Mose Allison, V.P. Ferguson and the Cool World

Unforgettable to his contemporaries, a will-o’-the-wisp to others, Verell Pennington Ferguson III is often described as Mississippi’s first beatnik, a gleeful and strident nonconformist at Ole Miss and points beyond. V.P. Ferguson has become a legend to many, a status fully justified by his utmost legacy, Days of Yoknapatawpha, a “memoire/timeplay” written at the urging of a friend in the publishing business who told him to “Recall the old days, Faulkner still alive, and you managing the cultural life of Oxford with la main gauche while beating time with the other for your various and assorted bandsmen.”

The section reproduced here, entitled “7th Movement: Mose Allison and the Cool World: Ole Miss—1949-50”, describes V.P.’s first encounter with another legend, Mississippi jazzman Mose Allison, on the campus of the University of Mississippi on a winter’s day in 1949. It is only a fragment of an astounding manuscript, full of humor and insight and populated by some of the most famous people of mid-20th century Mississippi. Deepest and most profound thanks to artist, gentleman and bon vivant Johnny Hayles for his perceptive, indefatigable research, considerate advice and unmitigated generosity.

It was a lovely day in early January—at zero degrees centigrade—where a sun-filtered mist, breaking down at ground level, enshrouded the campus in a crisp, ashen whiteness. Shortly after lunch, about 14 hours, the Ole Miss Grill was overflowing with permanent grill-hounds, many of whom considered class attendance as secondary activity, if not outright torture, and of course the classic défilé of bewitching doe-eyed gazelles—and long-stemmed greyhounds.

The in-house jukebox was playing “Greeneyes” (“those cool and limpid”: Jimmy Dorsey, Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell). Nobody could be unhappy around here, I reflected, as I duly parked the nervous little Ford in front, then wandering through the University Post Office for a quick mail check before floundering into some serious grill-hounding myself. Hardly inside and seated before cherished breaded veal cutlets with Roquefort, I was warmly heckled by “Fish” Salmon, the powerhouse quarterback, and Douglas “Little Abner” Hamley, a star linesman from Lake Charles, Louisiana, both inveterate Damon Runyon wits. “Yeah, that’s it, dad. Hang up the gloves, man, hang up the gloves! You’ll never make it, V.P. Ferguson!” (They were both right.)

Both faces gleefully pointed out a large black and white press photograph thumb-tacked onto the adjacent campus bulletin board before I sniffed out the source of my public shame. It was that jinxed photo again! Maybe the Tombigbee Sage was right after all: “People are no damn good!”, which, unfortunately, down in Columbus, hadn’t stopped the Sage, now the Hook, both of whom read the Memphis press, to roundly snigger at my latest public nemesis. The large, inopportune photo in question was untimely taken a short while back during the Golden Gloves Mid-South Tournament of Champions staged at Memphis, where, to say the least, I was engaged in a real “down-home slug-out”. The caption read: “Ole Miss’s V.P. Ferguson heads for a hard seat—before coming off the canvas to take a unanimous decision.” It was, and I did. Salmon and Hamley got all torn up. Mysteriously, someone even paid for my breaded veal cutlets.

However, feeling called upon to explain, I “thrusted home” like the grill-hound Cyrano that I was. “When that George T. Billy from Fort Smith, Arkansas pummeled me around my flat-topped head, I saw a grandiose colored flash, like a purple ball of fire, and ricocheted off the canvas. But without a count, mind you: a crew of cameramen flashed on me like I was the real Richard Widmark in a fast-paced, Grade B thriller: but when, in turn, I fire-stormed good old George T Billy to the canvas, at least twice, not a flash bulb went off. That’s the shabby popular press for you: but it couldn’t happen around here. You all ball-player grill-hounds are coming down with hamburger guilt, a Freudian jock strap transfer blaming the other goof folks whenever you “lose the big game”. In the Ole Miss/Quo Vadis/S.P.Q.R. show, none of you gladiator ball jocks are ever photographed all strung out on the ground, or worse, like poor fighters! Those AA/PR men around here are better paid than foreign agents!”

My lost dog act played out better than expected. Both Manley and Salmon invited to smuggle me into the jock strap steakhouse tonight for still another seared slab of fabulous Texas longhorn. The Richard Widmark act was not without merit, and grill-hounding had become an art. Abandoned at the corner side table for a quarter of an hour or so, I fondly reflected that outside of my romantic, geo-pantheistic idée fixe of canoeing down legendary waters, I entertained the lingering dream of creating another dance band. Not a big orchestra; the on-campus, well-rehearsed “Mississippians” were far beyond me for a class, but a high voltage jazz combo operating with about 6 or 7 Damon Runyon characters like myself—sunbelt hard cats living out the life adventure in rhythm, fervor, and soul. Leaving the table and the pulsating Ole Miss Grill, I had it: “The Let It Roll Band”—it was as sure as death and taxes.

Returning to the ’32 Ford Roadster, I adroitly placed a pair of powerful binoculars, canoe paddle, and a copy of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers up behind the front seat. Having read the innovative intriguer, (The Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball Flap I was relieved to discover that among other bourgeois nightmares, I had happily escaped what Wylie allegedly described as The Dreadnaught Syndrome: there’s no good old Mom, the catalyzer of the All-American Square, in the new family Buick off to the supermarket to load up on more burger meat and tons of ketchup.

That was heady stuff, attacking good old Mom, burger meat and ketchup was tantamount to Jack the Ripper slashing Saturday Evening Post covers. Curiously enough however, seen from another angle, Wylie’s fevered, Freudian, matriarchal fiasco humorously backed into certain of my reflections concerning good old George, and Miss Milly T. Billy, the archetypical bird-brain hicks. But intellectual macho was already démodé, if not effete, and Wylie might be heading for unnerving trouble with the ladies, including a new race known abouts as “Jane the Beards” pulling on line from corporate board rooms to backwater togetherness. As for the common man’s Richard Widmark, I liked Philip Wylie, apple pie and baseball. As for good ole Mom, whom I had nothing against, end even visited on occasion, she dutifully machined through the University of Virginia Law School at Charlottesville, as did my sister Betty, belatedly becoming an excellent professor of commercial law in that elegant state, but my existential good taste remained beyond reproach: I was raised by the Wizard and “belonged to Ole Miss”.

Once the daydream drifted off, I leisurely opened up the small rumble seat on the fast back, fumbling around with some unread novels, river maps and assorted outdoor gear when I saw it: the vast spinach greenness wearing Tallahatchie County license plates—kept coming and coming, finally docking beside my modest little ’32 Ford Roadster, imposing as it were through the sun-filtered, ashen whiteness. I saw that all of that long greenness belonged to the latest model Chrysler New Yorker—a veritable limousine de ville: the driver, flashing a generous smile, sprang out as if he was making a homecoming landfall. (He was.) If the eyes were the windows of the soul, the stranger, looking out on the world in blue electric, extolled instant intelligence.

And there he was, an authentic sunbelt hard cat of medium build, cinnamon hair worn in a brush, a classic, sensitive face, and moreover, decked out in cool, California/Vegas togs: Bordeaux red cardigan, with polished brass buttons, snug-cut butter yellow shirt with oversized buttoned-up collar, worn over full rich lemon trousers, a hand-crafted Aztec beaded belt, and ankle-length high desert boots. While the long spinach greenness had little in common with the California Special, there was, however, an irrefutable linkage to the Damon Runyon world, as I reflected for an instant that we both solicited the same mail-order West Coast tailor. But it was an illusion. Upon second glance I realized that the unknown creature momentarily appreciating my roadster was hardly inspired by hip advertisements in hot rod magazines. While flashing the same “Culver City style”, his “threads” were obviously more refined, and several cuts above mine.

