History and Southern hospitality the hallmarks of Vicksburg
On this road trip to Vicksburg I discover that history and Southern Hospitality are the hallmarks of this charming Delta Mississippi town.
The legendary Blues Highway 61 runs right through the heart and soul of Vicksburg, which was the destination for my next road trip to Mississippi. One could argue that Highway 61 rivals that of Route 66, if not for its historical importance, certainly for the musical significance.
The last time I was in Mississippi I road tripped from Memphis, along Highway 61 from the north, to places like DeSoto County which has ties to Elvis and John Grisham. I then made my way to Tunica, which is known as the Gateway to the Blues, with a museum/visitors center avowing its reputation. They also have a fantastic riverpark and museum along the Mississippi that takes visitors on a journey through the area’s illustrious past.
During that trip I also made stops in Greenwood and Indianola—which, if you’re not familiar, was the hometown of the foremost ambassador to the Blues, B.B. King. There is a wonderful Blues Museum that bears his name and takes visitors on both an interactive as well as historical tour of the Blues and B.B.’s life. Most interesting, the museum is on the site of an old cotton gin where B.B. worked as a kid, so there was a lot of sentimental attachment to the location when it was selected. Sadly, we lost the legend last year; his passing was just a week after my road trip through the upper part of the Mississippi Delta.
The highlight of that trip was to Clarksdale, ground zero for the Blues and the annual Juke Joint Festival. Now, I have to admit, before that trip I wasn’t much of a Blues Fan—but let me tell you, that all changed as I learned and listened to the diversity of the music, which tore down any impressions I had. Each street corner of Clarksdale had a different band or musician playing, and each of the juke joints was packed to capacity. The energy in town could be felt as the airwaves verberated with harmonic tunes through the streets and alleyways of Clarksdale. During the festival, I got a flare for the different types and styles of Blues music, some of which, really stirred my soul.
On this road trip back to Mississippi I started my adventure from New Orleans and eventually hit Highway 61 from the south, heading north to Vicksburg. I spent five days exploring the antebellum architecture, Civil War history and of course, listening to lots of Blues music.
I wasn’t sure what to expect on my trip to Vicksburg, I knew they had some cherished and restored architecture, museums, casinos and a national military park. I also knew I would find no shortage of southern food, but what I ended up discovering was beyond my expectations, which doesn’t happen all that often.
This is the story of my road trip to Vicksburg.
I flew into New Orleans, rented a car and was soon on Interstate 55 heading due North toward Vicksburg. It was a beautiful spring day and the temperature was a lovely 70 degrees. During my road trips, I try never to drive the Interstates as there is often little to see and it’s impossible to pull over and admire the scenery. As soon as I could, I veered off onto highway 98, which cuts west across the Homochitto National Forest near Natchez where I picked up the Natchez Trace Parkway north. I had been on this parkway before through Tennessee a few years earlier and would consider it on my top-20 list of most scenic stretches of road in the country. Just north of Port Gibson, the Natchez Trace Parkway intersects Highway 61, which led me straight into Vicksburg.
In addition to being called the Blues Highway (or Trail), Highway 61 is also known as the “Great River Road,” as it follows the mighty Mississippi River. There are, however, areas where the highway is east of the river and can’t be seen from the road, but the picturesque view coupled with the speedy efficiency of a four-lane highway creates an almost ideal situation for the romantic road tripper. The rolling hills of the Mississippi River valley show off their beauty as the road meanders along, showcasing striking bayous and dense woodland.
On my previous trip to Mississippi Delta, I met Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg CVB (convention and visitor’s bureau). Bill and I hit it off and by the end of that trip he had encouraged me to visit Vicksburg the following year. So here I was, back in Mississippi about to meet Bill once again at an antebellum mansion/inn for dinner.
During my stay in Vicksburg my home base was the AmeriStar Hotel and Casino. After I got checked in I made my way to downtown where I met Bill for dinner at the Café Anchuca. The historic home (circa 1830) was gorgeous and the dining area exuded Southern charm with its exposed brick walls, white tablecloths and freshly cut flowers adorning each table.
