Among the first professional sports players from Calhoun County, Mississippi was a rangy lefty from Banner named James Corbett Edwards, most often called “Jim Joe” or “Little Joe” when he played in the major leagues during the 1920s.
Edwards was born Dec. 14, 1894. He enlisted during World War I as a Marine, later joining the Navy, where he became a Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class. On March 25, 1920, Edwards, who was by that time enrolled at Mississippi College in Clinton, was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm by the Third Republic of France, the highest military honor of the French Government, issued to military units for heroism.
In the 1920s, baseball was easily the premiere sports activity in the nation, and while playing ball at Mississippi College Jim Joe caught the eye of professional scouts. According to Mike Christensen, author of the recently-released Of Mudcat, Boo, The Rope and Oil Can: An Informal History of Mississippians in Major League Baseball, “Edwards debuted with the Cleveland Indians on May 14, 1922, going five innings in a loss to the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. I think it’s interesting that other players in that game included Sam Rice, Goose Goslin and Bucky Harris of the Senators and Tris Speaker, Stuffy McInnis and Doc Evans, a Meridian native, for the Indians. Those are some famous names.”
Edwards batted right and threw left. He pitched in 10 games for the Indians, and had a 4-3 record and a 2.84 ERA. After 13 games and an ERA of 8.25 the following season, he was released and picked up by the Chicago White Sox, pitching in nine games towards the end of the season. He spent the 1926 season with the White Sox, and had a 6-9 record and a 4.18 ERA in 32 games, 16 of them starts. In 1927 he had his first taste of minor league baseball and spent the year with the Seattle Indians. In 41 games for them, he had a 20-17 record and a 3.36 ERA. The following season he had a 1-8 record and a 3.14 ERA in ten games. The Cincinnati Reds signed him to a contract during part of the 1928 season, and in his last season in the majors, he had a 2-2 record and a 7.59 ERA in 18 appearances. He then spent four more seasons in the minor leagues to end his professional career. In a six-season career, Jim Joe posted a 26–37 record with 211 strikeouts and a 4.37 ERA in 145 appearances, including 59 starts, 23 complete games, six shutouts, four saves, and 584 ⅓ innings of work.
After his career in baseball, Edwards was postmaster at Banner before moving to Pontotoc where he became postmaster. He was also a teacher and football coach.
Edwards died after a car accident in Sarepta in January, 1965.
Craig Claiborne, an icon of his day and an avatar of ours, seems overshadowed by James Beard and Julia Child nowadays, and Thomas McNamee’s biography The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance gives us several reasons why. Though described by Betty Fussell as more “accessible” than the ostensibly warmer, certainly more vivacious Child and jolly old Beard, McNamee fails to present the enigmatic, complex Claiborne as anything less than a remote Olympian figure.
When it boils down to it, Claiborne might best be described as the right man in the right place at the right time. His hiring as the first male food editor of a major newspaper came about as the result of crass opportunism if not (as is hinted) chicanery, but The New York Times provided Craig Claiborne with the preeminent platform to fulfill his mission, which McNamee describes as nothing less than “advancing the nation’s culinary culture”.
Claiborne’s call for reform (off the bat McNamee cites an April, 1959 column “Elegance of Cuisine is on the Wane in U.S.” as his gauntlet) came at a time when the nation was ripe for unabashedly elitist change; within a year, Jackie Kennedy, designer clothing and a French chef were in the White House. McNamee explains how Claiborne, with lavish finesse and training he received in Switzerland, set the tone of American culinary culture for two decades and beyond. This biography confirms his pervasive influence on food and dining and easily dismisses his only serious detractors, back-benchers John and Karen Hess, as resentful nit-pickers.
By the mid-Sixties Claiborne had became America’s unquestioned authority (his columns went directly to print; no editor) on the full culinary spectrum of foods and restaurants, chefs and cookbooks. He wrote and co-wrote many best-sellers, first and foremost The New York Times Cookbook. He discovered and promoted chefs as cultural and media personalities – Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme among many others – helped publicize the West Coast/James Beard movement and introduced Americans to nouvelle cuisine. Claiborne also reveled in a “pan-global eclecticism”, promoting the cuisines of China, Mexico and Vietnam (during the war), among others. He also lived to celebrate a resurgence of great American home cooking. His influence extended into the Reagan administration, and his legacy is evident today in the treatment of food as an important media subject. He created food journalism, and his sheer adventurism still informs our attitude towards food and cooking.
