Dennis Murphree was three times elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi, and on two of those times he succeeded to the governor’s office upon the death of the incumbent. Although he ran for governor in his own right three times, he was never elected. Few people ever wanted to be elected governor more than did Dennis Murphree, but the political scales in Mississippi during his lifetime did not permit this. The following text is adopted from The Governors of Mississippi (Pelican Publishing: 1980) by Cecil L. Sumners.
Dennis Herron Murphree was three times elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi and was twice elevated to the governor’s office. He was born at Pittsboro, Mississippi, on January 6, 1886, the first child of Thomas Martin Murphree and Callie Cooper Murphree. His father, who was prominent in the local affairs of Calhoun County, served four years in the Confederate army and two terms as justice of the peace. He was a member of the school board, twice served as circuit clerk, and was twice elected state representative from Calhoun County. Dennis Murphree’s father was also a newspaper editor and died during his second term as state representative.
The first American ancestors of this Murphree family were three brothers named Murphy who had taken part in Emmet’s Rebellion and had fled the country, seeking refuge in America. When they came to America, they changed their name to Murphree and settled in Tennessee and Alabama. However, his great-grandfather David Murphree, who was a resident of South Carolina at the time, served as a soldier in the American Revolution. His grandfather Martin Murphree served under General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and was in the Battle of New Orleans. He moved from Tennessee to Chickasaw County after 1830. There he served on the county board of police (board of supervisors) from 1847 to 1849. When the legislature provided for the creation of Calhoun County from parts of Chickasaw, Lafayette, and Yalobusha counties on March 8, 1852, Martin Murphree was one of the seven commissioners charged with bringing the new county into being. He served as the secretary of that commission and helped locate the present county site.
With this distinguished record of public service among his ancestors, it was natural for Dennis Murphree to want to hold public office. Taking over the printing and newspaper office at his father’s death, he was successful in that business and in banking as well. In 1911 he was elected state representative from Calhoun County, Mississippi, the youngest person to be elected to that office from Calhoun County up to that time. His formal education was limited, but he obtained a vast amount of experience in the printing office of his father. He was reelected state representative in 1915 and again in 1919.
Dennis Murphree married Clara Minnie Martin of Pittsboro, Mississippi. They had three daughters and one son. Dennis Murphree was a Methodist and belonged to several fraternal organizations.
Dennis Murphree had oratorical ability, and in 1920 he was unanimously elected as temporary speaker of the house of representatives to serve during the sickness of Mike Conner, the regularly elected speaker. He served thirty days and obtained valuable experience presiding over that body, experience that he used later as presiding officer of the senate.
In 1923 Dennis Murphree ran for lieutenant governor, hopeful that he would not have any opposition. His opponent, however, was Hernando DeSoto Money, the son of Senator Money. Although Dennis Murphree did little campaigning, he won by a vote of 122,827 to 103,065. Mississippi, at the time of Dennis Murphree’s term as lieutenant governor, was experiencing depressed prices for the agricultural products; therefore, he helped promote legislation to help the farmers. Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University) was established, and the mental institution in Jackson was moved to Rankin County and later named Whitfield. When Governor Henry Whitfield became ill in the summer of 1926, Murphree acted as governor much of the time. On March 16, 1927, Governor Whitfield died, and Murphree was sworn in as governor on March 18, 1927.
Governor Murphree had already announced that he would be a candidate to succeed himself as lieutenant governor; but after he became governor, the pressure was so great from his friends that he felt that he had to run for governor. He thought he should have retired from politics and awaited his turn to run for governor in 1931, but he listened to his friends and entered the governor’s race. He faced two well-seasoned and tough opponents: former Governor Theodore G. Bilbo and Speaker of the House Mike Conner. As opponents, these men were as strong as could be found anywhere in the state. Backed financially by Hugh L. White and L. O. Crosby, who agreed to underwrite his campaign expenses, he ran for governor. During the last part of his term as governor, there was a disastrous flood in the delta, a flood that almost took his life. It required most of his time and prevented him from campaigning properly. He went into the second primary with former governor Theodore G. Bilbo, but Bilbo defeated him by a vote of 147,669 to 137,130.
In 1931 Murphree ran for lieutenant governor against Bidwell Adams and won by a vote of 173,339 to 108,022. Again in 1935 he ran for governor against Hugh L. White and Paul B. Johnson, Sr. He ran third and failed to get into the second primary. In 1939 he ran his third successful race for lieutenant governor, receiving 172,201 votes and defeating three able opponents in the first primary by more than 40,000 votes.
Lieutenant Governor Murphree helped Paul Johnson carry out most of his proposed legislation. This included free textbooks for the schoolchildren of the state, an increased homestead exemption (from $3,500 to $5,000), and an expanded membership for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning. This latter move was an attempt to remove the board from political influences. BAWI laws were passed to help “Balance Agriculture With Industry,” as was proposed under Governor Hugh L. White’s administration.
In 1943 he ran for governor the third time against strong opposition consisting of former Governor Mike Conner, Thomas L. Bailey, and Lester C. Franklin. This was a hotly contested race; Bailey barely eased into the second primary with former Governor Conner. Murphree was eliminated. In an upset victory, Tom Bailey won the election for governor.
Then a little more than a month after the November general election, Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., died on December 26, 1943. Once again, Lieutenant Governor Dennis Murphree was elevated to the governor’s office to serve the remainder of the Johnson term. He served as governor of Mississippi from December 26, 1943, to January 18, 1944, when Governor-Elect Thomas L. Bailey was inaugurated. He had failed to get into the second primary by less than 400 votes. Governor Murphree believed for the rest of his life that if he had followed his own political judgment, he could have beaten Thomas L. Bailey in the first primary and would have eventually been elected in the second primary as governor.
After making three strenuous countrywide races and six hard-fought statewide campaigns, Murphree died of a stroke on February 9, 1949, at the age of sixty-three. He was buried near his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi.
Jacksonians have produced an extraordinary selection of superb cookbooks because its citizens have a long history of commitment to the commonweal, and among those citizens have been not only talented cooks, but writers of surpassing ability. The culinary literature of any given city (or region) reflects the character of its peoples, and taken altogether, this selection, which I submit as the “best of the best”, shows Jackson as a richly cultured city with an exceptional standard of Southern cuisine. And yes, let’s go ahead and admit that (with one notable exception) most of them are rather stuffy, as cookbooks issued by civic organizations tend to be, but still, they include an extraordinary amount of cultural history as well as superb writing.
Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa
(Muscadine Press: 1981)
In 1981, proprietor Hosford Fontaine—doubtless at the urgings of countless friends—published Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa. The book is a treasure-trove of history, with profiles of the people who kept the resort functioning as well as other unforgettable characters, musicians and artists such as Till Caldwell, Inez Wallace, Ted Faires, Marie Hull and others. Many of these people contributed to the illustrations, which are augmented by dozens of charming vintage photos including a poignant image of Hosford standing amid the charred ruins. Best of all, The Last Mississippi Spa also includes a sprawling section on recipes for almost anything to put on the table: hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, dressings, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables, breakfast and brunch dishes, desserts, candy and cookies, all “tried and true” from the La Font kitchens. The book includes a warm and heartfelt Forward by Charlotte Capers and a brief introduction by Eudora Welty.
The Jackson Cookbook
(Hederman Brothers: 1971)
This cookbook could well be held up as an archetype of a Southern ladies’ cookbook; it’s stiff with tradition and understated elegance. Indeed, in a note “About the Cover,” the editors explain that Artist Carl Davis translated Welty’s comments about “the era of the Madeira tea napkin,” into a work of art using an heirloom tea napkin “hand embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson,” with Jackson’s monogram “J”. This note follows a short essay by the Women’s Editor of The Clarion-Ledger, Mary Alice Bookheart, “The Aesthetics of Eating,” which states in part, “This is not necessarily a cookbook of old Jackson recipes. … What (the cookbook committee) has attempted to do in compiling this book is to achieve a happy blend of old and new …” This book also includes some restaurant favorites, such as the “Edwards House (King Edward Hotel) Chicken”. The recipes are simple and use familiar ingredients as well as commercial items, and provide items for any occasion, ranging across the menu. The Jackson Cookbook is a wonderful addition to any kitchen library, but what sets it apart, raising it to a level no other cookbook in Mississippi can hope to achieve, is the Forward, “The Flavor of Jackson,” a jewel of exposition by Welty.
The Southern Hospitality Cookbook
Oxmoor House: 1976
Simply put, Winifred’s The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a groaning board of splendid recipes, but as a whole nothing less than an illuminating documentation of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied, the ingredients often expensive and times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, the most frequent critiques of the book involve how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her class and generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients. Many of the recipes are true heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard. She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors. The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”) and a preface by Eudora herself (“A Note on the Cook”).
Standing Room Only
Hederman Brothers: 1983
“With Narratives by Eudora Welty and Beth Henley,” announces the marquee on New Stage’s truly superb “Cookbook for Entertaining”. Henley’s short essay on theatre parties is quite fun, and Welty’s “A Note about New Stage” is the definitive article on this beloved Jackson institution. The posters and playbills, along with the accompanying texts, that separate the divisions are also marvelous diversions, but the true stars here are the recipes. This is hands-down my favorite Jackson cookbook because the recipes are sumptuous, clearly presented, and a lot of them are just damned fun. Most of them are written for more than four servings and are captioned with “can double”. Also included are the invaluable sections, “Buying Guide for 50 Guests” and “Setting a Bar for 50 for One Hour”. SRO throws in an herb and wine guide as curtain calls.
The most distinguished cookbook in this selection, and winner of the prestigious Southern Living Hall of Fame Award, Southern Sideboards is THE right cookbook for traditional Southern recipes before the “foodie revolution” of the 1980s. These recipes aren’t designed for health or with an eye to fussy ingredients, so if you’re the type of person who wouldn’t be caught dead in a checkout with a can of Cream of Celery soup, then it’s certainly not for you. But if you’re one of those hide-bound traditionalists who want to know EXACTLY how Granny made that Southern Cornbread DRESSING, then this is your book. Sure, the recipes are often complex and some do take a little time, but you know what? Time and preparation are keys to good cooking and good eating. The game recipes are truly superb, as are the desserts, particularly the cakes. Southern Sideboards is distinguished by a splendid, heartfelt essay by Mississippi native Wyatt Cooper, an author, screenwriter, and actor who is better known as the fourth husband of Vanderbilt heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and the father of journalist Anderson Cooper.
The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Funeral Planner
Three Rivers Press: 2003
Despite what you may think, I am not including Jill Connor Browne’s cookbook in this list because I’m afraid that if I didn’t, I’d in the very near future have a magenta sequined bootie up my patootie. No, I honestly think the Big-Ass Cookbook is absolutely fabulous. Not only does it have lots and lots of great—albeit indulgent—recipes, it also has reams of practical advice: “Hormones are serious juju, and if you don’t get them sorted out, you might find that you need money for things like lawyers and bail.” I think it’s Jill’s best book, though I must profess a weakness for cookbooks. Here you’ll find satire without (much) malice or rancor, some of the best writing—flat-out writing—to come out of Mississippi, and humor that’s deliberately earthy without being crass or (too) coarse. Of course, I’ll never be fit to sew a single sequin on an SPQ outfit, but I adore them from afar.
Two decades after Appomattox the prostrate South still was—and comparatively still is—largely undeveloped in regards to the rest of the nation, which was undergoing a “Gilded Age”.
For Jackson, Mississippi the war was catastrophic, but the city had begun to rebuild and piece itself together slowly along its two main two axes, Capitol and State Streets. The Pearl River provided then as it does now a natural barrier to expansion to the east, so that the city grew west along Capitol behind the bluff and north along State following the bluff. The southwesterly course of the floodplain largely prevented significant development on South State Street beyond its parallel to the divergence of the Illinois Central and Gulf & Ship Island Railroads, yet inevitably attempts were made, paramount among them the hamlet that became known as Duttoville.
Located south of Porter and on either side of Gallatin adjacent to the Illinois Central Railroad, Duttoville was named for Father Louis Anthony (Luigi Antonio) Dutto, one of the most fascinating figures in the ecclesiastical history of Mississippi. Dutto was born in the commune of Boves in Italy’s Piedmont region and educated at Brignole-Sale, a pontifical college in Genoa. A very learned man, Dutto was the author of The Life of Bartolome de las Cassas (published posthumously; 1902). He was ordained for the Diocese of Natchez before he was 24 years old and arrived in Jackson on August 25, 1875 to assist Fr. Picherit in attending the surrounding missions. Dutto succeeded Picherit as pastor in 1885.
According to an anecdotal biography written in 1932 by Rev. P.H. Keenen, a personal friend, “Father Dutto was a great financier, having special aptitude in this line. He was sought as adviser in matters financial by young businessmen, and his advice, when followed, usually brought success, and often wealth. . . . He himself acquired much property. On the missions he seldom asked his people for funds—he gave instead of asking. His business acumen enabled him to do this.”
