We had been volunteering here at Mount Locust over a month and had yet to take a major trip to explore the Natchez Trace Parkway. Tupelo is in the middle of the Parkway, which runs 444 miles from southwest to northeast. We took one of our three-day “weekends” to get better acquainted with the southern half of the Parkway. We left in our car early on a Monday morning to spend the day to get to Tupelo; we would spend the next day there exploring, with emphasis on Elvis Presley’s Birthplace; and we would return to Mount Locust on the third day.
Along the Parkway, there are many turnouts or short side-trips where there might be found an historical, scenic, or cultural point. We will include pictures of many, but there is only enough room here to describe some of the most scenic or significant stops.
Mount Locust to Tupelo - Monday
To serve the homeward-bound Boatmen and other travelers along the trace, inns or “stands” were established. Dean’s Stand (Mile 73.5 with Mile 0 at the South Terminus in Natchez) is one example of the farmers who offered lodging to supplement their farm income. Some were established specifically to accommodate the travelers. In total, there were between fifty and sixty of them. Only Mount Locust remains.
About half-way to Tupelo (Mile 102.4), we stopped in Ridgeland (near Jackson) at the Parkway Information Cabin. Here is an example of the results of the underfunding of the National Park Service – there is not enough money to provide a ranger to staff this important visitor center or coordinate volunteers to keep this excellent visitor center open more than two days per week. Unfortunately, Monday is not one of them. We had made previous arrangements to contact Amy, Supervisory Park Ranger for Interpretation for the southern portion of the Parkway (our boss’s boss), so we gave her a call. This is one of the advantages that we particularly enjoy about volunteering - she came over from her nearby office, gave us a private tour of the cabin, and even took us to lunch.
One of the hazards that the Boatmen had to face in their journey was swamps. Since we travel comfortably in a car over paved roads and are afforded boardwalks and cleared paths, we can enjoy the beauty and mystery of the Cypress Swamp at Mile 122.0. The nature trail around this baldcypress and water tupelo swamp is “narrated” by numerous signs that explain its life and workings. The water was a little low after a very dry summer, but it gave us a good look at the cypress knees. However, we didn’t see any alligators, although we had been told they do live in the area.
Jeff Busby Park at Mile 193.1 is a campground and picnic area with a road and trail to one of the highest points in Mississippi, Little Mountain at 603 feet. Though “Little”, it is still higher than the surrounding territory, so it provides some viewing. The Park was named for Thomas Jefferson Busby who, in February 1934, introduced the bill authorizing a survey of the Old Natchez Trace with an eye toward preserving and commemorating it.
Tupelo - Tuesday
Park headquarters for the Natchez Trace Parkway is located here. At the Parkway Visitor Center and Headquarters at Mile 266, we visited with volunteers and staff and introduced ourselves to Greg, Eastern National representative. Eastern National is the organization that stocks all the National Park Service visitor center gift shops in this part of the United States. Profit from those sales provide support for the parks. Part of our mission on this trip was to deliver some items and receive some to take back with us to the Mount Locust gift shop.
Everyone in our age bracket knows that Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, MS, so a visit to the Elvis Presley Birthplace is a requirement. It is a fairly extensive site consisting of the two-room home where he was born, the small Assembly of God church he attended (moved from its original location), a large museum and events center, a modern Memorial Chapel (unfortunately closed that day), and the inevitable gift shop. Overlooking these, on top of a hill, is a pavilion and a statue of Elvis at two stages of his life. Although they moved frequently, he lived in Tupelo until age 13 when his family moved to Memphis.
During the Civil War in July 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman was on his way to Georgia and needed his supply route from Louisville, through Nashville and Chattanooga, to be protected “at all costs.” The result was a meeting of Federal and Confederate forces in and around Tupelo. Many lives were lost on both sides, but neither could claim complete victory. Federal forces turned back, but the supply lines were protected – for the moment. The Tupelo National Battlefield (Mile 259.7), within the city of Tupelo, only covers about a city block, but contains one large and several smaller monuments, two cannon, and three or four grave markers that appear to be for Confederate soldiers.
Until the Europeans arrived, this was the land of the Chickasaw. They lived mostly in villages like the one at the Chickasaw Village Site (Mile 261.8). Networks of trails connected the villages and individual groups. These trails became the basis for the Natchez Trace. This actual village site shows the arrangement and describes the typical housing of a Chickasaw village.
Tupelo to Mount Locust – Wednesday
At Mile 243.1 is an access road to Davis Lake Recreation Area, a US Forest Service site with a campground and day use area on a beautiful lake. Along the way to Davis Lake is Owl Creek Archaeological Site, also administered by the Forest Service. This site consists of five mounds, only two of which are on public property. The mounds are thought to be mostly ceremonial, high living spots for chiefs and priests and/or burial mounds.
There are several places that the Old Trace has been preserved. They are usually not very long, but they provide a glimpse of the original Trace. We stopped at a couple of them.
In about 1812, Louis LeFleur established a stand on the Natchez Trace at Mile 180.7. Because of his nationality, it became known as French Camp, the name retained by the present village. It is preserved as a National Historic Area. We had lunch at the Council House Café.
Grindstone Ford (Mile 45.7) marks the beginning of the wilderness of the Chocktaw nation and the location of Daniel Burnett’s Stand. We were distressed at the condition of this site. We were here previously in 2011 and the change is dramatic. The small cemetery associated with the stand has been allowed to completely grow over, and we could not even access the actual ford site because of the fallen tree limbs and undergrowth.
All-in-all, it was an excellent mini-vacation despite our complaints. We were able to meet several people involved with administration of the Parkway, and we saw many historical sites along the Trace – not to mention seeing where Elvis Presley was born!