There’s a beanery in Belhaven Heights. Over a lifespan of 80 plus years it has been host to wayfarers, a Rebel…and a ghost.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain what a beanery is. The term dates from the year 1887 in England and was loosely thought of as an inn for travelers on their way to further destinations. It had nothing to do with coffee or tea or a vegetable. In America, a beanery became the name of a hotel for railroad men; a place to rest, to eat, to sport or reflect on their way to further destinations. The term beanery came to mean “let’s go eat” and breakfast, the primary meal for freshly awakened sojourners, was served by “beanery queens” – waitresses, some left over from the night before. Our beanery stands at the curved intersection of Spengler and Madison Streets in Belhaven Heights. Built in 1927 as a two-story craftsman residence, it resembles a fugitive image from the Old West with a downstairs porch and upper balcony that could have welcomed the likes of Jesse James or Doc Holladay.
According to present owner Steve Colston who has done his own research on the building, the structure was purchased from Mrs. Louise Middleton by J.W. Miller in 1930 and was called Miller’s Café, with Humphries Barbershop on the east corner. It was subsequently renamed Millers Place and remained so for a number of years. According to Colston, back in the day you could get an upstairs bed for $.35 a night and for an additional ten cents, access to a shower, probably a good investment. Plate lunches were available downstairs where the special was a large bowl of soup for a quarter. Over the years the building passed through several hands and purposes. Mrs. Louis Miller ran the restaurant in the 1940’s, while J.W. took care of upstairs. From Herbert Stair’s restaurant in 1950, it became the GM & O Beanery Restaurant in 1954, Hugh Tullos’ restaurant a year later and the Spengler Street Café through the early 1960’s. It was vacant for several years before housing the Central Systems Company in 1973. It was bought by Colston in 1976, where it served as the Steve Colston Photography Studio for 35 years.
Throughout its early history it was a rough and tumble home for hundreds of men en route to thousands of destinations along countless twists of fate. Then came the railroad. The Gulf, Mobile and Ohio (GM&O) Railroad, as later generations remember it, began operations in 1940 when the Southern Railroad sold its Mobile & Ohio bonds to the Gulf, Mobile and Northern Railroad. The GM&O then combined with the GM&N to form the GM&O. As a point of interest, Colonel William Clark Falkner of Ripley, grandfather of Nobel Prize winner and famous Mississippi author William Cuthbert Faulkner, was instrumental in the formation of the Southern Railway in northeast Mississippi in the 1870’s. The modern day GM&O had two points of origin, New Orleans and Mobile, with headquarters in the latter. The New Orleans line passed through Jackson and connected with the Mobile tracks at Meridian. This main line then extended north through St. Louis and the Ohio valley. The GM&O passenger train which passed through Jackson was named The Rebel and a sister train, The Hummingbird, connected Memphis, Birmingham and Montgomery. The Rebel may still be remembered by older Jacksonians as the sleek red and silver locomotive which pulled into the depot under the old Pearl Street bridge west of Jefferson Street daily before heading north past the fairgrounds and by our old beanery toward the heartland of the nation. The GM&O has one great distinction among railroad lore. It developed the first diesel locomotives in the country and I can still remember their whistle and roar from my open bedroom window on Manship Street when I was in my single digits.
The GM&O tracks on the eastern edge of Jackson carried far more traffic than the Rebel. While not as exciting as the dashing passenger train, the freights conveyed endless dry goods, oil and lumber into Middle America. Rebel travelers detrained at their depot and repaired to meals at the Elite, Bon-Ton, Belmont and Mayflower Restaurants and lodged in the Heidelburg and Edwards Hotels. Soldiers were returning from the Great War (WW I) and small town girls took the train to the capitol city to visit the bustling shops that once thrived on Capitol Street. Engineers and workers on the freight lines ate nearer their work stations and many times lodged at the beanery at 1032 Spengler. This was where the railway shops were and a roundhouse just east of their night’s rest.