In 1886, Fr. Dutto bought land in what was then the southwestern portion of the city, which, according to the account given by McCain in The Story of Jackson, “he divided into lots on which homes were erected and gardens cultivated by certain Catholics who had to come to the city to engage in commercial and agricultural pursuits. This section is still known as Duttoville.”
By another account (Jackson Daily News, May 30, 1979 p. 15A) Dutto acquired the property in 1891 from F.A. and Mary F. Wolfe, J.W. Langley all along Gallatin Street and the I.C.R.R. and the G.&S.I. Railroad and the “Muh (pronounced as the pronoun “me”) Estate, “vast acres” of land just outside the city limits, Dutto sold lots to working class people who could not pay taxes on simple homes, including many Italian immigrants (likely the “certain Catholics” referenced above). The area soon became a thriving community with a planing mill, brickyard and other enterprises that provided work for residents, and many worked in Jackson proper. Anticipating being acquired by Jackson at an early date, the settlers, to avoid city taxes, incorporated in 1903.
The original Duttoville was bounded on the north by Town Creek, the east by the Pearl River with the Illinois Central and Gulf & Ship Island railroads to the west. Later the village expanded west of he railroad tracks to Terry Road. The first (and only) mayor was J.R. Root; aldermen were W.L. Porter, Joe Karese and Will Muh; J.E. Robinson was town marshal, and J.W Langley was city clerk. We’re told a small jail was built but “never occupied”.
When Jackson first attempted to incorporate Duttoville, the tiny village put up a fight. The Duttovillers went to court and fought the incorporation and won. The city of Jackson appealed, and after two years, while the case was still pending in court, the citizens of Duttoville and Mayor Hemmingway of Jackson made a compromise. The city agreed to extend water, lights, telephone, a fire station, police protection, a grammar school (George School) and other amenities. But the area continued to be called by its original name, which in time became corrupted into “Doodleville” or “Dooleyville” both used well into the mid-20th century as a popular though derisive term for the part of town bordered by Battlefield Park on the south, Terry Road on the West, Hooker Street on the north and South Gallatin on the East, well west of the original settlement.
Belhaven resident Wilfred Cunningham, who grew up on Farish Street, remembers going to Doodleville as a very young man. “This was in the late Forties, and I was in my early teens. Anything south of Capitol Street on Farish Street we considered Doodleville,”
“The area was much more depressed than North Farish. I seem to remember the roads weren’t paved, the streets were graveled, I thought we lived poorly on Farish, but Dooley was a lot more run down.” Cunningham said. “The houses were row houses, shotgun houses like we had on Farish. People from Doodleville would come to Farish where we had the ice cream parlors, the stores, the clubs the Alamo. There wasn’t any industry of any kind there for jobs, so most of the people worked in north Jackson. For some reason I was always told not to let the sun go down on me there. I never ran into such a problem, but I always got the impression that there was a gang of some kind that kept Doodleville for people who lived here and weren’t friendly to outsiders.”
Jackson bluesmen Cary Lee Simmons and Bubba Brown composed the “Doodleville Blues” in the 1930s, and it was a local hit, getting lots of laughs when Simmons performed it for his friends in Jackson. He made a recording in 1967, which you can listen to here.
I got a girl in the Bamas, I got on that lived out on Bailey Hill. I got a girl in the Bamas, and I got one that lived out on Bailey Hill. But don’t none of them suit me like that one I got down in Doodleville
The womens on Farish Street shakes until they can’t be still. I said, the womens on Farish Street shakes until they can’t be still. But they cannot sake like those gals Live down here in Doodleville
Turn your lamp down low. Somebody done shot poor Bud, Buddy Will. Turn your lamp down low. Somebody done shot Buddy Will. I told him to stay off Mill Street and get him a gal in Doodleville.
I won’t have a gal on Farish Street, Wouldn’t speak to one that lived on Mill. I won’t have a gal on Farish Street, Wouldn’t speak to one that lived on Mill. ‘Cause the next woman I got, she got to live in Doodleville.
They got the meat from the slaughterhouse And the wood from Grimm Stage Mill. They got the meat from the slaughterhouse And the wood from Grimm Stage Mill. And if you want to live easy, get you a girl in Doodleville.
Spoken: I got a secret for you though. It’s a mad dog out, and boys, it ain’t been killed. It’s a mad dog out, and boys, it ain’t been killed. And you better be careful, careful, careful how you doodle in Doodleville.
Even studded with jewels such as the old fire station and the magnificent Art Deco George School, Duttoville languishes in slow decay, but it’s the most fascinating neighborhood in the city of Jackson, the sad shadow of a good man’s dream.
A primary function of this platform is to provide access to documents of specific interest to the people of Jackson and central Mississippi that are in danger of being lost. Hosford Fontaine’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa (Muscadine Press: 1981), certainly qualifies. This wonderful work was printed only once, and, according to Fred Smith, longtime proprietor of Choctaw Books, the press plates were melted down.
When Allison’s Wells was destroyed by fire in January, 1963, the event was considered a major calamity for the city of Jackson, since the resort functioned as a significant event venue for the city as well as a popular weekend getaway and the site of a thriving artists’ colony, but the spa had a long history of appeal throughout the Mid-South. Periodicals from the 1890s through the 1920s are filled with reports of people traveling to Allison’s, and advertisements were run in papers across mid-America both by the hotel itself and by the Illinois Central Railroad whose small depot at Way, Mississippi (nine miles north of Canton) was only about a mile away. An Illinois Central notice promoting five resorts, including Allison’s, located along its line ran in many newspapers in 1902. The New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1921 advertised I C RR rates from New Orleans to Allison’s Wells as $8.65. It was $26 to St. Louis and $33 to Chicago. The healthful benefits of the mineral water at Allison’s were an important attraction. An Allison’s Wells ad in the 1921 Times-Picayune stated that: “Time for a vacation? Here’s the place. Rest and Recreation, Hot Sulphur Baths for Skin Disorders and Unsurpassed Mineral Water for Malaria.”
Allison’s Wells was described in the November, 1953 issue of Lincoln-Mercury Times as: “A hotel, a resort, an inn, a spa, home, grandma’s house, a weekend at a wealthy friend’s — it combines the best of all of these.” And a 1921 description of Allison’s Wells from the Grenada Sentinel could just as easily describe the Gray Center which now occupies the site of the old resort. It is “…an ideal place to commune with nature and to forget for a short while the turmoil and rush of a busy world.”
By Charlotte Capers
It is hard for me to realize that Allison’s Wells has to be explained, for it was such a special part of Mississippi life in the forties and fifties. The prospect of a weekend at Allison’s was enough to sustain me through the week; a thirty-mile drive from Jackson on twenty-five cent gasoline led to another world. There at the end of a winding gravel road off old Highway 51 the rambling resort hotel sparkled in summer with its seasonal coat of white paint, and in the kitchen an ancient black cook produced culinary marvels on a fragrant wood stove. The old well house was a reminder of the magical properties attributed to its healing waters; waters temporarily healing and more palatable were available in the Fishes’ Club. The Pavilion was the focal point of constant activity, from snapping beans to painting portraits, and the heart of Allison’s was the dining room, dim and cool, where dignified family servants served memorable meals to diners from Jackson, Canton, the Delta, the hills, and metropolitan areas as far away as Memphis. Presiding over the whole production with grace and charm were John and Hosford Fontaine, the hereditary proprietors, who dressed for dinner because dinner was worth dressing for, and expected you to do the same.
Perhaps it should be noted that Allison’s Wells was not for everybody. There were and are those who might prefer a Holiday Inn. It is true that at Allison’s there was a good deal of uncertainty. Allison’s regulars learned to expect the unexpected, and that was part of the fun. For example, it happened upon one occasion that the dreamy youngster at the registration desk assigned two honeymoon couples to the same bedroom. When the Art Colony was in session experimental art might appear mysteriously in the guest rooms, the plumbing was always independent, and for several seasons chicken wire was much in favor for decorating effects. Mattresses and springs varied in quality from room to room, and old friends might be quickly switched from A-grade accommodations to an A-minus room if an A-plus dignitary of church or state hove into view. No matter, this is the stuff conversation is made of, and no planned activities were necessary so long as the guests had the other guests to talk about.
In a laudable effort to cool the dining room one hot Mississippi summer, an ingenious window fan was rigged up, which was supposed to blow through wet straw, thus cooling the air in the dining area and producing an early version of air conditioning. The straw was to be kept wet by a hose, which ran from a tub of water on the porch to the straw packed in the window. On the occasion of a July birthday party, soap bubbles suddenly burst upon the startled diners. At first, the dinner guests were simply amazed. They later compared notes, and reported that they all saw spots before their eyes at the same time. After much slapping at the air, the spots were identified as soap bubbles, which burst impartially into the soup, the salad, and the entree. It seems that the hose had inadvertently been immersed in the laundry tub, thus producing the unexpected visual effects. Was Hosford daunted by this phantasmagoria? Not at all. When a sudsy guest complained she smiled sweetly and said, “Darling, isn’t it wonderful? Where but at Allison’s could this have happened?”
As has been shown, Hosford was an early exponent of positive thinking. She could be seen any cold morning in early spring or late fall strolling gracefully toward the ice-cold swimming pool, fed by waters which must have originated in a glacier. Without changing pace, she would step lightly into the pool, do a few brisk laps, and float out, with never a sign to indicate that the temperature of the water was below freezing. This attitude enabled her to convince newcomers to the spa that shelling peas was fun, darning old table linen an art, and dredging leaves out of the swimming pool a game. Regulars knew better, but all had to serve their apprenticeship.
The ultimate reward for being a good guest was an invitation to “the Retreat.” This meant a drink before dinner with John and Hosford in their bosky hideaway beneath their own apartment. A basement space had been screened and floored with bricks; outside a cornfield pressed close, and vines of various denominations clung to the screens. Inside there was candlelight and conversation. If there should be a lull in the conversation, which was unlikely, you might hear an owl hoot or a dove mourn. The Retreat’s furnishings were eclectic, and so were the guests. John and Hosford might gather together a collection of artists and writers, clergymen and cotton planters, bridge players and ordinary people, provided they all seemed to be guests of good will. If their will was not good when they entered the retreat, it was usually good when they left. A white-coated waiter brought ice and real napkins, two drinks, no more, no less, were served, tall tales were told, and the stories got funnier with the second drink.
Allison’s Wells burned to the ground in 1963, shortly after John’s death. John’s water colors, Hosford’s oils, as well as papers, books, silver, antique furniture, and souvenirs of almost fifty years were lost in the fire. Many of us who belonged to the Allison’s enclave lost more than that. We lost a special place that had preserved for us a special time and enhanced our lives.
These random memories, perhaps inaccurate, may serve to suggest the spirit of the place. I hope so. Allison’s was worth a book, written by John with Hosford as the heroine. As it has fallen Hosford’s lot to write the book as well as play the lead, I’m sure she is equal to the task.
History of Allison’s Wells before the Sam Wherry and Latimer Families
In 1899 my Grandfather, Sam Wherry, a horticulturist, who shipped from Durant the first carload of strawberries from the state of Mississippi, bought the property of Allison’s Wells from Mrs. Mary B. Allison, a widow originally from New Orleans.
Mrs. Allison first lived on the Original Natchez Trace where the gullies are. When the road was opened off of Highway 51 a main road to Way to the Illinois Central Railroad, she moved to Allison’s with her family. In 1879 Parson Hargon dug a well for the Allison’s and discovered this strange tasting water – medicinal. This health-giving water brought people to come and drink the water and buy it. It was of particular value in the treatment of malaria, a purgative as well as a tonic water, with all the minerals. So it was necessary to build the cottages on the hill for health seekers who came for weeks and months, as well as to enlarge the original home for guests.
When Sam Wherry, my grandfather bought their place the Allison’s moved about a mile away toward Way, which became known as the Allison’s House. Mrs. Allison’s son, Matt, spent his entire life time searching for the supposedly buried gold in the gullies off the Natchez Trace during the Civil War. A life time of digging, but he never found it. The Allison’s Water was from a shallow well pumped by hand — a red pump and it was sparkling, bubbling, ice cold and quite palatable at the well, but harder to drink when allowed to settle, because the heavy minerals had a slightly oily film which developed. Such a shock to attempt to mix an alcoholic drink with this ice-cold water for it turned the drink black from the content of the sulphur.
ANALYSIS OF THE 1879 WATER
by W.T. Hand, State Chemist
The flow, the quantity, the mineral content never changed through the years.
.A History of ALLISON’S WELLS from 1890 to 1938
In 1900 under Sam Wherry, Allison’s was a convivial health and pleasure resort, first famous for the heavy mineral water — Allison’s Water, so called – which was a tonic as well as a purgative. The resort developed with my father first a partner – Latimer and Wherry. Then Wherry sold his interest to P.H. Murphy, his son-in-law, W.H. Jeffers, a contractor, who was in charge of all the extensive building — the men’s row changed to the annex with a real bath house for the men who took the sulphur baths and massages.