As usual, my Richard Widmark act was spontaneous: “Man, with a cruiser like that, you must need a harbor pilot! But the next time you cool in with all that lovely greenness, please extend me the grace of not docking alongside my little ’32 Ford. You make me insignificant.” The colorful character fleeing across the street toward the Vardaman-Longstreet dormitory complex flung an arm high in the air: “Don’t panic, dad! Energy of that class commands a lot of respect!”

Room address in a suede gloved hand, I, in turn, wandered across Grill Street to the Vardaman-Longstreet in hopes of ferreting out a few high tension elements for the on-coming “Let It Roll Band”. Although someone said “third floor right”, it was irrelevant—I picked up on the solid jazz sounds even before entering the building. Arriving at the moment of truth, I peered through the half-opened doorway into a blue-bulbed inner sanctum at what was surely the cutting edge on the cutting edge, where six or eight sunbelt hard cats, all dressed in California/Vegas togs, were solemnly planted around a scratchy record player listening to hardcore bebop. I rapidly spooked out the pilot of the long spinach greenness, a proselytizer, if not a high priest of la nouvelle vague (New Wave jazz). I hesitated a moment until he recognized me, smiled and waved me into the inner sanctum, where, by happenstance, I entered into a new dimension. That simple gesture, although coming from the same Damon Runyon world, portended a certain esoterical attitude, engendering, as it were, a colorful lifestyle of its own. I was altogether intrigued.

The stranger was called Mose Allison, Junior, from Tippo, Mississippi, a lovely, lost corner in fecund Tallahatchie County, where he was raised in an affluent plantation family. Upon first contact, however, in front of the Old Miss Grill, by the strange mystique of instant enlightenment, I somehow realized that Allison was world class talent, (I was not wrong) and indeed honored to have made a brilliant new friend. The comfortable, blue-bulbed dormitory room, spatially limited, cluttered and strewn out pell-mell with the banalities of quotidian existence, took on the allure of an urban ritual where bohemian characters from the 4th dimension gathered around a record player instead of a fire, listening, as it were, to fascinating far out new sounds.

When the frenetic record, re-played several times, finally ended, Allison, ardently searching for another in the stack, paused, and looking up with a smile, announced my modest entrée to no one in particular: “Ah! It’s the California Special back on the scene: We were listening to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come”. Did you pick up on it, dad?” I was at ease. My Damon Runyon background was well anchored: “Oh yeah. That’s frantic stuff, man! But outside of my collection of Stan Kenton and Herman’s Jimmy Giuffre thing, “Four Brothers”, sadly enough, I don’t know a lot about New Wave jazz.” Someone on the far side of Allison allowed as to how it was called bebop.

“Sure. Yeah, man, I know, the image is colorful enough, but somehow obscure. At any rate, let’s face it New Wave jazz has outgrown show business. In fact, it’s no longer dancefloor stuff. It’s moved into the concert hall where it really belongs.” Concluding my rather off-hand reflection, the relative silence rippling across the blue-lighted little room of sunbelt hard cats was my no means an admonishment, but rather heralded a warm, on the spot friendship which was to endure for years, or as it were, if Mose Allison was an ace proselytizer and high priest of New Wave jazz, seen from a certain angle, I was a defending knight, or an engagé as the French would have it.

Among the six or eight, there was Bill “Big Jay” Katz (after Big Jay McNeely, “Deacon’s Hop”-1948, etc.), a hard-driving tenor saxophone player from New York City tall, well-groomed with burnt, desert sand hair, matching eyes and a disarming, soft-glowing smile. John Earn MacDade, a hip, bushy-haired ace Mississippi trombone veteran—and blithe spirit, avoiding all physical effort whenever possible, championed the “L.A. hard look” and could have just wandered off Hollywood and Vine in a lime green cardigan, tomato red shirt with oversized, buttoned-up collar, worn over pleated, black velvet slacks and Aztec moccasins. Thomas “Bunky” Lane was a romantic, slender-built mystic with raven-hazel hair worn in a tall bush cut, whose sensitive, near melancholic face and deep chestnut eyes reflected the inner fire of an introverted intellectual. Lane, an ethereal alto saxophone player and biology major, normally dressed in black or blue double-breasted suits and dark Windsor ties, possessed the ultimate, if not indefinable talent: a musician’s musician, playing New Wave jazz with a relaxed, full-blown richness inspired by the beguiling tenor sax, Stan Getz (“Early Autumn” with Woody Herman-1948), Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lane, “The Mystic” readily measured up to any avant-garde, mastering a style which had just begun to be called “Cool Jazz” (1948-55).

As for the creative brilliance of Most Allison, Jr., out in the surrealist world of good ole George T. Billy, amid a myriad of bucolic squares, he was light years ahead of the scene, ,and moreover, he knew it. But for the ongoing moment, however, he allowed as to his recent Tallahatchie county homecoming: “I was discharged from the army a short while back, where I was in training with special ski troops out in Colorado Springs, the fabulous Far West—real Nirvana! But I picked up all those hip threads in Denver, man, a mountain paradise a mile above sea level. Someday I’ll make that scene again!”

Suddenly John MacDade (Hollywood and Vine) and “Big Jay” Katz got all torn up, which apparently had little to do with Allison’s hip Denver togs. By the time Lane “The Mystic” chimed in, I knew in my bones what was coming. (It did.) “Say, Man, aren’t you the fighter cat in that action photo over at the campus grill?”; “Yeah, man, the one where Widmark is going through the ropes, head first!”; “Yeah, man, he’s the cat. The whole campus has spooked that photo. In your case I would either sign it, or take it down! You’re playing out a no win scene, man!” Somehow I was happy, if not mollified. “A good sense of humor was the escape valve of humanity.” Good musicians were my chosen people, an idée fixe—happily following me into old age.

“Okay, you cats! So I suffered an inglorious scuffle—but I don’t plan to make a lifetime of it! In fact, that purple ball of fire convinced me how right I was to take up the slide trombone. It’s easier on the jaw!” The scene shifted into another direction as Mose Allison spooked out an amusing intruder. “It’s Mister Coffee Nerves—the phantom nerve ball of the corridors! Coming to rain on all the hard cats about all this degenerate bebop music!

Allison, possessing a spark-jumping, electric wit, apparently enjoyed riding super-squares like Mister Coffee Nerves, distant outsiders going far beyond mere Squaredom into an anti-bourgeois dimension, which seen from a certain point of view, was a negative form of hip. Mister Coffee Nerves, ostensibly a precursor to Sal Mineo (Plato in Rebel Without a Cause) dressed in impeccable buttoned-up tweeds, gave the impression of tortured precocity: a chubby, cherub-faced little enigma, with the pink, stubby fingers of a child strangler, and who had been thrown out of an impressive number of tony prep schools on strange and obscure charges, including “ghoulism”, whatever that entails. Mister Coffee Nerves professed to being a self-styled nerve grater, sand papering the nerve endings of even the most comatose victims with astonishing success. Flashing his dead fish smile, Mister Coffee Nerves entered the inner sanctum with customary flair: “Gentlemen: or should I more fashionably say “sunbelt hard cats”? I suppose that all of this bebop monkey music has softened your brains: it was inevitable.”

Mister Coffee Nerves, pausing for effect, lit up a super perfumed, long, rainbow-colored cigarette and gleefully moved into action. “Perhaps you should like to receive with me some good old “down home” Dixieland. Why not Louis Armstrong? Yes, that’s it. “When the Saints Go Marching In”! Good for the soul, you know, and a bit of Doris Day. Good, bitter-sweet for broken hearts. And of course Harry James. That “crying trumpet”! Ah! A good ole circus man, Harry! Gentlemen, excuse me, I mean hard cats, this decadent bebop can only lead to catatonic schizophrenia, or worse! You had better repent and go back to ragtime! Rudy Vallée is great!”

