Building Bridges

Keesler Bridge in 2010, infrared photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

“I remember walking over to River Road with Mama to see the new bridge (Keesler Bridge) they were building across the Yazoo River. She liked to tell us about the big steamboats which used to come down the river hauling cotton and about the showboats which would dock down by the Reiman (later Greenwood Leflore) Hotel and they would attend performances on them at night. They used to turn the bridge to let the boats go through. She told us that Yazoo meant ‘river of blood’ and that the Indians had had a big fight, filling the river with blood, giving it its name. I think that story was a little bit fabricated.”

Riverboats at Greenwood, circa 1896. Photo from the collection of Imogene Lewis. The 1899 iron bridge has not been built yet, so location is difficult to determine, but this was probably shot from the riverbank behind the present-day Court House, looking east.

Steamboats docked on Front Street, circa 1896. From the collection of Imogene Lewis. This time you're looking west, downstream on the Yazoo.

Can you imagine watching the Keesler Bridge going up? In my mind’s eye, it is altogether impossible to picture that stretch of the Yazoo, curving through Greenwood, without the iron superstructure of “The Bridge.” And that’s how we thought of it, growing up, and how I still think of it, thanks to Sara. The other two spans were “The New Bridge (Veterans’, linking Walthall and Poplar) and “The Highway Bridge” (Hinman, on the 49/82 Bypass). If you referred to “The Bridge,” everyone who had any sense knew which one you were referencing. To me as a child it was both awe-inspiring and terrifying, a daily presence that allowed us to scoot in and out of Greenwood and North Greenwood without a second thought. But for the first sixty years or so of Greenwood’s existence, the only way across was a rickety ferry boat, Howell’s Ferry, which shoved off at the base of Cotton Street and docked who-knows-where on the wild north bank of the river. Mayor Staige Marye threatened to open a private toll bridge if voters didn’t approve an 1899 bond issue; they did just that and the narrow iron structure went up the same year. Its central pier was the same one you see supporting the Keesler Bridge today, but the rest of the old bridge was either torn down or dynamited (accounts vary) in 1924.

The original "iron bridge," circa 1899. Photo courtesy of Donny Whitehead, aboutgreenwoodms.com. The caption on this postcard is in error, as the bridge did not exist in 1895.

It was just too skinny and too scary for all the auto traffic moving between booming North Greenwood and downtown to suffice. Work on the new bridge began immediately and was completed in just a matter of months, so Sara would have been around 3 or 4 on those strolls with Jessie. Enough to make an impression on an eager little mind and seal that big bridge in her heart forever.

By the early 1990s, neglect had left it in deplorable and dangerous straits, and the city and county leaders actually discussed tearing Keesler down. I’ve picked up the phone many a time and heard many an angry screed from Sara, but never, never did I hear her light up the phone lines like she did when that knuckleheaded discussion reached North Greenwood. She was livid that anyone would even consider such a desecration and was ready to march down to City Hall and the Court House and emasculate anyone who so much as loosened a bolt on the bridge. And, thank goodness, she wasn’t alone in her fury. She and a lot of other concerned and fed-up bridge devotees brought all talk of tearing down that fine old span to a screeching halt, and money was found to restore it for years to come. Sara was the master of the well-timed tantrum, none more so than the Great Keesler Bridge Face-Off.

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Bookworms

Sara with something interesting to read

“The house on Strong Avenue had bookcases in the living room, and they were always filled with books. Both Mama and Daddy liked to read and always provided us with plenty of books. We had a set of The Encyclopedia of Knowledge, which was sort of like a set of encyclopedias except that they had stories and poems in them along with all sorts of information. We would look at them by the hour.

Tiny deep in a story

We read all the sets of children’s books, such as the Bobbsey Twins, Honeybunch, The Five Little Peppers, Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue and others. Some we read many times. Mama would take us to the library to get more books. One of our favorites was a book titled Miss Minerva and William Green Hill, and we read it over and over.

“Mama subscribed to all the magazines such as Pictorial Review, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Delineator, Woman’s Home Companion, Liberty, Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, most of which are no longer published. She read everything she could get her hands on and continued to do so for most of her life.

Jessie with Sara

“Daddy brought a book home from Chicago called Heart Throbs. We loved it, and the one story or poem I particularly remember because it was so sad was about the Johnstown flood.