It was all in the Wherry connections until Latimer became sole owner in 1909: Latimer & Jeffers until 1909 and from then until 1963, D.C. Latimer & Co. In the continued search for pure drinking water the sulphur well in the lawn was discovered and the curative power of it heated helped to relieve tension and was found to be a real aid in curing any skin trouble. A bath house for men and women was built on the lawn and massages given first just for the men. The emphasis continued under the various partners to be health first with the value of the sulphur baths combined with the real cure of the Allison’s water. Of course, the massages by a trained masseuse was a part of the treatment. Dr. Taylor, a woman osteopath, trained the masseuses. She gave osteopathic treatments and the entire family really enjoyed having a treatment — Mother particularly after a busy day in the kitchen – so relaxing.
Allison’s was a busy, happy place buzzing with action from May through September. The horse drawn bus met the trains for guests at Way four times a day, and the wagon took the water to the station to ship and bring back the trunks of the guests. They came to stay for a month with their families particularly from the Delta, New Orleans and Memphis. It was fun to see the new guests arrive at Allison’s and hear Charlie Plez, the Porter, describe them. The days were filled with the pleasures of the time – horseback riding, buggy riding, hay rides, walks to the gullies, taking pictures in the gullies, tennis, croquet, euchre and auction bridge with expensive, elaborate prizes, music by Bud Scott’s orchestra from 10 to 11 in the pavilion every morning. Bud played for luncheon and dinner every day and the dance every week night with a ball on Thursday night.
An early memory is hearing my grandfather and his two sons rattling the small glasses filled with ice, sugar and bourbon about 10 a.m. – a cold toddy. My first taste later of the remains of the cold toddy – ice, sugar and bourbon.
Allison’s was noted for its fine food. It was such a personal operation by the family that it was really impossible to get anyone who could run the kitchen. My mother, Norma Wherry, managed the kitchen with first chefs from New Orleans and Memphis, but later tenants from the place were trained. My grandmother, Candace Barger Wherry, preceded Mother in running the kitchen. Allison’s menu was developed from cooking from scratch – home grown vegetables, fresh fruit from the orchard, wild muscadines brought from the swamp; even quail and wild ducks occasionally; hams, stuffed sausage, bacon cured in our smoke house. A Jersey herd furnished yellow heavy cream, fresh churned butter and buttermilk; cream of cheese dripped from a sack. Squabs were also served from our own pigeons. All cooking was done from two big black stoves with wood only for fuel until 1955 when an electric stove was added for baking cakes.
Health, gaiety, joy of living was uppermost – silver epergnes filled with fresh fruit and flowers, finger bowls, butter served in high silver compotes with small individual silver plates. The head waiter and white coated men waiters added the right touch of formality and welcome.
Wherry and Latimer operated with vision far ahead of their time. They were the first to have gas lights, then generated their own electricity: Electric lights, running water, toilets indoors and bathroom at the end of the halls and later in each room.
Allison’s was a farm for seven months out of the year and five months a health and pleasure resort. The Opening Ball was the 20th of May usually when Ole Miss ended the semester, and the closing ball around Labor Day. Farming was a real activity, cotton, corn, cattle, pigs, pastures and ponds. The Allison’s water was shipped by the 5-gallon jugs, which was a year-around operation. Regularly a car load of jugs of water would be shipped to and sold by a drugstore in Athens, Georgia. These jugs, if you can find one now, sell for $75.00, if perfect.
My father Douglass Colquhoun Latimer and my mother, Norma Wherry, had a certain formality. Guests dressed for dinner and the dance that followed. Father often called the Virginia Reel and Square Dance at night. Men had to wear coats in the dining room; but if you did not have a coat, he had hooks outside of the dining room with coats on them, which you could borrow. All of the family dressed before they left their bedroom. Mother always looked lovely. She was beautiful – brunette with brown hair and brown eyes and a skin you loved to touch. Daddy called her “Young Lady”. She was ever a Young Lady. She died at age 53.
Flowers were her hobby, along with sewing and embroidery. One year the front was filled with enormous chrysanthemums and the Maréchal Niel roses all across the front – a mass of yellow roses — so fragrant. When everyone dressed for dinner in the evening, my one desire was to look as lovely as the young ladies. So, one day, at the age of 7, I wore several dresses and a pair of red slippers. It did not work.
After being dressed one afternoon in white, which was normal, we children all went plum hunting. Of course, it was muddy. We came in bedraggled and Mother immediately put us to bed without dinner. Daddy was very stern, but very soft hearted. He fixed our dinner himself – a thin broiled steak like veal, fresh tomatoes and buttered hot rolls — and brought it to us. Mother had punished us, so she really did not mind. On went the music outside of our room – Bud Scott at his best – probably feeling sorry for us in bed.
School days — a public school of one room, where we had to have five pupils. The two Allison girls along with the three of us, Thelma, Sam and me. We walked to the end of the Men’s row, so called, to the Fishes Club for our schoolroom. This had been the room where the men gambled. A professional gambler usually spent the summer at the Wells.
Later we caught the train at Way to go to school in Canton usually driven to the station by our Uncle Harvey Latimer, who lived with my grandmother, Angelena Lancashire Latimer, born in London, England. The property was bought in 1905 and my father built the home, now Gray’s Center an Episcopal Center, for my grandmother and Uncle Harvey. I lived with them for a year when I was seven years old.
We had three modes of transportation every school day. At first either horse and buggy or carriage and then a car to catch the train at Way – No. 33 to Canton. We then walked from the Canton station a mile to school and perchance if we forgot our lunch and left it on the train, we walked to town to Mosby’s Drug Store to charge 50 cents and buy an oyster loaf for lunch. The money was charged to Allison’s and probably no bill was sent until after the Fourth of July, which was the financial cure for Allison’s.
Douglass, the youngest, who never wore shoes or a hat to school, frequently had the train passengers taking up a collection to buy him shoes. No, he did not take the money, but instead got real mad. When Douglass was in the first grade in the Canton School, he missed his train one winter afternoon, and when he did not arrive at Way, a frantic search for him began. Winter dark rapidly coming — cold — and where was the little boy? The stark terror when Daddy realized that Douglass must be walking home on the railroad track. Visions of seeing him crushed by the on-coming trains. The blessed relief to rush to meet this tiny sobbing child that had walked ten miles to get home.
Strawberries were grown commercially and we children picked some and were paid extra for it. I sold The Commercial Appeal—a source of income—as a child. Douglass Latimer was a great gardener and we had a large vegetable garden as well as flowers—worked in and managed by Daddy. He rose early, worked in the garden and oversaw the milking of the Jersey herd. We sold butter in Canton.
When he appeared for the day Daddy had on a Manhattan shirt starched by the laundry. One of his joys as he ran the office was the usual afternoon set back or poker game on the porch outside of the office with close friends. He had many – from all walks of life. We all adored him and though over 50 years have passed, he is an ever-present personality. He was ever filled with sternness and deep warmth and love for humanity and especially for his wife, “Young Lady”, and his children.
ALLISON’S from 1938 to 1963
As 1938 opened with John and Hosford coming home to Allison’s it brought back memories of life in Boston and how Allison’s was remembered there with such nostalgic memories that when the radio would play “Take Me Home Again Kathleen” I would burst into tears, though quite happy in Boston. And John and my son Doug would laugh. I talked about Allison’s as I went through life – a period filled with happiness, dancing, playing dolls, playing bridge, euchre and early and late dates, with the great love of my mother and father and family. When I think of it today it is like another world. As children and young ladies, we were never presented with the problems, but of course there must have been problems.
John was first advertising manager of The United Drug Co. and next the vice-president of The United Drug Co. His most inventive bit of advertising was The Rexall Train, which traveled all over the United States displaying Rexall products. Mr. Liggett, the President, was aboard and they had a big party at each big city where they stopped for tours.
Home again with the unloading of the big van from Boston with part of our possessions at Allison’s and the rest on Lookout Mountain, Tenn., Chattanooga, where John was connected with Nelson Chesman Advertising and later a partner. In the winter we lived on Lookout Mountain, and in the summer, I ran Allison’s with John and all the employees’ help. John drove down twice a month – an eight-hour trip and spent his vacation at Allison’s.
When John and Hosford bought the Latimer heirs out — Sam, Douglass and Norma — the emphasis continued on high living and health, joining the National Spa Association, going to the meetings – one at Hot Springs – and having the national group at Allison’s. The Saratoga Springs Group gave a cocktail party in the rose garden at the gazebo with Ellis and Preston serving them in white coats – a not to be forgotten moment in time — moonlight, roses and jasmine.
Emphasis on unusual and good meals, beauty, landscaping; flowers everywhere in and out, large arrangements done by Parthenia in the living room as well as fresh flowers on every table in the dining room. These were often done by my Aunt, Mrs. S.D. Wilson of Tupelo. Ed O’Leary, the gardener and an ardent Catholic, hated to see Evy have so many of the flowers picked. Evy was a real designer with flowers, but she liked a mass of blooms the best. She won many prizes. Bowls of fresh sweet peas on each table in the dining room an Allison’s tradition.
A continued feature of Allison’s was the delicious food along with the art activities, as well as the many, many retreats and workshops and meetings. Everything was cooked on two big black stoves with wood brought up steep steps to the kitchen. Allison’s was written up in a number of magazines as “Off the Beaten Path,” which after sixteen years an inquiry comes: “How to reach Allison’s? I wish I knew How.” Duncan Hines included Allison’s and a feature article by Wendreoth Saunders, the artist, was published in The Lincoln-Mercury Times in November and December 1953.
Allison’s, which had been leased to Dr. Brown after the death of my mother and sister Thelma, needed a real face-lift and a return of the sparkle of living with emphasis on beauty, comfort and today’s feeling of life. This meant landscaping, rebuilding. As you entered, the bare clay hill was planted in peas to enrich the soil – so eventually out came the beautiful rose garden with the gazebo.
This presented a real challenge to my husband John, who was an engineer, an architect, a writer, a fine watercolorist and an advertising executive. He brought the joy and beauty and fun of living back to Allison’s. The redecorating continued when John retired and was an account executive with Godwin Advertisers in Jackson. Son John III is chairman of the board there now. Bathrooms were added to most of the rooms, the men’s sulphur bathrooms had a face-lift. The tops of the old toilet tanks became metal planters with flowers at the entrance. The artists painted them – “Realism” in today’s language; in yesterday’s language, “An old reality of time gone by object.” The ladies’ sulphur bathrooms were moved upstairs where Parthenia reigned supreme with the great massages.
The entrance was moved from the lower gate to the upper gate, a pleasing brick entrance planted with flowers, clumps of wisteria trees – shrubs marking the entrance and to the right the beautiful rose garden with Latvian touch to the gazebo. Beds of roses divided by brick walks — running roses in the background — perennials in beds around the center rose beds. Douglass Latimer, my brother, was bringing a bride home, Leigh Barret from Texas, so the first major rebuilding was a bridal suite for them in the annex upstairs last rooms where it overlooked the rose garden as well as the pool and grounds – beautiful view.
With the arrival of our displaced Latvians, Janis and Leontine Lazdin, John had a real engineer Janis to help with the continued improvements, the gazebo and featured seat in the rose garden, the boat house and seats down by the pond down the hill from the garden, which was also a feature in the nature trail, which was developed by “The Canton Garden Club” with the aid of the County Forester, who also marked the trees in the woods. Yes, I was and am a member.
The most important building was in true Latvian style the studio – at first and then the Chapel – Episcopal, because the artists outgrew it the first year. Another building, the enclosure of the pavilion with a small kitchen added for the priests — Catholic retreats. Always decisions should we have a lake or a pool — the pool won and what a big pool – reinforced concrete – there to stay forever — it’s still there. Scrubbed down every Saturday and refilled. Another renovation was the sulphur bathrooms for the women over the dining room—Parthenia’s domain.
1945 and 1946 War years brought our baby sister Norma Latimer Watkins back to Allison’s while Tom was in the service in the Philippines with her two girls Norma and Mary Elizabeth.
John renovated for them a bedroom and sitting room upstairs. Norma was in charge of Allison’s and her third daughter Sydney was born on the 2nd of January 1946 – in Jackson and then back to the Wells for the winter. Allen, our man of all work looked after getting Norma to school by bus to Pickens and of course Mary Elizabeth tagged along about a block to the big road to catch the school bus. Allen built the fires, cooked the children’s breakfast and served it in the sitting room in the early morning light — practically black, and took Norma to the big road.
Allison’s had many firsts: First American Bridge League Tournament in Mississippi … First Art Colony in Mississippi… First Continuous Exhibition of Paintings with a Tea … This is a few of them. From Allison’s to La Font at Pascagoula where the Art tradition continues a fall Workshop every first Tuesday in November for five days. There is a continuous Exhibition of paintings.