The super square had talent. Nobody could be that outrageous by happenstance; one had to work on it, which he did. The triggered ubiquitous reaction readily proved that point, nearly driving MacDade, H&V and Big Jay Katz, among others, up the walls. Coffee Nerves listened on in ecstasy. “Most of those old-style cats were greatmechanics, man, but they played themselves into a dead end!”; “You’re cool, dad. That “crying trumpet” cat plays good B.C. (*Before Christ) horn, but in A.D. (*After Dizzy) he sounds like he’s changing a flat tire!”; “You’re a hard can, man! And that D.D. chick (*Doris Day) sings like a melting river of chocolate at the Lonely Hearts Club!”

Mister Coffee Nerves, fawning over a certain Pavlovian success, fired up another rainbow-colored cigarette, and came up with his best dead fish smile ever, although somewhat askew, on the spot; one wondered how a lone cigarette could be charged with so much perfume. Shortly thereafter, Mister Coffee Nerves, freezing on the dead fish smile, took leave of the bebop inner sanctum, as usual, in super-square flair. “Well, gentlemen, if you’re please excuse me, as those “hipsters” say down in good old rockabilly, ‘See you laters, alligators!’” Pulling hard on the rainbow-colored cigarette, the chubby, cherub wandered off down the corridor to bug a couple of itinerant Jehovah Witnesses passing through to save Ole Miss from abject heresy and assorted Devils. But destiny can be cruel even for fevered missionaries, Mister Coffee Nerves would see to that. In the worst case scenario, the naïve zealots, disillusioned, would certainly be losing face, if not faith.

Back in the inner sanctum, where even the ace proselytizer was a bit slack-jawed, the sunbelt hard cats returned to normal, playing “Night in Tunisia”, “Manteca” (Dizzy G.) and “The Chase” (Wardell Gray/Dexter Gordon) not without a last reflection: “Man, I fell you, that Mister Coffee Nerves is really a twisted little cat!”; “Aw, yeah, dad, he’s warped 360 degrees! And there’s no exit!”; “Yeah, man, coffee nerves is all strung out with an eerie talent for negative genius!”

V.P. Ferugson

Dear Kevin Sessums,

Hardly a day goes by, Mec, that you don’t take a swipe at Mississippi on social media citing how “backward” your home state is. When you are brought to task for it, you say we need to quit electing jerkwads to public office and that, in essence, we all deserve the black eye and boycott.

Well, perhaps; but how does that help support those of us who are out to change that? More importantly, how does that bring to attention those we have elected who don’t buy into that bigotry and hatred, such as the mayor and elected city officials of my little town who spot on and quick came out welcoming LGBTs and making sure we, and anyone else paying attention, knew everyone is welcome here? It is easy to criticize from the outside, and words are cheap. Now, you remember Canton, right? Take 43 west out of Pelahatchie. You may know what Canton is to the film industry in that lieu de naissance stamped on your papers. You may not know just how outspoken our film folks have been against this HB1523, but they have been among our best friends here.

Okay, you tell us that there are plans afoot to make your Mississippi memoirs into a film. Some of us are glad to hear that. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it from you as time wears on. You’ve done moderately well and do seem to hob nob with some of the names in lights. Good for you. They seem like decent people. It is kind of nice to see a local boy living his dream. Now, why don’t you encourage them to come to Canton and Mississippi to do your film? I mean, isn’t this the setting? Why don’t you use your name and fame to support those of your people back home who are doing everything within their power to make this a better place, as we MOTs say, “tikkun olam”.

Put your money where your mouth is, as the old folks here would say. Make Mississippi proud of you.

Love,
Josef

 

The War Comes to Calhoun County

While no battles of any importance occurred in Calhoun County, Mississippi, Leon Burgess, in his M.D.L. Stevens and Calhoun County, Mississippi offers Stevens’ account of a skirmish in the northern part of the county. The original story appeared in The Calhoun County Monitor on June 4, 1903.

In December, 1862, Gen. Grant’s army pressed back the Confederate army from Holly Springs to Coffeeville where after a sharp engagement Grant fell back to Water Valley, threw out a strong cordon of cavalry and encamped for the winter.

About Christmas a strong company of Kansas Jayhawkers invaded Calhoun County north of Schoona River, spending their fury in and about the village of Banner. They captured the few horses and mules remaining in the county, robbed every chicken roost and hen nest, stole turkeys, geese and ducks, and now and then they took a fat hog. In their rounds they confiscated a barrel of moonshine whiskey near the big rock at the head of Cowpen Creek. They drank freely, filled their canteens and came to Banner, where they took and destroyed everything in sight. In the afternoon they set out for Water Valley. Each marauder had his canteen full of “wild cat” and, tied in front and behind his saddle, a good lot of turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens, and a haversack full of eggs. They left Banner yelling like a mob of Hottentots, all full of wild cat whiskey; more than a hundred strong, the Federals insulted every old man they met and drove women and children from their homes.

A small squad of Willis’ Texas Cavalry was hanging around Grant’s army, watching every movement. They learned of the contemplated raid on Banner, followed in the of the Federal cavalry and kept a close eye on their movements. The Texans received into their ranks a few of the Calhoun boys at home on furloughs, armed with double-barreled shot guns and mounted on mules and horses. The company numbered about 20 of the battalion and 12 or 15 of the local boys. They saw from a distance the devastation of Banner and the surrounding country and saw that the Jayhawkers were tanking up on the “bust skull” whiskey and were preparing to leave for Water Valley. Willis, under the guidance of a friend, hosted his small band of braves in a narrow valley were the horses were tied and the boys were concealed on the crest of a narrow ridge about 60 yards from the road that ran up a narrow hollow west of Gore’s Branch 5 or 6 miles from Banner.

On came the drunken Federal mob, more than a hundred strong, singing, cursing and looting, all bent on reaching Water Valley with their booty. They crossed Gore’s Branch, the headwaters of Long Persimmon Creek, and moved up the road running parallel with the long ridge. When the Federal cavalry had filled the road at the foot of the ridge, Willis gave the command to fire. Sheet of flames leapt from 30 guns; volley after volley was poured into the panic-stricken Federal ranks. Horses and riders were piled promiscuously on the road.

The Rebel boys rushed down the hill and captured men, horses, turkeys, ducks, chickens and canteens half full of mountain dew. They mounted and followed in hot pursuit of the fleeing Federals. Down by Trusty’s and Tatum’s they charged the retreating Jayhawkers, killing and capturing men and horses; their charge to Tuckalofa Creek was a race for life. The next day a regiment of Federal cavalry came out and buried the dead and cared for the wounded. No estimate on killed or wounded.

Derby Day!

The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow! Looking over the sports section of The New York Times today and photos of the muddy track at Churchill Downs reminded me to get cracking and write up my own Derby recipes and traditions for my friends in other parts of the country.

How to Dress for the Derby

Derby is the time for considered bets or wild hunches, frosty mint juleps and dressing to the nines: elaborate hats or fascinators, colorful silk dresses or suits, finished off with heels and gloves. Men wear bright trousers, poplin or linen suits in ice cream colors, bright socks and fancy ties or bow ties, with seersucker and classic navy always in form. Hats are for the men, too, from bowlers to boaters (but no cowboy hats, please). Gentleman, please praise each woman’s hat: it’s expected!

Churchill Downs

I haven’t been to the actual race in years — when I was often included with my family in former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler’s box at Churchill Downs. That was always a treat: no one could sing “My Old Kentucky Home” better than Happy, usually wearing a white linen three piece suit accompanied by movie stars like Natalie Wood, baseball players like Bob Feller or politicians such as the elegant Sen. Thurston B. Morton and his wife made sure to stop by to greet the Chandlers.

My good friend Amy Zemo Broadhurst has been at Churchill Downs all week, from Millionaire’s Row to the Winner’s Circle Suites to the Turf Club. The Turf Club, by the way, is where you will find the owners and trainers. No messy infield for Amy, who is immaculately dressed and entertains business clients during Derby. Should you fail in your quest for the good seats, there’s always the Infield, where the grass should be blue – but is too crowded to see. Tickets for the Infield used to be $20 when I was young, but are now $60. You are allowed to bring in food but not liquor though somehow liquor WILL make it through.

