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Small Southern towns: Main Street magic

Courtesy West Virginia Division of Tourism

Each year, visitors from around the world find their way to Ferriday, a small Louisiana town 13 miles west of the Mississippi River. They are drawn there by a local museum that honors the town’s unusually rich musical heritage.

International visitors also trek to the small town of Berkeley Springs in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, lured by water, not music.

And when the rock band Aerosmith appeared in concert in Tupelo, Miss., lead guitarist Joe Perry bought a guitar at a local hardware store, because that was where the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” purchased his first guitar.

Although Southern small towns are filled with laid-back charm, many also have heavy-hitting attractions that make them must-stops for traveling groups.

Ferriday, La.
Judith Bingham, director of the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, said a scene depicted in the movie “Great Balls of Fire” about the life of Jerry Lee Lewis is accurate.

“Ferriday had a very popular black nightclub in the 1930s to 1950s called Haney’s Big House,” she said.

“Three native sons, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart — they are cousins — would sneak down to Haney’s, look through the windows and sneak in when they could. It’s true what was in the movie.

“That’s where they learned their music and [made] their own personal contributions: Mickey to country, Jimmy to country gospel and Jerry Lee to rockabilly.”

The Delta Music Museum was started by the local chamber of commerce in 1995 as the Ferriday Museum to honor its three famous native-son cousins, along with pioneering blues musician Leon “Pee Wee” Whittaker, former television news commentator Howard K. Smith and Ann Boyer Warner, wife of movie mogul Jack Warner, all of whom hailed from Ferriday.

The state of Louisiana took over the museum in 2001, changed the museum’s name and broadened its scope.

“We are focused on preserving, exhibiting and collecting the musical heritage along the Mississippi River Delta Region from Memphis to New Orleans,” said Bingham.

Located in the former post office, the museum has drawn visitors from 14 countries. “We have a lot of international guests, especially from England, France and the Netherlands,” said Bingham. “They are really intrigued by the music and are real Jerry Lee Lewis fans.”

The museum has personal memorabilia from nearly 20 musicians, among them Conway Twitty, Percy Sledge, Irma Thomas and Pete Fountain, but Bingham said the “thing that makes our museum special is the tour guides give personal stories about each celebrity.”

In 2008, the adjacent 1920s-era Arcade Theater became part of the museum and is used as a performing arts center, hosting the monthly Louisiana Delta Country Music Opry and an annual songwriting festival in October.

“To have a museum of this stature in a small town of 4,000 is a great accomplishment,” said Bingham.


Tupelo, Miss.

It took only one person to put Tupelo, a town of 35,000 in northeast Mississippi, on the map. The town’s fate was set on a January day in 1935 when Elvis Presley was born there in a small white frame house his father had built.

“The Elvis product is our most famous attraction,” said Linda Elliff, director of sales for the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.

More than 50,000 visitors a year from around the world visit Presley’s preserved birthplace, which also has a museum, landscaped grounds and a chapel where Presley and his family attended church.

“It gives people a sense of how it was in Tupelo and the rural Mississippi area in the mid-1930s,” said Elliff. “The house he was born in has not changed, and the wonderful museum gives an idea of the way things were here at that time.”

The grounds, which are free to visit, have a statue of Elvis at 13, a fountain, a story wall with a collection of tales from people who knew Presley in Tupelo and a 1939 Plymouth sedan that is similar to the one the Presleys owned.

The chapel, which had become a residence, was restored to its original state and moved to the site a year ago. “It’s just cool,” said Elliff. “It has pews and wooden floors and is very small.

When you walk in, all of a sudden these big screens come down on each side and in front, and its takes you back like you were in a church service in the 1930s.

“Along with our Elvis product, we have the driving tour of 10 significant spots in Elvis’ early years. Believe it or not, one of those is a hardware store on the corner of Main Street.”

The store is operated by the third generation of the same family, and Presley’s mother bought him his first guitar there. “People all over the world know that is where it happened,” said Elliff. “The store is like going back in time to Mayberry RFD. You don’t see these kind [of stores] anymore.”

Tupelo also has the Tupelo Automobile Museum, which displays more than 100 antique and classic cars; the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo, which has exotic animals from around the world; and the headquarters and visitors center of the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
Berkeley Springs’ connections to two Founding Fathers laid the foundation for it to become a major spa center for more than 200 years. Although long known by Native Americans, the area’s warm mineral springs were first noted in 1747 on a map drawn by Thomas Jefferson’s father; and George Washington and his friends incorporated the town, then known as Bath, in 1776.

“George Washington bathed here, and so can you,” said Jeanne Mozier, vice president of Travel Berkeley Springs.

“Today, we not only have the historic springs and waters and a 19th-century Roman bathhouse, we have a very 21st-century spa industry with a half-dozen spas around the center of town. We have more than 50 different treatments, all types of massages, scrubs, rubs, facials, wraps and pedicures.

“It’s one of the major reasons people come here, to do the spas.”

Mozier said all of the spas are within a few blocks of Berkeley Springs State Park, a four-acre green park in the middle of town that has a state-run spa.

“A stone enclosure around one of the springs in the park represents the type of conditions where Washington and everyone else up to 1784 would have bathed; then they started building bathhouses,” said Mozier. “It truly makes the town to have that green at the center.”