Doug and his wife Bertha continue with the same fine cuisine with emphasis on fine seafood. Landscaping and flowers are important. Fresh flowers on the table—as at Allison’s. Art continues to be important. Nothing dies—realities live.
Edith Downing’s kindergarten was at 901 Poplar Boulevard, on the corner with North Jefferson Street.
Mrs. Downing’s husband, James Downing, was an executive with the Mississippi State Banking Department. A native of Lima, Ohio, Mrs. Downing attended the public schools there, Lutheran College, and graduated from Ohio Northern University. Later she took special musical instruction in Aberystwith, Wales, and in London. She was in charge of the music department of the Mississippi Institute, French Camp when she met and married James Young Downing. The couple moved to Jackson in 1912.
The Downings moved to 901 Poplar in the very early Fifties, and opened the kindergarten in 1951 or ’52. She and two other teachers, Catherine Lefoldt and Martha Taylor, held classes in a long, low building on the south side of the lot with a playground in between. The school building was a little shotgun with an “L” at the end with a one-way mirror where parents could watch their children at play.
As in all schools, everyone loved recess and the big green wooden jungle gym in the middle of the playground was a focal point for games. The May Day celebration featured a May Pole dance. The girls wore pressed, and probably starched, dresses every day. Students were often given worksheets, and stars were given for correct results. There were many “hands on” games where the children would begin an activity then move on to others in a planned order to stimulate their learning. A child’s birthday was celebrated with a party and he or she was told to throw pennies in a bucket to tell how old they were. Sometimes Mrs. Downing would split the double popsicles she served for sharing. Students also took turns churning cream in a wooden butter churn.
The kindergarten was warm and welcoming place, the teachers kind and attentive, and many of its far-flung graduates have remained close friends throughout the past 60 plus years.
Class of 1956-57: Bob Biggs, Graham Blue, Bill Brockman, Eddy Butler, Rick Carter, David Chapple, Laura Neal Dear, David Denny, Miriam Dickson, Kay Eisenstatt, Bruce Evans, Frank Ezelle, Karen Ezelle, Patty Farlee, Betsy Finger, Betsy Gordin, Lee Gotthelf, Gary Grant, Susan Haynes, Sarah Hendrix, Janice Hines, Bill Hollingsworth, Pam Howie, Jane Hutto, Sandra Jackson, Bob Lawrence, Harry Kirshman, Dudley Marble, Linde Mitchell, Joe Morris, Alan Orkin, Marianne Painter, George Reynolds, Roseanne Solomon, Ethel Louise Seay, Sally Sherman, Rusty Shields, Ely Siegal, Sue Stevens, John Studdard, Lynn Thomason, Tommy Underwood, Kathryn Weir, Willie Wiener, Robert Whitfield, Lina Yates, Yandell Wideman
(Contributors to this article include Bill and Nan Harvey, Cecile Walsh Wardlaw, Tish Hughes, Sally Brown, Patsy Shappley, Susan McRae Shanor, Michelle Hudson, Karen Ezelle Redhead, Susan Shands Jones, July Lane Douglass and Cindy Callender Fox, Annie Laurie McRee, Dr. Richard Pharr, Bill and Martha Mitchell Brockman.)
During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became dazzling gathering places, filled with music, dance and drink (and a few bullets, mind you), as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans. In Jackson, it was the Gold Coast.
When the National Prohibition Act passed in 1919, Will Rogers said, “Mississippians will vote for Prohibition as long as they can stagger to the polls, which if you ask me takes a lot of balls for an Okie. Mississippi made liquor illegal in 1907, and even though the state eventually put a “black market tax” in place on illegal liquor (the potential for revenue simply could not be ignored) Mississippi did not officially repeal the ban on alcoholic beverages until 1966.
Also known as East Jackson or even “’cross the river”, the Gold Coast was in and around that area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Even though it covered barely two square miles, it was infamous. In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins. “There is no coast except the hog-wallows of the river banks,” Goins wrote, “but plenty of gold corsses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”
Goins cites Pat Hudson as the first to see the possibilities of lucrative gambling near the junction of the two federal highways (Hwys. 80 and 49) across the river from Jackson where before then there were only gas stations, hot dog stands and liquor peddlers. Then San Seaney began selling branded liquor at his place, The Jeep, which soon became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze. Others sprang up like mushrooms. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of law, but as soon as he cleaned out one den of iniquity another opened. Not only that, he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, and he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.
This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. Governor Hugh White, who in December of 1936 ordered National Guard troops into a business on the Pearl owned by one Guysell McPhail. Liquor was seized as evidence that the place should be shut down, but a Rankin County chancellor later dismissed the case, ruling that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate the local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision, but by that time liquor was flowing and the dice were rolling, and the governor, too. bided his time.
In the late 40s, a thriving black nightclub culture was in place. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (the only hotel in the South that catered to Negros) with its famous Off-Beat Room, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others, where national jazz and blues acts performed. These establishments ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate (including one that offered a “special bus” to the Gold Coast from Farish and Hamilton Streets).
By 1946, Rankin county was paying the highest black market tax in the state, but these “golden years” of the Gold Coast came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met each other at place called the Shady Rest and gunned each other down. Others had been killed, of course—more often than not, a big-ass catfish turned out to be a body—but this double homicide so inflamed public opinion that illegal operations never dared be so blatant.
In the 50s, black businesses withered in the backlash against Brown vs. Board of Education, and the area became dominated by a colorful character named G.W. “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought the Gold Coast as securely under his suzerainty as any corrupt satrap might. Red’s reign ended with urban sprawl and development.
Beale Street is back, sort of, and the French Quarter will (thank God) always be the French Quarter, but the Gold Coast is gone, lost in a maze of gravel, mud, and asphalt.
In her acceptance speech for the 1969 First Federal Foundation Awards given by the University of Mississippi, Charlotte Capers said, “I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, and most especially, with the right people, to be able to make a contribution to my home state.” That’s half the story. Capers was able to achieve what she did because she was the right person in that place and time and had the strength and malleability to withstand the upheavals in a watershed era for Mississippi. Moreover, she had the intelligence and initiative to know what needed to be done and how to do it. She also had the perspective and character to maneuver with dignity, efficiency, and relentless humor in a highly volatile political landscape. Let me be the first to say that this monograph is inadequate; Charlotte Capers at the very least deserves the sort of biography recently afforded Fannye Cook.
Ellison Capers, known as “the Fighting Bishop,” joined the Confederate Army as a major, saw the action at Ft. Sumter and was later promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 24th South Carolina. In May 1863 the regiment joined General Joseph E. Johnston for the Vicksburg Campaign. Capers was wounded in the leg at Jackson, Mississippi, promoted to Colonel, and then to Brigadier General shortly before the end of hostilities. In December 1865, he was elected secretary of state for South Carolina. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1868, he served as the Episcopal bishop of South Carolina from 1894 and cHancellor of the University of the South from 1904, until his death in 1908.
Bishop Capers officiated at the marriage of his youngest son, Walter, to Louise Woldridge, on June 29, 1904, in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Columbia, Tennessee. Walter Branham Capers was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1870, attended Furman College and the University of South Carolina, and served as rector of St. Johns Memorial Church, Farmville, Virginia, after his graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary. From Virginia, Capers was called to Tennessee, where he was president of Columbia Institute, the diocesan school for girls, and rector of St. Peter’s Church, Columbia, from 1902 until 1918. He received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of the South at Sewanee in 1917. In Columbia, he met and married Louise Drane Woldridge. Here the two Capers children, Walter Woldridge (1905) and Charlotte (1913), were born. Capers was called to St. Andrew’s Church, Jackson, in 1919, where he served as rector until 1946. He died in October, 1952.
In Jackson, the Capers family lived in the new rectory on the corner of North State and George Streets. Charlotte later wrote,
“It seems to me that 705 North State Street was a fine place for growing up in Jackson and learning the lay of the land. Around the corner and less than five minutes by skate, foot, or bicycle, was Davis School. The New Capitol was only a few blocks away, and young skaters did not hesitate to skate through the tiled basement floor and admire the Egyptian mummy who was the star of the building. A streetcar track ran in front of the house. When we were very young, we would put two straight pins on the track, spit on them, and wait for the streetcar. As it rumbled past it fused the pins into a charming design of crossed swords. If you wished to travel, the streetcar could deliver you north, south, or west. East was the Pearl River, and the suburbs in that area were not yet developed.”
“As St. Andrew’s was the only Episcopal church in Jackson for a long time, my father’s congregation was scattered all over town and from Clinton on the west to Madison on the north. Sometimes Father would let me ride with him in the family Essex when he went calling, and we covered a lot of territory. The Fairgrounds were within walking distance, as were the downtown picture shows. Beulah, my nurse, took me to the Fair every year on the five dollars my grandmother sent us. This included lunch. When we got home, Beulah became our cook. I should note that Beulah was not my nurse because I was sick, but because I was a child, and nurses were what children had in the 1920s. Nurses were for taking care of children, cooks were for cooking, and so far as I knew, maids had bit parts, like ‘Your carriage awaits, madam,’ in the occasional stage plays which came to the Century Theater.”
“In spite of the real economic hardship of the Depression, I don’t remember it as a bad time. It was in the 1920s that we learned to dance, and perfected our skills later during the Depression at dances in our homes, including the Rectory, to the Dixieland jazz of Joe White and his combo, fifteen to twenty-five dollars for four hours, depending on the number of instruments.”
Capers graduated from Central High School in 1930. That June, The Jackson Daily News reported: “Miss Capers Entertains with Lovely Dance”—No graduating affair has been more enjoyable than was the beautiful dance given by Miss Charlotte Capers on Wednesday evening from 9 until 1 o’clock in the ballroom of the Edwards Hotel. Miss Capers in a most becoming creation of green lace with her escort Mr. George F. Woodliff, was assisted in receiving by her parents Dr. and Mrs. Walter. Capers. Mrs. Capers was charming in a dress of apricot satin. The ball room had been converted into a lovely scene with palms and other greenery, forming a pretty background for the beautiful dresses worn by the high school and college girls, who with their escorts participated in the delightful occasion. Joe White’s orchestra furnished the wonderful music and dancing was enjoyed until a late hour.”
With the goal of becoming a journalist, Capers attended the University of Colorado and Millsaps College. She was awarded a BA degree in English from the University of Mississippi in 1934. After a brief stint with Condé Nast’s publicity department in Boca Raton, Florida, Capers returned to Jackson.
The year 1938 would prove pivotal for Charlotte Capers. The Capers family suffered a tragedy in the loss of her older brother, Walter Woldridge Capers. Born in 1905, Capers earned his LL.B. at Vanderbilt University, and attended the International School of Law at The Hague, Holland. In 1936 was chosen to serve in the state senate for the four-year term and was appointed chairman of the judiciary committee. He was also dean of the Jackson School of Law He died in December, 1938, from complications of rheumatic fever, and was buried in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he died.
In 1938, Charlotte Capers joined the staff of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History (hereafter, MDAH) as a stenographer. Capers later wrote, “I managed to avoid the responsibilities of hard times of bringing home some bacon during the Great Depression, I wanted to play on, until the Right Man swept me away to some swinging tune from A Great Big Band. When the R.M. failed to appear and the wolf was at the Rectory door, I was offered a job in MDAH, and was persuaded to accept it by a family increasingly nervous about making ends meet, and tired of supporting me.” She was to quip, “I came in for a cup of coffee and stayed 45 years.”
MDAH was established by an act of the Mississippi legislature. Governor A. H. Longino signed the bill into law on February 27, 1902. Mississippi became the second state after Alabama (1901) to establish such a department. The first director was Dr. Dunbar Rowland, a lawyer, from Coffeeville. The Department’s first quarters were the rooms adjoining the House of Representatives in the Old Capitol. The department moved to the ground floor of the New Capitol in 1902. Dr. William D. McCain was appointed Director of MDAH in 1938. The Department remained in the basement of the New Capitol until 1940, when slightly more commodious quarters were provided in the War Memorial Building.
When McCain was called to active military service from 1943-45 and 1951-53, Capers was promoted from her position as research and editorial assistant to Acting Director. On May 25, 1955 McCain accepted the position of president of Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg and on June 1, at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees of MDAH, Charlotte Capers was unanimously elected Director of the Department to serve out the unexpired term of Dr. McCain, and to begin a six-year term beginning on January 1, 1956. She also became editor-in-chief of The Journal of Mississippi History and chairman of the Mississippi Historical Society.
Capers soon exercised her new authority in a spat with another state agency. Plans of the State Highway Department for the proposed route of a new lane for Highway 49 North, between Jackson and Yazoo City, called for the leveling of a pyramidal mound near the town of Pocahontas. From archeological source materials in the Archives, it was determined that this mound was an important archeological site of prime importance by Moreau B.C. Chambers, former archeologist with MDAH.