Derby Parties at Home

Alas, Happy is long dead and the real Kentucky Derby scene for me now is in the private parties held by Kentuckians in their homes. Even NON-Kentuckians like to celebrate the festive day and while your party may be as humble as a bucket of KFC and beer, here are some traditional ingredients for a successful party:

Country Ham

I used to buy my country ham and beaten biscuits from Taylor Farms in Cynthiana, Kentucky.  Farmer Taylor’s celebrated method of curing has been adapted by others but I now favor the country ham served by the fabled Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.  These hams have been cured by Meacham Hams in Sturgis, Kentucky for more than eighty years. Cooked or uncooked ham is available along with other delicious smoked meats; and they will also provide nicely trimmed biscuit cut slices. Rather than host a party, you may want to consider a traditional Derby breakfast to start the day off right. Happy and Mildred Chandler started this tradition during his first term as Governor in 1936. They served an excellent spread of country ham, grits, red eye gravy, scrambled eggs, biscuits, jam and plenty of hot coffee. This meal is no longer served at the Governor’s Mansion, but it’s still a wonderful menu.

Beaten Biscuits

While I prefer smallish buttermilk biscuits with my ham, beaten biscuits are an old Kentucky tradition.  On the crisp side, the biscuits are made by beating dough with a wooden mallet for half an hour, no more, no less.  Luckily for all hostesses who don’t employ a cook or have the patience to make them, Meacham Hams sells them by the dozen.  Even stores like Liquor Barn sell them,  NOBODY wants to make beaten biscuits any more.   Halfway between a cracker and a biscuit, just add a little butter and a slice of ham. They are so good. However, if you want to be old-fashioned, here is an excellent old recipe.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons white sugar
1/4 cup lard, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup light cream
2 tablespoons cold water (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Sift flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar together. Use a fork to “cut” the lard into the flour until it looks like coarse meal. Using a standing mixer, or a wooden spoon, mix the dough as you slowly add the cream. Mix well to form the dough into a ball, adding water if needed. Place the dough onto a tabletop, and knead slightly. With a mallet or a rolling pin, beat the dough a few times to form it into a rough rectangle. Fold the dough over, and then beat it out again. Repeat this process until the dough becomes white and blisters form on the surface, about 30 minutes. Roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into 2 inch rounds, and prick the top with the tines of a fork: nine holes are traditional. Place on greased baking sheets. Bake until golden, about fifteen minutes.

Miss Jennie Benedict, a Louisville caterer, created Benedictine spread at the turn of the last century.  Years ago, certain bakeries in Louisville used to bake pink and green loaves of bread just for these popular finger sandwiches, a staple at Derby parties, weddings and showers.  I have even served these at a funeral where they were much enjoyed.  My recipe, taken from “Kentucky’s Best, Fifty Years of Great Recipes” by Linda Allison Lewis, was amended and given to me by Tish Clark of Prestonsburg, Kentucky:

Tish’s Benedictine

1 8 oz Philadelphia cheese, softened
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
3 tablespoons of grated cucumber, drained well with a paper towel
1 teaspoon finely chopped green onions with tops
1 teeny tiny drop of green food coloring (the color should be delicate)
a dash of two of Tabasco
Blend all ingredients together and mix well. Yield: 10-12 servings (I multiply by eight.) You may serve this on trimmed bread as finger sandwiches or as a dip. Please note there is not a single drop of Benedictine liqueur used in this recipe! I like to make a nice pile of these sandwiches on a silver tray lined with a paper doily and garnished with a few cucumber slices and parsley. (Cover with a damp paper towel so your sandwiches don’t dry out and curl before serving. Refresh as necessary.) I also put out big crystal bowl of pimento cheese with Carr’s crackers, celery stalks, salty peanuts to encourage drinking and deviled eggs to prevent or at least stall off utter drunkenness.

Last week, Amy attended the Taste of Derby Festival and was served the most amazing new dish: Hot Brown Grits. This is an adaptation of the original hot brown recipe, originally created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 – long before people knew about pesky cholesterol. A hot brown is made from fresh roast turkey, tomatoes, cheddar and Mornay sauce, served atop thickly sliced toast, garnished with strips of bacon, served “piping hot and bubbly brown.” The Brown Hotel serves 800 hot browns a week but during Derby Week, they sell 1200 a day.

Hot Browns with Fried Cheese Grits

1 cup regular grits
1 cup (4 ounces) extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 large sweet onions
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound roasted turkey slices
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
8 bacon slices
Prepare 1 cup regular grits according to package directions. Stir in 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese until melted. Pour hot cooked grits into a greased 9-inch square pan. Cover and chill 8 hours or until firm. Invert onto a cutting board, and cut into 4 squares. Cut each square into 4 triangles. Fry grits, in batches, in 2 tablespoons hot vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Remove from pan, and set aside. Cook 2 large diced sweet onions and 1 tablespoon sugar in 2 tablespoons oil in skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, 20 minutes or until deep golden brown. Arrange 4 grits triangles in a single layer in a lightly greased individual baking dish or large baking dish; top with turkey, sautéed onion, and cheese sauce. Repeat with remaining grits triangles, turkey, onion, and sauce:
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup shredded Swiss or Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in flour, and cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil, and cook, whisking constantly, 1 to 2 minutes or until thickened. Whisk in cheese, salt, and pepper. Pour over grits, onions and meat, broil 6 inches from heat 4 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned; remove from oven. Top evenly with cooked bacon and sliced tomato. Serve immediately.

I serve mint juleps in individual silver or pewter cups as well as a treasured set of Louisville Stoneware cups bearing the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home.”  My ex-husband is an Englishman, so I adopted the habit of serving a pitcher or two of Pimm’s Cup, made with Pimm’s No. 1 herbal liqueur and gin, fresh unsweetened lemonade and garnished with cucumber spears, a slice of apple and a sprig of mint. Last year I served bourbon sours instead of mint juleps and those retro drinks went over in a big way!

As for bourbon, educate yourself on the different kinds of bourbon.  Favorite brands include Four Roses Single Barrel (which has a high rye content), Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden, Old Grand Dad, Buffalo Trace (a high corn blend) then wheated bourbons like the very famous Maker’s Mark, Rebel Yell and any of the Van Winkle bourbons. Small batch artisanal bourbons like Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve have risen in popularity over the past ten years.

Lay a table with your very best linens, platters and crystal. Don’t forget to arrange flowers from your own garden, or red roses from a florist are always appropriate. Be ready to get the party started at least an hour before the actual race starts. And have hankies ready for the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” there shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house! And you made need those hankies later anyway for tears of jubilation or losing bets. When the day is over, the owners, breeders and trainers start planning for the next Derby, as does a good hostess. Names are crossed off or added to lists, paper goods or swizzle sticks are bought on sale for next year.

(Lynn Weddington Tucker is a Kentuckian living in New York City since 1976. She has been a fashion designer, publicist and best of all, mother. Lynn is a sustaining member of the Junior League (like any good Southern girl) and as a Methodist, has all the ingredients on hand in her pantry for a casserole for a potluck. Lynn is a card-carrying Kentucky Colonel and loves a good party.)

Lynn Weddington Tucker (Churchill Downs photo by Dave Black)

Stirring the Political Pot

Two acquaintances on radically different ends of the political spectrum submitted lists of ten pro or con topics they consider crucial to today’s political climate. I present them to you blended together, though a careful study will likely reveal which are most relevant to conservative and liberal agendas respectively.

Would you support or oppose a simplified Federal tax code that taxed everyone at the exact same percentage, regardless of income?

Do you support or oppose birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants?

Would you support or oppose a ban on all abortions past 20 weeks, even if it were the result of incest or rape?

Do you support or oppose the criminal prosecution of police officers who knowingly kill an unarmed suspect?

