Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Research Trip to Attala and Holmes Counties - Part 2

When I first posted here about my research trip for the book I am writing about Tillman Branch, we were talking to the postmaster in the post office after photographing a beautiful and old mural above the service counter there. When I told the postmaster that I was looking for information and locations of former nightclubs and "juke joints" around Durant, he quickly informed me that I should talk to a local man named Sonny McCrory. He explained that I would find McCrory just a few doors down at his auto repair shop, but since it was around noon, I might find him at lunch further down Highway 51 south at Mile-A-Way/Caffey's, a local eatery. So off we went to search for McCrory. We stopped first at the auto shop and found out from an employee that he was, indeed, at Caffey's, as the local's call the restaurant, having lunch. Since we needed to eat lunch, too, we drove down to the restaurant. Based simply on the number of vehicles in the parking lot, Caffey's appeared to be the most popular place in town. Although we had just missed McCrory, a regular, according to the manager, we decided to eat lunch before heading back to his auto shop. As it turned out, the decision to have lunch at Caffey's was an excellent one. The restaurant offered a variety of items on its menu, as well as a hot buffet lunch each day that included a small salad bar, iced tea or a soft drink, and hot rolls, and dessert. After finishing off a piece of homemade cake with made-from-scratch caramel icing, we made an on-the-spot decision to eat there again the next day. 

Shortly after leaving Caffey's, we were back at Sonny McCrory's auto repair shop, a business that he operates with the help of his son. McCrory, an older man who is not in good health, was friendly and welcoming. After a series of introductions that included some brief details about the book, my maiden name, my father's given name, the names of my grandparents, and the names of a series of aunts and uncles, McCrory was ready to talk to me. I proceeded with the interview by asking McCrory to confirm information I had that said over a dozen nightclubs existed in Durant during the early-mid years of the twentieth century. McCrory's quick reply was "Heck, at one time, there were 26 of them!" And he continued by telling me the names and owners of some of these clubs, including "The Blind Pig," "The Green Lantern," "The Rainbow Garden," "Club 11," "Club 12," "The Mile-A-Way," (the site of the present restaurant), and "The Blue Flame Cafe." The latter, he added, was owned by Tillman Branch, and was located east of the railroad tracks on Highway 12, the highway that goes to Kosciusko. McCrory lived in the area during the time these clubs were operating, and he was willing to share some valuable insight in how pervasive the sale of illegal liquor and bootlegging was in Holmes County during that particular time. Before our conversation ended, I had discovered McCrory and I are distant cousins. As we were ending our conversation, his receptionist volunteered that one of her cousins is married to one of my brothers! Suddenly, I'm thinking about how much else I don't know about some of my relatives! When I finish the book I am writing, it sounds as if I need to make a few additions to my family seems to be growing branches and twigs at an extraordinary rate of speed. 

Source: Private Photo Collection

Highway Marker in Downtown Durant, Mississippi
Halfway between Kosciusko and  Lexington
Holmes County, Mississippi
After thanking Sonny McCrory for his time and for the wealth of information he conveyed and telling him I hoped to see him next year when the book is published, we drove over to Lexington, the county seat of Holmes County. The fifteen mile or so drive was a pleasant one, and I admired the dark green, kudzu covered hills, and the pastoral scenic countryside along the way. There was
wasn't a moment to stop and wander or to take photos along Highway 12, however, since the time McCrory's interview took was unplanned, and I already had an appointment scheduled to meet up with Mrs. Eloise Alderman in Lexington that same afternoon. I had been referred to Mrs. Alderman, who prefers to be called simply "Eloise," by the town's librarian, Laura Gilmore Lawson. If you have been following my blog posts about this research trip, you won't be surprised to hear that Laura is a cousin of mine. Our connection is closer than some of the other cousins I have met along the way, since Laura's aunt is one of my mother's first cousins. I forgot to mention that Eloise went to high school with my mother, and no, Eloise and I are not cousins, at least as far as my mother or Eloise know.