In July, 1956, Director Capers invoked for the first time a little-known law which makes MDAH responsible for the safety and preservation of “ruins and archeological sites” in the State of Mississippi. House Bill No. 62, Chapter 161, General Laws of the State of Mississippi, 1938, provides that “any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of historical, archeological or scientific value, situated in the State of Mississippi without first securing the permission of the Director of MDAH shall be guilty of a misdemeanor . . .” The Director informed the State Highway Department of the historical and archeological significance of the Pocahontas Mound, and the 1938 law; as a result, the new lane of Highway 49 North would by-pass the mound, and the State Highway Department would make a roadside park, appropriately marked, nearby.
The Highway Department had its revenge almost sixty years later, however, when in July, 2013 a newly-opened rest area on U.S. High-way 49 at the Pocahontas Indian mound was named for three people instrumental in saving the historic site from development. What Miss Charlotte would say about the Capers-Blake-Scales Rest Area is a matter ripe for speculation.
THE BASIC EIGHT
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Capers was a member of a small, exclusive social circle.
(Eudora) and seven other friends gathered almost weekly for dinner, conversation, and parlor games; they called themselves the Basic Eight. Charlotte Capers, then assistant director of MDAH, which she would eventually head, was a central figure in the group. One of the world’s great raconteurs, even if the world beyond Mississippi did not know it, Charlotte also wrote a regular column for the Jackson Daily News under the pseudonym of Miss Quote. Charlotte’s young assistant Ann Morrison and Ann’s architect husband, Bill, were also members of the Basic Eight as were Jacksonians Jimmie Wooldridge and Major White. The seventh and eighth places were filled variously by friends who returned to Jackson on regular visits—Frank Lyell and Hubert Creekmore most frequently. A different group member would entertain each week-once at the Morrisons’ the guests saw their hosts climb into a bathtub in order to wrap a large roast in layers of wet, salted newspapers, emerging to place the wrapped meat in a barbeque of hot coals. Another time the group painted a mural in the stairway that led from the Morrisons’ basement apartment to Charlotte’s house above. One evening they met to see a moonflower bloom at the home of Major White. At anyone’s home they might play word games: each person writing one line in the set pattern of a story, folding a piece of paper to conceal what he or she had written on it, then passing the paper to another, who would complete a second part of the pattern and so on. Eventually all eight or more lines would be revealed to the assembled group. The results could be hilarious. One exchange led to this sentence:
the luscious but naughty
by the sea
He said, “I want you.”
She said: “It couldn’t matter to me less, one way or the other.”
They rode off on a bicycle built for two.
The Basic Eight never themselves rode bicycles built for two, but they did make excursions together. A favorite overnight stop was twenty miles north of Jackson at Allison’s Wells, a notably eccentric spa. There one evening soap bubbles began to waft from the laundry up through the dining room, and the proprietor, Hosford Fontaine, made the best of a bad situation: “Aren’t they beautiful, aren’t they lovely?” she rhetorically inquired. Like Hosford, the Basic Eight knew how to find amusement and pleasure wherever they gathered.
Members of the group entertained, together or separately, notable writers, editors, agents, and photographers who came through Jackson to see Eudora. In February 1952 Robert Penn Warren delivered a lecture at Belhaven College and then spent an evening with Eudora and Charlotte. “Not a serious word was spoken,” Warren later recalled with pleasure. (Suzanne Marrs, Eudora Welty: A Biography)
THE OLD CAPITOL
Capers was learning to develop the directorship of MDAH into an effective agent not only to enforce the antiquity provisions in the Mississippi constitution, but also as a spearhead to carry out the directives of the executive branch. It wasn’t long before she would use her good offices to carry out an objective that had been cherished not only by her predecessors but also by the new officers in state government: the restoration of the Old Capitol.
The Old Capitol had been saved from total destruction in 1916, and Dunbar Rowland, as well as McCain and Capers all recommended a “Hall of History” in a restored Old Capitol, and both Rowland’s successors, McCain and Capers, included such recommendations in their biennial reports. In the late 1950s, Governor J.P. Coleman personally charged MDAH was with planning and creating a state historical museum to be housed in the restored Old Capitol. He was supported by Secretary of State Heber Ladner, Speaker of the House Walter Sillers, and State Tax Collector William Winter.
The Building Commission would perform the restoration, but the MDAH Board of Trustees was to plan the museum. As director, Capers was responsible for carrying her board’s policies into effect. While Capers had a large and direct stake in the restoration, she had no authority over the architect, John Ware. What she did have was a powerful personality and enormous personal influence. She was a friend of Secretary of State Ladner and of Speaker Sillers as well as Sillers’s wife and sister. She and Governor Coleman had been schoolmates at Ole Miss, and Speaker Sillers and State Tax Collector William Winter were on the MDAH Board of Trustees.
Capers had no museum experience, no museum staff, and no budget. She was attempting to create a historical museum in a building on which work had yet to begun. In addition, she had to develop policies for a state historical museum as well as an exhibit plan, and she had to match her rationale and her exhibits plan to Ware’s restoration plans.
Charlotte Capers rose to the occasion. She began by educating herself and by establishing contacts within the museum world. During 1957 and 1958, Capers wrote hundreds of letters seeking advice and help, and she joined professional museum associations and attended their meetings. By the beginning of 1958, she had established a close professional relationship with Dr. Arnold B. Grobman, director of the Florida State Historical Museum and president of the Southeastern Museums Conference. For exhibit expertise Capers turned increasingly to Ralph H. Lewis, chief of the National Park Service’s museums branch. From Grobman, Capers could get expert advice on museum policies, space allocation, budget, and staffing. From the National Park Service, she could get expert help in designing exhibits.
Two years later, in January 1959, plans had been completed. The ambiguous division of roles in the restoration produced some disagreements between architect John Ware and Charlotte Capers. Capers recognized that Ware was ultimately responsible to the Building Commission, the final authority for the job. Although she knew that she had no direct authority over the architect and that her primary duty was to create the museum, Capers nevertheless had a mandate from the Board of Trustees to advise and consult on the restoration. Governor Coleman, the Building Commission, and the Board of Trustees of Archives and History all agreed that the restoration should be as pure as possible. The restored building would be the centerpiece for MDAH’s state historical museum, thus making the entire building, in a sense, a grand exhibit.
In 1956, Capers had a staff of seven, including a janitor and three clerical workers. In 1958, another clerk was added. None was a museum specialist. In her biennial report of 1959, Capers assured the legislature and the general public that the planning of the Mississippi Historical Museum had not been haphazard, and that it “represents the best thinking in the museum profession in America.” Over the next three years, Capers visited key legislators to enlist their support and made countless speeches to civic clubs and patriotic societies. The staff and budget request Capers submitted for the 1960-62 biennium included money for museum staff and exhibits. Her request included eight additional full-time employees and one half-time. When she submitted the budget to the Commission of Budget and Accounting on August 24, 1959, she noted that she was asking for “a sizeable increase” from $95,165 in the previous biennium to $246,492, more than a one-hundred-percent budget increase. When Capers heard a rumor that her request would be cut by $12,000, she wrote her friend Speaker Sillers asking for help. The department received $248,075 for the 1960-62 biennium and a new museum staff of five, headed by a museum curator.
When the Old Capitol opened on March 21, 1961, Governor J.P. Coleman gave the principal address, stating that the building was “an emblem of the faith that was new and shining in 1839, 122 years ago, and which continues today.” Charlotte Capers presided.
THE CIVIL WAR CENTENNIAL
In the Clarion-Ledger of Friday, March 10, 1961, columnist Tom Ethridge, in his “Mississippi Notebook,” noted that “the total cost of the restoration for the Old Capitol was over $1.5M—a sound investment as an historical asset and tourist attraction. It will play a big part in Mississippi’s observance of the Civil War Centennial.”
The restoration of the Old Capitol was important because in the late Fifties, due to the state’s violent reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi’s reputation was at a very low ebb and state officials were struggling to present a more positive face to the nation.
In the committee assignments of the Society of American Archivists, in December, 1959, Capers was named liaison to the Civil War Committee of the Civil War Centennial Commission along with Dallas Irvine of the National Archives and Sidney Foreman, archivist and historian of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The seven-member committee was appointed by Mrs. Mary G. Bryan of Georgia, president of the American Association of Archivists, at the request of General U.S. Grant III, chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission. In a talk to the Downtown Kiwanians at the King Edward on March 23, 1961, Capers mentions a two-volume Mississippi in the Confederacy to be published by MDAH “One of the finest collections of material on the Confederacy is in the Department and available to researchers.” Capers also published a feature essay, “Mississippi’s Civil War Role Extensive,” in The State Times, Tuesday, March 28, 1961, prior to the opening of the Old Capitol on June 3.
The nation commemorated the centennial of the American Civil War in the midst of the Cold War and a civil rights struggle at home. Mississippi Governor James P. Coleman had envisioned a conservative commemoration and looked to the state’s heritage organizations and historical community, including MDAH Director Capers, who was slated in a leading position, to shape a respectful remembrance. However, his successor, Governor Ross Barnett, used the centennial to publicize his views about the “southern way of life,” emboldening support for his stance against integration. One of the state’s largest centennial events, the March, 1961, celebration of Mississippi’s secession from the Union, featured Barnett costumed as a Confederate general, marching at the head of several thousand similarly dressed “Mississippi Greys” in downtown Jackson. Tens of thousands of spectators roared to the sounds of “Dixie” and cheered the University of Mississippi’s half-block-long Confederate battle flag. In 1989, she recounted,
“You just cannot imagine the to-do that was going on. We wanted a lot of people to see the museum. It had been the big plan and it worked. Fourteen thousand people attended. And they were wild people; we had complete chaos. They hadn’t understood a museum at all. And they mainly said, “Where’s the bathroom?” And we lost a baby that day because there was a baby buggy with a baby in it that somebody noticed and then later they noticed the buggy, but the baby was not in it, a lot of peanuts were in it. Governor Barnett came and the elevator kept going up with him, but they wouldn’t stop to let him out. So, somebody remembered the buggy and the baby and Governor Barnett in the elevator, so when we found peanuts in the buggy and didn’t find the baby, we thought he was still in the elevator with Governor Barnett. I don’t know where he was, but he wasn’t dead. It was the wildest thing you’ve ever seen. I just wanted to kill myself.”
Though Charlotte toed the line in the state’s overblown celebration of the Confederacy, her personal political views were progressive, if not to say liberal, as Suzanne Marrs relates in her splendid Eudora Welty: A Biography:
“In February 1964 Robert Penn Warren paid a welcome visit. He was in Mississippi doing research for his book Who Speaks for the Negro? And one evening Eudora invited him to join her and Charlotte Capers for dinner. The three had a wonderful time; Warren reported that he “woke up the next morning with my stomach muscles sore from laughing.” Much of the laughter had been directed at former governor Ross Barnett. In November, Robert Penn Warren wrote Eudora for permission to use a fictionalized account of the evening he had spent with her and Charlotte (see above). He wanted to incorporate it in his book Who Speaks for the Negro? Eudora consulted Charlotte about the piece, and Charlotte was immediately opposed to its use, feeling that she would be easily recognized and that her criticism of Ross Barnett and Paul B. Johnson, Jr. would result in the loss of her job as director of MDAH. “I think,” Charlotte told Warren, “they would be reasonable in firing me when considering the use of the words: idiot, drooling, face like an old wash rag, ripped right open like a hog killing, and defective child, in connection with the chief executive and chief executive-to-be. Incidentally some of these expressions are not familiar to me.” Warren promptly replied “to hell with publishing it,” and the difficulty was resolved. Charlotte and Eudora’s dismay at the state of Mississippi politics was not.”
THE ARCHIVES & HISTORY BUILDING
Minutes of a meeting of the Board of Trustees of MDAH, held on July 25, 1963, include a plea from Capers to press for a new building. The Board unanimously adopted a resolution strongly recommending that $1,250,000 be made available to MDAH for the construction of “adequate, modern facilities to house the archives and records program of the State of Mississippi, and that these facilities be constructed in as close proximity to the State Historical Museum in the Old Capitol as possible.”
Little progress was made toward securing funds for the building until 1965, when Dr. R. A. McLemore recognized the opportunity of promoting a new archives building as part of Mississippi’s celebration of her Sesquicentennial of Statehood in 1967. Mr. William F. Winter, member of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees, drafted a bill calling for a new archives building as a permanent memorial to the Sesquicentennial of Statehood, but it never came out of committee. An Extraordinary Session of the Legislature was called on November 9, and Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr. made a personal telephone call to Capers, asking the amount that would be required to construct an Archives building. Capers gave him the figure $1,250,000, which was the amount originally requested by the Board of Trustees. A few days after the Governor’s telephone call, the sum of $1,120,000 was provided for an Archives building in House Bill No. 7, Laws of Mississippi, 1966-1967 Extraordinary Session. This bill was signed into law by Governor Johnson on January 5, 1967.