Though a bit exaggerated – McDonald’s Ray Kroc and other fast-food titans have influenced America’s diet far more than Claiborne –The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat should assign Claiborne’s ill-advised 1982 autobiography to a well-deserved obscurity. McNamee’s solidly researched biography is a richly balanced (and long-awaited) feast for those wanting to know more (but not too much) about Craig Claiborne, whose life does not bear well under scrutiny.
I wouldn’t expect a biopic or a Netflix series any time soon.
Most Southern holiday dishes are home-grown recipes of family favorites, but unlike Grandma’s sweet potato pie or Aunt Sally’s ambrosia, the ubiquitous green bean casserole was developed in 1955 in the Camden, NJ test kitchens of the Campbell Soup Company by home-town girl Dorcas Reilly.
A 1947 graduate in home economics from Drexel University, Reilly began working at Campbell’s in 1949 as one of two full-time staff members in the company’s home economics department. Reilly became something of a prototype for today’s culinary celebrities in the sense that she was among the first to use multiple media outlets for marketing. Not only did her job with Campbell’s involve creating recipes from the company’s products, but she also sent press releases to print media, prepared food for photo shoots and cooked live on television. The difference lies in that Dorcas was not promoting herself; she was promoting Campbell’s Soups, which was a good way to make a living.
“It was really a lot of fun,” Reilly later recalled. “Each Thursday, I would travel to New York to meet with the ad agency. They would tell me what I was to prepare for the live commercial breaks during The Henry Aldrich Show in Studio 3B on NBC. I did everything from shopping for what I needed to preparing the food on the set. Campbell’s sponsored the show from 1951 until it ended in May 1953.”
Since the show was live, Reilly prepared the dishes in a makeshift studio kitchen on two heating elements near a utility sink. When time came for the commercial to air, she would bring the hot dish to a table in front of the camera.
“Most times there wasn’t time for me to get out of the shot, so I would hide under the table until the commercial was over,” Reilly said. Reilly led the team that created the green bean casserole in 1955. She says the casserole was invented as a recipe involving two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: canned green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.
Like all recipes typical of the period, the casserole requires minimal number of ingredients, takes little time and can be customized to fit a wide range of tastes. An estimated 15 million households will serve Dorcas’ green bean casserole this holiday season. The Campbell’s Soup Company estimates that $20 million worth of cream of mushroom soup are sold each year for use in this recipe alone.
In 2002, Reilly, then living in Haddonfield, NJ, appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. In 2008, Alpha Sigma Alpha, Reilly’s sorority at Drexel, honored her with the Recognition of Eminence Award, and in 2013 Drexel established an annual $1,000 scholarship in her honor and bestowed her with its inaugural Cultural Contribution Award.
Dorcas died on Oct. 15, 2018 in Haddonfield at the age of 92.
The culinary history of Jackson, Mississippi is filled with colorful characters, including one who exemplifies the genteel aspects of the city in the early decades of the last century.
Winifred Green Cheney was born into a very old Jackson family; originally from Maryland, the Greens moved to Jackson in the early 19th century. Winifred was born in the second family home at 647 North State Street in 1913. She graduated magna cum laude from Millsaps with a bachelor of arts in Latin in 1933, and on October 25, 1934, after a 7-year engagement, she married Reynolds Cheney, who became one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. The couple had three children: Reverend Reynolds S. Cheney II, W. Garner Cheney and Mrs. Patrick (Winifred C.?) Barron.
While Winifred, in almost every respect, was a model for a well-to-do woman of social standing in the mid-century South (active in her church and in social charities, etc.), in another she was not: Winifred was a writer. In the course of her life, she wrote (about cooking, mainly) for such well-known publications as The National Observer, The Rotarian, Southern World and, of course, Southern Living. She published two cookbooks (both by Oxmoor House), Cooking for Company (1985), and the truly wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976).
