
PODCAST EXTRA: Page discusses his time with the railroad and the people who depended on the trains for transportation like legendary baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean.
PHOTO: The Illinois Central Green Diamond later moved to Jackson, MS and renamed the Miss Lou.
Dan McDaniel grew up in Bude, Mississippi. In this episode, he discusses why the town’s barbershop was central to the lives of so many. He also recalls the sawmill work whistle and the men walking home for lunch.
Today, most of us take indoor plumbing for granted. McDaniel remembers when plumbing was a luxury.
Because lumber was transported by train, all sawmill towns were connected by rail. McDaniel explains that back then, passenger trains were the most common way to travel.
Photo Credit: Gil Hoffman Collection
Family history is our personal connection to the past. In this week's episode, Ethel Patton D’Anjou of Claiborne County tells the story of her great grandfather’s escape from slavery. She also shares the tale of how her great grandmother, a native American was spared from the Trail of Tears by her birth parents and ended up in Mound Bayou.
PODCAST EXTRA: Alcorn University was founded in 1871 to educate the descendants of former slaves. Ethel Patton D’Anjou recounts her grandparent’s decision to come to Alcorn and open their own business. She hopes that her family’s history continues to provide inspiration for generations to come.