Jackson: A Neighborhood

In addition to their numerous charitable endeavors, the Junior League of Jackson has issued two quite remarkable publications. The first, in 1978, was their landmark Southern Sideboards, a truly luminous work that has since gone through fifteen printings, five of those Southern Living Hall of Fame editions. The recipes in Southern Sideboards altogether comprise nothing less than an exhaustive tutorial for home cooks in the Deep South, and if that weren’t enough also includes a heart-felt introduction by Wyatt Cooper.

Their second, more important work is Jackson Landmarks (1982) dedicated to the Manship House, one of Jackson’s most beloved architectural treasures. Jackson Landmarks is important not only for the wealth of detail and historical data, but also because Jackson’s urban landscape has changed significantly in the 35 years since its publication, and an estimated 25-30% of these historic structures have disappeared.

Jackson Landmarks also includes an essay (“The House”) by Jackson native Charlotte Capers  whose name has become synonymous with historic preservation across the state, as well as this one, “Jackson: A Neighborhood” by another Jackson native, Eudora Welty, one of America’s grand dames of belles lettres.

Welty’s essay is a charming memoir of a fragile time long past when little boys and girls pulled steamboats made of shoe boxes and tissue paper illuminated by stubby candles down sidewalks in the lightening-bug dusk, thrilled to cliff-hangers on silver screens in spacious movie theaters and endured lectures on distant lands and dramatic duets from another time on rough plank seats under a dusty Chautauqua canvas out West Capitol.

Jackson: A Neighborhood

It seems, looking back, that everything that went on in Jackson was done in the unit of the family. When Livingston Lake opened, it was the family that responded. They went out in the family car every morning, and took a dip before breakfast. In that first onrush of enthusiasm, you rode out from home in the rising sun, already in your bathing suit and rubber cap decorated with rubber butterflies, singing “Margie” all the way (that was the summer the lake opened) to learn to swim the breast stroke in a harness of water wings. As they went methodically splashing around you, their heads rising out of that warm brown water, it was neighborly; you saw all the same people every morning, much as you do at the supermarket now.

When you and I look back at Jackson, doesn’t it seem that everyday life then easily gravitated to the personal level? When the postman arrived with the mail (twice a day) at your door, he blew a whistle. It seems to me that the mail itself was all composed of letters. Could it even be true tht junk mail had not then been invented? We children, of course, would have loved it, but I remember nothing coming that would qualify except what we sent off for ourselves—orders for signet rings in return for wads and wads of Octagon Soap coupons.

The scale of life was personal and manageable—manageable for children. There were a lot of three-digit telephone numbers. You gave your number to Central, and Central was a person—a lady, who said “Number, please,” and “Sorry the lion is busy.” If you wondered what time it was, a normal thing was to use the phone and ask Central to give you the Fire Department. Nobody in the world had an answering service: you got them; not a recording, a fireman. Their line was doubtless often busy with people curious to know the time, but never mind: if you had a fire, there were fire alarm boxes fixed to the light poles on convenient street corners, little red iron boxes with glad doors. Any alarm would bring the whole fire department out on the street. This included, in my earliest memories, a wagon called “the steamer.” There was a clanging bell mounted on the front and a kind of brass boiler filled the back, with white stream rolling out at the top. It was always a little late, behind the hook-and-ladder truck and che Chief; but the steamer alone was pulled by a pair of matching white horses, out from under whose calloping hooves live sparks flew. S it thundered up the street, it was something glorious, worth waiting for and running after.

When you think of your childhood, there are many people who seem to have gone by in a parade: the old familiars. Many Jackson familiars were seasonal; and they were punctual. The blackberry lady and the watermelon man, the scissors grinder, the monkey man whose organ you could hear coming from a block away, would all appear at their appointed time. The sassafras man at his appointed time (the first sign of spring) would take his place on the steps of the downtown Post Office, decorated like a general, belted and sashed and hung about with cartridges of orange sassafras root he’s cut in the woods and tied on. They were to make tea with to purify your blood, and quite cheap at the price, something like a nickel a bunch. And when winter blew in, out came the hot tamale man with his wheeled stand and its stove to keep the tamales steaming hot in their cornshucks while he did business at the intersection of Hamilton and North West.

On a day when my mother had taken me to the Emporium where Mr. Charlie Pierce was making some suggestions for a party dress for me, he suddenly said, “My dear Mrs. Welty—the gypsies,” and without further warning, the flower spray and sash—he’d been showing us how they would go—were swept out of sight and beneath the counter. And there the Gypsies ambled, down the aisle. You could count on Gypsies in Jackson, coming with the first hint of fall. Gypsies were seasonal too, like the locusts and katy-dids.

Entertainment was easy to come by. First of all there were the movies. Setting out in the early summer afternoons on foot, by way of Smith Park to Capitol Street and down it, passing the Pythian Castle with its hot stone breath, through the one spot of shade beneath Mrs. Black’s awning, crossing Town Creek—then visible and uncontained—we went carrying parasols over out heads and little crocheted bags over our wrists containing the ten or fifteen cents for the ticket (with a nickel or dime further for McIntyre’s Istrione. At the Majestic we could sit in a box—always empty, because airless as a bureau drawer; at the Istrione, which was said to occupy the site of an old livery stable, we might see Alice Brady in “Drums of Jeopardy” and at the same time have a rat run over our feet. As far as I recall, there was no movie we were not allowed to see until we got old enough not to see “The Shiek”.