Winifred’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a treasure-trove of splendid recipes, but as a whole is a tutorial of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied; the ingredients are often expensive, and the times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, one of the most frequent critiques of the book is how complicated, indeed “fussy” the recipes are, many often 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 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 heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as many from “my great-grandmother … from Lone Star Plantation in the Mississippi Delta, written in her fine Spencerian hand.” (“But there were no directions,” Winifred adds. “I found this to be true with most of the old ‘receipts’ in her walnut escritoire papeterie.”) She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors: Odel Herbert’s Carrot Casserole, Vivienne Wilson’s Asparagus and Carrot Escallop, Claudia Whitney’s Meat Spaghetti, Zollie Kimbrough’s Shrimp Casserole, Linda Lacefield’s Apricot Stuffing for Duck, Becky Voght’s Caramel Icing; and many, many more.
Winifred’s cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson as well as the Middle South, 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” in which she writes:
“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707. Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality.In good weather, but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.
When Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, attending Mr. Weston’s ball, is seated at the supper, she surveys the table with a cry, ‘How shall we ever recollect half these dishes?’ When I sit down to Sunday dinner at Winifred’s, I feel just like Miss Bates. What guest could not? But it now becomes possible for us to recollect the dishes we’ve dined on there. The cook herself has recollected the recipes for them in her own cookbook. It’s like another extension of Winifred Cheney’s gracious hospitality; she has added another leaf to her table.”
Jack Myers stood at the forefront of gay rights in Mississippi for over fifty years, running a series of gay bars and clubs in the capital city of Jackson. In this interview Myers talks about the many places he ran and shares his memories of others.
This all started back when I was in high school, we’re talking 1962-63. I finished radiology school, lived in Memphis for a while, lived in Eupora for a while, worked at the state hospital and at the VA. While I was at the VA they sent me to Duke for a year for in-service training, and was hoping for a position in Jackson, but they never got the position open. I gave them 30 days to decide if they were going to give me more money, but they just kept putting it off, so I left after 30 days.
The first gay bar I can recall going to was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. You go down here and you turn on Mayes Street, Cowboy Malone’s used to be right there by the tracks, and there’s a little bitty building on the other side of the track and it was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. As a matter of fact, I had my 21st birthday there. I worked there when I was… it was in ’60-something. I was in X-ray school at UMC at the time. There have always been clubs in Jackson that weren’t openly gay but where gay people were welcome. I remember T.C. Schilling, one of the first people I met when I came out here, he used to own Jackson Commercial College, and he talks of some places that he used to go and one was down there on West Capitol Street, and there was a place off Robinson Road, you know where East Ford used to be? Where Robinson Road crosses Hwy. 80? If you leave here and go out Robinson Road you’ll cross Ellis Avenue, and right before you get to Hwy. 80 on the left facing Hwy. 80 used to be East Ford. You get behind the Ford place and you turn right, there’s a long road that goes through there, and he said he used to go to a place, there was a woman that had a bar out there. He said she’d take up for the gays in a minute, wouldn’t let anybody bother anybody. And there’s a lot of (gay) people I know used to go to the Walthall Hotel downtown. That was in the ‘60s.
I worked at the Sportsman’s Lounge, then he closed that bar and opened a place on McDowell Road where the police shooting range is now. That was all wooded then, it had a drive that went up to this big old house; it was called the Mansion. The guy lived upstairs, and one side of the downstairs was the bar. And if the sheriff’s department or the police came by and two guys and two girls were dancing, they’d just switch partners.
I know when I first came out, on Woodrow Wilson, where you take a left and get on Bailey Avenue, they took several old houses and made them into businesses and there was a place called Chez Pierre’s that was gay-friendly. The Glass Kitchen on Five Points was a popular restaurant. When I was in school at UMC from ’64-66 all of us who were in school would go to Delta Drive because they’d taken a lot of old houses up there and turned them into bars and they had bands, you took your own bottle, they only sold beer. There was the Pepper Mint Twist Lounge, the Hilltop A-Go-Go, the Sirloin Room; the Sirloin Room always had this great band called the Poppas.
I can’t remember the exact year I opened my first bar, but it was in the early ‘70s. It was on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King Drive. And I moved from there downtown to the old Wagon Wheel which was on Capitol and Farish Streets upstairs. The entrance was on Farish. Then we bought the old Amite Theatre. It was behind Jack’s Saloon, it was on the corner of Amite and Roach; they were back-to-back. There was a Dr. Wade Windham who opened a bar there, a straight bar called the City Dump, I think it was. They took old cars and made benches and booths out of them. We sold them all for scraps. We completely remodeled it.
