When Tennessee schoolchildren learn about their state, they are taught how it divides neatly into three sections. East Tennessee has the grandeur of the Great Smoky Mountains; Middle Tennessee contains the state capital; and West Tennessee has, well, lots of soybean and cotton fields.
In reality, West Tennessee has much more than soybean and cotton fields, and it is fertile ground for groups to explore. There are places that are perennially popular (think Graceland and Beale Street), a natural wonder created when the Mississippi River flowed backward, festivals aplenty and some quirky attractions.
Reelfoot Lake for Nature Lovers
In the state’s far northwest corner, where locals work to get travelers to stop on their way somewhere else, is Reelfoot Lake, known widely by fishermen and waterfowl hunters for decades and growing in popularity for people who enjoy birds, butterflies and outdoor activity.
Reelfoot Lake is surreal and seems out of place. It’s a shallow lake ringed by knobby-kneed bald cypress trees borne of multiple earthquakes from 1811 through 1812. The biggest quake was felt in Quebec, rang church bells in Philadelphia and made the Mississippi River flow backward. The earth dropped from two to 50 feet in places, and the wayward river water sought the lowest point. The result? Instant lake, no Tennessee Valley Authority engineers needed. It is Tennessee’s only natural lake.
One of Tennessee’s resort state parks is here, as is the Blue Bank Resort, which accommodates groups. Second-generation owner Mike Hayes offers a mix of traditional motel rooms and condos, dining at the Fish House Restaurant and guides for birding trips — there are 73 active bald eagle nests in the region — sightseeing tours and, of course, crappie and bream fishing.
A recent addition is a half-mile-long trail where Hayes has been planting milkweed to feed monarch butterflies and black and blue salvia to attract hummingbirds. During winter, the trail glows with 300,000 holiday lights.
Just 22 miles away in Union City is Discovery Park of America, an attraction you’d expect more in a big city. The centerpiece of this $80 million facility is Discovery Place, a gleaming white building with sweeping curves that houses 10 exhibit galleries, a 20,000-gallon aquarium, dinosaurs, fossils, Native American artifacts and even military equipment and vintage automobiles.
This isn’t a stuffy, don’t-touch museum. Kids and adults alike have a blast with the many hands-on exhibits and experiences. One touch of regional reality is an earthquake simulator that helps visitors understand how Reelfoot Lake was created. Outdoor attractions include an 1800s-vintage gristmill, log cabins, farm buildings, a train station and locomotive, a century-old church and a replica of the Liberty Bell. There are even Japanese, European and American gardens.
Good news for group leaders is that two lodging properties — a Holiday Inn Express and a combination Sleep Inn/MainStay Suites — are scheduled to open this year within walking distance of Discovery Park.
Memphis for Music, Ducks and a Drink
Memphis, the mother lode of West Tennessee attractions and activities, celebrates two notable anniversaries this year. One is the city’s bicentennial, which is why the Memphis in May International Festival broke precedent and went domestic instead of international and honored Memphis itself.
The other anniversary is the 150th year of the Peabody Hotel. This legend, a pillar of American hospitality, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the site of one of the oddest rituals anywhere: the daily parade of live ducks to a travertine marble fountain in the middle of the two-story lobby.
In addition to hosting presidents, dignitaries, celebrities and groups of all types, the Peabody added “duckmaster” to the nation’s lexicon. Someone has to get the ducks from their penthouse accommodations to the fountain and back, and that person forever gets to cite “duckmaster” on his resume.
As if to celebrate those two events, there’s a new free attraction in Memphis called Mighty Lights that colorfully illuminates the Hernando De Soto Bridge, which carries I-40 traffic. Downriver and quite visible is Big River Crossing, a pedestrian and bicycle bridge, which also boasts a light show. Nightly illuminations are from sundown until 10 p.m. One elevated perspective is the restaurant level of the Pyramid, the massive riverside structure that now houses a Bass Pro Shops store and hotel, itself an appealing group destination.
If a group leader had to choose only one stop in Memphis that would explain the city’s depth and variety of story lines, my nominee would be the Rock and Soul Museum, adjacent to the FedEx Forum, where the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies play.
Yes, the museum’s core story is about the music Memphis has exported to the world. But the museum also tells other stories: how Memphis grew when rural populations moved to the city; how entertainment many times was a bridge between black and white cultures; and how country, gospel, soul and rock music are intertwined. The museum began as a project of the Smithsonian Institution, and the Memphians who perpetuated it did a great service to their city and its visitors.
Of course, it’s rare that a group leader can make only one stop in Memphis, which explains why music-oriented attractions such as Graceland, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Blues Hall of Fame Museum remain so popular.
Shifting from entertainment to food and drink puts the focus on a new stop in Memphis: a distillery tour. The westernmost point on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail is the Old Dominick Distillery, just a couple of blocks from Beale Street. Two great-great-grandsons of a mid-1800s Italian immigrant are building on family heritage, including resurrection of the Memphis Toddy, a bourbon-based cordial. Tours include a tasting and a toast.
Spirited discussions arise when picking a barbecue restaurant in Memphis, but a sure bet near the Old Dominick Distillery is Central Barbecue. The action is fast, the aroma is divine, and groups are welcome. A more traditional meal also is nearby at the Arcade Restaurant, known as Memphis’ oldest cafe. It opened in 1919 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. You can sit in spots favored by Elvis Presley and Rufus Thomas, and yes, a peanut butter and banana sandwich is on the menu.
Everyone should visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Using timelines, photographs, video, murals, statuary and recordings, the museum is illuminating, breathtaking, somber, inspiring and even joyful.
It tells the history behind the civil rights movement in a fashion that is simultaneously intellectually stimulating and emotionally touching. Its impact, of course, is compounded by the fact that it incorporates the very spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Jackson for Trains and Cars
Casey Jones Village in Jackson appropriately calls itself “the best whistlestop between Nashville and Memphis,” and this multifaceted attraction remains popular with groups. It is right beside Interstate 40, a good place for a highway break.
It is named for legendary railroad engineer Casey Jones, whose story of high-speed runs and a heroic death is told in a compact museum that includes one oversized exhibit: a locomotive of the model Jones drove.
Beyond the history lesson, groups know Casey Jones Village for the Southern cooking at its buffet restaurant — think fried chicken, catfish, sweet potatoes, turnip greens and black-eyed peas — and for the creations made at its nostalgic ice cream parlor, where the soda fountain dates to the 1880s. If your timing is good, you’ll hit a Saturday-morning farmers market from early May through late September.
About three miles off Interstate 40 is a completely different attraction: Rusty’s TV and Movie Car Museum. Housed in a nondescript building is one man’s collection of famous cars to which almost everyone can relate.
Among Rusty Robinson’s collection of vehicles — some straight from production of a TV show or movie and some that are replicas — are a Pontiac Trans Am from “Knight Rider,” a Dodge Monaco police car from “The Blues Brothers,” an AMC Pacer from “Wayne’s World,” a Ford Torino from “Starsky and Hutch,” a 1989 Batmobile that Robinson labels as “fully operational” and a custom-made car called a Coyote from “Hardcastle and McCormick.”
“I’ve loved cars forever,” Robinson said, explaining his odd collection. “Growing up in the ’80s, cars were vital to just about every TV show. I got one. Then I got another. Then …”
Group leaders might develop the same mentality about west Tennessee attractions. First, they will find one, then another, then …