As a Lauderdale, I have, of course, become rather jaded by treasures. Why, when I was a young lad, we decorated our Christmas tree with Faberge eggs, played checkers using Morgan silver dollars, and scattered rubies and diamonds throughout the Mansion, just to make the floors sparkle.
But though I’ve grown used to treasures crafted from precious metals and minerals, sometimes another kind of jewel — composed of little more than paper and cardboard — really makes my mouth drop open.
And so it was, just a few weeks ago, when Laura Cunningham with the History Department of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library asked if I’d like to see hundreds of old snapshots she had compiled into an archive with the rather prosaic name of the Joe Bennett Collection.
The name didn’t catch my fancy, but just one glimpse of a few photos did: astonishing views of circus elephants lumbering down Main Street, men and boys playing with miniature race cars, families in old-timey bathing costumes splashing on the banks of the Mississippi, and, best of all, rare scenes of East End Park, the turn-of-the-century amusement resort in Midtown promoted as “The Coney Island of the Mid-South.” I’ve written before about East End, but the only images I found were old postcard views of a lake (ho-hum), and a rather forlorn-looking merry-go-round. The Bennett Collection, however, shows the park in all its glory, when it was a magnet for vaudeville acts, circus performers of all kinds, and home of the original Zippin Pippin roller coaster.
Where on earth had these photos been all this time? It seems that in 2003 the owner of the Roy Good Appliance Store on Summer came across a box of crumbling photo albums and scrapbooks in his basement. Not knowing much about the contents, he donated his find to the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the main library, and that’s where Cunningham came across them. Almost immediately she recognized many of the scenes in the photos, and based on scribbled inscriptions on the backs of some photos, she realized that Joe Bennett was the subject — if not the photographer — of many of them. That’s significant, because Bennett was a bandleader who performed at East End Park and later the Fairgrounds Casino, two of the most popular attractions in our city’s history.
But how his personal collection of photos and scrapbooks — comprising more than a thousand images and other items — ended up in a store basement is a mystery, along with the identities of many of the people pictured here. So, if anybody recognizes a family member, or a familiar location, please tell Laura Cunningham about it. In the meantime, enjoy this journey into the past, as Memphians from a century ago enjoyed the good old summertime.
“In the good old summer time, In the good old summer time, Strolling thro’ the shady lanes With your baby mine; You hold her hand and she holds yours, And that's a very good sign That she’s your tootsie wootsie In the good old summer time.”Music by George Evans Lyrics by Ren Shields
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In the early 1900s, nobody went bathing unless they were almost fully clothed. These unidentified men and women, splashing along the banks of the Mississippi River, wore the latest fashions, including swimming caps for the ladies.
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A scribbled caption ID’s this couple as “Mr. and Mrs. Howard Chapman Boaz.” The photo was taken at East End Park in 1912 with the original Zippin Pippin in the background. When East End closed the roller coaster was moved to the Mid-South Fairgrounds.
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The woman in this 1912 photo, identified as Anna Bennett, is working the “ticket office” for B.H. Nye’s Show — a traveling carnival at East End Park.
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The Frill Act, 1910, featured high-wire performers, such as this gentleman seated in a chair while balancing on a tightrope.
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A 1912 view of the “Dixie-Land” show area at the Tri-State Fairgrounds.
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The caption says it all: “Contented: Lena, Joe, Agnes.” That’s Joe Bennett in the center, in this tranquil boating scene.
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A parade of soapbox derby cars, pushed from behind, makes its way down Main Street in front of a trolley.
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Two boys pose with their racing-styled soapbox derby car, complete with fake exhaust pipes.
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“Agnes and Lena,” in what seems to be a rural farm scene that could easily be in the center of Memphis now.
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This woman in black tights is probably a circus performer. Just imagine how “scandalous” such a costume would have been in 1912.
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Then as now, a tennis match was a good way to spend a summer afternoon. Joe Bennett stands second from the left; the other players are unknown.
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The ID’s of this dapper gentleman with two little boys remain a mystery — so far.
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The Princess Theatre had just opened on Main Street when this photograph was taken in 1912. It was demolished in 1972.
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How many times have elephants lumbered down Main Street? This view, looking south on Main towards Union, shows a circus parade.
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