Bill’s Disco (black bar) was on the corner of Amite and Mill Streets there by the train station. It was called the Interchange when we had it. I’m thinking that when the old theatre burned we moved there and called it the Interchange and Bill Rimes ran it for us… well, the old theatre was called Bill’s Disco and it burned in 80-something. And then we moved on the corner across the street to that small building, opened it was the Interchange on Amite. They tore the old Amite Street Theatre down and built that monstrosity in the back; I can’t remember what it’s called (This is the catty-corner building on the corner of Roach and Amite.)
The dance bar on Capitol was Jack and Jill’s. It wasn’t the first bar; it was the first big dance bar. I don’t know if it was this article (in a local paper), but there was also one in the Washington Post that quoted me as saying that I had the first (gay) bar in Jackson, and no, I didn’t. There were bars years before I had one here. There was a girl bar where Amite Street gets to Capitol and crosses Capitol and turns into Robinson Road. I’m thinking that’s where it was. The road that goes by the train station, Amite, comes in (at an angle) there and crosses Capitol. There’s a little bar that sits there, there’s a parking lot out front. There’s been a bar there for years, but there was a girl that had it for a while. Her name was Polly Wilmer. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in years and Harry and I went by the Waffle House to get something to eat and this girl came by and said, “Are you Jack Myers?” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, this is Polly Wilmer,” she said. Oh, my God, I hadn’t seen her in years, and she’d gotten big, huge and she used to be a little tiny thing. We talked for a while; she used to have that bar, it was on Robinson Road, I think, used to be a Waffle House or something that sat right in here. It wasn’t Mississippi Street.
When I first opened Mae’s Cabaret on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King, we got some hassle from the police. I was working at the Raincheck on Northside Drive; going west on Northside drive, you cross over the train tracks and as soon as you crossed over the tracks you took a left and there used to be a brickyard there. The only thing left there was an office; it was very small. It had a nice-sized room in the front, and a nice-sized room in the back, but to get to the back, you had to go through a hallway where the bathrooms were. And then you had the back room, where people could dance. When the police came in, the lady who ran the door would push a button under the desk and a light would flash and everybody would know to sit down. Because in order to have a dance license, you had to have an emergency exit off the dance floor, and there wasn’t a door back there. But one of the policemen said something to Doris about, “We know you have that light,” and she said, “I’m not worried about having a door back there, you know, trying to hem in a queen… (laughter).”
Doris wanted me and her to go into business, I worked with her for a long time, she wanted to open up a bigger place. I think I got a mortgage on my house; I had it paid for. So we opened up the place (Capitol and Farish?), and the police chief said, “The only thing I ask, you know, it’s fine having the show, but I want someone from vice and narcotics to come see the show.” And he did. It was Officer Fitzgerald. After that was over, he said, “Man, I don’t see anything wrong with these shows.” And I said, “Well, I did the right thing, paid the first people off when you told me not to have a show, and sent them back to Atlanta, but it’s not a strip show.” He said, “Well, I see that now, but somebody told us you were going to have a strip show.” That’s when we saw the chief and he said if the church could have their womanless wedding, then we could have a drag show.
When we had the old Amite Theatre downtown, we had a bunch in a pickup came by, they did not get out, just came by yelling stuff out to us. That’s the only incident we ever had like that. We always had off-duty city policemen working for us. Just a uniform; they could wear their uniforms. 95% of our protection was just them being at the bar. If you had an off-duty policeman working for you, you had to carry liability insurance and name the Jackson police department on that policy. That’s how you got to hire them. If you’re going to use a policeman, they want their ass covered. It wasn’t that expensive. It either paid a half a million or a million.
(In Jack’s bars) Momma and Daddy ran the door. And if Momma didn’t recognize you, the first thing she’d say was, “This is a gay bar, you’re welcome, and if you don’t like it or whatever, you can leave. If you cause trouble, we have a policeman here.” If it was someone (like a public figure) who might be looking around to see what was going on, she’d tell them not to be nervous, to come on in. Well-known people who were on the make’d go to New Orleans or somewhere like that where nobody could see them. People would come to me all the time and say, “I saw So-and-so (in this gay bar) in New Orleans.” They couldn’t come out here but could there.
One of our most enduring social mechanisms is that by which elitism becomes far more ostensibly manifest in people who come from humble backgrounds.
Take for example any given one of those Upper East Side hipsters who infest the trendier corners of New York City and act as if they’re the apex of the social universe when in fact most if not all of them grew up in a fly-over state and moved to the city in hopes of sharing a line of coke with Ivanka Trump.
