Off the Beaten Path. Way Off.
Vance Lauderdale's Mid-South Travel Guide
In my monthly “Ask Vance” column, I answer odd and unusual questions from readers, and searching for the answers often requires me to venture all over Memphis and Shelby County. Some of those queries have taken me even farther away from the Lauderdale Mansion and the comfy La-Z-Boy where I prefer to spend my time, and I’ve certainly stumbled on some places in our area that can politely be called “unique.”
So this month, instead of my usual column, I thought I’d offer you a travel guide to a half dozen of the most interesting and unusual sites in the tri-state area. They’re not your typical tourist attractions, but they’re definitely worth a visit. Let’s face it. I’ve always had a certain fondness for people who tend to “draw outside the lines.” Heck, I’m not sure some of the folks who run these places can even stay on the page.
Not many people can say they’ve been to Skullbone, Tennessee, but in fact that’s the main reason you go there. Just to say you’ve been, and even better, to say that you visited the legendary Kingdom of Skullbonia.
If you think I’m drunk or making this up, you’d only be half-right. It’s a real place all right, though these days it’s getting harder and harder to locate on a map. And that’s a shame, because there is definitely a surreal “vibe” to this little hamlet precisely 108 miles northeast of Memphis.
Many stories have been told about how Skullbone came to be, but the history of the place derives from its days in the early 1800s as a center for “fist and skull” boxing — no gloves, bare-handed bouts that all too often left the loser dead. National championships began to take place in this area, until some busybody in Washington finally got the sport declared illegal, and the proud citizens of the town of Gilbert, Tennessee, just north of Jackson, decided they would do something about it. First of all, they would secede from the Union, and second of all, they would give their town the quite remarkable name of Skullbone.
You find yourself in Skullbone without even realizing it; that’s how small it is. The place today is basically just a general store at the crossroads of Tennessee State Highway 105 and Shades Bridge Road, but oh, what a store it is. Emblazoned on the side of the two-story white stone building is a wonderful old hand-painted image of two bare-chested boxers, above the legend “Undefeated Champions of Bareknuckle Fist and Skullbone Fighting.”
The front of the store carries lots of signs: “Skullbone: Kingdom of Skullbonia” and “Hampton’s Store” and “City Hall” and “Mayors Office Upstairs” and — because the building once served as the post office, the names of various postmasters who served the community. On my latest visit some years ago, you could purchase the usual groceries and whatnot from the store, and a mighty tasty bologna-and-cheese sandwich, but you were crazy if you didn’t leave with genuine Skullbone merchandise. I still cherish the black sweatshirt I purchased, emblazoned on the back with a menacing skull-and-crossbones, on the front with “Skullbone, Tennessee.” I’m asked about it whenever I wear it to weddings, or fancy dinners at Chez Philippe.
Across from the road is one of the most photographed sites in this area — a crazy signpost just loaded with arrows showing the direction and distance to locales such as Rio de Janeiro (5,300 miles) or Anchorage (3,320 miles). A bit closer by, the signs point visitors towards Goose Foot (2 miles) and Shades Bridge (1 mile). And right next to the sign is a battered telephone pole where, over the years, Skullbone visitors have nailed rows of old cowboy boots. Don’t even ask why; it’s just something you do in the Kingdom.
Down the road a bit is the site of the Skullbone Music Festival, a rural event that attracted some big-name acts over the years, but also tended to get a bit rowdy, this being Tennessee and all. Recent videos posted on YouTube mainly showed hefty tattooed women mud-wrestling in thongs, and from what I understand, the festival is in limbo. That’s not to say there’s nothing whatsoever to do in Skullbone, though. Just last year, they held a thrilling tractor parade featuring more than 40 of the area’s finest John Deeres, International Harvesters, and other models. Ever seen a tractor parade? Well, now you know where you can.
I wish I knew how Trenton, Tennessee, managed to promote itself before the teapots came, because they have latched onto that bizarre claim to fame and actually seem to enjoy it.
