Big Day at Big Star

Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.

Dear Vance: When I was just a kid, sometime in the early 1960s, I remember that a grocery store on Macon Road buried a time capsule as part of its grand opening. Is that time capsule still there?

— D.J., Memphis

Dear D.J.: When I was a child, I created my own time capsule from an old mayonnaise jar. I filled it with various coins, some newspaper clippings that I thought interesting, a list of my friends and favorite toys, and all sorts of other things that would tell future generations about my life as a Lauderdale. I carefully sealed the lid with fingernail polish — my mother's, not mine! — and buried it beneath an azalea bush in the back yard.

Time passed, and finally I decided to dig up my time capsule to see how the world had changed around me. After all, it had been a whole two months — an eternity for a young child with nothing to do all day long. When I opened it, I discovered to my dismay that everything inside was wet and moldy. The coins were okay, of course, but everything else was ruined.

This taught me a valuable lesson in life, one that I have carried with me to this day. Namely, that fingernail polish is lousy for sealing mayonnaise-jar time capsules. And now I pass that helpful bit of advice on to you, dear readers.

Your query intrigued me, D.J., so my first step was to determine the location of this grocery store. A quick search through 1960s city directories gave me a half-dozen possibilities: Silver Saver #7 at 3394 Macon, Jack's Drive-in at 3425, the Quick Shop Market at 3870, Stepherson's Big Star at 3942, Big D Food Store at 4280, and Handy Pantry #9 at 4497. I narrowed it down to the two larger establishments — Stepherson's and Big D — ones that I figured would actually celebrate a grand opening in an unusual way, and journeyed to the University of Memphis library to look through their old newspaper files.

Pay dirt! Within minutes I uncovered an article and photo (above) that answered your question. The store was indeed Stepherson's Big Star, owned by three brothers: Jack, Wesley, and Kenneth Stepherson. But it wasn't actually a time capsule, D.J. Instead, while members of the Stepherson family watched, the builders of the supermarket inserted a nice concrete cornerstone into the brick façade. Inside, they had stuffed a rather odd collection of things, including six sealed copies of the Memphis Press-Scimitar and a zoning petition "signed by 5,000 housewives, so the store could be built." According to the article, the store originally opened one block west of where it stands today. The city's planning commission turned down the application to construct a larger store down the street, "but the housewives got them to change, so the Stephersons call it the 'customers store.'" It's all very confusing. But including the newspapers was a clever stunt, you see, since it practically guaranteed a nice story in the Press-Scimitar.

In case you're curious, the people in the photo — posed in front of some of those housewives — are (left to right) masonry contractor David Estes, Jimmy Stepherson, City Judge Beverly Boushe, Randy Stepherson, Jack Stepherson (holding the newspapers), and brick contractor Brooks Varner. I don't know why co-owners Wesley and Kenneth aren't in the picture. Maybe one of them was holding the camera.

The newspaper article ended with this interesting statement: "Jimmy and Randy will remove the cornerstone at 9 a.m. on March 15, 2000." Why just 40 years later, I wondered? And more to the point: Was this still there, and had anybody remembered to open it?

The answer is: yes. I drove to Stepherson's Big Star, which is still doing a thriving business on Macon, and right by the front door is the stone you see in the picture. The managers inside told me that family members indeed pried the stone out of the wall 10 years ago, pulled out the contents, and replaced the stone. "They didn't put anything back in it, though," said the woman behind the counter. "I don't know why."

Missing Memorial

Dear Vance: Whatever happened to the plans to build a giant obelisk dedicated to Hernando DeSoto in Memphis? I've seen drawings of it somewhere, but never knew where it was to be located. — T.L., Memphis

Dear T.L.: I normally like to provide definite answers to questions, but long ago I realized that I get paid the same whether the answer is complete, sort of correct, or even wrong, so here's what I know, and it's not much.

I've seen those drawings too, and found one (shown here) that adorned the cover of a promotional brochure for our city, published in the early 1960s. I also turned up a newspaper article from 1968, which said that plans for the proposed DeSoto Memorial Tower "had seemingly been consigned to oblivion."

Renderings show what seems to be a dangerously thin, 350-foot concrete shaft in the middle of the new Civic Center Plaza downtown. The newspaper said it would be built "in the general vicinity of Front and Washington," accompanied by an equestrian statue of the Spanish explorer, who gets credit for discovering the Mississippi River. Supporters said it would "provide a handsome gateway to our city."

But a few problems arose. First of all, not everyone was convinced that DeSoto deserved such a monument. The chairman of a citizen's committee to construct the obelisk admitted, "A government study was made to fix the point where DeSoto actually discovered the Mississippi River, but I don't think they ever fixed the spot. I think they said it definitely wasn't Memphis." Oops.

Another issue was money. Somebody on the committee told reporters, "The tower would be built by private subscription, but no one ever spearheaded a drive to build it." Another "oops." Not a dime was raised for what looks like a very expensive project.

It sounds like a botched job from the beginning, if you ask me. At any rate, City Hall stands on the proposed site today, and in the 1970s we put DeSoto's name on the I-40 bridge instead. It's too bad the big tower wasn't built, though; it would have made one heckuva sundial.

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