Would you support or oppose eliminating the state income tax, like Tennessee and Florida have?

Do you support or oppose the use of body cameras for police officers?

Would you support or oppose a law requiring a life sentence for all armed robberies?

Do you support or oppose universal healthcare?

Would you support or oppose a law that made criticism of someone’s religion a crime punishable by a fine?

Do you support or oppose EEOC lawsuits based on the disparate impact standard?

Would you support or oppose a law requiring all able-bodied persons to serve two years in the military following high school or college?

Do you support or oppose elective war with Iran?

Would you support or oppose a law that imposed fines on any church that refused to perform a same-sex wedding?

Do you support or oppose elective war with North Korea?

Would you support or oppose a law prohibiting corporate salaries over $1 million per year?

Do you support or oppose preserving FTC net neutrality standards?

Would you support or oppose a law that held firearms manufacturers criminally liable for gun violence perpetrated by criminals?

Do you support or oppose the appointment of Supreme Court justices who believe the U.S. Constitution contains an implicit right to privacy?

Would you support or oppose a law banning the import of all items manufactured by American companies that have moved their operations to Mexico?

Do you support or oppose reinstatement (and/or expansion) of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance process?

 

“Carmen Possum”: Josef Nix

Southerners in general and Mississippians in particular carry a certain je ne sais quoi in their cultural and personal baggage, a conflict between their point of embarkation and point of destination. If we are lucky we reach inner peace with it, which is often enough an epiphany. When I was in my 20s, I was on Corsica on the verandah of a villa, the warm Mediterranean breeze blowing across Tizzano Bay, its famous tache bleue spectacular in the moonlight.

I was the guest of honor at a dinner a retired French admiral was hosting to show his gratitude for my work translating and documenting the Holocaust memoirs of a member of Walenberg’s resistance in Hungary. He had himself been a member of the French resistance as a young man and my author was a friend of his and also guest at the dinner. I was fielding questions being asked me in various languages. The left-handed compliments that I was not a typical American let me know I was speaking well for my homeland. Then, one of the guests wanted to know from where in America I hailed.

“Mississippi,” I said, and braced myself; after all, our not entirely undeserved bad reputation precedes us even abroad.
“Ah,” says the admiral. “The home of Faulkner. Are you familiar with Faulkner?”
“Yes, sir. He’s one of my favorite authors. My hometown is a few miles south of Oxford, and my great-grandfather served in the Civil War with Faulkner’s grandfather.”
“Then you speak the language of his characters?” He used the word “idiome,” not “langue” or “langage”.
“Yes, sir.”
“I consider Faulkner to be perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th Century. I’ve read him in French translation and in the English original. But I know there’s something I keep missing that’s bound up in the language (idiome) of his people. You’re the first person I’ve ever met who speaks it. Would you do me the honor of reading me some passages?”

One of his choices was from Chapter 7 of Intruder in the Dust. I channeled my inner Mick. My mind went back to the hills of North Mississippi. I could feel the heavy August sunlight and the dust of a backroad on my sweaty neck. This was a passage that, from the first time I read it, had been my own thoughts, a passage I had returned to over and over whenever contemplating exactly what it was that made me a Southerner.

…the uttermost rim of the earth itself, the North: not north, but North, outland and circumscribing and not even a geographical place but an emotional idea, a condition of which he had fed from his mother’s milk to be ever and constant on the alert not at all to fear and not actually any more to hate but just—a little wearily sometimes and sometimes even with tongue in cheek—to defy.

The air of international sophistication was soon swept away by the wind of time. I returned to my roots and laughed too loudly, in typically American fashion.
“How did you become a linguist?” he asked.
“It began on a possum hunt …”

And it did. I was nine when Uncle Ralph and my granddaddy decided it was time for the rite of passage of my people, the chase of Didelphis virginiana. First, I was instructed in the proper way of catching it, cleaning it out, and how to cook it, turnip up the derrière. A possum will eat damn near anything, and you have to take the possum alive and keep it caged for a couple of weeks, feeding it nothing but grains, making it kosher if you will. The neighbor man was brought in to keep, slaughter and cook it; Granny wasn’t about to let us into her kitchen with that!

So, off we went into the Mississippi moonshine-laced night, Granddaddy, Uncle Ralph, the neighbor man, the student, and the baying hounds. The quarry treed, I received the honor of knocking him from the limb. Or her; I never checked, but I did learn that the female American marsupial has two vaginae, the male a forked penis; the female initiates copulation, and if she doesn’t like it, she castrates him. This latter was emphasized as an important curriculum objective.

Our possum played possum as we took it back home. Along the way, Granddaddy recited from memory that great folk poem from his day, Carmen Possum, an instructional narrative poem about two boys and their dog hunting raccoon or possum at night in a mélange of Latin and English, part of which I include below. I was in awe. The next day Granny and Mama began my Latin studies which, in turn, set me on my career as a linguist. Looking back, I’ve often wondered how many young people these days are subject to such a random ray of light that brings about an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that will lead them far from home to distant lands under another moon.

The nox was lit by lux of Luna,
And ’twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o’er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
On sic a nox with canis unus,
Two boys went out to hunt for coonus.

… on this nixy moonlight night
This old canis did just right.
Nunquam chased a starving rattus,
Nunquam treed a starving cattus,
But sucurrit on, intentus
On the track and on the scentus,
Till he trees a possum strongum,
In a hollow trunkum longum.
Loud he barked in horrid bellum,
Seemed on terra vehit pellum.
Quickly ran the duo puer
Mors of possum to secure.

Nunc a domum narrent story,
Plenus sanguine, tragic, gory.
Pater praiseth, likewise mater,
Wonders greatly younger frater.
Possum leave they on the mundus,
Go themselves to sleep profundus,
Somniunt possums slain in battle,
Strong as ursae, large as cattle.
When nox gives way to lux of morning,
Albam terram much adorning,
Up they jump to see the varmin,
Of the which this is the carmen.
Lo! possum est resurrectum!
 
Ecce pueri dejectum,
Ne relinquit track behind him,
Et the pueri never find him.
Cruel possum! Bestia vilest!
How the pueros thou beguilest!
Pueri think non plus of Caesar,
Go ad Orcum, Shalmanezer,
Take your laurels, cum the honor,
Since ista possum est a goner!

Gina Sheridan: “I Work at a Public Library”

As a life-long patron and former employee of the public library system, I was delighted to discover the work of Gina Sheridan, whose wonderful book and blog, I Work at a Public Library, has provided me hour upon hour of fun and wonder. Sheridan’s pithy, off-beat, quirky accounts of the incidents and exchanges that take place in what she refers to as a “neutral place” range from the poignant to the hilarious and make for fascinating reading no matter who you are. What’s more, I was thrilled to find out that Gina is a former pupil and current colleague of my great friend Jeff Weddle, who is an associate professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama. Gina graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her life and work so I could share.

A bit about me: I grew up in a St. Louis suburb, the middle of five kids. I have an older sister, an older brother, and a younger sister and a younger brother. I’ve always found this sort of special. My mom was always trying to kill herself (and still hasn’t succeeded) so we grew up fast. The girl siblings made it out smart and happy, and the boys made it out alive but damaged. I got married at 19 because it meant a fresh start and it seemed like the thing to do at the time. We lasted seven years. My brain exploded at college as I learned more about the world and its occupants, and he was kind but couldn’t keep up. I moved to Savannah, GA for fun for a couple of years before graduate school in Tuscaloosa, AL. My first professional librarian position was in Fresno, CA where I met husbear and started I Work at a Public Library because I wanted to try out Tumblr and was in awe of almost every person I met at the library. Even though I’ve been writing since I was young, first bad poetry and then so many blogs! I never sought to be a published author; it was such a fluke how it happened.

