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Mississippi Delta

I knew it was going to be an interesting visit as we crossed the Tallahatchie Bridge, marked by a red historic highway marker honoring Bobbie Gentry, the singer who grew up in the area and made the bridge famous in her 1960s hit “Ode to Billie Joe.”

“We are the final resting spot for blues legend Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil,” said Yvonna Lucas, sales and marketing coordinator for the Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People come from all over to stand at his grave.

“This is Money Row. It was down this road that Robert Johnson met his demise. Let’s go see what goodies were left on his grave.”

Lucas said numerous items are regularly left at the grave of Johnson, allegedly poisoned by a jealous husband. When we arrived, there was a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon propped against the headstone.

The grave is in the cemetery of the rural Zion M.B. Church, surrounded by the expansive flatness of a Delta cotton plantation.

“You can tell you are in the Delta; the land is flat for as far as you can see,” said Lucas.

Lucas works with other towns in the Delta of northwestern Mississippi to “provide the ultimate Delta experience. You tell us what you want to do, and we will make it happen. There are no cookie-cutter tours.”

A new option for groups in Greenwood is the Winery at Williams Landing, which opened in November 2013 in a former 1907 firehouse.

“This was the first fire station built for Greenwood,” said winery owner Lonnie Bailey, a retired local attorney. “This is a Mississippi landmark.”

The station, with large doors that can be opened in good weather, was empty for 15 years before Bailey and his wife, Debbie, bought and restored it and opened their winery.

The winery makes muscadine wine from Mississippi-grown grapes. “We do everything by hand, all right here,” said Bailey.

Another major restoration in Greenwood was by the Viking Range Corp., which renovated downtown buildings into a cooking school and a retail store and the upscale AAA Four-Diamond Alluvian hotel.


Literary Oxford

A used bottle of bourbon, this time Four Roses, was honestly featured in an exhibit case at my next stop, Rowan Oaks, the home of William Faulkner, in Oxford. Faulkner was famous for going on drinking binges between writing his Noble Prize literature.

“He lived here from 1930 to 1962,” said Bill Griffith, the curator of the house that is owned by the University of Mississippi, whose scenic campus is just a short distance away.

“We interpret his life here at Rowan Oaks. Each room has representative exhibits. Everything on display belonged to the family.”

You can see Faulkner’s riding boots in his bedroom and one of his typewriters on the small writing desk he used for most of his books in his study, where he outlined one of his novels on the wall.

No stop in Oxford would be complete without a stroll around the Square surrounding the Lafayette County courthouse, lined with locally owned stores and restaurants, including the well-stocked Square Books.


Birthplace of the King

Another American cultural icon is closely associated with Tupelo.

“This is the room Elvis was born in,” said Terri, a guide in the small two-room house where Elvis Presley was born in 1935. “His father, Vernon, borrowed $108 for materials and built the house along with his father and brother.”

The Presleys lived in the 15-by-30-foot house until Elvis was 3. He donated money from concerts at the local fair grounds in 1956 and 1957 to purchase it and build a public park around it.

A church Presley attended was moved to the site, which also has a large museum devoted to him.

“This is the actual church Elvis went to while he lived in Tupelo,” said another guide, Judy. “This is where he learned to sing and play the guitar. His basic training was here.”

A visit to the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum starts in the church, where a movie shown on three screens re-creates a typical church service when Presley was a youth.

On his 11th birthday, his mother bought Presley his first guitar at the downtown Tupelo Hardware Co. An “x” on the original wood floor marks the spot where he stood in front of the guitar case.

“This is an old, family-owned store since 1926,” said Connie Tullos, who recounts for groups the story of that first guitar purchase, when Presley really wanted a rifle.

“His mother was not about to let him have that. So Mr. Bobo [Forrest Bobo, who worked at the store] pulled out a guitar and handed it to Elvis.”

Another interesting stop in Tupelo is the Tupelo Automobile Museum, which showcases the huge collection of cars by the late Frank Spain.

“This is his collection,” said Jennie Bradford Curlee, public relations director for the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau. “More than 100 cars are displayed on the floor, from 1886 all the way to Toyotas that are made outside Tupelo. You truly get a sense of the history of the automobile by walking through here.”