Perhaps I should explain that this little town of some 4,200 people, about 40 miles north of Jackson, Tennessee, is the self-proclaimed Teapot Capital of the World. In the 1930s, local resident Dr. Frederick Freed began collecting teapots, and soon amassed an astonishing collection numbering close to 700. These aren’t your ordinary teapots — white china things with a handle and spout. Freed’s collection focused on what are called “veilleuses-theieres” or “night-light teapots” — elaborate porcelain creations from the 1700s and 1800s, many of them illuminated from within by a candle placed in the base.
Beginning in 1955, Freed donated his entire collection to his hometown, and city officials did something pretty clever: They built a modern new city hall building, with room inside for the world’s largest teapot collection. When I visited Trenton awhile back (heeding the community’s curious 31 mph speed limit signs), I didn’t think I would be too impressed with anything as mundane as teapots, being a Lauderdale and all, but it truly is an astonishing display. At night, you can view the collection through the glass walls of the museum, and it’s a lovely sight.
And quite valuable too. As the museum’s website puts it: “It is not that the city of Trenton cannot afford a municipal building; it is more that the municipal building was designed as an art gallery, and when Trenton’s city fathers meet to discuss the city’s business, they do it amid the splendor of several million dollars’ worth of teapots.”
But the city didn’t just build a museum and stop there. They have created a whole civic culture and calendar around teapots. Good grief, even the city’s motto is “Trenton — a “tea-rrific place to live!” The weeklong Teapot Festival, held every year in late April and early May, is the town’s version of our Memphis in May, and features a calendar packed with teapot-themed activities, including the “Lighting of the Teapots,” the Teapot Grand Parade, a 5K race called the Trenton Teapot Trot, the Teapot Music Festival, block parties, pet parades, and — yep — even a tractor pull.
Here’s something I discovered about these teapots: They must have the power to bestow a long life. I say this because way back in the 1960s a woman named Evelyn Hardwood was named the first Teapot Parade Marshall. Later, she was named curator of the teapot exhibit (this was before it found a permanent home in City Hall). And in 1978 she was named the honorary curator of the new Trenton Teapot Museum — a post she held until she died in 2006 — at the age of 105!
Brownsville, about halfway between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, has plenty of interesting sites — antebellum homes in quiet neighborhoods, and several restaurants worth a visit (don’t pass up Helen’s Barbecue, followed by a stop at the Kream Kastle). It’s kind of a typical Southern town in many ways. But not many Southern towns — or anywhere else in America for that matter — have Billy Tripp’s “Mindfield” — growing right in the center of town.
I say growing because that’s the only way to describe a sculpture (and I use that term loosely) that has been a work in progress for more than 20 years now. And I don’t know what is more fascinating — the “Mindfield” or the artist himself, Billy Tripp. And yes, that’s his real name.
Tripp came to our attention years ago when he sent Memphis magazine copies of a novel/autobiography called The Mindfield Years. The subtitle was certainly intriguing: “The Sycamore Trees, Billy Pyrene’s Biography of Ned.” The hefty work, written in a stream-of-consciousness style that even the author later admitted “was a hard read,” was thought-provoking, to say the least. And when my colleagues learned that Tripp was also working on some sort of massive folk-art assemblage smack in the middle of Brownsville, our first thought was “road trip”! So we piled in a car and headed east on Highway 70.
What we discovered was Tripp himself, hard at work cutting and welding giant steel beams into a geometrical construction that didn’t seem to have any definite shape, but just grew bigger and taller with each passing day. Over the years, since he first began it in 1989, he has added all kinds of embellishments — silhouettes and numbers and sayings and all sorts of other things — all cut or forged out of solid steel. The whole grouping, many parts of it now painted in bright colors, presently soars more than 125 feet high.
Now at first, as you might imagine, the townspeople of Brownsville tried to look the other way, and if you asked about the weird sculpture going up in a once-vacant lot next to the Sunrise Inn on West Main Street, they’d act like they didn’t know what you were talking about. (Tripp is like their town’s Prince Mongo.) But now that the “Mindfield” has begun to attract national attention — Tripp is being recognized as “a nationally known practitioner of outsider art” — well, his neighbors are now taking quite a bit of pride in his work.