You say you “curate” the stories, which I find a curious way to say you compile and edit the stories. Describe the process of submission to blog, in other words, the stories you receive, where do they come from (geographically), what are your criteria for acceptance, and while you say “Most are offered without comment …” what sorts of stories do you find need or deserve some sort of comment?

I love the word curate because I collect the stories from all sorts of places, not just the submission button on the blog. Sometimes I find a great story on a friend’s Facebook page. Sometimes it’s a story told in passing at work. Yesterday, one came by snail mail! Sometimes people will text or email me a snippet of a story and I have to carefully flesh it out for it to make sense and appeal to a general audience. Often it’s something I personally experience. But there are times I start typing it up and realize it’s not quite right, or won’t mean enough to anyone other than me. Those are the ones that are hard to explain. Many of the submissions I receive (perhaps 40% of them) are way off base, something I’ll discuss in another answer below.

The stories come from all over the world–I’m surprised how many submissions I get from people in Canada and Australia in particular. Most are from current or retired library workers, but I get some messages and stories from library users who have had weird or funny or touching experiences at the library.

I like to offer up the stories objectively, without comment or judgment for the most part. I do this so that readers can get a picture of events that actually take place without my opinions murking it up. However, the “bullies” tag is inherently subjective and a few others sprinkled here and there provide commentary on how I feel about the subject or situation. When I share a link to Facebook, it often accompanies a sentiment. There are times I can’t help myself.

Do you find that people are confused by the things you (and I) find amusing about library patrons? Do you ever get any feedback from people who find the blog offensive in any way, for instance condescending?

99% of the Tumblr interactions are overwhelmingly positive. The same is true of the interactions on the associated Facebook page and Twitter feed. There have been very few negative comments or reactions. While I try to avoid my own book reviews, I did catch a few of the IWAAPL book that expressed things like, “I could’ve written this.” or “This could’ve happened anywhere, not just a library.” or “What is so special about these stories?” or “Libraries are WAY worse than this watered down bullshit.” Those sorts of things. And I agree! But that’s what I find so cool about the subject. It’s not unique. I love paying attention to my surroundings and the people I meet. Sometimes you look up and see something brilliant in the mundane. Not everyone does, though. I think most people who don’t get it just stay away or keep quiet–in any case, I don’t hear from them!

Yes, the characters are colorful and often entertaining, but what do you mean by “their jackets are dusty, subtext confusing, and even if they don’t fit in anywhere else in life, all of them belong at the library.” I think this is charmingly intriguing, and would like as full an explanation as you feel you can provide.

The American public library is one of very few places in the world where everyone is truly welcome. As long as you abide by a few simple (common sense) rules, you can stay from open to close, you don’t have to make a purchase, no one will ask for your membership card or judge what you are reading (or not reading). All of this means that public libraries attract all sorts of people, of course. And this includes employees! Some of the quirkiest people I know are librarians. Librarians aren’t just cardigans and margaritas, people!

Here’s a question I’m sure you get all the time: Where did you get the idea for I Work at a Public Library?

I’ve been blogging for many years. Blogs are a free and easy place to collect things and find community. I used to have a “Quotes of the Week” blog where I shared funny things I heard throughout the week, with a complete lack of context. I also have “Here, Hold This” which contain iPhone photos of my husband holding miscellaneous items. IWAAPL was a place I could collect the library stories that amazed and touched me. Plus, I wanted to try out the new-at-the-time platform called Tumblr. I didn’t realize it would become popular and I never imagined it would turn into a book deal. Several years in, an agent contacted me on Twitter and it was only a couple of months later that a publisher offered us a contract. It really was the right combination of people at the right time–I call it a fluke because there are so many other blogs out there with way more readers than I have.

Sure, your stories illustrate the “quirkiness” of humanity, but what else? What else do they have to say about the human condition, particularly in terms of the thirst for knowledge, or the need for information?

Some people come to the library because they don’t have many other places to go, or people to talk to. Some are indeed thirsty for knowledge and aren’t at all afraid to ask any question under the sun. People feel pretty safe at the library and library workers love to be busy and helpful answering questions others may scoff at. But working with the general public can be difficult at times. When someone is exhibiting poor behavior, I see it as a challenge–how can I deescalate the situation? How can I smooth things over so the person and the staff member is happier than when I found them? I tell my staff, “Start with yes and always err on the side of customer service.” That seems to work pretty well, but some people carry their baggage with them everywhere and nothing helps.

The biggest surprise to me is the response from library workers, young and old, just starting out or retired, professional or paraprofessional. The stories give them hope, validation, humor they can relate to, nostalgia. Radical librarian Sanford Berman and I are pen pals because he happened upon my book! He sends me clippings of old newsletters and sends me notes on the backs of grocery lists. I cherish our correspondence very much.

Be honest and tell me you do get submissions that you consider inappropriate for your blog. What sorts of submissions would fall under this category? Accounts of child abuse, perhaps? Criminal activity of other sorts?

Nothing that dramatic! The worst sorts of submissions I receive have a huge slant toward the negative. Some people just don’t “get” the vibe I’m going for. They want to vent about “crazy people” or their co-workers or boss. These are stories of poor customer service. Some are mean-spirited or could be perceived that way. That’s not cool with me (and frankly, it’s boring).

What sort of reception has your blog received among librarians? Are you a celebrity at conventions? (Weddle once told me that librarians will hold meetings/conferences at the drop of a hat, and as a former librarian, I know he’s right.)

No! I’m so not a celebrity. There are so many rockstar librarians actually making a difference in the industry–Jason Broughton, Taneya Gethers, David Lee King, Scott Bonner, Melissa Jacobs, Patrick Sweeney. These guys are change agents and library advocates, I’m just a blogger!

Is “Cuckoo Carol” a real person, or is she an amalgamation of assorted nuts you have known? (I suspect the latter, btw … )

Carol is a real person named Meg. She was such a character who kept me on my toes. The nickname came from her–“Just call me cuckoo!” she once said to me. When the book was coming out, I gave her a call at the library where I knew her (because I knew she’d be there–she was there for 10+ hours per day. I even knew where she’d be sitting so they could go get her and tell her she had a phone call). Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: “Meg, it’s Gina, the librarian who used to work there. Do you remember me?”
Meg: “No! Is this a sales call?”
Me: “No, no, nothing like that. Listen, I remember you fondly. Anyway, I’m writing a book about funny things that happen at the library. You’re in it. Are you cool with that? Do you want to read the stories ahead of time? You are basically going to star in a chapter.”
Meg: “That’s the story of my life!”
And she hung up.

You confess that most of the stories are in your book, I Work at a Public Library. How has the book been received?

About 75% of the stories in the book were new (never published on the site). I just checked: the site has 850 stories to date! The book is not at all a runaway bestseller or anything like that. It’s a great bathroom read and makes a good gift for library lovers and book people. I’m proud the book is out there in the world.

How do you view the role of librarians in society now? Petty bureaucrats or guardians of the public trust?

Librarians of today are space makers, community teachers, innovators, change agents, information helpers. We help people find jobs, get their mind off their troubles, learn to read, learn to love to read, and we offer free classes and lectures and performances. In St. Louis during the Ferguson turmoil, both protesters and non-protesters felt safe coming into the library to find some respite, get a drink of water, charge their cell phones, use a computer, etc. It’s a neutral place that is much needed today.

Photo by Inti St. Clair
Photo by Inti St. Clair

The Free State of Calhoun

The following article, written by Col. M.D.L. Stephens, appeared in Calhoun Monitor in 1900, was reprinted June 18, 1931 in The Monitor-Herald and again in July 6, 1972. It later appeared in the newsletter of the Calhoun County Historical Society MS, First Quarter, 2000.

In 1856, Old Dan Rice, the celebrated clown and circus showman, made a venture through Calhoun County, striking Benela first, next day at Pittsboro and thence over to Coffeeville. Being a man of extraordinary abilities and sagacious comprehension by nature as well as the experience of extensive travel, it took him no time to discover the prominent characteristics of the denizens of that inland county.

