Walkin’ in Memphis

Railroad timetable, Greenwood to Memphis, 1928

“We went to Memphis on the train in May, 1927, and stayed at the Peabody Hotel, which was just two years old and the most wonderful place I had ever been in. Getting off the train and going into the big train station and then getting a Yellow Cab to the hotel really impressed us. The huge ornately decorated lobby of the Peabody with the fountain in the middle with gold fish (that was before the ducks) left us speechless. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a place like that (like some of the kids in one of our story books.)

Peabody Hotel, circa 1925

“We would go to the coffee shop every morning, and the Negro waiters in their white coats would take your order. I remember the white tablecloth and napkins and Mama and Daddy trying to teach us proper table manners. We rode a streetcar for the first time, and I loved the cabs because they had little pull down seats in the back. We went to the zoo and to Court Square in downtown Memphis to feed the pigeons and squirrels, and to the biggest Woolworth’s I had ever seen.

“The newsboys on the street with the Commercial Appeal were shouting, ‘Extra, Extra, Read all about it! Lindbergh lands in Paris!’ I had heard the grownups talking about Lindbergh making the first solo flight from New York to Paris, but at age six failed to attach much importance to the news. With no television, and radio just beginning, the newspapers would put out an extra edition of the paper whenever any big news story broke.

“Our trip to the Coast was fun, too, our only exposure to the beach with the exception of Big Sand Creek in Carroll County where we had waded and pretended that we had been to the beach. It was such a long trip that we had to spend the night in Hattiesburg en route. We stayed at The White House, a big old hotel facing the beach. There too I was impressed with the big dining room. Daddy took us down on the piers and let us wade in the Gulf and hunt for shells, and we walked with Mama and explored very old cemeteries. Mama always had a fascination for old cemeteries. We stopped at the ten cent store on the way home and got something for each of us and something for Mable Petty.”

White House Hotel, Biloxi

Sara was fascinated with big cities, and I don’t think she ever got to travel as much as she would have liked. Mind you, now, she had no desire to live in those cities, because the sun rose and set with Greenwood, Mississippi squarely in the center of the universe. But she loved to dress up and go to downtown Memphis, gripping mine and Cathy’s hands so tightly that the circulation in our little fingers would vanish. Daddy would always drop us off at Goldsmith’s, where we would explore every floor before heading off to Kress’ and Lowenstein’s and Woolworth’s and pigeon-feeding sessions in Court Square. We’d swing through the lobby of the Peabody and watch the ducks while she wistfully pointed out the white-tablecloth restaurants, unchanged from that magical trip in 1927. I was desperate to stay overnight there, but that wasn’t in the Criss budget. The Chisca Plaza was just fine, thank you.

Downtown Memphis has seen some dark days since Sara’s trip in the ’20s and ours in the ’50s and ’60s. The Peabody was shuttered for years, and just the mention of that tragedy would send her into a funk. Somewhere in these boxes of her souvenirs I have the receipt for the two nights that she and Daddy spent at the Peabody in January, 1947, as newlyweds. More on that in a later blog; we’ve got twenty more years to go.

January 24, 1947, Peabody Ballroom

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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