A less current but perhaps more familiar example would be Craig Claiborne, who grew up in a boarding house in Indianola, Mississippi, and eventually became the arbiter of culinary taste for the nation. Claiborne’s excesses in his disregard for the “little people” were such that he was chastised by Pope Paul VI for a $4000 dinner for two in Paris he enjoyed with his partner Pierre Franey in 1975.
L’Osservatore Romano deplored the swinish display while millions were starving, the French press noted that the price of the meal represented a year’s wages for most workers, and American columnist Harriet Van Horne wrote–no doubt with some degree of smugness–“This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong morally, aesthetically and in every other way”.
Claiborne was nonplussed, of course, which is the typical reaction of snobs to their extravagant self-indulgences. “Let them eat cake,” indeed.
Given this display of culinary snootery, it’s somewhat of a surprise that we find on page 312 of Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook–after a whole slew of soufflés and between two egg curries–a recipe for pickled eggs, which are to most people the least sophisticated dish in the world. Is this a chink in Claiborne’s Tiffany armor?
Perhaps, but then again perhaps not; one recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Maybe pickled eggs acquired the blue-collar brush after they became a snack staple in Southern pool halls and honky-tonks; then again, maybe that’s where they got their start.
For every half dozen boiled eggs, bring to heat 1 cup water, 1/2 cup vinegar, 1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices, 2 slices ginger root, a crushed clove of garlic, and a tablespoon salt. Mull, cover eggs with spiced vinegar water, seal and set aside for at least 2 days.
During a segment of “Iron Chef”, when one critic told Cat Cora that he didn’t care for her dish, she unhesitatingly asked, “Then why did you eat it all?”
Cat Cora doesn’t pull any punches. Why she invoked Barbara Gordon’s 1979 memoir in this 2015 biography is perplexing; Cora has her own story, which she tells simply and honestly, the story of an orphan from Greenville who grew up in a loving, understanding home in Jackson where food took center stage and become a groundbreaking culinary superstar. Such a Horatio Alger-esque narrative, often provides occasion for self-indulgent whining, but Cat is smart, funny, and resilient. She rolls with setbacks, admits mistakes, and does what she needs to move on.
The details of her culinary education and career as well as behind-the-scenes at “Iron Chef” provide a lot of interest for foodies as well as fans, who will also enjoy reading her honest–sometimes painfully so–account of her own personal journey. In a work of such candor, I expected details that perhaps only I would miss, like what’s the dyke bar near the New Capitol. I particularly enjoyed reading about Jackson’s wonderful Greek community.
Mississippians, Cat is our daughter, our sister, let us embrace and celebrate her. But no matter where you’re from, you’ll like this fun, informative read.
In January, 2010, a book written and illustrated by a man who lived and worked in Mississippi sold for a record-setting $11.4 million in a Sotheby auction; another copy of the same work sold for $9.7 million this year. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, says he wouldn’t be at all surprised if there weren’t still a folio of Birds of America in Natchez, where Audubon lived in 1832.
“He would have known people down there,” Fred says, “And Natchez had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country before the war, so they certainly could have afforded to subscribe to the book.” Smith knows, since he has spent over a quarter of a century dealing with collectors, estates and institutions as a buyer, seller and appraiser of books, manuscripts and documents of every description, but primarily works about or related to Mississippi, the South and the Civil War; in short, every aspect of our multi-faceted regional history. As a result, he has become a one-man institution in and of himself, the go-to man for anyone in (or out) of the state wanting a set, subset or full collection of volumes of pages you’re unlikely to find at Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble.
John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, has known Smith for over thirty years; he calls Fred a compadre, and after reflecting back to the times when they’d alert one another to a shifty customer, says, “A great used book seller is there to provide information you can’t find anywhere else. Oh, you can google a book on some obscure moonshiner in the Delta, but Fred’s going to tell you if you really need that book at all, and if you’re lucky, he’ll know of a book you ought to have instead of that one. Fred’s father Frank knew the past seventy-five years of the culture of Mississippi, and he handed that down to his son Fred.”
