In the Good Old Summertime

The Bennett Collection offers a rare glimpse into our city’s past.

As a Lauderdale, I have, of course, become rather jaded by treasures. Why, when I was a young lad, we decorated our Christmas tree with Faberge eggs, played checkers using Morgan silver dollars, and scattered rubies and diamonds throughout the Mansion, just to make the floors sparkle.

But though I’ve grown used to treasures crafted from precious metals and minerals, sometimes another kind of jewel — composed of little more than paper and cardboard — really makes my mouth drop open.

And so it was, just a few weeks ago, when Laura Cunningham with the History Department of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library asked if I’d like to see hundreds of old snapshots she had compiled into an archive with the rather prosaic name of the Joe Bennett Collection.

The name didn’t catch my fancy, but just one glimpse of a few photos did: astonishing views of circus elephants lumbering down Main Street, men and boys playing with miniature race cars, families in old-timey bathing costumes splashing on the banks of the Mississippi, and, best of all, rare scenes of East End Park, the turn-of-the-century amusement resort in Midtown promoted as “The Coney Island of the Mid-South.” I’ve written before about East End, but the only images I found were old postcard views of a lake (ho-hum), and a rather forlorn-looking merry-go-round. The Bennett Collection, however, shows the park in all its glory, when it was a magnet for vaudeville acts, circus performers of all kinds, and home of the original Zippin Pippin roller coaster.

Where on earth had these photos been all this time? It seems that in 2003 the owner of the Roy Good Appliance Store on Summer came across a box of crumbling photo albums and scrapbooks in his basement. Not knowing much about the contents, he donated his find to the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the main library, and that’s where Cunningham came across them. Almost immediately she recognized many of the scenes in the photos, and based on scribbled inscriptions on the backs of some photos, she realized that Joe Bennett was the subject — if not the photographer — of many of them. That’s significant, because Bennett was a bandleader who performed at East End Park and later the Fairgrounds Casino, two of the most popular attractions in our city’s history.

But how his personal collection of photos and scrapbooks — comprising more than a thousand images and other items — ended up in a store basement is a mystery, along with the identities of many of the people pictured here. So, if anybody recognizes a family member, or a familiar location, please tell Laura Cunningham about it. In the meantime, enjoy this journey into the past, as Memphians from a century ago enjoyed the good old summertime.

“In the good old summer time,
In the good old summer time,
Strolling thro’ the shady lanes
With your baby mine;
You hold her hand and she holds yours,
And that's a very good sign
That she’s your tootsie wootsie
In the good old summer time.”

Music by George Evans
Lyrics by Ren Shields
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