My own familiarity with the beanery was as a teenager in the middle 1950’s. My friend Jimmy and I would walk down the hill from his house on Madison Street and visit the place for a hamburger. My latest visit to the building, courtesy of Mr. Colston, revealed a downstairs room much smaller than I remembered when I was 15. The old bar was still there with only five stools remaining and the corners where the jukebox and pinball machines rang out their allure were filled with the dust and debris of half a century. Jimmy and I were underage – even for a hamburger in an establishment that sold beer, but the proprietor would let us stay awhile and watch the railroad men play the pinball machines for money and listen to Hank and Lefty on the jukebox before there was a Willie. It was a thrill for us to be in what we thought of as a nightclub of worldly men, not knowing or at that point in our lives caring that their temporary diversions and long-term loneliness were for only a time assuaged by a can of beer and a little steel ball. We were not allowed to go upstairs. This was probably a good thing. But had we sneaked up those stairs in the rear instead of just going home to our folks, we might have seen the ghost.
No old haunt worth its copper plumbing would be complete without a ghost. Of course our beanery has one and not only that – it’s been documented. In a feature article in The Times-Picayune’s “Dixie Magazine” dated October 28, 1978, Maybelle Gorringe interviewed owner Steve Colston who confirmed the specter.
“One day my grandmother and I were working inside the building to complete its restoration and be able to move in. I was in one room and my grandmother was working in another nearby. Suddenly, she heard footsteps overhead and called to me. I went upstairs but didn’t see anybody, but I heard the footsteps too.” Colston set about talking with neighbors about the structure. Upon authority of several informants he heard two men had met mysterious deaths there. One was literally stomped to death over a woman in an upstairs bedroom, the other fatally shot on the stairs leading up to the second floor. A former owner’s statements found echoes in the memories of other anonymous testaments. One said, “I know a fella who helped a girl escape from there after World War II, when it was a house of prostitution,” but was afraid to talk of the man who got shot on the stairs because “relatives of the man are still living and I’m afraid to talk about it.” Colston said some railroaders told him stories of police raids. One said he saw police back a paddy wagon up to the door and load it full of people arrested for gambling. On another occasion police chased a man from one of the upstairs rooms to the nearby rail yard and shot up three train cars getting him out. Other tenants told stories of curtains moving in an upstairs window, someone walking from the sink to the bed, and on another occasion a man and his business partner were inside the building when “the wind began to blow. Suddenly we heard the damndest noise you’ve ever heard. We rushed up the stairs and looked into each room. We found the ceiling had fallen in one of them.”
Colston said that several of his employees witnessed unexplained activities over the years. One said he was in an upstairs room with the door closed when the doorknob suddenly began to turn. He thought another employee was upstairs and called out. A woman who was downstairs said she heard him and thought he must be talking to himself since no one else was in the building. Colston said light fixtures have fallen from the ceiling without apparent reason. He has also heard a mysteriously tinkling bell, and although getting used to footsteps and turning doorknobs, he still was reluctant to go upstairs at night. “Any time I do, I feel the hairs stand up on my arm and chills run down my back.” Other strange events have taken place in the old beanery over the years. The 1979 flood covered the first floor of the structure and when workmen replaced the floors they discovered human bones and a boot. Could this have been the unfortunate soul killed on the stairs? Was there a ghost? Is there one now? Could it be that being a professional photographer Colston could have a specter silhouetted on a lost negative in a forgotten drawer of his old roll-top desk? Were there footsteps in the hallway? Did the bell ring? Did the doorknob turn and voices mumble in the night? Or was it just the wind?
Trains have always held a fascinating place in our nation. From the Union Pacific to the super trains in the west and the northeast, these serpentine and silver ships of the land have fired the imagination with adventure, danger and riches. Jimmie Rodgers and Arlo Guthrie sang of them, Thomas Wolfe wrote of them and pioneers rode them to new lands and opportunities from coast to coast. Along their tracks are the lives of the millions they connect. In depots and freight yards across our country are the chapters of our history. There were thousands of beaneries and millions of patrons and countless memories woven along the rails. And so our beanery stands today and after 88 years still remembers when it was Miller’s Place or home to Louise Middleton or when Steve Colston was young and making pictures of a vibrant Jackson. Now it silently looks over the rear of a barbecue restaurant, swaths of Johnson grass and a warehouse grown over by weeds. Its architecture is unchanged but gone are its bedrooms, its beer and fries, its colorful patrons and the old jukebox of country favorites. The roundhouse has passed into history, the tireless railroad workers and vagrants to their thousand destinations and the girls and roustabouts from the second floor to the denouement of their lives. Not even the tracks remain or the water tank or the steam.