And that’s a good thing, because this endeavor has really gotten out of hand. I don’t know how Tripp acquires all the pieces that go into the “Mindfield,” but on a recent visit I discovered he had added a complete water tower (tank and all) acquired from an abandoned factory in Kentucky. And he was in the process of adding the 17-foot canoe that author William Least Heat-Moon had used to cross the U.S. — a marathon voyage documented in his 2001 bestseller, Riverhorse.
If you visit the “Mindfield,” try to chat with Billy. Anybody who names his truck Elizabeth, his motorcycle Sylvia, and his bicycle Pyro obviously has a lot on his mind. “I enjoy talking with people who have a sincere desire to understand what I do,” he says on his website. “But I really didn’t make it to talk with others about it. It’s a conversation I have with myself, and if people want to participate in their own way, that’s fine with me.”
And don’t forget to pick up a copy of his book; it’s free at the “Mindfield.”
I’ve been to Graceland Too twice in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Everybody needs to go at least once. I stopped after two because anybody who visits it three times automatically becomes a “lifetime member” and as a Lauderdale I try to avoid such things.
Besides, two trips were plenty. It’s one of those places that mean different things to different people. For some, it’s a marvelous collection of vintage Elvis Presley memorabilia, compiled over the years by a die-hard fan. For others, it’s a bewildering and claustrophobic assortment of, well, junk, obsessively compiled by a man who could be featured on an all-star edition of Hoarders.
That man is Paul McLeod, and you can’t miss his purple-painted version of Graceland. Drop by anytime — one of the many quirks of the place is that it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week, and take a tour. Highlights include what you might expect: Elvis record albums, Elvis clothing and jumpsuits, Elvis merchandise of all kinds. But what you don’t expect (or at least I didn’t) was the “research” side of Graceland Too: the collection of TV Guides, with any TV appearance (or even mention of Elvis) carefully marked with a paper clip. The bookshelves groaning with VHS tapes, where McLeod has taped every single Elvis concert. The rows of mannequins, wearing Elvis-themed clothing. And at the end of the tour, a snapshot of every single “lifetime member,” carefully mounted on sheet after sheet of poster boards. You see why I didn’t make a third trip?
Graceland Too reminds me of Billy Tripp’s “Mindfield.” Many folks in Holly Springs are embarrassed by the place, just a few blocks from their historic town square, while others take considerable pride in their increasingly well-known tourist attraction. But it’s certainly gained a national following. When This Modern World cartoonist Tom Tomorrow came to Memphis years ago, he asked us to take him to only two places: the real Graceland, and Graceland Too.
Am I the only one who thinks sitting in a dusty field in Arkansas, clawing away at the dirt with shovels and forks searching for a million-dollar diamond, is slightly crazy? No? Good. I feel better then.
But that doesn’t stop thousands of other people from doing it just about every day of the year. For more than 100 years, entire families have journeyed to the Crater of Diamonds State Park, just outside Hot Springs, to take their chance with Lady Luck. Or maybe it’s Mother Nature?
For reasons that nobody ever explained very clearly to me, this 24-acre park is the only place in all of North America where real diamonds can be found close to the surface. Now about that name. I’m not sure I would call this area a “crater” since it’s more like rolling fields to me, but then I’m not a geologist. Or gemologist. And when people talk about the Arkansas “diamond mine” they don’t mean you have to travel down tunnels to reach the gems. No, the “crater of diamonds” is pretty much an open dirt field. You pay a small fee, take your spade or shovel or pickax or whatever tools you prefer, bring an umbrella to keep off the hot sun if you have any sense, stake out an area, and dig away.
