Overton Park Puzzle

Dear Vance: What is the story of the old stone urns (above) piled in the woods in Overton Park? I was told they originally decorated the stage at the Shell when Elvis played there. — M.T., Memphis.

Dear M.T.: It’s a curious thing. In a three-week period, I received three almost identical queries about this, but not one of those three readers could tell me, with any certitude, exactly where they had seen these mysterious urns.

My suspicions were aroused, thinking this was an attempt to lure me into those dark woods, where kidnappers and other villains lurked, just like that awful August weekend of 1984. Father finally talked the hooligans’ ransom demands down to $24.50, and I was released, relatively unharmed, though I swore I’d never let such a thing happen again.

Still, I was intrigued, so I enlisted the services of my pal Scott Banbury, who had also heard of these urns and offered to lead me right to them. Lying in plain view right off one of the trails in the Old Forest, they are not really that hard to find. Just start at the southeastern edge of the golf course, head due east for precisely 187 yards, turn right at the big growth of honeysuckle, hike through brambles for four hours, duck under that old dead tree, turn right, then left, then right again, don’t step on those toadstools, use the vines to swing over the flooded creek, carefully avoid the den of copperheads, and after another six hours or so, you’re halfway there.

By noon of the third day (or so it seemed), we finally reached the urns. Whew! I took some photos (above), showing them dumped in a pile and covered with vines, and skedaddled out of the park, where I refreshed myself with a cooler of Kentucky Nip that I always keep in the trunk of the Daimler-Benz. 

Later, Scott shared with me a map prepared by the Friends of Overton Park, which called these “Elvis Relics” and made this interesting claim: “These are the urns that once sat on either side of the stage at the Overton Park Shell. Before being dumped here in the 1970s, they graced the stage at Elvis Presley’s first paid performance.”

I was immediately skeptical of this story, for that is my nature. For one thing, they are not really urns, but rather crudely cast massive concrete planters, and there were at least five or six of them. If they were on stage at the Shell, how would they have been arranged so they didn’t interfere with anyone’s view of the performance?

So I began my quest. I needn’t list all the people I called, searching for a single photo of the Shell taken in the 1950s (when Elvis performed there) that would show these urns — or at least some of them — in place. No luck. Any and all photos of Elvis at the Shell focused on him, and you couldn’t see the rest of the stage. Now that didn’t really prove anything, but I still had a nagging doubt that these came from the Shell.

Finally, my pal Cynthia Ham at archer>malmo, who is helping to organize events this year that recognize the 75th anniversary of the Shell, found an old postcard (below) that she thought would be helpful. Taken in the 1940s to showcase one of the old Memphis Open Air Theater performances, it indeed showed a pair of large urns at either side of the stage.  

Squinting at the blurry image, though, I could immediately see that those urns were tall, graceful things with narrow openings — not the squat planters dumped in the woods. So I soldiered on, scrutinizing other images of the park — the old Pavilion, the since-demolished Conway Memorial, the Doughboy Statue, even buildings at the zoo — but could find nothing that looked anything like the urns in the woods.

That’s when my fellow history buff Jimmy Ogle stepped into the picture, so to speak. He looked around a bit, and finally directed my attention to one particular photograph in the book Overton Park, a nice collection of vintage photographs compiled by yet another historian here, my pal Willy Bearden. An image showing the old bus lane that ran by the entrance to the zoo gave me a “Eureka” moment, because in the background, you could plainly see one of the urns (opposite page). Willy also sent me an old color postcard of the zoo entrance, taken in the 1940s, and sure enough, the same style of urn — these two filled with flowers — stood on either side of the main entrance.

When the bus lane was transformed into the zoo’s entrance pavilion in the 1980s, the old urns were apparently carted away and dumped in the woods. Why they didn’t re-use them in another area of the park is just another part of the mystery.

And this mystery isn’t entirely solved — not to my satisfaction, anyway. As I said, the old photos of Elvis that I saw never showed the entire stage, so I can’t say with absolute certainty that urns were never placed there, though it seems increasingly unlikely. And I’d like to know what happened to the taller decorative urns that do show up in old photos here and there — even though they are most certainly not these.

But that’s for another time. And if anyone is disappointed that the urns in the woods aren’t really “Elvis Relics,” well, they shouldn’t be. He almost certainly walked past them anytime he visited the zoo — along with everyone else who went there.

Rosemark Ruins

Dear Vance: After visiting Millington to attend an air show, I drove around that area a bit, and stumbled upon some ancient concrete walls in woods just off Rosemark Road. What was this place?
— K.F., Memphis.

Dear K.F.: Oh no, not another question that involved a hike through the woods! But despite Google and all sorts of Internet resources, sometimes it takes a personal visit, so one hot Sunday afternoon, I ventured out of town, and finally discovered these old walls on Kerrville-Rosemark Road, just south of the tiny hamlet of Kerrville. They seemed to be the foundation, or at least the ground floor, of a rather large old building, not 100 yards away from the parking lot of Kerrville Presbyterian Church. But what was this place, and what happened to it?

Oh wait. You expect me to tell you that.

Well, I might have been stumped for a long time — or at least until I could talk to members of the Presbyterian church, who could possibly shed some light on this. As it turns out, I didn’t have to, thanks to the incredibly hard work of a group called the Historic Archives of Rosemark and Environs, who recently published a thick tome with the rather unwieldy title of An Illustrated History of the People and Towns of Northeast Shelby County and South-Central Tipton County. As you might expect, this book covers the history and development of just about every single community in that entire area, and sure enough, several pages were devoted to this very topic.

They are not part of the nearby Presbyterian church, as you might think, but are instead all that is left of the old Kerrville Methodist Church, which is now located in a modern building just down (and across) the road a bit.

The church was founded in the 1860s as Bethuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Tipton County. In 1913, that little wooden church burned to the ground, so the parishioners raised money to build a new sanctuary, several miles to the south near the then-bustling town of Kerrville. They bought land besides the railroad tracks on Kerrville-Rosemark Road, where they scooped out a massive basement and erected those concrete walls. Church members envisioned a huge brick sanctuary, with a white steeple reaching towards the heavens. But then, when the Depression hit, they ran out of money. 

So they just roofed over the basement, and that half-buried building served as the Methodist church for decades. Finally, in 1946, church officials collected enough money to build a gleaming new sanctuary — oddly enough, right atop the foundation of a long-closed schoolhouse — and that’s where they hold services today. The basement church was abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin, and that, K.F., is what you discovered in the woods. 


Got a question for Vance?

Email: askvance@memphismagazine.com

Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine,
460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103

Blog: www.memphismagazine.com/Blogs/Ask-Vance

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