Capers reported this belated triumph to the Board of Trustees at its January 13, 1967 meeting. On April 13, 1967, the State Building Commission appointed Overstreet, Ware and Lewis of Jackson architects for the project. E. J. Yelverton was executive secretary of the State Building Commission at the time. Mr. Joe Ware, partner in the Overstreet, Ware and Lewis firm, and Capers visited many archival establishments throughout the country to familiarize themselves with the special requirements of archival repositories, and put the plan for the new building which was eventually approved by the Board. (The design called for a largely windowless second floor, but Charlotte insisted an eastern window in the executive office so she could, “keep an eye on Rankin County.”)
It was not until February 6, 1969, that the matter of a site was finally settled. The State Building Commission again approved the Capitol Green site which had been approved by the Board of Trustees, the State Building Commission and the State Capitol Commission of the previous administration in 1967, and finally, four years after the Board of Trustees and the director began their drive for a new building, the stage was actually set for construction.
On November 6, 1969, bids on plans for the Archives and History Building were opened by the State Building Commission. Miss Capers, Dr. McLemore and Mr. Winter were present in the Woolfolk State Office Building auditorium when the bids were opened. Mid-State Construction Company, bidding on the plans of Ware Lewis Partnership, was low bidder with a base bid of $1,061,525, and a base bid plus alternates of $1,108,925. With the addition of architects’ fees, equipment, and contingencies, the total cost of the building came to $1,290,000.
On December 3, 1969, ground-breaking ceremonies were held on the site of the building. The ground was broken with souvenir shovels, each bearing a metal plate with the inscription, “Archives and History Building, December 3, 1969.” When Capers retired in April, 1983, the structure was renamed the Charlotte Capers Building.
THE GOVERNOR’S MANSION
Capers, director of MDAH since 1955, was reelected to a six-year term at the January, 1968) meeting of the MDAH Board of Trustees. But in May, 1969, she apparently decided she had had enough and informed the Board of her decision to resign from the directorship of the Department on July 1, 1969. Dr. R.A. McLemore, president of the board, said that the Board accepted Miss Capers’s resignation with “regret and appreciation for the distinguished contribution she has made in the State of Mississippi.” When she stepped down from the directorship, Capers was appointed to head the Department’s division of Information and Education, doubtless she anticipated a return to writing and editing. Instead she was named principal executive for the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion, a $2.7 million project begun in 1972.
By 1971, time again threatened the Mansion, which had been a focal point of Mississippi history for more than a century. Governor and Mrs. John Bell Williams moved out of the Mansion in July, 1971, on the advice of engineers who declared it unsafe. Mrs. Bill Waller, campaigning with her husband, said that if Bill Waller was elected, the Mansion would be restored. Waller was elected, and shortly after his inauguration in 1972 the State Building Commission appointed the Jackson architectural firm of Ware, Lewis, and Eaton (now styled Lewis Eaton Partnership, Inc.), as project architects for the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion.
Although MDAH had some responsibility for the Mansion under the Mississippi Antiquities Law of 1970, it was directly involved in the restoration only through a resolution of the State Building Commission, which asked the Board of Trustees of the Department to advise the project architects on the historical aspects of the restoration, and named Charlotte Capers as principal executive for the project. The Archives board recommended two consultants to the State Building Commission: Charles E. Peterson, architectural historian, restorationist and planner, best known for his Independence Hall restoration; and Edward Jason Jones, architect, interior designer, and consultant to the White House.
The restoration and reconstruction of the Governor’s Mansion was completed in May, 1975. Governor and Mrs. Waller opened it to the public on June 8, 1975. At that time Mrs. Waller accepted the National Historic Landmark designation from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
THE CAPERS PAPERS
When Dr. William McCain started The Journal of Mississippi History in 1939, then-stenographer Capers was made research and editorial assistant. She had still not abandoned ambitions to be a journalist. Between 1949 and 1961, Capers published fifty-two book reviews in The New York Times. Among the titles were The Secret Pilgrim, by Meridian, Miss. native, Edward Kimbrough (Oct. 30, 1949); The Insolent Breed, by Borden Deal, from Pontotoc, Miss. (Sept. 13, 1959); Tammy Tell Me True, by her fellow Millsaps College student, Cid Ricketts Sumner (Nov. 29, 1959); and two Louisiana novels, Victorine (Oct. 28, 1958) and The Chess Players (Jan. 22, 1961), by popular sentimental novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes. On Nov. 7, 1948, the Times also published a letter from Capers that begins, “Ask most New Yorkers what they know about Mississippi; even now they will answer, ‘Bilbo.’ The fact that a vital contribution to America’s literature is being made currently by this most-maligned state often goes unnoticed.” Capers introduces the Times readership to Elizabeth Spencer, Stark Young, David Donald, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Hodding Carter, William Alexander Percy, Shelby Foote, Ben Wasson, James Street, and, of course, Eudora Welty. Capers wrote an additional forty-eight reviews for The New York Times Book Review. She also edited many books on the history of Mississippi and the South. She was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Mississippi History from 1956-1969, and wrote historical articles for Encyclopedia Britannica.
In a January 29, 1967, article in the Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News, Louis Dollarhide wrote, “Charlotte Capers has made a very efficient and imaginative State Archivist. To her friends, she has always been one of the best raconteuses anywhere about. In recent issues of The Delta Review, we have been able to enjoy in print some of her best tales. The recent issue has another chapter in her odyssey. What we should expect of Charlotte is more and more writing.”
Friends had long encouraged her to publish some of her writings in a collection, which she did in 1982 with The Capers Papers contains the “Miss Quotes” essays that she wrote for The Jackson Daily News, Jackson Star-Times, and her “Good Life” pieces in The Delta Review. Her old friend Eudora Welty wrote the foreword:
CHARLOTTE CAPERS NEVER thought to collect her papers. Her colleagues in the Archives have now done it for her, making their choices from a large number that go back for several decades. Here they are for our delight.
We will all have to agree at once to this: they represent Charlotte but they cannot convey her. They weren’t written with that in mind, for they came about by circumstance. Many of them—some of the best, in fact-are samples of her warmly remembered Sunday newspaper column, “Miss Quote,” set down spontaneously in response to an occasion. The occasion would have been local; it might have been of public or personal import, might have been anything that flagged the author down as she came its way or it came hers. They were crowded by space limitations and pressed by the deadline, but they were tossed off with ease and speed. And they acutely reflected their day. They can still call it up, and remind us well that Charlotte Capers never missed a thing in the passing scene.
She’s such a part of it herself. Charlotte does a variety of things well and enthusiastically besides write. She’d rather rise up and dance than sit down and type. She favors the spontaneous, she enjoys the immediate response, the give-and-take of conversation, in which she is a virtuoso. Writing is something you do by yourself. This is the most serious strike against it, or Charlotte may jokingly let you think that; but in the judgment of another writer who has kept urging her on, she writes entirely too well not to take an honest satisfaction from doing it. When we read the collection here we want still more.
Most of these pieces were written to amuse, and they abundantly do so. If some of them are fleeting, so was, and so is, the passing scene. The point is that Charlotte caught something. Her perceptions are not only quick and bright but accurate and wise. She knows her world. She sees the social world we all move in with its history behind it, too, that built and shaped, and sometimes shadowed, our times. She is a viewer with perspective.
It is above all, though, the sense of people, of human nature and intractable human behavior that intrigues and stirs and delights her mind, and fairly often confirms her expectations. It’s the rest of us that set her off. Herself too she can take on as an equally qualified subject; her own adventures make her best pieces. Her writing might spring out of that sensitivity to human idiosyncrasy which very often brings about such a satisfactory evening of conversation between friends. (Southern conversation, as we know and practice it.)
They are wonderfully conversational, these flowing pieces. However, she makes it appear, the conversational style is not at all easy to get down on paper. Charlotte has mastered her style without seeming to try; this is characteristic of her. The Capers papers as in her character, is intuitive, receptive, hospitable, unpredictable but succinct.
To relish human nature (which is a talent all its own, you probably have to be born with it) is to pretty well know it, to be well-prepared and seasoned to its surprises and revelations. She applies the extravagant idiom, the outrageous now and then it offers her a reasonable amount of scope in a small column of type, and comes in generally handy for reporting what goes on here. Exaggeration is one of her splendid accomplishments. Just as a towering skyscraper can only be built on bed rock that goes deep and stands unquivering, to exaggerate as tellingly as Charlotte can, you need to be pretty firmly based in human truths.
These pieces vary in subject and mood and kind. But they convey in common a warmth of feeling you won’t fail to recognize as Charlotte’s own. In reading the Capers papers we hear the Capers voice.
The beautifully written “God and My Grandmother,” an essay given the full development it deserves, has the power to deeply stir us. “Pawley’s Island” is a sensitive and very special evocation of a place. The exemplary portrait of the “Tiny Tenant” is made up of one part clear eyed observation, one part headlong devotion, and no part whatever of sentimentality. You will decide which are your own favorites. In any case, the last piece, “Autumn Light,” an elegy of our state in 1954, is likely to remain a picture in all our minds, not fleeting but indelible.
In 1999, Patti Carr Black published The Capers Canines a series of essays Capers had written about her beloved dogs, with charming illustrations by Mack Hunter Cole. All of these animals were in their turn the stars of her anecdotes, but none more so than the inimitable Fred Friendly, the Dog Who Came to Dinner.
FRED’S CIRCLE WIDENS
By the time Fred had been with me about a year, he was an accepted and respected member of the neighborhood. He had an active social life. Mr. Birch, who took his devoted peeka-poo for a long walk every night, still stopped by to pick up Fred, who was waiting, alert, for his call. Fred unleashed ran interference for Joey when he was threatened by a larger and more unfriendly dog. Their walk lasted about thirty to forty-five minutes, and Fred always returned peacefully after a friendly good-night to Mr. Birch and Joey.
When I had company, Fred liked to be indoors, so that he could be as helpful as possible. He usually greeted guests enthusiastically at the door, to the consternation of some gentleman callers when he gave them unnecessarily close check-ups. However, this was a brief encounter, and when the guests were seated, Fred went from chair to chair inquiring with his large and protruding brown eyes as to their needs. Of course, he shook hands, all around, several times, and even sat up while shaking: to prove his true hospitality. He was such a natural host I would not have been entirely surprised to hear him inquire, in his deep and husky voice, “Can I get you anything?” So time went along, Fred and I grew older, and his popularity steadily increased. He routinely received Christmas presents from the neighbors, and he seemed to accept his role as my friend and defender. The smooth tenor of our ways was occasionally interrupted by his overnight stays at the dog pound, where he made friends readily. In fact, when I missed him, I knew exactly where he might be found. The keepers were always sad to see him go. I never retrieved him without a parting message from his captors: “He sure is a nice dog. I hate to see him go.” Fred evidenced his love for one and all, even after he had broken the law and paid the price for it, and always seemed glad to be home again.
About this time, however, Fred began to travel. 1 think it was because I began to travel, too, farther and farther away from our home place, like England, and even Italy and Greece. This would not have been possible if Fred and I had not been supported by a large circle of friends. My office staff assumed some responsibility for Fred, in that his collar proclaimed their telephone number. The neighborhood support group included the Culvers next door, who fed him; Ann down the street, who had agreed to receive his missing-in-action calls; and of course Mr. Birch and Joey, who still kept their appointments with him when possible.
When I returned from my first stay in London, they all had tales to tell. It seems that Fred’s travels during my absence suggested that this country dog with a mysterious past absorbed some love for culture during his life with my friends and me. I was told that my office received a call from the state office for continuing education, where it was reported that a friendly dog had scratched at the door, come in, and indicated an interest in the program. He doubtless shook hands, and they reported, “He is such a nice dog, we wanted to get him safely home.” So they called my office, and the Committee for the Preservation of Fred swung into action. Ann picked him up and returned him to our home, and all was quiet until the next call came. It was not long in coming. “Do you have a dog named Fred?” The affirmative answer brought the same comment made by the education people. “He surely is a nice dog. I am at Dr. X’s office. He’s a dentist, and we found Fred at the door when we came in. He is here in the office and we will keep him until you come.” It seems that Fred, being speechless, was not able to say why he was there, but I have to admit that his teeth were not in perfect occlusion. By this time no one at my office discounted the evidence that Fred may have had unusual powers. No matter, Fred was brought home again, amiable as ever, and there he was when I returned from my trip a few weeks later.
We rocked along as usual, and Fred seemed settled and glad for both of us to be home. He was help with company, a great topic of conversation, and good company when I was alone. I thought Fred had missed me too much, and had naturally traveled to find company.