Frank E. Smith was a managing editor of the Greenwood Morning Star, served as an aide to Senator John Stennis, as a member of the Mississippi state senate, in the U.S. Congress, and as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He and Fred began thinking about opening a business in the 1970s. “We figured the state needed a used bookstore. Our literary culture was so important that someone needed to make them available for people here to own and to treasure,” Smith says. “The goal was that we’d pull together an inventory and open up a store in 1983. Then my aunt, who had an antique store in Vicksburg where we’d place books to see how they’d sell, had an accident and had to close her store. All of a sudden, we had a lot of nice furniture. When we opened up, we were half antiques and half books.”
“That first year, Eudora Welty bought a piece of furniture for $700,” Fred remembers. “Now, selling a few books here and there is one thing, but that was by far my biggest sale. I wanted to keep the check, but the furniture was not mine, so I had to go ahead and cash it. Years later, I did two appraisals for Miss Welty, one on the letter that Faulkner had written to her and another on some other correspondence. I called up her lawyer, Carl Black, and asked him if it would be alright to keep one of the checks (for $250) and he said that she’d never know. I kept the check.”
“I don’t always make people happy,” Fred says, though it’s hard to imagine, since Fred has a jovial, Dickensian presence, the proprietor of a modern-day curiosity shop, an unpretentious clapboard building at 926 North Street in Jackson’s Belhaven Heights neighborhood that’s chock-a-block with books, maps and manuscripts. But Fred, because of his unique knowledge and sincere appreciation of Mississippi’s history, literature and bibliographic legacy, is also the premier appraiser of the state’s books, manuscripts, maps and other assorted documents, making him a unique denizen of Mississippi’s bibliophilic Parnassus.
“My job as an independent appraiser is to put a value that I consider to be valid on materials I’m asked to consider. Most of what I do is for tax purposes because people are donating materials for tax breaks. But a lot of folks think their stuff is worth a lot of money just because it’s theirs, and that’s not necessarily the case. I have done many appraisals over the years, and have not been called into question on any of them; people know to call me.”
Hugh McCormick, who started McCormick’s Book Inn in Greenville in 1965, said, “I admire Fred a lot. As far as I know, he’s the only person who occupies the sort of role he does in the Tri-state area. People who come to Fred are looking for something very specific, very hard to find, and more often than not, he’s the only one who knows what they’re asking for.”
Cham Trotter says that when he first began collecting Old Miss yearbooks, Fred was the first person he thought of going to for help. “I’m a Civil War buff, so I had been in Fred’s store before. Ole Miss started publishing yearbooks in 1897; what I had in mind to do was to have a yearbook from each decade. I had several yearbooks from when I was in school from the Sixties and Seventies, from my parents who went to school there in the Forties, from my grandfather, who was business manager at Ole Miss in the Thirties and a few from when he had been a student there around 1909.”
“But I walked in Choctaw Books one day and Fred had boxes and boxes of Ole Miss annuals from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, even up into the Seventies and Eighties. The family of Dean Frank Moak had given these yearbooks to Fred on consignment. So I decided to try and get one from every year. I got even more from Fred over the years, and now I have a full set.”
John Evans, who has every reason to know, says that the preponderance of the internet spells the end of the used book business as we know it. “The used book seller could come back, but I think we’re going to go through a void before that happens. When Fred’s business goes away, you’re not going to have someone to rush in and start another store like Choctaw Books the next day.”
A primary function of Mississippi Sideboard is to provide access to documents of specific interest 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 of Choctaw Books, the press plates were melted.
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.” The November, 1953 issue of Lincoln-Mercury Times described it 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.” 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.”
Foreword 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.
These days it’s difficult enough to think about a turntable at all, much less to think about one as a piece of furniture. But in the middle decades of the 20th century, they became mammoths.
These record players (for that’s essentially what they were, hi-fi or stereo) came in all sorts of styles to match your other furniture, too: Mediterranean, French provincial, Queen Ann, you name it. Furniture stores sold these primitive behemoths as well as recordings themselves, and it’s through the furniture business that Lillian Shedd McMurry, a former secretary and law student, fell down a rabbit hole and into the land of the blues.
According to her nephew, recording artist John Webb (“Wilder”) McMurry, “My Uncle Willard, Lillian’s husband, and his family weren’t real musical folks. They all had furniture stores. Willard and a furniture store, my dad, Webb, had a furniture store, and my uncle Carl had Super Furniture Market in Jackson. Willard’s niche was used furniture stores and he would buy the pre-existing stock out of a bankrupt store and get it going again. So there was some stock in a hardware store Willard had bought on Farish Street that included 78s of black music, what would have been called “race music” at the time. Lillian had a lot of get-up-and-go, had played the piano early in her life and was interested in music. But she knew nothing about blues or secular music.”
