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
Anyone who prides themselves on their patience and understanding should wait tables for a week or so to find out just how patient and understanding they really are. Many people are notoriously insensitive to workers in the food service industry; just ask any waitperson, bartender or cook. Any given one of them doubtless has several stories to tell of rude and insensitive if not to say vulgar treatment at the hands of a patron. The business of food and drink is a service industry, and it’s no coincidence that the word service comes from the Latin root servus, meaning slave. The food industry trains people to be servile, to cater to customers (and management) in an overtly deferential way because so much of a restaurant’s livelihood depends on steady patronage. I’m not suggesting that anybody who works in the business is at the beck and call of every s.o.b. with enough money to buy a hamburger, but some people certainly seem to think so.
In her autobiography, My Life as a Restaurant, Alice Brock, owner of Alice’s Restaurant, describes the situation well and offers a very human response:
I am often accused of being rude to customers. Well, it’s true, I am as rude as they are, only they don’t always realize their behavior is inhuman: after all, I am in a restaurant and THEY are hungry, THEY drove all the way from Florida, THEY just want a sandwich, THEY just want to see Alice, THEY just want to look around, and take a picture, get an autograph, use the bathroom, introduce me to their dog, who is named Alice, have a cup of coffee, SPEAK TO THE OWNER…because this food-covered lady in work boots, who is so rude, can’t possibly be the OWNER. I guess I have a temper…good! I won’t stand for being treated like a piece of public property or a freak and I will never allow a customer to get away with giving an employee a hard time. The customer is NOT always right. Being a “service industry” makes people think we are just computerized slaves.
One of the high-lights of an evening is to hear of a customer bringing a waitress to tears…I rush out to the dining room, pull their plates off the table and point to the door: “OUT…OUT…GET OUT AND LEARN SOME MANNERS!” To try to please the “difficult” customer at the expense of my fellow workers is ridiculous. Some people just have an attitude. They upset the waiter or waitress, who in turn upsets me, who in turn upsets the whole evening. It’s not worth it to try to please or placate these bitter, unhappy people, better to put them out at the first sign of trouble. This is something I have to be there to do…it’s hard to tell or expect someone else to do it. Sometimes I’m wrong, or the waitress is wrong, but better to lose a customer than a co-worker. (p.119)
Ms. Brock is a notable exception, since most managerial-type people treat their waitstaff as expendable. And, to be fair, most people who eat out frequently learn how to deal courteously with waiters, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is a learning process. Nowadays, dining out is almost always coupled with another experience (a movie, a play or some other sort of public entertainment) but at one time dining out itself was often taken as a singular occasion to be enjoyed on its own merits rather than as an appendage to another event. This happy time was when restaurants were successful not merely on the basis of turnover, but more on the quality of the foods they offered, the comfortable atmosphere they maintained and the genial clientele they accommodated. Great care was taken not only with the menu, which usually involved many courses designed to fit the season as well as the particular talents of the cooks and the general style of the restaurant itself, but also with the presentation, the service, the table, seating, lighting and other elements of atmosphere. Such staging demanded a great deal of planning as well as much care in the execution.
I have seen some degree of return to this tradition, but it is still rare to find a restaurant that does not cater to some abominable god of expediency. I’ve often encountered difficulty when dining out and trying to take my time between one course and the next with a pause to have a bit of beverage and conversation because waitpersons tend to interrupt with an insistent, “Are you alright?” as if to say that by not yelling at them for not bringing the food immediately that they were falling down on their job. The reason for this is that waiters are programmed to turn over tables as quickly as possible and since most patrons have had the “20% tip” rule-of-thumb drummed into their heads waiters are eager to get the tip and get you out in order to get the next. Me I tip as well as I can; just want you all to know that.
To learn how to wait tables efficiently and unobtrusively is an art; I’ve known some champion waiters from both sides of the kitchen doors, and I’ve been subject to the attentions of some world-class bartenders (be nice, people). Yet some customers, out of ignorance or stupidity, will exhaust and demean a good waiter, detracting not only from their own enjoyment of a meal but also from that of others. Bartenders on the other hand, just will not put up with a bunch of bullshit; trust me, I know. Perhaps what I’m describing is simply an example of what is being called a decline in civility, but as Alice says, “Some people just have an attitude,” and in my book as well as hers such people simply require an adjustment. This you understand takes patience and understanding. To a point.
If you were to speculate upon the next food craze in upscale Southern restaurants, you’d be well advised to cast about for a cut of meat or vegetable that is cheap, has decidedly ethnic or rural overtones and isn’t one you, as a middle-class white person (yes, I know I’m profiling here), would have found on a plate at home. Recent examples would include grits, collards and pork belly, the latter which holds such appeal that you’ll even find it served at a “trattoria” in downtown Jackson. Chitterlings might occur to you and for all I know in three years hence (or less) that trattoria will probably be serving chitterlings with cappelletti, but for my money the next foodie obsession will be souse.
Souse is nothing more than head cheese, a sort of sausage made with the head of a hog as well as trotters for the gelatin, skins for more bulk and the fleshier parts of the head. Ingredients include (more or less in order): pork snouts, pork hearts, pork tongues, pork skins, vinegar, diced sweet pickles, salt and ground (hot) red peppers. Here in Mississippi, the ears are used for sandwiches, which makes a great deal of sense. You’ll find recipes for head cheese like this all over the Western hemisphere, particularly in northern Europe, but souse seems to be a word used to describe such in the American South as well as the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad. Souse containing a lot of red pepper is especially popular here in Mississippi and in Louisiana, where it is eaten with saltines or white bread and plenty of mustard.