Jessie with Tiny on the steps of the Greenwood Leflore Library, circa 1919

“The games we played were Pollyana, checkers, fishing, rook and old maid. Once Mama ordered a stereoscope from Sears and we enjoyed looking at the three dimensional pictures. When we were sick she would always call the drugstore and order us a Child Life magazine.”

I never remember a time without books. Sara read to us faithfully and occasionally hauled home a set of old encyclopedias from someone’s garage or estate sale. Cathy and I practically grew up in the old children’s room of the Greenwood Leflore Library, always under the watchful eye of librarian Dorothy Hayes. As Sara’s newspaper career accelerated into high gear, that building emerged as a safe place to leave us when our grandmother or a neighbor were not available to babysit. I can still wander through that musty, abandoned space now and take you straight to the spot where once were shelved Childhood of Famous Americans books (Remember those? Orange bindings? Every child noble and virtuous? I read Babe Ruth at least twenty times) and the Hardy Boys and Civil War picture books and science experiment manuals. What a wonderful, comfortable, safe place, one we have failed to honor as a community. Sadly neglected but still imminently salvageable. Sara adored that old library and it just broke her heart that it was ever left behind, a victim of  someone’s daffy notion of progress.

She didn’t read too much at home for pleasure until Cathy and I were grown. There was too much else to be done, between writing for the paper and baking and sewing and an insatiable curiosity for everything that was happening around Greenwood. But she never viewed the time that her children spent immersed in books to be a waste, and if you wanted to get out of some unpleasant chore that was usually a viable option. “Wait, just let me get to the end of the chapter.” She’d smile and go do it herself. She gave us both the gift of reading and writing and fascination with the power of words to entertain and inform and change the world. A rare gift indeed.

Lallah Walker Lewis murals in old Greenwood Library

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Miss Minnie

Howard Evans, Jr. and Patricia Evans in front of Stott House, with Miss Minnie Attlesey's house in the background. Ca. 1939-1940.

“It was on one of my visits with Bama to Big’s house that I first met Miss Minnie Attlesey, the next door neighbor. She had come over to visit, the only time I remember her coming over there even during the years later when we lived there. It seems that she and Big had had a falling out and did not speak for all those years, though she would speak to the rest of us. I think Big had gotten mad at her over something she said to Big about how she looked before John was born.

Newspaper article about Miss Minnie Attlesey's birthday party (notice that it doesn't say how old she was) and photograph of Tricia with Attlesey house in background.

“I wasn’t even sure that Miss Minnie wasn’t at least part witch. She lived to be more than one hundred and continued to dye her hair various shades of red and black until she died. She had two brothers, Ed and Jeff, living with her in this rambling old house. None of them ever married, and they were members of one of Greenwood’s first families, their father having owned one of the town’s many saloons that once served the riverboat crews.

“Old Jeff was known to take things that did not belong to him, and the story was told that late one night he went to the Peteet House, across from the Court House, dug up a Cape Jasmine bush, and brought it home and planted it. Ed had some sort of gambling wheels and every Saturday you would see him taking them down to Johnson Street where he would entice the Negroes to play them.

“Miss Minnie told stories of how beautiful she was as a girl and how many marriage proposals she had had. She had all sorts of apartments and houses surrounding her house which she rented, and when we were little she even had a Chinese laundry in one building. When she was in her nineties she was still climbing up on the steep pitched roof of her house with little Negro boys who she hired to make repairs. When she was almost one hundred years old she decided to go to Texas to live with a nephew, who I am sure figured she couldn’t live forever and probably had some money. She called the swap shop on the radio one morning and, without telling any of her relatives, announced she was selling everything in her house. People flocked to the house partly to see what she had and partly just to get a look inside that funny old house, which had been added onto repeatedly.

Bigma, Buddy and Rena Stott, with Attlesey House in background. Circa 1927.

“She gave me some very old school books and Cathy some old sheet music. One day after she had gone to Texas we found the door unlocked and went in to see what was left. We got upstairs and heard and noise and just knew she was coming in after us. We got out in a hurry.”