Lillian selected a record and put it on the turntable The record she chose was Wynnie “Mr. Blues” Harris’s “All She Wants to Do Is Rock”, and according to an interview with Living Blues magazine in 1986, what she heard changed her life. “It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” she said. “I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.”
“So Lillian,” Webb continued, “being enterprising, set the rest of the records out on the counter and they sold like hot cakes. And she began to get more involved.” Lillian acquired more records and began selling them on a full-time basis. She made trips to New Orleans and Memphis to bring in more recordings and eventually the couple converted the hardware store into a record/furniture store called Record Mart-Furniture Bargains.
The store specialized in blues, gospel and what was then called “hillbilly” music. Between walk-ins and mail orders the business began to thrive. “The Record Mart became a very big mail-order business,” Webb said. “I didn’t know until recently how big a deal that was.” It wasn’t long before Lillian got the idea to record her own material using local talent. Lillian and Willard McMurry became the founders and owners of the Diamond Record Company, which released records on the Trumpet label. “God, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Lillian said later.
What she was getting into was a pioneering position in the roots music recording industry. The label’s first releases were gospel recordings by the St. Andrews Gospelaires, a 3-piece jubilee group from the Enoch Grove Baptist Church, and the Southern Sons, who were the most popular and influential gospel groups performing during the early 50s in the Mississippi Delta. McMurry made many trips to the Delta to sign up talent, and on one she signed up a “harp” player who called himself Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy Had garnered a devoted following through his appearances on “King Biscuit Time” over station WFFA in Helena, Arkansas.
McMurry signed Sonny Boy to a contract in December, 1950. She did not learn until years later that his real name was Alex “Rice” Miller. Miller had appropriated the name of another highly-regarded harmonica-playing blues singer because he had once been convicted of stealing a mule from a neighbor. He had whitewashed the mule, which was a sure disguise for the animal until the next inevitable Delta downpour. With McMurry riding herd on him, Sonny Boy Williamson (II) turned out a string of blues standards, including “Eyesight to the Blind”, “Nine Below Zero” and “Red Hot Kisses”, written by Lillian herself. Sonny Boy also wrote a tribute to McMurry’s car, which was recorded as “Pontiac Blues”.
Edward Komara, former head of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, said, “The main thing I remember about Lillian McMurry is her toughness, which was a combination of a low tolerance for bullshit and a lion-taming instinct. This toughness was not something she had to develop while running Trumpet. She may have well had it since birth. She was also born with a pageant-quality beauty, as evidenced by the published photos of her in her 50s, taken during the Trumpet years. But musicians and record industry people alike learned she was much more than a pretty face.”
However she came by it, Lillian McMurry’s toughness became a key asset in the rough-and-tumble world of the independent record business. Sonny Boy Williamson, her biggest star, was hard-drinking, cantankerous and prone to drunken brawling. Williamson also carried a knife and a gun and freely used profane language, but only once around Lillian. Legend has it that when Williamson began cursing in the studio one day, Lillian told him to leave. When he refused, McMurry took his own gun, which she had taken the precaution to relieve him of, marched him outside and sent him on his way. A much-humbled Williamson returned a couple of weeks later, and McMurry took him back in.
According to Webb, McMurry had problems with other artists as well. “She had Elmore James under contract, but Elmore had problems sticking to it. At one point, she got a tip-off and had to go to Canton to bust up a recording session that Elmore had no right to do. There’s actually a tape recording of a telephone conversation between Elmore and Lillian where he’s asking about coming back, and she said, ‘Well, Elmore, would you stand hitched?’ meaning would he honor a contract. But he never followed up on it.”
Elmore James’s only Trumpet recording, “Dust My Broom”, became a nation-wide hit and a classic in the blues repertoire. “She and Willard were visiting with my parents when I was in high school or junior high, and she was sitting there in the front room and I was dashing out the door with a vinyl copy of “Tommy” by The Who. And she said something like, ‘Oh, I thought the rock opera was an abortion,’ or an abomination or something like that. And I left thinking, ‘Well what does she know?’ but later I realized they recorded HER song wrong. She cut the original ‘Eyesight for the Blind’ but they did it in a minor key with a whole different feel and melody.”