When Bill arrived, he greeted me with a big bear hug as long lost friends were reunited. We had a lovely meal and great conversation. Bill is a wealth of knowledge, not just about Vicksburg, but about Civil War history and a host of other topics. I was a sponge, soaking up every fascinating story he told. He explained about the various cultures who once descended on Vicksburg, many of whom came from Europe to help with the construction and installations for the National Military Park. The Park broke ground at the end of the 19th Century and with so many craftsmen in the area from different parts of Europe, the community ended up with a diversity of architectural styles, from Victorian, Romanesque Revival, Greek Revival, to one of the most splendid Beaux Arts structures in the South. If you’re not familiar with Beaux Arts style, it is theatrical and heavily ornamented, a classical style taught during the 19th century at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Along with the diversity of the community came great wealth. Merchants, many of whom were Jewish, helped fuel this wealth. The proximity to the interstate river system that ran past Vicksburg also created the anticipation of wealth, which spawned development of such opulent homes and structures, many of which have been painstakingly restored to the glory of yesteryear and are proudly on display for visitors.
After our lovely dinner at Café Anchuca, we made our way to LD’s Kitchen for some live and local Blues music. LD’s is one of those quintessential hole-in-the-wall dive places where the locals love to hang out. This is the place were the real Blues can be found. Bill and I grabbed a table right up front and I immediately felt my foot tapping and my head bobbing to the beat. The band was great, up until the keyboard player decided to sing. He was awful! I leaned over to Bill and said something like, “Is it me, or is that guy a horrific singer?” Bill relied, “No, he’s pretty bad.” We both chuckled. Shortly thereafter another singer made his way to the stage and he was much better. The star of the show was clearly the guitarist, an older gentleman who strummed and stroked his guitar with eloquence only callused fingertips could provide.
The next morning I met Bill for breakfast at a new establishment in town called the Mad Baker. As soon as I walked in I was enthusiastically welcomed by the staff, each warmly greeting me. I thought maybe they knew I was a travel blogger in town, but come to find out they greeted everyone in the same friendly way.
I saw Bill in the back of the restaurant sitting with a gentleman named Daryl, who I learned was one of the owners. During our conversation I had to ask Daryl where the name “Mad Baker” came from? He said it was a running joke with him and his partner and the name just ended up sticking. The bakery is a beautifully bright and warm setting, which is equally matched by the staff and the sweet treats they serve.
After a quick breakfast, Bill informed me that he had to meet with an Italian travel blogger in town on assignment with Brand USA and asked if I cared to join them. I agreed and we strolled down the block to a coffee shop where we met Simona Sacri and her physician husband who was tagging along. Simona writes about the U.S. for Italian travelers. We hit it off immediately, which often happens with fellow travelers. We all enjoy comparing stories of similar places we’ve visited.
This was Simona’s last day in town and she still needed to explore the National Military Park, so Bill offered to be their tour guide. I gladly joined as I knew I would be learning a lot from Bill. Come find out, Simona was also quite well informed about Civil War history, and the area in general. We were all in awe of the park, from the sheer size to the large quantity of ornate monuments.
That afternoon Bill and I parted ways with Simona and her husband and we went to lunch at the Main Street Market Café. The 1840s building had brick floors, local artwork and vintage china lining the shelves. The menu featured some great sandwiches as well as Creole specials.
After lunch Bill needed to get back to the office, so I was on my own for the rest of my Vicksburg visit. The weather was a bit overcast, so I decided to relegate myself to some inside exploring. My first stop was to the second floor of the coffee shop where Bill and I had met Simona and her husband, The Attic Gallery. The gallery is owned and curated by Lesley Silver, a long time resident and gallery owner in Vicksburg whose eclectic taste has created a vibrant display featuring an array of different types of artists. Lesley was telling me that she likes to represents artists from all walks of life, whose work resonates not only with her, but her customers as well.
Continuing my stroll around downtown I stopped by the Coca-Cola Museum, which is filled with exhibits interpreting the beginnings of Coca-Cola. An entire wall is filled with the different styles of bottles and cans from over the years. Vicksburg was the very first city to have a Coca-Cola bottling plant, thus the tie to the area. The museum is an authentically-restored candy store which showcases one of those old soda fountains and there is also a lot of Coca-Cola memorabilia around every corner.
I then made my way down to the river, which I initially mistook as the Mississippi, but there are actually two other rivers that precede the Mississippi, all visible from the perch of town. The river that runs through the edge of town is known as the Yazoo River. Docked at her shores was a riverboat cruise ship making a stop in Vicksburg, a quintessential Mississippian sight. Along the shore is a floodwall decorated with beautiful murals illustrating Vicksburg’s history.
That evening I made my way to the other side of town where I had a fantastic meal at ROCA, which is located at the Vicksburg Country Club. From my table I had sweeping views of the golf course while enjoying their Euro-influenced menu accented in Southern flair as delightful live music emanated from the lounge.