Really he did not expect to find so far out in the interior a class of people so intelligent and independent. Calhoun’s citizenship made no pretensions in those days at style rather on the
grotesque order. Such a combination, Old Dan, in all of his travels, had never struck before. Evidently their mark made its impression upon his mind as the independent sovereignty he had ever come across in all of his travels, so much so that at his next performance in Coffeeville the next day, he got off some laughable jokes at their expense, which were heartily enjoyed and applauded by her sister county-men attending the circus that day.

The first one the writer remembers was by Old Dan on his little trick mule in the grand entry, which always captivates the audience into an enchanted trance. I may say as they emerge from the dressing tent, indeed there is a charm about the “Grand Entry” of a circus; irresistible, even with the most stable-minded—the beautiful horses of varied colors, the riders in their dazzling costumes, will surely product the same effect that it did upon St. Peter, when that panorama of four-footed beasts descended to earth from the heavens.

After this parade, leaving the ring-master with his four-in-hand whip in hand, Dan Rice and his mule made possession of the ring to round up this initial act with something ludicrous. He made many circuits around the ring, imitating each round some laughable incident real or imaginary. Finally to close the scene, he humped himself as awkwardly as he could, at the same time remarking, “This is the way the Schoonerites rode into Pittsboro yesterday, coming to see Old Dan.”

Of course this brought forth a yelling applause from the Yalobusians. About the same time, however, the little mule was nearing the exit gap in the ring, apparently tired of the game all at once as if imitating his rider, got a vigorous hump in his own back, and just at the gateway, made a sudden stop, sending the clown forward like a flying squirrel, spreading him out in good shape in the dirt, instantly darting in to the dressing tent.

After a few seconds of suspense, Dan rose, hobbling about as though he was disjointed and a fit subject for the hospital for several weeks at least. At this juncture, the ringmaster in way of reproof said, “Oh, yes, my laddie, see what you get by making invidious comparisons?” To which the clown said pathetically, “Master, do you reckon that dang little mule was taking up for them hossiers in Calhoun County?”

“Why, sir, of course he is; he knew every word you said, besides he has relatives over there,
didn’t you see them?”
“Dad drat it, them was the fellows I saw riding that way?”
“Yes, sir,” said the ringmaster.
Cogitating a moment, Old Dan came back to his master, “Say, Mr. Ringmaster, if you wanted to get out of this world without dying, where would you go to?”
“That, sir, is an impossibility; no man can get out of this world unless he dies.”
“No! I know where to get out of this world without dying,” said Dan.
“And where would you go, sir?”
“Why, just over the Schooner, into the Free State of Calhoun!”

The rebel yell followed this enunciation. Many Schoonerites present and their generous natures added in the eclat of that day. In this tour of Dan Rice of Mississippi, The Memphis Appeal had accompanied the show, and reporter and solicitor, and this joke upon Calhoun County seemed to be enjoyed and relished with such tenacity that this reporter sent it to the office and a few days after I read in the humorous column of that paper a verbatim account of Dan’s act in Coffeeville. Afterwards, I heard Old Dan kept the joke all through North Mississippi, which gave the county that notoriety as “The Free State of Calhoun”, and will no doubt follow her through the decades to come. Thus Calhoun County bears that name and is amply able to take care of herself amid exigencies of any sort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Pres: Our Cornerstone Church

“That realm is best and most stable which is ruled in accordance with God’s will alone,
and the worst and weakest is that which is ruled arbitrarily.”
Ulrich Zwingli

Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church (FPC) is a prime example of stability. It is located at 1390 North State between Pinehurst and Belhaven Streets. The current church, which opened in 1951, began its history 114 years before at the corner of N. President and E. Capitol Streets in Mississippi’s first state house building. Greater Belhaven’s only church was organized on a Saturday afternoon, April 8, 1837 by the Rev. Peter Donan and four persons: Mrs. Margaret E. Mayson, Mrs. Susan Patton and Mr. and Mrs. John Robb. There was a pastor (Rev. Donan), but no elders for two years, no deacons for six years nor an individual house of worship until 1845. In its first two years of existence, the church had but three new members. (1)

The State of Mississippi owned considerable land in the downtown area of Jackson in the early 1800’s. It made land available to religious denominations in the vicinity of Smith Park and First Presbyterian purchased a tract a bit north and east of the original designations at the corner of Yazoo and North State Streets. Its first home edifice was erected on this site in 1845-46. Somehow, it escaped the fiery ravages of General W.T. Sherman 18 years later and was razed in 1891. It was replaced by a small red brick building in 1893 (left) which served the congregation until the opening of the present structure in 1951. The final service in the old church was preached by Belhaven College President Dr. Guy T. Gillespie on August 26, 1951. (2) (3) (4) (15)

The land on which the church rests today (Hinds County MS parcel number 13-38), was owned by a group of developers in 1925. These were early Jacksonians S.S. Taylor, C.E. Klumb, S.K. Whitten Jr., W.N. Watkins and H.V. Watkins. This group sold the land on December 4, 1925 to W. N. Cheney, R.S. Dobyns, Carl L. Faust, W.E. Guild and Stokes V. Robinson. The Pinehaven Realty Corporation purchased the property from this group on March 1, 1927 for $12,700. (5) (6) (7) For the much of the following 23 years, Pinehaven Realty Corporation maintained the land where the church sits today. A single dwelling and out building were shown on the 1925 Sanford Fire Insurance map. The majority of the land between Pinehurst and Belhaven Streets was vacant and remained so until purchased by First Presbyterian Church on September 20, 1950. Prominent Jacksonian and church member Chalmers Alexander was instrumental in this transaction. (8) (17)

According to Jacksonian Judge Swan Yerger, much of this north end of the 1300 block of north state was a field which served as a softball diamond for the older Power School boys who were enrolled in the old Power School on Pinehurst. The spent their recess and many hours after school on this diamond. Since the inception of the church in 1837, First Presbyterian has had only 12 permanent senior ministers. The tenures shown below do not include interim or guest preachers.

Rev. Peter Donan – 1837-41
Rev. S.H. Hazard – 1841-42
Rev. Leroy Jones Halsey – 1842-48
Rev. Halsey built the first church sanctuary
Rev. Isaac James Henderson – 1849-53
Rev. L.A. Lowery – 1853-55
Dr. John Hunter – 1858-95
Dr. James Buchanan Hutton – 1895-1939
Dr. R. Girard Lowe – 1940-52: When this man knelt to welcome little children to Sunday School, he was a giant.
Dr. John Reed Miller – 1952-68: Dr. Miller was active in missions and in 1962, led the church in founding a Winter Theological Institute which was continued as Reformed Theological Seminary. For 16 years his sermons were broadcast on radio and beginning in the early 1960’s, the morning worship services were televised.
Dr. Donald B. Patterson – 1969-83: During Dr. Patterson’s ministry Twin Lakes Conference center was established near Florence and he served as chairman of the steering Committee that formed the Presbyterian Church of America. The PCA was Founded in 1973 and is focused on the infallibility and historicity of the Scripture and the Westminster Standards. According to Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of music and media, “We distinguish ourselves by these tenants.”
Dr. James M. Baird – 1983-95: Dr. Baird gave leadership to three new building programs, popularized the Church’s TV ministry and was instrumental in involving the church’s Mission Mississippi movement.
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan, III – 1996 – 2013: The son of an eighth generation ruling elder, Dr. Duncan recently resigned his pastorate to take over the position of Chancellor of the Reformed Theological Seminary. (1)

The Rev. David Strain took over the responsibilities of pastor in early 2015. Since that time several other worthy churchmen have helped fill the pews on Sunday morning. Today’s original sanctuary was opened Sunday, September 2, 1951 with the first service preached at 7:30 p.m. by interim pastor Dr. Albert Sydney Johnson. Additions to the original building have been the Lowe Fellowship Hall in 1956 which included additional Sunday School space, Westminster Hall in 1986 and Miller Fellowship Hall which contains the music suite, choir suite and kindergarten. A study center is located on the northeast side of the church which includes a gymnasium and three stories of Sunday School space. The present sanctuary was expanded in 2005-07 and currently seats 1,380. (2) (15) Since its inception 176 years ago, Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church has been housed in but three permanent buildings in three locations. It has been served by 12 elected ministers, for an average of just under 15 years each. This consistency is proof of the stability to which Zwingli alluded and is testimony of the continuity and permanence of this institution.