Mozier said art and dining have also become major draws to the town, less than two hours from Washington and Baltimore.

“Dining is a very big draw,” she said. “People are shocked to find the quality of food that could stand up against anything in surrounding cities.”

The compact downtown district has an interesting mix of shops, inns and cafes in addition to the spas.

“Berkeley Springs has that small-town feel,” said Mozier. “You can leave your car and walk all around town and feel safe and welcomed. All of the shops, restaurants and businesses are owner operated.”

Eureka Springs, Ark.

Eureka Springs in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas is another town that was built around natural springs.

“It made its name during the Victorian era, when people from the North came down here to partake in what was considered healing waters,” said Karen Pryor, sales director for the Eureka Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. “It is the town that water built. We have more than 60 natural springs.”

Although there are still spas and 38 million gallons of water a day flow through Blue Springs Heritage Center a few minutes from town, Eureka Springs has become world famous for more than its water.

“We are home to the ‘Great Passion Play,’ the largest outdoor drama about the last days of Jesus’ life,” said Pryor. “That was our first large attraction. There are many more now.”

The Christ of the Ozarks statue towers seven stories near the “Great Passion Play.”

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is the nation’s largest rescue habitat for large cats such as lions, tigers and cougars.

The American Institute of Architects named Thorncrown Chapel the fourth-best architectural achievement of the 20th century.

The 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa not only has gracious accommodations and dining, but it is also considered to be haunted, and ghost tours of the hotel are available.

And then there’s the historic and distinctive downtown. “The entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Pryor. “There are no chains here, no big-box discounts. Everything is independently owned. We have no stoplights, and none of our streets meet at right angles.

“So if you tell someone to go to the corner and turn left, there are no corners to do so.”

Asheboro, N.C.
When Asheboro officials say they have a “big” attraction, they are not exaggerating.

“We are the largest-land-area zoo in the United States, with more than 2,000 acres,” said Rod Hackney, public relations manager for the North Carolina Zoo. “We were the first zoo built from the beginning around the natural habitat philosophy.

“Our exhibits are designed as closely as you can in North Carolina to the animals’ natural habitats. Some are as large as 40 acres, which allows us to exhibit in social groups instead of individuals or pairs.”

Hackney said about 500 acres of the zoo property has been developed for its more than 1,000 animals from North America and Africa.

“We are one of only two state-owned zoos,” said Hackney. “We draw three quarters of a million visitors a year, which makes us one of the top three attractions in North Carolina.”

Tammy O’Kelly, director of the Heart of North Carolina Visitors Bureau in Asheboro, said the zoo is “definitely the jewel in our crown.”

O’Kelly said a great trip for motorcoach groups is to spend the day at the zoo and go to downtown Asheboro, six miles away, for the evening to shop and dine.

There are a number of art galleries in downtown, along with one of the largest antique malls in the state.

“There is fine dining in Timothy’s, but then there are also places like Hop’s BBQ, which has been on the corner of Sunset and Church forever. It is a landmark,” said O’Kelly.
O’Kelly said the Richard Petty Museum, in the northern part of Randolph County, is not like a typical race museum.

“It is more a perspective of the Petty family,” she said. “Although there are race cars, there also are personal family memorabilia. Richard is a great collector of things, especially [from] the Civil War, that are in there. His wife has more than 1,200 dolls from around the world on display there.”

Staunton, Va.
Like Tupelo, Staunton also had a blessed event — in this case, the birth of a future president
Woodrow Wilson was born in the small Shenandoah Valley town in 1856. The birthplace has been restored, and an adjacent house is home to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum.

“Just to have a presidential library here is huge,” said Sheryl Wagner, director of tourism for the Staunton Convention and Visitors Bureau.

However, Staunton is home to two other world-class attractions, the Frontier Culture Museum and the Blackfriars Playhouse.

“The Blackfriars is the only one of its kind in the world,” said Wagner. “It is the only re-creation of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse. Sometimes Shakespeare scares people, but when it is done like he intended, with the lights on and interaction with the audience, you can really understand and connect.”

The Frontier Culture Museum demonstrates the European agricultural influences on the people who settled in the Shenandoah Valley, with re-creations of farms from England, Ireland and Germany. The buildings are structures from those countries that were brought to Virginia.

There are also depictions of American farms from the 1740s, the 1820s and the 1850s, along with an Irish forge and a 19th-century schoolhouse.

The latest farm, which was dedicated in September and will open for its first full season in March, represents West Africa.

“It is set up as West African in the 17th and 18th centuries and shows what life was like before they were taken into slavery and brought to America,” said Mike Sutton, marketing director for the museum.

The compound of four mud huts, which were built on site, represents a yam farm of the Igbo tribe.

The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum also has a new exhibit that represents a World War I trench.

“Visitors can look through a periscope and see out beyond the trench,” said William Browning, director of public affairs for the library and museum. “Your head is at ground level. In the back, a space doubles as a command post and medical unit.

“It is interactive and is quite [like] the atmosphere of a trench. It is an intense experience. The sound is vintage audio from World War I from the Imperial Museum in England. You hear the shouting and artillery.”

The birthplace has been restored to 1856. “It’s a good look at pre-Civil War Virginia,” said Browning. “His [Wilson’s] father was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, and the house was the manse. We have the birth bed and his mother’s rocking chair.”