Good and Old
By Paul Gerald
MAY 4, 1998: Vicksburg, Mississippi, is an entertaining but sort of weird place. I mean, its perfectly nice, but its such a slice of the Old South. It even calls itself The Red Carpet City of the South, where Southern hospitality awaits you. Essentially, Vicksburgs fame and charm are both based on its past, for good or ill and Vicksburg refuses to let its past leave it, just like it refused to let the Mississippi River leave it.
You have to admire Vicksburg for sticking it out, and you should go visit it for a day or two to enjoy its pleasures. You should also take the Great River Road, which I wrote about last time and which in that part of the world is U.S. 61. If you do, Vicksburgs weirdness will hit you before you even get into town.
When you first see Margarets Grocery, Market, and Bible Class, where a sign says All is welcome Jews and Gentiles, youll think youve stumbled upon the worlds largest Lego building. Most of Margarets outlying decorations are in fact red and white cinder blocks stacked one row wide and impossibly high. Unfortunately, we were there on a Sunday, so I cant speak for whats inside. There was a trailer nearby filled with folks impeccably dressed for Sunday, though.
Central Vicksburg is like a sea of old bed-and-breakfast homes with a couple of big casino-islands in the middle of it. It seems like every house in town thats more than 80 years old and there are a lot of them is a B&B. Many of them are opened up during the citys two big pilgrimages in March and October, during which time people dress up in period garb and dance and frolic from one historic-home tour to the next.
We took a tour of one home, Stained Glass Manor, home of the greatest of the Vicks the Vicks being a local family which, as you might imagine, was pretty influential around Vicksburg. It was a beautiful house filled with more stained-glass windows than your typical Catholic church. Some of them were done by Mr. Tiffany himself, and apparently Frank Lloyd Wright was an intern on the project, until he got chased out of town for chasing the towns ladies too vigorously.
The guy who gave us this tour made reference to a view of the South I had forgotten about. He was telling us that an old Greek Revival plantation home in nearby Port Gibson called Windsor, whose ruins (just the columns) are still there, was in its time the great home of the South. Said he, North Carolina had the Biltmore Estate, Virginia had Monticello, and the South had Windsor. Im going to call my friends in Virginia and North Carolina and break the news to them that they dont live in the South.
Did you know that Coca-Cola was first bottled in Vicksburg? Well, it was, and you can still tour the place where it happened. A local candy-maker wanted to sell Coke to outlying areas, so he bottled some up, sent the first batch to the Coke people in Atlanta, and soon became Cokes sole bottler and, one would assume, a bazillionaire. Today his former shop is a museum of Coke memorabilia with a 1900-vintage soda fountain, where theyll make you a fine Coke float.
We needed that Coke float, because Vicksburg is in the middle of the Tamale Belt. I dont know the history of Mississippis thing with tamales, but I do know two things: Theyre deep-fried, and there was a guy in Vicksburg named Sully who made it to age 101 eating tamales all the way. His shop is still there, even if Sully isnt, and after a half-dozen or so of Sullys tamales bathed in chili, sugar and caffeine are called for if one is to continue driving.
Without a doubt, the big deal in Vicksburg is to tour the Civil War battlefield, where the Yankees besieged the town for 47 days during the War Between the States or so our tour guide told us. You can drive around the place totally free of charge, but to have any idea of what youre looking at, hire one of the parks guides to ride around with you (for $20 per car for two hours).
It sounds weird to have somebody sitting in your car with you, and felt that way at first, but as soon as Betty started telling us the significance of what the sites were, and telling us what the siege was like, we even forgot how upset she was that that lame Confederate general Johnston wouldnt leave Jackson to help free Vicksburg. She told us all about how the Union troops had to dig trenches to advance against the Confederates, how sometimes those trenches were so close together that the soldiers would chat among themselves in between bouts of shooting at each other, and how Missourians from both sides met to exchange gifts and pleasantries every night.
We also got to hear some more Vicksburg weirdness: In 1917, there was a reunion of siege veterans, most of them in their 70s, which erupted into what a local newspaper writer called The Walking-Stick War. Betty also told us that because Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the Fourth of July wasnt celebrated there until 1947. It was finally reinstated when General Eisenhower visited to dedicate the park, an event which was referred to locally as Vicksburgs Second Surrender.
During the Civil War, one of the Union armys first ideas was to make the Mississippi River bypass Vicksburg so their ships could sail past its guns. They dug and dug, but the river didnt move, until 1876 when it did so overnight, of its own volition. But the Corps of Engineers there are still something like 3,500 engineers in town redirected the Yazoo River, so Vicksburg is a waterfront town once again.
I cant say Vicksburg is the most exciting place on Earth, but if youd like to drive a few hours, take in some history, and stay in an antebellum bed-and-breakfast, by all means fire up that auto and head on down.
For more information, call the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-221-3536, or surf to www.vicksburg.org.
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