“And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church;
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Matthew 16:18

On July 10, 1950, while the present sanctuary was under construction, the church cornerstone, which dates from 1891, was transported from the old building on Yazoo Street to the left side of the new church’s front door. Dr. Girard Lowe oversaw the insertion of documents pertinent to the time. These included a bible, a church history, the church roll, various bulletins, a list of major actions leading to erection of the new building, names of the building committee, a roster of the major contributors up to that time, the departmental leaders and daily newspapers chronicling the event. (9)

The mission of First Presbyterian Church is that which is the answer to the question posed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is man’s chief end?” Man’s chief end and the mission of the church is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  Today’s church is composed of over 3,100 members, 2,550 of whom are resident members that represent 1,375 families. Many currently live in the Belhaven neighborhood. There are 105 staff members including those at Twin Lakes Conference Center. The church is governed by a 70 member Session which is made up of elders. The minister’s role is to provide spiritual leadership.  Property and care of the church is done by deacons. Ministers belong to the Presbytery. Major decisions are normally made by the Session with senior ministers selected by the congregation. Early growth of the church was overseen by its senior pastors and pioneer Jacksonians such as the Power, Williford and Wells families, Judge Julian P. Alexander, Bob Cannada, George Lemon Sugg and R.E. Kennington. Many leading elders and youth leaders have also contributed to church growth. (2)

“Those who have arrived at very eminent degrees of excellence in the practice of an art or profession have commonly been actuated by a species of enthusiasm in the pursuit of it.”
John Knox

 The Presbyterian ministry throughout its history, which dates back to the Reformation, has been shaped by the knowledge of Christian faith and the principles of the history which surrounds it. Since the Reformation church leaders have placed a high premium on the education of its ministers and laity. A primary source of this knowledge is the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). The RTS was started in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 by five men, four of whom were elders in First Presbyterian Church. Its purpose is to train for the ministry based on a high view of scripture and historic Westminster standards. With ancillary campuses in Orlando, Charlotte, Dallas and Washington, DC, it offers advanced degrees in bible studies, missions and family counseling. (10) Belhaven University has received significant support from FPC for a number of years.

A thriving institution today, Belhaven experienced some fallow years in the early and middle 1900’s involving its endowment and accreditation. In spite of the heroic efforts of its third president Dr. Guy T. Gillespie, the school struggled to maintain its viability. The designation of the college as a co-educational institution in 1954 helped the situation but it was its transfer by the Synod of Mississippi Presbyterian Church in the United States to the Belhaven College Board of Trustees in 1972 that ensured its modern independence. FPC elders serve on the College’s board and significant support is provided by the church. (11) FPC has historically supported private academies which base their mission on Christianity and character. Chamberlain–Hunt Academy in Port Gibson has a history that goes back to 1830 at Oakland College in Rodney. Founded as a military school, its fortunes waxed and waned through the years and were quite low in the mid 1990’s due to decreased enrollment. In 1996, members of the First Presbyterian church in Jackson and French Camp Academy in Choctaw County–in which the church also has an interest–purchased from a local bank the historic buildings, over 200 acres of land and the school’s educational equipment. This purchase ensured the viability of the Port Gibson facility at that time. (12)

Twin Lakes Conference Center near Florence was obtained in 1970. It serves as a summer camping facility in warm weather months and an events center the balance of the year. Over the years millions of dollars have been invested in this first class facility which is available for rental by outside groups. (13) FPC is youth oriented beyond Twin Lakes and its regular ministry. It supports the neighborhood Christian Center in the minority community which emphasizes Christian ethics, academic tutoring and breaking the chains of poverty. (2) Other outreach programs include work with Mission Mississippi, world missions, campus student groups and assistance in starting new churches within the PCA movement. The First Presbyterian Day School was established in 1965 and is located in Miller Hall on Pinehurst Street. The day school contains grades k-6 and currently has a student body of about 650. It involves normal school curriculum, which according to Dr. Wymond, “is based on a Christian and world life view.” It is designed so that the school and church complement each other. While this school can present some traffic challenges when taking in and letting out, it greatly strengthens the character of the neighborhood and is an attraction to numerous young families, many of which have remained in Belhaven after their children finish the sixth grade. (14) (2)

Let us not cease to do the utmost so that we may incessantly go forward
in the way of the Lord;and let us not despair of the smallness of our accomplishments.”
John Calvin“

When asked of the church’s future plans, Dr. Wymond stated “the First Presbyterian Church is always looking for opportunities to serve and preach the gospel. He further added, “No new projects are scheduled at present except to help the city. We are here for Jackson and as an institution to anchor the neighborhood, to conduct bible studies in the Mid Town neighborhood and be helpful and supportive of the church.” (2) On a rainy Sunday morning on the first day of October 1950, Billy Harvey, age 11, stood before the 400 member congregation in the little brick church on the corner and accepted Christ as his personal savior. He held a bible given to him by his parents and a Shorter Catechism provided by the church. Dr. Lowe asked the congregation to accept him into church membership and, standing, they agreed. Looking back through the prism of 63 years he would joyfully do so again. One hundred and seventy six years ago a pastor and four early Jacksonians met in a statehouse in a tiny city only 15 years in existence. They planted the seeds of a great church and a monument to their faith.

Photo courtesy Dale Partners

Today the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson rests firmly on its foundation, its steeple soaring toward the heaven we aspire to and towers over the memories of old Power School to the south on State Street and the rambling Green Apartments to the north. It surveys to the west what was at its construction the Hederman home at Marshall Street, the beautiful Vaughan Watkins house at Webster and Beth-Isreal Cemetery in between, ever facing east. Its mission remains the glorification of God. It is not moving to the suburbs. It is not changing its doctrine. It is not going away. Like Peter’s rock, it represents a hallmark of stability and is grounded in the inspiration of its purpose belonging to all as a beacon of faith, a citadel of strength and a cornerstone of our neighborhood.

Bill & Nan Harvey
September 2013

SOURCES

(1) Church history from web site
(2) Interview with Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of Music and Media, (09/30/13)
(3) Historic marker, NW corner of Yazoo & State Streets
(4) FPC archives
(5) Hinds County deed records, book 174, page 22, (12/04/1925)
(6) Hinds County deed records, book 190, page 284 (03/01/1927)
(7) Hinds County deed records, book 676, page 87 (09/20/1950)
(8) Jackson city directories 1930-50
(9) Program, Laying of the Cornerstone, FPC, 07/10/1950
(10) Reformed theological Seminary, Internet Wikipedia, (09/04/2013)
(11) Gordon, James F., Jr., A History of Belhaven College 1894-1983, Jackson, MS Belhaven College (1983)
(12) Chamberlain-Hunt and French Camp Academies web sites
(13) Twin Lakes Conference Center web site
(14) Mission Statement, FPC Day School, A Kingdom School, Established 1965
(15) Jackson Daily News, Sunday 8/26/51
(16) Conversation with Judge Swan Yerger (09/29/13)
(17) Sanford Fire Insurance Company map – 1925

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

(A) Thanks are extended to Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of Music and Media at First Presbyterian Church for his kind contribution of time to explain much of the background of today’s church
(B) Appreciation is extended to Rev. Brister Ware, minister of Pastoral Care for his efforts to coordinate permission and approval of this article
(C) Appreciation is extended to the senior pastor and others associated with the governmental structure of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson for their support and approval of this article.