According to Laura and some other folks I talked to before the trip, Eloise is one of the town's unofficial historians and is known for the extensive scrapbooks she keeps that contain local news clippings. Eloise's scrapbooks document decades of county activities that detail the lives of local residents, and her collection is truly a genealogist's gold mine.  If you have ancestors with Holmes County roots, you may want to talk to Eloise. Prior to the trip, Eloise had already told me that her clippings do not include information about any of the county's illegal activities that involved liquor, gambling, etc., so she is unable to help me directly with that subject matter.  But during our phone conversations prior to leaving on this trip, Eloise had told me that she knew several older men in town who actually knew Tillman. She continued by saying the men were willing to talk to me when I got to town, and she was available to make the introductions. So we met Eloise, and she generously offered to direct us to the locations where I interviewed the men that afternoon. Through this series of interviews, I gained much valuable knowledge and insight in the life and business activities of Tillman, information that I will later incorporate into the book. I thanked Eloise for her help, and we made tentative plans to meet again next year after the book comes out. According to Eloise, some of her friends have already told her they want to purchase copies of the book when it is published, and I thanked her for telling them about it. 

As we made our way out of Lexington, I stopped to take a few photos that are relevant to the book. First, I photographed the historic Holmes County Courthouse that serves as the county's center of justice. Although the original courthouse has been rebuilt several times throughout the years, the current brick structure is old and is an absolutely amazing piece of architecture. Located at the center of the town square, the courthouse, with its large clock tower, is still the focal point of downtown Lexington. 

Source: Private Photo Collection (2013)

Holmes County Courthouse
On The Square
Lexington, Mississippi
Just a few blocks down the hill and off the square sits the old Holmes County Jail. Replaced by a newer facility a number of years ago, the now-abandoned structure is a sad reminder of the decades of civil unrest that plagued so many places in the south throughout the 1950's and 1960's. This particular photo is especially important to the book, since it is where the young black man who shot and killed Tillman Branch was taken after his arrest on Easter Sunday 1963.
Source: Private Photo Collection (2013)

Old Holmes County Jail
Lexington, Mississippi
I could not visit Lexington, of course, without seeing my aunt and uncle, my mother's only sibling and his wife, who live just off the square in a house where they have lived for over 50 years. My uncle and my mother grew up in the Coxburg community of Holmes County, near Lexington, where their parents grew up and where many of our younger cousins still live. We had a lovely, but brief, visit with the two of them, and left after declining their sweet invitation to accompany them to a church supper at their church in Coxburg. Although we already had dinner plans for the evening, our decision to decline the invitation was further complicated by the the aroma of fried chicken and freshly baked bread coming from my aunt's kitchen! 

As we traveled away from Lexington on Highway 17, headed for Interstate 55 South, we passed The Little Red Schoolhouse, a historic landmark near Richland, Mississippi, known as the birthplace of the Order of the Eastern Star. The organization was founded by Dr. Robert Morris, a Boston-born teacher who lived and taught in Oxford, Mississippi. Dr. Morris was a member of the Fraternal Order of Freemasons, and while teaching in Oxford, he had earned the title of Master Mason. Dr. Morris was soon recruited by some Holmes County citizens and educators to teach at the newly established Mount Sylvan Academy in Richland, Mississippi, in the now-historic small brick building known in later years as The Little Red Schoolhouse.

Source: Private Photo Collection (2013)

The Little Red Schoolhouse
The Birthplace of the Order of the Eastern Star
Richland, Mississippi
And it was during his time in Richland that Dr. Morris founded the Order of the Eastern Star, an organization for women only, since female membership in the Masonic Order was prohibited. From its humble beginnings in rural Holmes County, the Order of the Eastern Star grew and multiplied, and currently there are chapters of the Order throughout the world.

Source: Private Photo Collection (2013)

Historic Marker
Richland (Holmes County) Mississippi
As we entered Interstate Highway 55 somewhere south of Canton and north of Gluckstadt, a former German farming village and now a burgeoning portion of affluent and ever-expanding Madison County, Mississippi, I noticed something I have seen before in the Mississippi Delta - small ponds, about an acre or so in size. For decades now, farmers throughout the Delta have transitioned lands depleted by more than a century of cotton and soybean farming into catfish farms. Now a large money-making part of the state's economy, raising catfish in small ponds, is a newer form of agriculture known as "aquaculture."  But these ponds in Madison County did not appear to be true catfish ponds. There were no automatic feeding devices on the sides of the ponds, and, at a glance, they appeared to be more shallow than catfish ponds in the Mississippi Delta region.  I also noticed a piece of machinery sitting in some of the ponds, a device that looked much like the apparatus used to harvest crawfish in ponds that I have seen in the past in south Louisiana and in coastal areas of Texas. Perhaps this portion of the South, once known as the land of cotton, is evolving into the land of catfish and crawfish. 

Before we knew it, we were in heavy traffic created by the bustling suburban sprawl along I-55 that indicated we were almost to our next destination.

To be continued......

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