Day two just whetted my Vicksburg appetite, the next day I dug deeper. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid in grade school, the least interesting subject was history. As I get older, I am enthralled by history and can’t get enough of it. I have a theory as to why this has changed for me, and may be for you too. When we’re kids, we have no history to draw from. As we age however, we become a part of history.
I have always been fascinated by WWII history and have become a student of the era. Knowledge of the Civil War however, has always eluded me. This was all changing with my time in one of the most significant areas of the Civil War. The Battle of Vicksburg (also known as the Vicksburg Siege), changed the course of the war. Vicksburg had been an impenetrable town due to its high position above the Mississippi. General Grant (later President Grant) had failed two previous attempts to win Vicksburg, going so far as to divert the Mighty Mississippi in an attempt to get closer to town, however that quickly proved futile. The General was determined, so a third strategy was hatched and executed. Basically, General Grant and his troops were able to cut off Vicksburg’s Confederate supply line, thus starving out the solders and citizens. On July 4th 1863, John C. Pemberton had no choice but to surrender to General Grant. There was no significance to the date of the surrender, however the demoralizing defeat left a stain that would last for generations. The town of Vicksburg would not celebrate the 4th of July for the next 81 years.
This was just one of the many fascinating stories I learned while in Vicksburg, some of which were explained and illustrated by George “Bubba” Bolm, executive director and museum curator at the Old Courthouse Museum, the keeper of all things historic about Vicksburg. Bubba is a wealth of knowledge and I just loved listening to his stories. He showed me the very spot where General Grant gave his victory speech, and where soldiers carved their names and unit numbers into the soft stone. I also got a rare opportunity to traverse up to the cupola for a bird’s eye view of the rivers below, where Bubba pointed out Grant’s second attempt at penetrating the impenetrable Vicksburg by diverting the Mississippi River.
For dinner that evening I strolled across the street from my hotel room at the AmeriStar, to the Casino on the river. I dined at their Bourbon’s restaurant, which features steak and BBQ in an atmosphere and manner that is distinctly Southern. Apparently the chef got wind that I was a travel blogger, so he insisted on sending me various items to try, which I happily accepted. As I waited for my first dish to arrive, I took a gander out the window at the most extraordinary sight of the Old Vicksburg Bridge and river below. The restaurant is actually on the water, which really provided a great view for the dining experience.
The next morning I woke to a sensational sunrise. There was not a cloud in the sky and the climate was perfect for a day of exploring, sunny and in the high 60s. I was invited to have breakfast at the Duff Green Mansion, one of many Antebellum Inns in Vicksburg. When I arrived, I ran into three ladies whom I met the day before while visiting the Bazsinsky House. We had all really hit it off and it was lovely to continue our travel conversations where we had left off. One of the ladies in particular had a lot of travel experience and it seemed we had been to many of the same places, several were actually quite random. Travel is such a great connector of people and I find, due to my extensive travel, that it is fairly easy to strike up a conversation with others who also have the experience.
After a lovely and formal breakfast, our host Harley took guests on a tour of the mansion as she talked about the history of the home and its previous inhabitants. Built in 1856 by a local cotton broker for his bride, the mansion was built for entertaining in the grand antebellum style. Unfortunately, that lifestyle was short lived for the Green family when war reached Vicksburg in 1863 and the home was turned into a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers.
The weather was so good that I broke out my new quad-copter and began filming some areas for the video you can view above. I captured some extraordinary footage as well as several still images.
As I discovered on my previous Mississippi road trip, following Blues Trail Markers along Highway 61, and throughout the state can lead to some interesting discoveries, such as the birthplaces of Blues legends like B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Lizzie Douglas (aka Memphis Minnie). In Vicksburg I saw markers for the Red Tops, and Highway 61 South. There are actually a number of Blue informational markers (signs) around town, but just a few official Blues Trail Markers, I believe.
That evening I made my way to the other side of town and had dinner at a restaurant which is a local institution…Beechwood. Family owned and operated for more than sixty years, Beechwood still packs ’em in! Beechwood is not a fancy place by any means, but it is pretty fantastic. As soon as I walked in, I saw something out of the ordinary. There was a small area carved out for one cook whose sole job was to man the grill. It was a display area of sorts, where patrons could see the action first hand. The rest of the menu items are cooked and prepared in the main kitchen.
The next morning I woke to yet another beautiful day in Vicksburg and was a bit melancholy that it was my last full day in town. I was able to get a lot in though, starting off with breakfast and a self-guided tour of Cedar Grove Mansion and Inn. I’m only guessing, but this might be the largest home in town, it’s ginormous! After breakfast I began walking around the property and discovered a cannonball stuck in the wall. Apparently it has been there for more than 150 years since the Battle of Vicksburg. The naval ships were raining fire upon Vicksburg and one of the cannonballs came roaring through the front door, penetrating one wall and sticking into another, where it has rested all these years.