But the Trumpet label was short-lived. Even with such brilliant talent stock as Jerry McCain, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Willie Love, competition with labels having deeper pockets eventually proved to be too much. According to blues aficionado Dr. Woody Sistrunk, “One of the biggest reasons Trumpet ended was that a large record distributor in Texas went broke. And back then, it was not cash for sale. A lot of business was on credit, especially as records became hits. If a record became a hit, you had to get it to a pressing plant, and no one had a pressing plant except for the big labels. You had to have it pressed, and if you didn’t get paid by your distributors, or one-stops as it were for stocking juke boxes at the time, you simply didn’t have any money to pay them off,” Sistrunk explained.
“At the very end of Trumpet, Sonny Boy Williamson was the biggest artist that the label had. His contract was traded to Buster Williams’ Plastic Products in Memphis as a trade for some of the label’s debts,” Sistrunk said. “Williams then turned over Sonny Boy’s contract to the Chess Brothers with options, who in turn picked up Sonny Boy and ran with him.”
After only five years (1951-56) in the business, this was Trumpet’s last note. “That was it, except for another $50,000 that Lillian and Willard had to absorb, which they did strictly through hard work,” Sistrunk said. “A lot of people don’t realize how important their studio was. Many of the records were cut at the old State Furniture Company at 211 State Street on the corner of State and Pearl. For a long time, they would cut records in the back room on Sunday afternoons with someone else’s equipment. But by 1954, they had a studio at 309 Farish Street where they were cutting a number of things. That was another big expense during 1953-54, and that set them back some as well.”
Lillian McMurry was a scrupulous businesswoman, a meticulous bookkeeper and obsessive when it came to royalties. “For eight years, I maintained her Trumpet papers at the Blues Archive,” Komara said, “and she never let a single detail slip by. She fought hard and successfully for the artists whose financial estates she assisted. She continued until her death to assist her Trumpet recording artists, scoundrels though they sometimes were. She demanded honesty and got honesty and delivery of contracted promises from them during the recording sessions, and in return she made sure they received what was due.”
“She knew about artists’ egos and she protected them, plus she knew about artists’ sufferings and made sure they all got paid,” Sistrunk said. Vitrice McMurry Rankin, Lillian and Willard’s daughter, said, “Mom was always a strong-willed and fierce person who fought for what was right, treated the musicians with a great deal of dignity and fought for their rights. She was incredibly cagey, and could deal with copyright lawyers on a level of legal think so that she was able to win most of the suits she brought. “
“She was actually close to graduating from Jackson School of Law when she met my Dad and got married, which seems untypical of her that she wouldn’t have gone ahead and finished school,” Rankin said. “She had that kind of steel clamp of a mind that could handle thousands and thousands of legal ramifications and technicalities and argue to the death. I think some of the settlements she got were just to get her off their backs because she was so utterly relentless in her pursuing of these people who did so much bold-faced thievery. She would tend to spend $10,000 to make $10,000. Who knows ultimately if financially it was worth it, but ethically it was, because so many people were vindicated.”
But McMurry’s upstanding business ethics were often sorely lacking in other recording business personalities of the 50s. And the demise of the Trumpet label may have been in part to unscrupulous machinations on the part of other record labels. “Lillian told me that there were some people who wanted to press her out of the business,” Sistrunk said. “And one big label allegedly said, ‘If you stock her labels, we won’t let you stock ours.’ This was a big label, and every jukebox carried this label, and it seemed pretty ugly.”
After McMurry got out of the music business, she still maintained a studio. According to Sistrunk, “’From the Bottom’ and a lot of the later Sonny Boy Williamson songs were recorded there, and she was the one ‘at the knobs’ when Earl King did ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ for Ace Records. ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woofie Flu’ could very well have been recorded there as well.”
The impact of the Trumpet label on American music has been profound and lasting. “You can’t describe Trumpet’s contribution to music history strictly within a blues niche,” Sistrunk said. “You’d have to describe it in terms of the music of Mississippi that was not being recorded, that being gospel with the Southern Sons Gospel Quartet, that being Lucky Joe Almond, Jimmy Swan and all the other hillbilly artists and that being Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love with the blues.”
“All of those folded together are basically what made rock-and-roll as we know it. It’s all incredible.”