photography by Laura Jean Hocking
12:00 PM: Friday in the Park
W e roll into Tupelo about noon. Our hour-and-a-half trip from Memphis down Highway 78 has taken us past the city’s industrial outskirts through the rolling, red clay of the Mississippi hill country. With me is my wife, Laura Jean Hocking, serving as mission photographer.
We park on Main Street and pop into the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Inside the lobby are runners registering for the Gum Tree 10K race.
“I’ve run it five years in a row, but I’m not running this year,” says Philip Mathis, clutching a fat packet of registration materials. “We have a soccer team of five little girls who will be running.” Mathis is a Tupelo native who loves the town. “It’s awesome,” he says. “It seems like they’ve got a different festival every weekend.”
Also signing up is DJ Black Caesar. Sporting a Superman tattoo on his forearm, he leans easily on a hardwood cane with a compass embedded in the hilt. He tells us he has had six strokes, and wants to participate in the race as part of his recovery. “This is my first time. I walk every day, so I thought, why not participate in this great event?” He is only planning on covering 2 miles of the 6.1-mile course. We admire the spectacular Mississippi spring outside. “I hope it’s nice like this tomorrow,” he says.
Returning to the car, we decide to take a moment in Fair Park, a broad greensward where kids play in a fountain, watched over by smiling parents. “Tons of sunshine and picnics!” says Cindy Autrey, a nanny who is watching her charge, a 5-year-old named Henry, splash happily. “It’s very popular. I’ve lived here all my life, 30 years,” Autrey says. “I love it. It’s hard to picture myself anywhere else.”
Over by city hall, an outdoor photography exhibit by Paul Caldwell commemorates a Tupelo tragedy. A year ago this weekend, an F3 tornado ripped through the town, leaving a path of destruction in its wide wake.
As we leave the park, we encounter Kyle Chism and his bulldog Hercules. He says he’s here for the food trucks, as the stout, friendly pup strains at his leash trying to get to the park. “My child calls him Bully, because of the Mississippi State mascot. That’s about all he answers to any more.”
12:48 PM: Not the Mississippi You Grew Up In
W e decide to lunch at Sao Thai, a pleasantly appointed restaurant away from downtown on Gloster Street. Laura orders a tofu fried rice curry and spring roll from the lunch menu, while our server steers me towards the basil ground chicken. Both dishes are delicious, and out of character from the stereotypical Southern comfort food you would expect from a small town in North Mississippi.
“This is a very different Mississippi from where I grew up,” Laura says. “Back then, if you wanted to be a vegetarian, all you got to eat was french fries.”
We ask to speak with the chef, but he is too busy filling orders in the kitchen, so we move on.
1:56 PM: The Royal Baby
B y far the biggest tourist attraction in North Mississippi is the Elvis Presley Birthplace Park. Set in a nondescript neighborhood is a small, grassy park crowded with tourists from England and Japan. Elvis was born here on January 8, 1935, in a house his father built on a plot of land that was a dairy pasture a few months before.
As old Memphis hands, we are well-versed in Presley lore, but we still learn things from the museum’s main exhibit. As a 10-year-old sporting Harry Potter wire-rimmed glasses, Elvis sang a ballad called “Old Shep” at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on October 3, 1945. He got fifth place in the youth category.
Eleven years later, he would again play the fair, this time as a budding superstar. When he discovered his old house was for sale, Elvis convinced the city fathers to buy it and create a park for kids from the poor side of Tupelo. Years later, his childhood friend Janelle McComb championed the creation of the museum here.
Inside Vernon Presley’s tiny sharecropper’s shack, an English tourist quizzes the tour guide. There was no electricity? The family were evicted because they couldn’t make payments on a $180 loan? She can’t seem to wrap her mind around the crushing poverty the King of Rock-and-Roll was born into.
In the gift shop, they sell blue suede shoes.
3:01 PM: Hardware
W e return downtown to check into the Hilton Garden Inn, with its fresh new hotel smell. Afterwards, we make a swing down Main Street, which is packed with small stores. We duck into Tupelo Hardware, where Gladys Presley bought Elvis his first guitar for $11. It’s a classic country store, a long, thin room lined with wooden shelves stacked to the ceiling. A rolling ladder allows the clerks access to the goods, both practical, like plumbing supplies, and impractical, like T-shirts. One clerk is answering Elvis questions from a Japanese couple at the register. He’s clearly done this before.
3:42 PM: Classic Cars
T he Tupelo Automobile Museum turns out to be the unexpected highlight of the trip. Frank Spain helped build both the first AM radio station and the first TV station in Tupelo. Later, he co-founded pioneering telecom company MCI. Having done well in life, Spain was a classic car collector, and when he saw casino mogul William H. Harrah’s collection auctioned off, he vowed to create a museum in Tupelo to keep his collection intact.
More than 150 cars, dating back to the nineteenth century, are lined up chronologically in the 120,000-square-foot museum. There’s a real Tucker 48, a survivor of only 51 produced in, yes, 1948, by engineering genius Preston Tucker; the company folded the following year. The last Tucker 48 that sold at auction brought over $2 million. Later on the tour, I see my first Delorean DMC-12, manufactured in the 1980s. I am kind of shocked by how shoddy the “advanced” aluminum and fiberglass car looks compared to the handmade treasures from the turn of the century. I guess that’s why they never caught on.
“I hope they like lots of photographs of cars,” Laura says of this magazine’s editors.