Mostly what you turn up are dirt clods; at least that was my experience. But every so often, somebody turns up a real diamond, and here’s the best part — you get to keep it. Now we’re not talking about finding the Hope Diamond here, at least not yet. The vast majority of the hundreds of diamonds uncovered so far have been less than a carat — mainly leftover stones from a failed commercial diamond-mining venture that operated here in the early 1900s.
Even so, over the years visitors have indeed made astonishing discoveries. In 1924, some fellow with the wonderful name of Wesley Oley Basham discovered an apple-sized rock that, at 40 carats, turned out to be the largest diamond ever discovered in North America. And in 1956, somebody came upon a whopping 15-carat diamond that came to be called the “Star of Arkansas.”
Oh sure, but that was half a century ago. Well, don’t worry that the good ones are all taken. In 1990, somebody turned up a 3-carat diamond of such remarkable clarity that the American Gem Society judged it a perfect 0/0/0, the only diamond to ever be considered “absolutely flawless.” Officials at the park, where that diamond is now on display, say that “most jewelers never see a diamond this perfect in their lifetimes.” And just last year a visitor picking through the dirt found an 8-carat stone.
I don’t know much about diamonds, but I imagine some of these big ones must be worth dozens of dollars!
But even if you come home empty-handed, you go here for the experience. In California, they offer places where you can pan for gold, usually without success, but hey, it’s fun. Here, you can dig for your own diamonds. Where else can you do that? And if you bring home the next “Star of Arkansas,” well then, all the better.
I stumbled upon Uncle Henry’s Place by accident more than 20 years ago, and that discovery still sticks in my mind as one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in Mississippi. I was with friends — don’t laugh, the Lauderdales still have some casual acquaintances — and for reasons that no one can remember, we found ourselves prowling around highways and byways down in Mississippi. The sun had long set, and in those days (and nights) before the Tunica casinos provided a comforting glow on the horizon, just about any area outside of any town was pitch-black dark. At one point, we ended up at Moon Lake, a former oxbow of the Mississippi, and began to circle the lake on a narrow two-lane road. There wasn’t a home, a car, a business, or any semblance of civilization in sight.
And then, there it was. We rounded a curve, and were dazzled by a rambling white building, illuminated by spotlights and — a decidedly odd touch in the summertime — colored Christmas lights. Cars lined the driveway and were parked on the grass in front of the building, and from inside, we could hear music playing. Our curiosity aroused, we got out of the car, opened a screen door, and found ourselves in a restaurant dining room, just packed wall to wall with happy customers. As we stepped inside, some of them even smiled and waved to us — as if we were old friends. To one side was a bar area, complete with pool table, and beyond that was a larger room being used as a dance hall, the music coming from an old-timey jukebox.
Sensing that we had stepped into an alternate universe, that impression only became stronger when a friendly woman swept out of the crowd, said “Welcome!” as if she knew we were coming, and led us to the one empty table in the place (reserved for us, perhaps?), where we dined on shrimp and steak and other delights. Maybe it was the unusual surroundings, like an opening scene from a Twilight Zone episode, or maybe it was the truly outstanding food, but that meal still stands out as one of the best I’ve ever had, anywhere.
That was my first visit to what we learned later was called Uncle Henry’s, though many of the locals still called it by its old name, the Moon Lake Casino. Back in the Twenties and Thirties, so the story goes — as told by the longtime owner, Sarah B. Wright — this old building was a gambling hall, sometimes visited by big-time gangsters like Al Capone. A row of cabins in the back served as a place for “ladies of the evening” to entertain the guests of the casino, and rooms upstairs held slot machines and roulette wheels. William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams were regular patrons, and Faulkner referred to the Moon Lake Casino in some of his stories.
So the place definitely has a colorful history, though who knows how much of it is true? What is true is that Uncle Henry’s, some 70 miles south of Memphis, has been serving up fine food to weary travelers for several decades, and, as that fellow in the furniture commercial likes to say, “It’s definitely worth the drive.” And once you get there, if you’re too tired to drive back home, just spend the night. Uncle Henry’s is also a bed-and-breakfast.
And just who, exactly, is Henry? Well, Sarah will tell you all about that.