At a time when the Century was still a live theatre, a third movie house came along on Capitol Street. This was an open air theatre which opened after dark, on the Town Creek bottom. The creek itself was straddled by an enormous billboard, which in my mind’s eye I will always see pasted with an ad for a coming attraction with Annette Kellerman. It portrayed Annette in a long white drapery, standing on the edge of a cliff, blindfolded. Her arms were straight out in front of her, and one toe already pointed over the abyss. At my urgent pleas, our family attended. And when we did, Annette never went anywhere near a cliff, and made not a single appearance blindfolded, or even in draperies. She just kept on her usual bathing suit, and if there ever was anything after her, she outswam it. I attributed the early folding of the Open Air Picture Show to this gyp, but was laid officially to the heavy attendance of mosquitoes at all performances.

But once a year, and another part of summer, live entertainment came with the Redpath Chautauqua. The tent went up on a vacant lot somewhere near the West Capitol Street Methodist Church. My father always took tickets for the full week’s performances. This meant we could ride on the street car at night, which only began the excitement; holding on to wicker seats by open windows and smelling the scorching rails as we made what seemed a sizzling speed through the calm of nighttime Jackson. “Where Will YOU Spend Eternity?” was even then a landmark sign looking down from under a light bulb onto the I.C. Station, from just beyond Mr. Tripp’s Furniture Store.

Within the Chautauqua tent: the smells of newest sawdust and oldest canvas, plank benches down front for the children to sit together on, stage with green rep curtains fastened together in front, while you wanted with your heart in your throat for them to be rattled back. Until then you could only keep reading over and over the hopeful sign that hung on a tent pole, “Kimball Piano Used.”

The show might be an educational lecture on a distant part of the world, or a concert by a musical trio (generally all ladies), or the performance of a play such as “Turn to the Right” or, more blessedly, “The Bat.”

The on the final night, a play was performed one year with a cast of local children; we were encouraged to try out. I did, for a role that where all you did in try-outs was sit with your ankles crossed in a folding chair in the middle of the stage with all the others around you and singing to you. It didn’t appear that there were even any lines to speak. Another girl, with naturally curly hair, beat me to the part. Imagine my surprise when, on the night, this character turned out to be Joan of Arc and what she was doing at center stage was being burned at the stake, while the rest sang to her (this was during World War I): “Joan of Arc! Joan of Arc! May your spirit guide us through! Allons, enfants de la patrie! Joan of Arc! We’re for you!” (I’d had a close call.)

I feel we were highly entertained as children, and quite well versed in ways of entertaining ourselves. Our play was unscheduled, unorganized and incessant—in our backyards, our friends’ backyards, in the public parks, and especially in summertime, we ran free. (Our mothers, however knew right where we were.) At the same time, it seems to me, we read all day. We might read all day in a tree.

Summer nights, we “played out”. We made “choo-choo boats—steamboats—out of shoeboxes with windows in the shapes of the moon and stars cut out of the sides and tissue-paper pasted over, and a candle inside lighted to show through, and at first-dark, down the river of sidewalk, pulling our shining boats on a string, we met other boats, and passes each other.

“Choo-choo.”
“Choo-choo.”

Summer days we went to spend all day with each other. You might play paper dolls. You went carrying all you had in a bulging Bellas-Hess catalogue in which the dolls, families and families of them, and their outfits were filed flat between the pages. With paperdolls and your friend’s paperdolls, the thing to be desired was number. The combined batteries of your paperdolls and your friends paperdolls spent the day visiting and dressing for each other. They acted out exciting scenes we thought up. Though a certain number of the fathers of these families had nothing to wear but long underwear, or if clothed at all were obliged to carry a second pair of pants over their arms (they all came out of the mail order catalogues), this didn’t cloud our day.

A child quite naturally thinks his own world—his house, his street, his town—is going to stay forever the way it is, in the same way that he thinks his own family will always be where he sees them now, and exactly the same. We of my day may have kept an unusually strong and reassuring conception of Jackson; for most of our childhood, the look of Jackson did indeed remain essentially the same. Buildings seldom came down, streets didn’t get widened—or rezoned. Not only the streets and houses and “downtown” kept being just what they were supposed to be. Trees too seemed permanent. Trees you were growing up with remained where they were and you knew them in all their seasons. They just got bigger, still lining the same streets where you walked. In those days, the sidewalks yielded to the trees and went around them. The big tree in front of the Carnegie Library at Mississippi and Congress took over the prime parking place in the street itself, and the curb ran out in a big half-moon to take care of the roots. Downtown traffic went around it. The tree at the Central Fire Station was given similar respect in Pearl Street until we, ourselves, at our age, let it be cut down.

I believe the Jackson of my day was really scaled for children. And then, in its very confinement to small and intimate size, it suggested the largeness of the surrounding world—you could see Jackson end and the country begin. This child’s imagination could take this in with the use of his won eyes. The family car ride showed it to him—our relationship with the surrounding world. When it was night, there was another sense of greatness. This lay in our view of the night sky. Jackson’s night sky, then, was not a blushing reflection of a neon city, but its own clear black—the perfect opposite, as it ought to be, from day. You could live anywhere in town and keep up with the stars. A child ordinarily could point out the constellations and name them, because they shone. And closer to hand, you could get the effect of lightening-bugs, too—flashing from backyard to backyard, street to street, field to field along country roads, then so near home.

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