There is some rare and potent element in the waters of Greenwood that has always produced unusual and memorable citizens, the kind Sara would have kindly called “characters” and most people would call “nuts.” Those who wander downtown at night and dig up bushes for transplantation to their own yard easily qualify as characters. I do remember Miss Minnie’s house, looming just to the west of the Stott house, dark and foreboding and not at all welcoming. There is a dim recollection of going up on the front porch and seeing Miss Minnie, a wizened little gnome with frightening streaks of red and jet black hair, dressed in what looked like and may very well have been post-Civil War mourning. I was not pleased with this encounter and I’m sure I let Sara know that and I was quickly hustled back to the safety of Big and Uncle Roy’s house. Oddly, I have no memory of the old house being torn down but I do recall that the Wells Insurance building which replaced it struck me as bland and boring. How could it possibly compete with a Gothic spookhouse and an ancient woman who Sara suggested might just be a real witch? She told me that she thought Miss Minnie lived until she was around 108. Sure wish her house was still there…..

Ed. note: Miss Minnie was recruited to write the Attlesey family history for the WPA in the 1930s. All of such efforts are always best taken with a whole shaker of salt, but I will pass along the gist of her tale. There is much drama of the Attlesey and Hamilton families migrating to America from London and settling in Kentucky. Captain Edward Attlesey operated a number of steamboats and flatboats along with a business that manufactured shoes, boots, saddles, bridles and harnesses. At some point before the Civil War, he bought land in the Delta, although his primary residence seemed to still be in Kentucky. Captain Attlesey apparently left almost 2000 bales of cotton on the riverbank at Greenwood and Point Leflore, which were burned by Confederate troops. (Don’t blame me, it’s a rambling family history). Miss Minnie motors on: “One of Captain Attlesey’s steam boats, the Union, was sunk in the Tallahatchie River at the mouth of Sisloff’s Bayou near his saw mill site. It was after the death of Captain Attlesey that his wife and children came to Greenwood to live. Miss Anne, their eldest daughter had married William Hamilton and had lived in Greenwood several years previous to the coming of her mother, brothers and sisters. Captain and Mrs. Attlesey were the parents of twelve children, five having died before the family moved to Mississippi. Mrs. Attlesey, her four sons (Edward, Robert, Jeff and Sam) and daughters (Emma and Minnie, eight weeks old) came in the late ’70s. They lived on Howard Street in the home of her daughter, Mrs. Anne Hamilton, who was left a widow in 1879 and died in 1883. [The Hamilton house was on the corner where Barrett’s Drugstore operated for many years. The Greenwood Post Office was located in a wing of the house for some time in the late 1800s. The Attlesey House was originally located just east of the Hamilton house and later moved down Washington Street; I am assuming that is the house which we see in these photos, although Minnie’s notes say West Washington. The little bit of the house which is visible indicates a late-1800s Gothic/Shingle style home.]

One other thought: As I’ve worked on architectural history around the state for many years, Sara would always fuss at me for creeping into abandoned houses and under inconvenient fences for a better look. She had conveniently forgotten her little adventure in Miss Minnie’s house, I suppose, but at least I know where I got those curious genes.

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The Big House

The Stott House, 115 East Washington, a rare survivor of the downtown housing massacre

“Before I started to school Bama would take me in the afternoon down to Big’s house at 115 East Washington Street to play with John, who was four years younger than I and just a baby then. I remember John would be in the kiddie koop (the baby bed we had all used which had screen sides and a screen top to keep out the mosquitoes.) I always liked to go to Big’s house because they lived just a block from downtown and we would walk with John, and sometimes she would walk down to Howard Street with me.

Sara in the Kiddie Koop before it was passed on to John Stott

“Big and Uncle Roy lived in a big old fashioned white frame house with a front porch which had a railing across the front. Later they remodeled the house and bricked it and put a screened front porch on it. Bama and Bigma, who lived with Big, would sit in  rockers on the porch and talk to people passing by. Bigma was funny and would say just what she pleased and it kept Bama worried that someone would pass and hear her mother saying something about them.

Big (Olive West Stott) with Tiny (her niece) and Buddy (her son)

“The rooms at Big’s house were big with high ceilings, and there was a fireplace in nearly every room. They got the first electric refrigerator, a General Electric, in Greenwood, one with the motor on top, and they were still using that refrigerator, along with a later model, when Big moved to the nursing home years later.”

This is very similar, if not the same model, to Big's GE refrigerator. It stayed in her back hall, working just fine, until she went to the nursing home, sometime around 1970.