Yet, if you look closely at an upstairs window on the east side of the balcony, you might imagine Maybelle’s ghost, watching and listening itself for the thunder and rumble of the Rebel, the clash of switching boxcars and that mournful whistle of an early diesel locomotive heading north toward the river trestle, pulling behind it a time forever gone, where only an empty beanery and a ghost remain.
February 2012, revised March 2015
Copyright Bill Harvey, 2015
During V.S. Naipaul’s visit to Mississippi in 1988, he grew obsessed with rednecks, coming to see rednecks as the “unlikely descendants” of a mythical construct he called a “frontiersman”. Naipaul himself considered Mississippi—somewhat paradoxically, from a native’s point of view—as both the heartland of the South and a state at the very periphery of culture and civilization itself, which could be considered a rather brash observation from a native of Trinidad. It’s tempting to speculate on what Welty herself might have thought of Naipaul questioning her about rednecks, but upon reflection, who better to ask than the woman who wrote “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” in June, 1963.
And it was of the redneck, the unlikely descendant of the frontiersman, that I talked to Eudora Welty when I went to call on her. I had arrived early, and could clearly be seen through her uncurtained front window. But I was nervous of knocking too soon.
So for a while we waited below the big, dripping trees in the gloom after rain, she behind her window at the end of her wet front garden, I in the car. And when I felt the time was suitable I walked up to the wet path to her front door. On the door, in her strong writing, was a note asking people not to bring any more books for her to sign. She wanted to save as much of her energy as possible now for her work. I knocked; and she opened, like someone waiting to do just that. She was extraordinarily familiar from her photographs
The frontier was so much in her stories: a fact I had only just begun to appreciate. And she was willing to talk of the frontiersman character.
“He’s not a villain. But there’s a whole side of him that’s cunning. Sometimes it goes over the line and he becomes an outright scoundrel. The blacks never lived in that part of the state. They came over to work on the plantations. Most of the rednecks grew up without black people, and yet they hate them. That’s where all the bad things originate—that’s the appeal they make. Rednecks worked in sawmills and things like that. And they had small farms. They are all fiercely proud. They dictate the politics of the state. They take their excitement—in those small towns—when the politicians and evangelists come. Scare everybody, outwit everybody, beat everybody, kill everybody—that’s the frontiersman’s mentality.”
I told her the story that (a previous interviewee) had heard as a child about the rednecks to the south of the town where she had spent her summers: the story of traveling salesmen who had been roughed up and hitched to a plow and made to plow a field. She had said that this story had come down from the past; and I had thought of it as a romantic story of the wickedness of times past, an exaggerated story about people living without law. But Eudora Welty took the story seriously. She said, “I can believe the story about the salesmen. I’ve heard about punishing people by making them plow farms.”
We talked about Mississippi and its reputation.
“At the time of the troubles many people passed through and called on me. They wanted me to confirm what they thought. And all of them thought I lived in a state of terror. ‘Aren’t you scared of them all the time?’ A young man came and said that h4 had been told that a Mr. So-and-So, who was a terrible racist, owned all of Jackson, all the banks and hotels, and that he was doing terrible things to black people. It was a fantasy. It wasn’t true. The violence here is not nearly as frightening as the Northern—urban—brand.”
A frontier state, limited culturally—had that been hard for her as a writer, and as a woman writer? The richness of a writer depends to some extent on the society he or she writes about.
She said: “There is a lot behind it, the life of the state. There is the great variety of the peoples who came and settled the different sections. There is a great awareness of that as you get older—you see what things have stemmed from. The great thing taught me here as a writer is a sense of continuity. In a place that hasn’t changed much you get to know the generations. You can see the whole narrative of a town’s history or a family’s history.”
[V.S. Naipaul A Turn in the South (1989), pp. 213-14; images from The Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics: 1875-1925 (1951)]