6:00 PM: Dinner at Kermit’s
T he sun is low in the sky, and clouds are rolling in as we walk through the perfect evening to Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen. Meeting us there is Jennie Bradford Curlee from the CVB. She’s a Tupelo native (a “Tupeloean,” she says) who left for college in Alabama and a stint in Memphis before returning. “This is not the town where I grew up,” she says. “There’s so much opportunity. Every day, something new opens up.”
The city’s population is about 30,000, but during the work week it swells to almost 100,000 as people stream into the city to work in the several manufacturing facilities, such as the Toyota Corolla plant, that have sprung up in North Mississippi. Two banks (Bancorp South and Renasant) are headquartered here.
I ask about all the construction we’ve seen around downtown, and Curlee informs me that there’s a walking and biking trail being built to connect the Elvis Birthplace Park with the city center. “We have a lot of international visitors because of Elvis, and they love to walk. It’ll be a great thing for them.”
Our appetizer arrives: a long plate with feta cheese, pita bread, cured pork belly, house pickles, house celery slaw, Estes honeycomb, and gouda cheese. Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen is a farm-to-table restaurant owned by Mitch McCaney and Sam Copeland. The pair’s other culinary venture in Tupelo, the Neon Pig, also has a butcher shop that supplies both restaurants with cured meats sourced, as is practically everything else on the menu, from 25 farms across North Mississippi, Southwest Tennessee, and Alabama.
For the main course, I have a wood-grilled duck breast wrapped in bacon with smashed purple potatoes; fresh, hydroponically grown tomatoes; mixed vegetables, and house-made pork skins as a garnish. My normally vegetarian companion is wooed by the organic, grass-fed beef and decides to try a petit New York strip. Both meals are exceptional, and I get to finish off Laura’s steak, dipping it in a side of smoky bacon sauce.
7:54 PM: Sunset in the Park
A t Golden Hour, we return to Fair Park, which is located on the site where Elvis played two momentous hometown shows. A statue of him stands in the park, modeled after an iconic photograph of The King taken at his homecoming show on September 26, 1956. The statue was the brainchild of Tupelo native son turned Memphis underground filmmaker, Mike McCarthy.
“Roger Marshultz was a cub reporter from up East, and he was given the crappiest spot down in front,” McCarthy says of Elvis’ Tupelo show. “There were a lot of people there who were curious about this guy who had taken over pop culture. The local photographers, like Cary Wood, were allowed onstage to take pictures, because they were trusted and known in town. But Marshultz, because of his forced perspective, winds up getting this “God created Man” pose. It was an image I was sort of stuck on, because I knew my mother was in the crowd that day.
“The event itself was, to me, the greatest rock-and-roll event of all time. It’s the prodigal son returning in the miracle year of 1956. His life was half over at that point. He was not just the King of Rock-and-Roll, he was the king of all pop culture, and he was returning home to a place that he used to try to sneak into for free, because he didn’t have the money to get into the fair. It’s the American dream wrapped up in one single day, and it happened in Tupelo.”
We wander over to Crave, a small coffee shop with bare brick walls bursting with people getting ready for the Gum Tree Festival. Where’s the action? I ask our server. “The Blue Canoe on Gloster,” he says without hesitation. Over bread pudding, Laura and I debate going out for some live music, but the cottonwood trees have been inflaming our allergies, and we have an early start in the morning, so we decide to turn in.
8:00 AM: The Runaround
W e’re supposed to have brunch and watch the 10K at the home of Jennie Bradford Curlee, but we discover that the streets have already been blocked off for the race. After confusedly driving around trying to find an alternate route, we text our regrets and have breakfast at the hotel. Stuffed with an omelet, bacon, and grits, we walk to the downtown portion of the race where I am made to feel slovenly and inadequate by the runners who have covered six miles this morning. The crowd swells as athletes young and old cross the finish line.
10:15 AM: Arts in the Park
The 44th annual Gumtree arts festival is already crowded 15 minutes before it officially starts. “They’ve opened it up and added more artists over the last three years,” says collage artist and North Mississippi native Jimmy Criddle. “The first year I showed here, in 2012, I sold out.”
Georgian Lula Kaufman’s booth is filled with colorful, whimsical folk art. “I work with recycled material and found objects,” she says. “Everything is old tin, old wood, old windows, and all recycled.”
Harold Miller creates ceramic sculpture with deep, complex glazes. The Brandon, Mississippi, native has been practicing his art for 25 years. “I’ve never done the show before, but I come through here all the time,” he says. “I fish at Pickwick, and we stop here for supplies. It’s a quaint little town. I like it.”
A woman who introduces herself as Chupa (“like Chupa-Lo”) is visiting Tupelo for the first time from the Netherlands. She and her mother Helen (“I’m 83, but actually 38”) are soaking in the atmosphere. “It’s very welcoming, very friendly,” Chupa says. Memphian Jonathan Coules is presenting his fine woodworking at the festival for the first time anywhere. “I started out as a carpenter,” he says. “But I really got passionate about fine woodworking probably three or four years ago. I started working with exotic hardwoods, above and beyond the stuff a carpenter would use. It’s a different realm. It gets ahold of you, like a bug, a virus. You have to keep putting your hands on the wood.”
We wander the festival for more than an hour as the crowd grows ever larger. People are friendly, and the positive vibe is contagious. Clouds roll in, but the threatened rain never materializes. Tupelo, a place with a deep history and resilient spirit, seems like a city on the rise.