On these first travels, his moves were to the South. For many years the Butcher Shop was our town’s best and most expensive meat market and delicatessen. During one of my summer absences, left in charge of my – and his – faithful friends, Fred checked it out. In his mysterious manner he made it through heavy traffic and across Lakeland Drive unscathed. My friend and neighbor on Berkley Drive received the call. “Do you have a dog named Fred?” was the question. On admitting some responsibility for Fred, my friend was told that he had arrived at the Butcher Shop, and that, though dogs were not welcomed there, “he is such a nice dog” that the owner had presented him with a large bone and escorted him to one of the apartments above the Butcher Shop, that overlooked Lakeland Drive. There on the balcony my friend found Fred, tied to the balcony rail, lounging lazily while chewing on the largest and meatiest bone she had ever seen. Fred was especially interested in the incessant flow of traffic east and west and was not especially interested in being rescued. Nonetheless, he took his capture in a gentlemanly manner and went on home, there to dream of his one-and-only adventure with east-west traffic and prime beef.
The first indication I had of a northerly instinct in him came when my neighbor Mary Brister went grocery shopping at Kroger’s, a supermarket located several miles from Berkley Drive. She reported that when she came out of the store, there was Fred at the door, gravely shaking hands with everyone who came or went. She recognized him at once, and she asked him if he wanted to come home. Without any hesitation he got into the car with her, and she deposited him on my doorstep, where he seemed content to be.
On Feb. 24, 1983, Gov. William F. Winter issued a proclamation that read, in part:
WHEREAS, Charlotte Capers, writer, editor, literary critic, historian, raconteur, and administrator is now retiring after her distinguished and productive career in state service;
NOW, THEREFORE I, William Forrest Winter, Governor of the State of Mississippi, hereby make known the high regard in which Charlotte Capers is held by the executive branch of government of the State of Mississippi by declaring Wednesday, the 30th day of March, 1983, as Charlotte Capers Day, and order all state agencies to observe the day in an appropriate manner.
Charlotte Capers retired on April 1, 1983. When she joined MDAH in 1938, she was one of three employees; in 1983, the department had grown to include 150 employees in six divisions. Charlotte Capers had been a part of every step of that development. The fact that she retired on April Fool’s Day did not escape the notice of her many friends.
Charlotte Capers died December 23, 1996. Services were held in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, where she was the first woman elected to the vestry in 1968. Survivors were her friends and adopted family Ann K. Morrison, William D. Morrison III, Barry K. Morrison and Charlotte Morrison. Pallbearers were John Allin, Cecil Heidelberg III, Sam Lane, Dale Lane, Robert Wise and Harry Weir. Burial was in Lakewood Memorial Cemetery.
SPEAKING OF CHARLOTTE
Chrissy Wilson Interview August 20, 2019
Charlotte hired me at the Archives in 1978. My main job was to be the managing editor of the Journal of Mississippi History, and I did that for thirty years, until I got so sick of it and tired of sitting at a computer and having tendonitis, and so I just retired in 2008. But we were great friends. I guess you know what her big accomplishments were. She had the vision of what was to become, what has become, the present-day Mississippi Department of Archives & History.
Her brain was funny, and by that I don’t mean weird funny, I mean that everything she said was funny, and if not funny, then delightful. And I’m not kidding! Everything she said. She was smart as a whip. She could get so much done, then she wanted to talk and play. She could get it done (snapping fingers) like that. She and Patti Black were my big mentors. I learned and observed her style and it was all a treat. I was also there when, you know, she and Eudora were best friends, or she was one of her best friends. Eudora would come up to the office all the time, and she’d often call, and when she called—my office was next door to Charlotte’s and we always kept our doors open—I could hear Charlotte say, “Dodo!”, and that meant that Eudora had called and said, “Sha-sha!” Those were their little greetings. And I got to be great friends with them, just special friends. Eudora has been over several times for drinks. We’d have parties and it would be Charlotte, Eudora, Patti Black, and Ann Morrison. And then when Suzanne Marrs came, she became a part of that group. But for a long time, it was just the four of us, we’d have drinks and party. So that was really something to be around that group.
Everything that came out of her office had to be precise and correct grammatically as well as graceful. It just had to be that, as well as correct historically and factually. It had to be pretty much darn near perfect. I learned that you had to get it right pretty quickly.
When I knew her, she was not the director. She had stepped down; Elbert Hilliard was the director. Charlotte was in her sixties, and she got tired of being director. There were the quarterly board meetings, too, which she was in charge of. I think she especially got tired of all that, so she became director of what was called “Information and Education.” The division handled news releases, book editing, the Journal of Mississippi History, and the newsletter, among other projects. Of course, she wrote the newsletter forever. I took it over when she gave it up—I forget the year. Even though she wasn’t director of the Department, she kept an eye on what was going on, and Elbert went to her for advice all the time. She kept her hand in, big time.
Once she hired you and figured out you were okay, Charlotte gave you free range to just go off and do what she hired you to do. And she taught Elbert to do that, too. If you hire good people you don’t have to watch them like a hawk, and she tried to teach him that, I think. Charlotte got to be a really good friend of mine, and it just eclipsed from boss to good friend. She was raised in social Jackson, so she had all those people in her world. Mary Heidelberg was one of her good friends, and so was Eudora. Charlotte was quick to make fun of all the social stuff in Jackson, even though she was a part of it. She had an extremely dry wit.
The Capers Building? She directed the building of it. And the director’s office is on the eastern side of the building. There is only one window on that side—in her office. She said, “I had to have a window so I could keep an eye out on Rankin County, the Gold Coast.” Because she went over there all the time. She was a party girl! That window there, whenever I see it, I think about Charlotte. That said a lot about her.
She used to say that she stopped by Archives & History one day for a cup of coffee and stayed for forty years. That was her phrase. She used to say how she used to hate to hear people say, “Oh, yes, she never married…” She hated to be judged like that, like she was an old maid.
She talked about her dogs a lot. I knew Fred. Fred was a big old hound. I don’t know what kind he was. Just nondescript. A big old dog. I don’t know where she got him, I think he just came up to her house one day, but he had a tattoo in his ear and she used to think that he had… that they’d been doing experiments on him, some kind of brain surgery at UMMC, maybe implants because he was so smart, and that he had escaped. This is what he would do, and I swear this is true. He would get out of the fenced yard all the time, and he would go to the Fred’s store up on I-55, and he would stand out front of the store holding out his paw to greet people. One of the former directors was R.A. McLemore, who had a habit of coming up to everybody, even people he knew extremely well (he was just oblivious) and shaking hands and saying, “R.A. McLemore” even if the person knew him and saw him every day. So when Fred would hold up his paw, Charlotte would say he did it just like R.A. McLemore. The other place Fred would go was the lingerie shop in Highland Village. Many times the women who ran that shop would call and say—you know he had a tag on his collar—“Fred is here again.” Occasionally there was a burger place he went to, which is the only place that made sense. And I think she talks in the book about how she was having this tea party in her yard, and Fred and his girlfriend proceeded to carry on romantically there in front of the ladies there.
We’d go over to Vicksburg a lot on business, and there was the Old Vicksburg Hotel there with a tea room, and she called it the Old Vicksburg tee-tee room because that’s where we’d stop by after our long drive. She had this Scottish terrier later after she was retired, and that dog was so bad, but the worst thing it would do is …Charlotte would have to leave the bathroom door open when she had guests, but as soon as she opened the door, that dog would grab the end of the toilet paper roll and run through the house. It was awful.
I remember one time she went into the Old Capitol House chamber for a program and said she was going to sit there on the aisle so she could see and hear and leave, leave being the most important thing.
Her brother was in the legislature. She would tell me that he’d climb out the windows at night and slide down the roof to sneak off and see his girlfriends. He was a live wire, really smart, died young. She kind of adopted the Morrisons. Ann named her daughter Charlotte. We called her Little Charlotte.
When Eudora went to the White House o receive the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1980, Charlotte accompanied her. She took a nice suit to wear at the ceremony, and tucked a bottle of Old Crow into her suitcase. Unfortunately, the bottle broke, and her suit was soaking wet. She sent it out to the cleaner, but it still reeked of Old Crow.
One day Patti and I went to pick Charlotte up from the nursing home/rehab place, where she was undergoing some rehab after a hospital stay. Patti had a truck then. Patti and Charlotte sat in the front, and Ann and I sat in the back. We went out to eat. After we left, we got in the truck and headed out and Charlotte said, “Now, you know where to take me, don’t you, Patti?” And Patti said, “Yeah, I know. To the nursing home.” And Charlotte, who was nervous, asked, “Are you sure you know?” She was anxious. “Don’t just take me to any nursing home, Patti,” Charlotte said. To have a sense of humor in that situation is extraordinary.
I went to visit her at that rehab center, the one behind the fire station on Lakeland. I went in and met her roommate. She introduced me cordially; her manners were always perfect. After the introduction, she pulled the curtain, saying, “Let’s have a little privacy.” And to her roommate, “We’ll see you later!” So she pulled the curtain and said to me, “She says she’s a Methodist, but I think she’s a Baptist.” She kept her sense of humor to the very end.
Charlotte was an ardent Episcopalian, of course, and I heard her comment several times that she loved the idea that in her church everyone received the same full funeral ritual, no matter who they were. I thought of that at her funeral.
Suzanne Marrs Interview July 17, 2019
When I first came to Jackson to do research, I was down at the Archives, and I said I’d like to interview Miss Welty, and they said, “Well, we’d better ask Miss Capers.” She was retired by then, but they consulted her. She came up to meet me, and we talked. She said, “I think Eudora should meet you.” I met Eudora through Charlotte rather than the other way around. This would have been 1983. She arranged for us to meet. I was teaching in upstate New York at the State University of New York at Oswego, and I had written a few things about Welty while I was on sabbatical, and I was coming to look at the Archives.
So that first summer, I saw Eudora two or three times, I think, and a friend who was also doing Welty research and I took Eudora out to lunch, and I don’t know that I saw Charlotte again that summer. Then I came back the next summer, and Chrissy Wilson and Madel Morgan at the Archives approached me and said they wanted to write a grant to being me back to be the scholar-in-residence for a year here at the archives. I was thrilled with that, but I’m not sure if Charlotte was involved in that grant proposal or not. But when I came back for a year, that’s when I began to see Charlotte on a regular basis. That would have been the summer of 1985. I came back in the summer of 1984, so I was here summer of ’83 and ’84, and in 1985 I came back for a year as scholar-in-residence at the Archives on a Mississippi Humanities Council grant that they had gotten. I began to see both Eudora and Charlotte on a regular basis. Charlotte and her friend Ann Morrison, who also became my very good friend, and Eudora and I, the four of us, would get together often and have dinner at one house or another. Usually at Charlotte’s or at Ann’s house. So then I got to know Charlotte pretty well.
Charlotte was one of the greatest conversationalists you could ever encounter. You wanted to listen to Charlotte, you really didn’t want to listen to anyone else, even Eudora, who was a pretty good story-teller and conversationalist herself. But Charlotte would move from one story to the next seamlessly, and she was one of these Southern story-tellers that you don’t find a lot any more. They weren’t jokes; she wasn’t telling jokes, they were anecdotes. She told them in a very humorous way. There was always a great sense of humor with her. She had a knack for turning everything into a funny story. It could be what happened during the day, it could be what happened ten years ago, and she might go back and forth during the course of an evening, but she was a wonderful raconteur.
She talked about old-time Jackson, her family, friends, travels, a lot about dogs. There was Fred. One dog she had when I knew her was Piper. Scottie. But then there were a lot of stories about Fred.
We talked about the Welty Collection, which she was responsible for acquiring. She asked Eudora for her papers. And it was Charlotte and Governor Winter and Patti who asked Eudora to give her house to the state, which she did. Eudora could have sold her papers for a princely sum, but she didn’t, she gave them to the state as an act of friendship to Charlotte, a love of home a well.
Charlotte did cook. Not much, but she made this and that. She taught me how to make cornbread in the proper way because I was putting not buttermilk but just milk in, and I put a little flour in with my cornbread, but she taught me it should have buttermilk and corn meal only.
She was living on Berkeley Drive at the time. Before then, the Capers had lived on the corner of Poplar and St. Anne, and that’s where the Basic Eight used to get together a lot, at that house. Ann Morrison and her husband Bill rented from Charlotte and they became, the three of them, best friends. After Bill died, she and Ann remained best friends and Ann and Bill’s children were family to Charlotte, she was devoted to them as well. Ann and Bill rented the basement apartment and Charlotte lived upstairs with her parents—I’m not sure when they died—first with both of them, later with just one of them. I think her father survived her mother.
I think this—The Capers Papers—was her genre. She wasn’t a fiction writer; she was a memoirist, a raconteuse. She was an archivist and a journalist, but I don’t think she thought of herself as a writer. She did book reviews, too.