 

Big and Uncle Roy’s house. Right there, still, miraculously, on the northwest corner of Walthall and East Washington, after all the other memorable houses around it have been mowed down and forgotten, replaced by sterile boxes. If there was ever a geographic center to our family, a place where all of the Wests and Evanses and Stotts could say, “When all else fails, this is home,” it would have to be the Stott house, now Tom Calhoun’s law office. My earliest memories, and I’m sure the same holds true for all my generational cousins, are of the dark, cool halls and high ceilings and old fireplaces that were no longer used. In my 1950s childhood, Jessie’s bedroom was in the front, where she moved in for a temporary stay in 1932 and remained for 28 years. That’s right, 28 years. With five children and her mother, all of whom eventually left, leaving Granny with Big and Uncle Roy and various cats and a constant stream of visiting grandchildren and neighbors. At the height of this saga, eight children and four adults were sharing five bedrooms and two bathrooms, pulling food from that dependable little GE refrigerator, piling into the big dining room for meals and spilling over to Big’s old-fashioned kitchen. There’ll be much more in these blogs about “Big’s House” but suffice it to say that if it goes up for sale tomorrow, one of us will be sure that it winds up in good hands. Because, in a way, it’s still our family stronghold, packed with memories. And you don’t mess with strongholds.

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Not Even Past

Anderson West with his wife, mother-in-law, aunt-in-law and daughters, circa 1899

“Mama told us the story many times of her father, Anderson West, who had come from a wealthy family and was at Ole Miss with his private slave when the war broke out and how he left with the University Grays and then joined the military unit from Holmes County.

Lyceum at Ole Miss, 1861. I've always wondered if Anderson West is one of the young men in this photograph. He was a freshman at the time, soon to leave for the war and never return to Oxford.

“She often wished that she had listened more to the stories he had to tell about the Civil War. My great-grandmother, Bigma, would tell us about her three brothers leaving for the war with only one coming back. One was buried in a trench at Vicksburg, and they did not know where the other was buried. She always said it was ‘a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.'”

Tombstone of Elijah Sproles, CSA, Saron Cemetery in Holmes County MS.

We were immersed in Civil War history as children, which is not so remarkable when you consider that our grandmother, Sara’s mother, had grown up as the daughter of a Confederate veteran and was one of the last surviving Confederate offspring when she died in 1983.  Anderson West was probably not as rich and well-healed as Sara and Jessie claimed, but he did have the family resources to be at Ole Miss in 1861, along with his own slave. That automatically placed him in some upper echelon of young men in Mississippi for that time. And he was swept into the campus hysteria that preceded Fort Sumter, intensifying after shots were fired in Charleston in April, 1861. He did sign up for the University Grays but his father, John West, refused to sign the permission slip for his participation in that doomed outfit, thank goodness. Isn’t that odd, that they were sent home with permission slips, like a release to go on a school field trip? Did no one have any clue what was coming?

Anderson wound up joining a Holmes County (or was it Grenada County? I’m unsure) regiment, and we have no knowledge of whether that was done with his father’s blessing or against his will. Regardless, Anderson, his father and several of his brothers left for war. He never made it back to Oxford and by the time he returned to Holmes County, that personal slave and whatever treasure the Wests claimed was gone. Jessie remembered him as bitter and bored, but she was not born until he was 52 years old and beaten down by life. He died in 1911 and is buried in Mizpah Cemetery, Durant.

Bigma, Anderson’s mother-in-law, was scarred by the war as well, with only one of her three brothers returning from the conflict. I can remember my first trip to Vicksburg, probably when I was around 5, and Sara’s dramatic recounting of her great-great uncles being buried in the trenches. I worried about that for years, through countless trips around the Vicksburg Military Park. Just a couple of weeks ago, we found this tombstone in Saron Cemetery, near Castalian Springs, with Elijah Sproles’ name on it. He was likely one of Bigma’s brothers, but there’s no death date on the stone and no way to know without further digging (no pun intended) if he was the brother who made it home or whether this is simply a sad marker for a man who was left in the trenches of Vicksburg. Faulkner said the past was never dead, not even past, and if you can’t feel that in Saron Cemetery or Vicksburg, you’re not paying attention.

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Both Sides of the Tracks

This may be Aunt Brown, with Tiny

“There were many people when we were growing up who were still fighting the Civil War. Many, like Mama, had heard parents and grandparents reliving the terrible times. We were led to believe there were not many good Yankees and that the only people in Mississippi who were Republicans were displaced Yankees who had moved south. Even though Lincoln had freed the slaves, the Negroes in the south were not very far removed from slave status. Everything was totally segregated, and about our only contact with black people was with servants.

