Off the Beaten Path. Way Off.
Vance Lauderdale's Mid-South Travel Guide
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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.