Mississippi: Elvis among state’s royalty

Located on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was founded by Rev. Newit Vick in 1811. During the Civil War, Mississippi seceded from the Union in 1861. The North quickly made plans to attack this sophisticated city that was a major port for the cotton trade. After several unsuccessful attempts to control it, General Ulysses S. Grant and his troops attacked Vicksburg for 47 days in 1863. Many historians consider the siege of Vicksburg one of the most important military actions in American history.

At Vicksburg National Military Park, begin at the park visitor center by watching a short film, viewing life-size exhibits and seeing artifacts from the siege. Visitors can then drive, hike, bike, or ride a tour bus on the historic 16-mile tour road through Union and Confederate siege lines. Halfway through the park, visitors can tour a 175-foot Union gunboat, the USS Cairo, that was sunk in 1862 by underwater Confederate mines near Vicksburg. Raised in 1964, the restored gunboat provides a unique opportunity to stand on a reconstructed gun deck and view original cannons, cannon carriages, engines, boilers and the pilot house. The nearby USS Cairo Museum houses military and personal artifacts that were recovered with the Cairo during its salvage.

Adjacent to the USS Cairo is the Vicksburg National Cemetery. Established in 1866, it contains more than 18,000 graves of soldiers from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

The Old Courthouse Museum, Vicksburg’s most historic building, was constructed by slaves in 1858. During the Civil War, its location on the town’s highest hill made it a constant target for Union troops. Confederate soldiers moved all their Union prisoners there, the shots stopped and the building was spared. This National Landmark building has thousands of artifacts that tell the story of Vicksburg from native cultures to the Civil War and the steamboat era.

The Biedenharn Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia showcases the history of the world-famous soft drink, along with equipment Joseph Biedenharn used when he bottled the first Coca-Cola in 1894. Follow the history of Coke through displays of advertising and other memorabilia, and check their gift shop for a wide selection of Coke souvenirs.
Yesterday’s Children Antique Doll and Toy Museum contains four rooms filled with more than 1,000 dolls dating back to 1843. A complete history of Madame Alexander dolls and composition dolls of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s is provided. And don’t leave the guys at home. They can enjoy an extensive collection of metal toys from the 1920s through the 1980s that include cars, trucks, fire engines, trains, guns and soldiers.

A visit to Vicksburg wouldn’t be complete without a tour of a southern mansion. The Martha Vick House was built in 1830 for the unmarried daughter of the city’s founder. This Greek Revival home is furnished with 18th- and 19th-century antiques. Of special interest is an impressive collection of French Impressionist paintings.

The McRaven Tour Home was once described in National Geographic Magazine as a “time capsule of the South.” It was constructed in three phases and each illustrates a unique style: 1797 Frontier, 1836 Empire, and 1849 Greek Revival. It has many original furnishings plus many Civil War artifacts. The Vick and McRaven houses are open for regular public tours, but many privately owned mansions can also be toured every May and October during Vicksburg’s Spring and Fall “Pilgrimages.”

In 1934, Vernon Presley borrowed $180 for building materials and, with the help of relatives, constructed a modest “shotgun” home. It was here that his wife, Gladys, gave birth to two boys on the morning of Jan. 8, 1935. One, Jesse, was stillborn. The other son, Elvis Aron, lived here with his parents for three years until this home was repossessed during the tail end of the Depression. After their eviction, the Presley’s lived with one of their many relatives or in apartments in the Tupelo area.  Like many other rural youths of that era, Elvis wanted a gun for his 12th birthday. But his mother persuaded him to choose a guitar instead, and she paid $7.75 at the Tupelo Hardware Store for this memorable gift. His musical talents were becoming evident when Vernon Presley, who was caught in a small-town poverty trap, moved his wife and 13-year-old Elvis 60 miles away to bustling Memphis.

The black population around Beale Street in Memphis was composing the foundations of modern music and Elvis learned from them. The rest, as they say, is history. Today more than 60,000 visitors come to Tupelo each year to tour the carefully restored birthplace home, the Elvis Presley Museum, a memorial chapel, and view a life-size bronze statue. The two-room birthplace truly shows the humble beginnings of the boy who became one of the world’s greatest entertainers. The bed where he was born sits on a worn linoleum floor. There’s even a small hammer used by Vernon Presley in the home’s construction.

Located on a 15-acre site, the Elvis Presley Museum was originally built by Elvis as a youth center to give something back to his community, according to his lifelong friend, Janelle McComb. After several other uses, the building became a museum in 1992, and McComb donated most of the collection on display here. Licensed by Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., the museum takes the theme “Times and Things Remembered” and features one of the most unique private collections of Elvis memorabilia in the world. Here visitors can see hundreds of family photos, books autographed by his favorite authors, his motorcycle books, plus many of the special gifts he gave McComb. The Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel, which was built with funds from friends and fans, opened in 1979, two years after his death, and is the site of many weddings. Nearby, a bronze statue titled Elvis at 13 depicts him as hometown friends and family remember. To see more Elvis sites, pick up a pamphlet with directions to his schools, the family church and the Tupelo Hardware Store.

Natchez promotes itself as having more historic homes than any other American city. Virtually every street in the Historic District has homes that are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places or are designated National Historic Landmarks. The best way to enjoy the majesty of these gracious southern mansions is to visit a spring or fall Natchez Pilgrimage. Twenty-eight antebellum mansions, many of them private residences, will be open to visitors during the 75th anniversary of the Spring Pilgrimage, which will be held March 10 to April 14, 2007. Hostesses will welcome visitors to four houses each morning and four each afternoon. The selection of tour houses changes each morning and each afternoon throughout the five-week event. The Historic Natchez Pageant, which will be performed four times a week, depicts scenes from the Old South as it transports the audience to the era when cotton was king. With more than 200 local performers in elaborate period costumes, this show has become as noteworthy as the home tours.

Mississippi Gulf Coast
It has been a little more than a year since Hurricane Katrina battered the Mississippi Gulf Coast, especially the cities of Biloxi and Gulfport. After Herculean efforts to rebuild, businesses, shops, casinos, restaurants, golf courses, fishing lodges, tourist attractions and all types of overnight accommodations are in the process of reopening and welcoming visitors.

The tourism industry is vital to the economic recovery of Mississippi. All of us who truly want to help hurricane victims should consider visiting the Mississippi Gulf Coast and offering these brave survivors an opportunity to earn the money needed to rebuild their lives. The Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division Web site has updated details about specific places that are open.