“I never remember Mama or Daddy mistreating one of them, but it was always understood that they ‘must know their place.’ When I was little we had a little woman we called Aunt Brown who sometimes helped Mama out. It was customary then to call the black women ‘Auntie’ and the men ‘Uncle.’ Aunt Brown was a good person, and I was always glad when she was around. Then we had Henry Pittman, who worked for Daddy at the oil mill and did odd chores for us at home. When I was very small and they would ask me who I loved I would always say, ‘Daddy and Henry Pittman.’ In later years Henry moved to Detroit to work in one of the automobile plants. On one of his trips back home he came to see us.

“There were some small shacks for blacks just before you got to the Buckeye at the end of Strong Avenue. When Daddy would take us for a ride on Sunday afternoon Mary and I would act silly and start waving to the children. Daddy quickly let us know we should not be doing that. The black folks had their own area where they lived much as they still do, most living across the Illinois Central and C&G railroad tracks in the neighborhoods which went by such names as Gritney and Baptist Town. [Ed.note: This was written in 1990; obviously, housing patterns in Greenwood have changed since then.]

“There was no welfare then, no food stamps or Medicaid, and they were still dependent on the white folks to help take care of them. This was a holdover from slave days. Their wages were so low that there was no way they could take care of themselves, and most had no education or training. About the only things they knew how to do were pick cotton and chop cotton.”

Or perhaps this is Aunt Brown. Both of these photos have no identification, so I guess we'll never know.

Ed. note: I have some thoughts on this which I will add to this blog tomorrow. Bear with me during this disjointed week.

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Miss Lizzie

Miss Lizzie's chimes were placed in the courthouse tower in the early 1930s. Photo courtesy of Donny Whitehead, aboutgreenwoodms.com.

“One familiar sight in those days was Mrs. Lizzie George Henderson coming down the street in her electric car. It did not have a horn but a bell that she rang to let you know she was coming. It was the only electric car in Greenwood. Miss Lizzie, as she was known, wore black dresses down to her ankles, even after others had shortened theirs. Her husband, Dr. T.R. Henderson, was President of the Bank of Commerce, and she was the daughter of Senator J.Z.George.

“She donated the land for the public library and the Confederate Memorial Building. She also donated the chimes in the clock tower at the Court House and carpets for all of the church aisles in town. The chimes rang out every fifteen minutes, and we were told to learn their message when I was in Junior High School. ‘Lord through this hour, be thou our guide, so by thou power, no foot shall slide.’

The Hendersons lived in a big impressive house on Washington Street where the Piggly Wiggly [Big Star] now stands. She was the great-aunt of my friend Joe George[Saunders].”

Bama, holding Tiny, with Rena and Buddy. Look past Rena's unfortunate hat to the left, where the Henderson House is clearly visible. Sara always said it was massive and it was a tragedy to lose it to a grocery store parking lot.

I don’t think they make people like T.R. and Lizzie George Henderson any more, or perhaps we just don’t recognize them during their lifetimes. “Miss Lizzie” as as much a part of our childhood stories as the Three Bears or Little Orphan Annie. Sara was fascinated with her and would describe in detail the famous electric car and the bell that alerted you to its arrival. That car is still out at Cotesworth and when I have more time to dig through Sara’s photographs, I’ll post a picture of it. Aren’t we lucky that Kat Williams and her family treasured that old car enough to save it?

Dr. and Mrs. Henderson dominated Greenwood’s social and cultural scene in the first decades of the twentieth century. As Sara mentions in her memoirs, they gave the land for the Baptist church, the Confederate Memorial building and added to the Carnegie funds which endowed Greenwood’s original public library. Dr. Henderson even went out to Cotesworth and stocked the new library with a thousand of J.Z.George’s books. The Westminster chimes in the courthouse tower, which at the moment are functional, were given by Miss Lizzie in memory of her husband after his death. His role in saving the Bank of Commerce when every other bank in Greenwood failed in 1932 will be recounted in a later blog. An amazing couple who left us with so many gifts.

Greenwood Leflore Library, 1914, Photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

 

 

 

 

 

 

And one more happy note: daughterofthedelta and the rest of the West/Evans gang happily welcomes our newest little fellow, William Bartling Liles, born June 6 2011.  Mamie’s great-grandson, Jessie’s great-great-grandson, Bama’s great-great-great-grandson, Bigma’s great-great-great-great-grandson, and Sara’s great-great-nephew. So there. You’re well-grounded, Cousin William. See you in Greenwood.

 

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