Charlotte did change my life in the sense that I was getting ready to go home after I’d been here a year on that grant, and Charlotte had me out to lunch and said, “I think you ought to stay.” And that’s when I began to think seriously about looking for a job in Mississippi, and I moved to Millsaps after that. That was in 1986. I moved back here in 1988. She was very affirming, she said, “I think you fit in well here. It would be great to have you here working with the Welty collection and writing about Eudora.”
She was always just a wonderful friend to me. If she needed a ride to church and she didn’t want to go by herself, I’d go with her, I’d take her to St. Andrews, which was a great experience. Madel Morgan used to call her “the Rose of the Rectory” and of course you know the rectory is where Greenbrook Florists is now. I’m glad I came when I did because I got to know all these amazing people. I had sort of a privileged position because Eudora’s friends became my friends, so that’s how I came to know Charlotte, and Patti, and Ann and Jane Petty and all them, and Tom Spengler. So it was a great way to get to know Jackson. It was the most interesting group of people you could ever hope to be around: smart and funny, and generous.
We talked books all the time. Charlotte was a great reader, lots of books in her house. She was very confident and competent. She started out in a secretarial role at Archives because at that time, that’s what women got. Then she became director of the Archives and hired people like Chrissy and Patti and Ann. Another person who worked for Charlotte is Hank Holmes.
That would be a great project in itself, a book, actually, the collected writings of Charlotte Capers. Charlotte was a great storyteller, and one reason I’m not telling her stories is that I was going to a conference in England one time, and Charlotte said to me, “When you’re in England, don’t tell my stories. You always get them wrong.” They were such great stories, and I might tell them, but she might hear me and say, “It wasn’t like that!” And I know some of the ones she meant.
The BBC came to Jackson to make a program on Eudora Welty one year, and Charlotte and Patti and Ann were trying to feed Eudora lines that would get Eudora to tell stories. But then they’d tell stories themselves, like the one about Miss Fannye Cook. So Patti starts telling the story about Miss Cook having what she called her card catalogue. You’d pull open a drawer and there’d be a little dead bird in there with a tag on it. And I think it was Eudora who said, “Then she’d say, ‘And these are our summer visitors.’” And Charlotte would say, “They were her last visitors!” Then there’s the story about Mr. Wiley Harris bringing a dead owl to her and saying, “Eudora, would you put this in your refrigerator, I think it will prove my point with Miss Cook about the stomach contents.”
[Because nothing has been done on Charlotte] I can’t help feeling a little derelict because I knew Charlotte well and loved her and she’d be a great subject for a book. Because she had a vantage on Mississippi all those years, on Jackson, because she was such a great storyteller and humorist as well as a political observer.
You’ll have to concentrate on Charlotte as a public figure and a writer, but I keep coming back to what a wonderful friend she was. I’m sure you’ve heard that from Patti. Her ability as a storyteller was unsurpassed; you didn’t want her to stop, you didn’t want to hear anyone else. You know, it’s Mark Twain, isn’t it, who talks about the difference between a humorist and a comedian. The humorist is somebody who tells it straight, with no punchline, but everything about it is amusing. And that was Charlotte’s style.
I may write down some of Charlotte’s stories, but then she did tell me not to tell them. You might get them out of me. Here’s one. When Little Charlotte was about to be born, Big Charlotte went up to the hospital, the Baptist Hospital, to be present at the birth, and she went in the wrong door and went into the psych ward. She went through the door and it shut behind her and locked. When someone approached her, she’d say, “I’ve gotten here by mistake, I don’t belong here.” And of course they’d say, “That’s what they all say.” She had to be rescued. She loved telling that story. Up in heaven, she’s telling it.
Bill Ferris Interview July 29, 2019
Charlotte was a part of my life as far back as I can remember, and she was always very supportive of my work in folklore, which was especially welcome because a lot of people didn’t understand what I was doing. She did. She and Patti Black encouraged me with early projects on folk art and architecture. We actually did an exhibition that was circulated by the Smithsonian to sites around the country that started at the Mississippi (Old Capitol Museum). That would have been around 1970-71. It was very early. The same time we did an exhibit called “Mississippi Folk Voices,” which was a series of concerts at the Old Capitol that featured musicians that I had worked with. That eventually inspired a long-playing record album and a small paperback book. Those were all projects that Charlotte supported. She introduced me to Patti Black, and Patti and I worked together on projects for many years after that.
Charlotte’s parents were friends of my grandparents. They all lived in Jackson about a block or two from Eudora Welty’s home, the house that Blair Batson lived in for many years. Charlotte’s father married my aunt, Frances Ferris, to her husband, Parker Hall. Bishop Capers performed the wedding ceremony, and Aunt Frances taught only one year in Jackson, taught the high school seniors, and Charlotte was a student in the class she taught that year. My parents lived on a farm outside of Vicksburg, and Charlotte was a regular visitor there. It was like theatre when she came, because she was a great raconteur of stories, and she just lit up a conversation in a very special way. I always remember sitting around the table with my family and Charlotte and listening to her wonderful conversation.
I was always interested in folklore, and Charlotte encouraged that interest. Charlotte asked me to speak about my work, and I’d already started the recordings. She asked me to come speak at the archives so her staff could hear more about what I was doing. That was where she introduced me to Patti Black, and she also introduced me to the photographs that Eudora Welty had taken. I knew Eudora’s work as a writer, but was not aware of her work as a photographer. Her photographs made a deep impression on me, and I later interviewed Eudora about them and published a piece on them. But Charlotte opened all those doors.
I remember her funeral. My brother and I took Eudora Welty to the service. The service speakers were all women; it was very powerful. You could feel Charlotte’s spirit there in a very deep and meaningful way. Eudora, as she always did, talked about Charlotte and their friendship and their connections to both Jackson and New York City.
She was famous for her ability as a raconteur. When I was at Yale, I got to know Robert Penn Warren, and he was an old, old friend of Eudora’s. I brought her to speak several times and arranged for her to be awarded an honorary doctoral degree at Yale. At one point, I was talking with Robert Penn Warren about a visit he had with Eudora. They had a dinner and a wonderful evening. He said, “I’ll never forget Charlotte Capers. I think she’s the greatest storyteller I’ve ever heard. Then he related this story that she told of a lady from a prominent Jackson family who had killed her mother and cut her up into pieces, and they never found all of her mother. Rather than put her in prison, they put her in Whitfield. And each Sunday the friends would come and have their weekly bridge game with her. One day they were playing and one of her friends laid her cards down on the table and said, “I refuse to play another hand until you tell us what you did with the rest of your mother.” So that was the kind of Southern gothic tale that Charlotte could level a room with.
She, like Eudora, was a tall, elegant, strong woman. And she basically had a clear sense of what she wanted to do as the archivist of Mississippi. and Eudora had a strong view of what she wanted to do as the great writer of Mississippi. They really were partners in many ways. Eudora placed all her archives at the state archives under Charlotte’s able hand. She left her home to the Archives to be a museum. Charlotte’s legacy was very important.
When my father began farming, my grandparents lived on the farm in Warren County. My father built a log cabin where his parents lived, and our closest white neighbor was several miles away, George and Clara Rummage, and they lived in a home that had been built by Colonel B.L.C. Wailes, the first state geologist of Mississippi, and many of Wailes’ papers were still there. My grandfather copied them and placed them and his own papers in the state archives.
My uncle Parker Hall was treasurer of the University of Chicago, and when Eudora would go to do readings, often Charlotte would go with her. And, again, she had very funny stories of how my aunt would take them on a tour of Chicago and drop them off on the steps of a building and say, “Now, run up those steps and look at that view, and I’ll come around the block and pick you up. Charlotte would describe how they’d run up the stairs and back down, and exhausted, my aunt would pick them up. She described it so well. She had a way of eliciting humor. The Capers Papers is one of my favorite books. In that book, and in the essays she wrote, she always had a wry sense of humor. Her family, as I recall, were from Columbia, Tennessee, the mule capitol of the world. I did an oral history, a book on Ray Lumm, who was featured at the Old Capitol. We had a screening of a film he was in and he sat next to Charlotte and Eudora and never stopped talking throughout the film. Charlotte was appreciative of all those worlds.
I see Charlotte as the foundation, the anchor of the archive collection in the state of Mississippi. Before Charlotte, there really were no archives of note, and she was like a bird dog. She went after collections, and built them. She also cultivated friendships with figures like William Winter, who lent political and financial support in ways that were unique to Mississippi. The fact that the Capers Building is named for her is a most appropriate way of remembering her legacy.
In the mid-80s, I moved from north Mississippi, where I’d spent my entire life, to north Florida, where nobody spends an entire life. I caught total hell. I mean, I caught hell from people who didn’t even know where their grandparents were buried.
Part of the problem, of course, was the fact that I attached some degree of importance to such things as knowing where your grandparents—and ancestors beyond—had been laid to rest. I also suffered by being the only Rebel fan in a swamp full of Florida Gators. Believe it or not, most of these people didn’t even know what I meant when I said “Ole Miss.” Instead, they referred to it as “Mississippi.” That’s within bounds, of course, but it just doesn’t have the same cachet.
For another thing, I was a pacifist liberal in an area largely supported by military funding during the middle of the Reagan Era. My Dukakis campaign button brought down a rain of derision upon me, but I wore it defiantly. Finally, to add insult to injury, I’d only been there a little over a year when Alan Parker comes out with this damnatory film about one the darkest chapters of my home state’s history, Mississippi Burning. The impression these people got from the film was that everybody in Mississippi is an ignorant racist just itching to get their hands on some out-of-staters to help shore up our levees.
This conception was reinforced on at least one occasion that I can remember. At the restaurant I worked in, we offered a fish of the day. The offering varied, depending upon what the fleet from Destin brought in and what they charged for their catch. More often than not, however, the fish of the day was amberjack. Now, amberjack is a perfectly good fish, but large amberjack—those over 15 pounds or so—are heavily parasitized by a tapeworm, Poecilancistrium caryophyllum, more commonly known as spaghetti worms. The worms have bulbous heads and long, skinny bodies and they’re all coiled up in the flesh and you have to . . . well, I’ll leave it at that. It’s pretty disgusting. We were always careful to clean the fish fastidiously before we served it. But some people won’t eat amberjack—or speckled trout, which sometimes have the same problem—for that reason.
Well, I was working in the kitchen one morning with a waitress with whom I had what you could only call a difficult relationship. She was a world-class bitch, and I grew to love her dearly, but at this point I was still coming to appreciate her derisive wit. So when she stormed in, marched up to me and said, “Let me tell you what I think about you damned Mississippians!” I knew I was in for it through no fault of my own, so I just stood there while she let me have it. She had just waited on a table composed of a man from the Mississippi Coast and his wife. He asked her about the fish of the day, and when she told him it was amberjack, he said, “Amberjack! Why, only niggers eat amberjack!”
She was pissed, and rightly so. Oddly enough, though, this incident proved to be a turning point in our relationship, because I assured her that I was just as appalled as she was and dismayed to boot that she had to put up with such a display of rudeness and bigotry. I like to believe that despite my abundant flaws as a human being I was a good ambassador for my home state during my tenure on the Redneck Riviera. I made some good friends there, and though we’ve long since gone our separate ways, I still remember my time in Florida with varying degrees of fondness.
In 1985, In 1985 Craig Claiborne visited Bill Neal’s restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for dinner and after sampling many dishes, asked Neal to prepare shrimp and grits for him in his kitchen the next morning. Claiborne, published this and several other recipes from Neal’s landmark cookbook, Southern Cooking (published that same year) in the New York Times, and lunched a national craze for shrimp and grits was on. While the recipe has been replicated—usually with disappointing results—in restaurants across the country since then, this is the original recipe.
6 cups cooked grits with cheese (I use a white cheddar)
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 pound (454 g) fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced scallions
1 large garlic clove, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Season grits to taste, but lightly, with Tabasco, a very little nutmeg, and white pepper. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Peel the shrimp, rinse, and pat dry. Dice the bacon and sauté lightly in the skillet. The edges of the bacon should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the bacon fat in the skillet to make a layer of fat about a quarter of an inch deep. When quite hot, add the shrimp in an even layer. Turn the shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms, and sauté about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the scallions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Then season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over and serve immediately.
Angelo Mistilis opened his restaurant on College Hill Road in May, 1962 and closed in 1988. The menu featured dozens of items over those many years, but first and foremost was the hamburger steak with potatoes.
“You could have it regular, you could have it with onions, you could have it with just cheese, or you could have it all the way, Angelo said. “The hamburger steak was on the original menu, the hamburger steak with cheese and onions came in a little later, in the mid to late 60s. We used about nine tons of fresh ground beef a year. I had a butcher that got my hamburger meat with all the trimmings, and I got some from James’ Food Center. We always served it with hand-cut home fries. We’d use around 1200 lbs. of potatoes a week and two fifty-pound sacks of onions. The cheese was always sliced American, and we served it on a paper plate in a wicker basket.”