Five Hidden Treasures in the Mississippi Delta
And this is how it happens in the Delta. You come with your intended itinerary of juke joints, cafes, and historical markers, distilled from tens of online lists and email crowdsourcing, but as you drive down Highway 61, you know there’s more beyond that endless horizon of cotton fields, pecan groves, and the cypress-filled creeks. And then you meet a history professor at a backyard catfish fry. Although he’s driven in from Dallas, the professor’s family happens to be from Anguilla, Mississippi, and he begins to tell you of mansion ruins, cemeteries, a spattering of old buildings on the side of the road known as Nitta Yuma. If you are me and our Homes Editor Zoe Gowen, on a split-decision journey to the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, you pull up a Google Map and start plotting your next day’s adventure. This is what we found.
Ruins of Mount Holly
Although it was the object of our mission’s final goal, we drove right past the remains of Mount Holly. After some redirecting by the locals sitting in Roy’s Store, we found the once-grand mansion, which belonged to the family of novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote, set back from the road behind a mint-colored shed. The home sat abandoned for a few years after it was turned into a bed and breakfast, but dreams of restoring it were dashed when it caught fire last year. Although the front facade, a beautiful example of the ornate, Italianate style in which it was built, still remains intact, the interior has been completely erased and its ashes buried under the melted, crumpled metal roof – a large shard of it folded and tucked inside the juliet balcony above the front door like a dollar bill in a pocket. As tempting as it is to venture as close as possible, the perimeter is lined with fire ant mounds and unstable heaps of brick. It seemed less fragile admired from a broader vantage point under the golden veil of the sunset behind us.
Nitta Yuma, Mississippi
Highway 61 near Rolling Fork, Mississippi
Something like an abandoned movie set from O Brother Where Art Thou, Nitta Yuma is half ghost town and half time warp. Once a city of thousands, it now hovers around 20, many of whom belong to the Phelps family, descendents of Major Burwell Vick (the founder of Vicksburg). The remaining members have gathered a collection of structures, some in complete disrepair and others eerily immortal, alongside Highway 61 including a restored 1840 plantation house with a wrap around porch, the old Nitta Yuma Service Station, a few cabins and barns, a church where some of the Phelps ancestors are buried, and a fire station with the old Anguilla Fire Department truck parked in the port outside. Peek through the windows and you’ll see shelves full of freshly dusted family heirlooms neatly arranged inside.
Just a couple miles up Eastside Lake Washington Road from Mount Holly is Roy’s Store, an oasis for fishers and campers who come to the lake for bass, crappie, and catfish, but also for the hot breakfast, hyper-local catfish, cheeseburgers, and seasoned tator logs. As we also found out, they have three flavors of Moon Pies available, coffee, and a tiny bar great for meeting the locals and/or asking the locals for directions. The store also counts Delta-born author and writer Julia Reed among their fans.
Evergreen Cemetery and the Ruins of St. John’s Church
Glen Allan, Mississippi
Open the car door at Evergreen Cemetery at the end of Eastside Lake Washington Road, and you’ll first notice the silence enshrouding this clearing across from a still, cypress-lined rivulet. Not much passes by on the two lane road save for an occasional camo-wrapped ATV. The serenity is almost startling. All that remains of St. John’s Church is the brick-and-mortar outline and two walls that once held arched doors and circular stained glass, but hidden in an alcove of the main wall is the grave of the man who built it, Jesse Crowell. Born into slavery, he was a master craftsman who directed the construction of the church from the timber used to the bricks made on site by fellow slaves. He even carved the pulpit and rails inside with his own design inspired by the native trees around him. After his death, the bishop of Mississippi’s Episcopalian diocese spoke at his funeral, and Crowell became the only person of color ever buried at Evergreen.
Farmer’s Grocery and Restaurant
Rolling through Rolling Fork, the birthplace of Muddy Waters, we stopped in Lee’s Cotton Picker Art, a gallery owned by folk artist Lee Washington (across the street from a “much nicer replica” of the one room cabin where Muddy Waters was born). When we asked him where we should eat lunch, Lee hesitated to recommend his favorite place 10 miles out of town, but when he heard we were on our way to Glen Allan, he enthusiastically told us to head to Farmer’s Grocery in the postage stamp-sized town of Grace. “Tell them Lee sent you,” he said. The fried tamales alone would have been worth the drive to this general store and cafe regardless of where our destination had been. Crispy on the outside with the best-balanced blend of beef, corn, and spice we had encountered in our weekend of tamale eating. Grab a Lazy Magnolia longneck and sit on their porch overlooking an old red barn and horses grazing under pecan trees.