My next stop of the day was back at the National Military Park. When I was there a few days earlier I was with several other people, I was looking forward to exploring at my own pace this time. The park is set up to drive through, with many pullouts to get out, and up close to, view the monuments and other displays. The park is incredibly well manicure and quite stunning. The lush green grass, dense trees and foliage make the park feel like a well-deserved memorial to all of those who fought and died there. There is so much to see and do in Vicksburg, but if for some reason visitors only have a day, this is certainly the main attraction in town not to miss.
There is a staggering 1350 monuments within the park, 28 of which are bronze reliefs by Tiffany’s. I also learned about some of the symbolism in the park, with respect to the monuments. For example, there are 47 steps at the Illinois monument, which represents the 47 days of the Vicksburg Siege.
After a few hours in the park I was famished and headed to Rusty’s Riverfront Grill for lunch. Rusty’s seemed like a newer place with a modern and cool feel to it. I had the three-way seafood combo with blackened Mahi Mahi, shrimp and some crab cakes. Everything was so delicious, but after eating so much, I needed to go for a walk. The weather had just been fantastic (I’ve mentioned this a few times as it was unexpected and very welcomed), so I walked up the hill and strolled some of the shops in downtown.
A bit later I went back to my room at the AmeriStar so that I could freshen up for dinner and an evening of Blues music. My second evening in town I had dinner at ROCA and learned that the chef/co-owner Jay also had a restaurant in downtown called 10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill. My meal at ROCA was so good that I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Jay’s other establishment. 10 South is situated on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town and provides a stunning view of the city and the rivers below. The focal point of the space is an elongated bar where patrons cozy up for a cold beer or cocktail. The space that surrounds the bar is made up of high and low-top tables, which adds a dimensional layer to the dining experience.
Since I had a really large lunch at Rusty’s, my appetite was comfortably satisfied with just the pulled pork tacos and freshly made guacamole washed down with a cold beer. As I left the bar I met three cool individuals in the elevator. We ended up chatting outside for a spell and I learned that one of them owned a hammock company (Sierra Madre). I frequently use hammocks during my road trips, camping and backpacking excursions, so we clearly had a connection on the topic. Everywhere I went in Vicksburg I meet the most amazingly friendly people. Each encounter solidified my notion that Southern charm and hospitality is the real deal in Mississippi.
My final adventure for the evening was back at the AmeriStar Casino at their Bottleneck Blues Bar. I had listened to some Blues performances at a couple of other venues around town that were more hole-in-the-wall or juke joint in atmosphere. The Bottleneck is much more refined. An outstanding venue that can accommodate larger acts and larger crowds. This evening I got to see the highly acclaimed Vasti Jackson perform.
The club was pretty crowded and I wanted to get some photos and video footage of Vasti’s performance, so I asked the manager if he could assist me. There was a large reserved table with just a few people occupying, so the manager asked if it was okay for me to sit there. Come to find out, the table was reserved for the Vicksburg Blues Society, and the President of the organization (Shirley Waring) was in attendance. During an intermission Shirley and I were chatting it up and really hit it off. She asked if I would like to meet Vasti? “Sure” I said!
Shirley grabbed Vasti’s attention and led him to our table where she made the introduction. Vasti was not only an amazing performer and musician, but he was such a friendly and hospitable individual. Even though others were vying for his attention, he made me feel like I was the only one in the room. He asked where I was from and when I said the Phoenix area, he asked if I was familiar with the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum)? “Yes,” I exclaimed…it’s a fantastic venue. He enthusiastically agreed and told me he had performed there not long ago.
Vasti soon took the stage once again, elevating his performance while taking a guitar solo into the crowd. Vasti was able to strum his guitar in such a way that it was as if he were making it talk…no lyrics required. It was getting late and I had a whole lot of work to do before going to bed, so I left just before the show ended.
The next day as I was back on the road when I received a call, it was from Vasti. I couldn’t believe it, here this big time Blues musician was calling me personally. He told me what a pleasure it was meeting me and that he wanted to give me one of his CD’s, but I had already left. What a class act I thought…so incredibly thoughtful.
I had such a fantastic time in Vicksburg! While there are many great things to see and do, the highlight for me was meeting the amazing people of Vicksburg, they epitomize the notion of Southern charm through-and-through.
Louisiana may be the birthplace of Jazz, but Mississippi Delta, is where the Blues were born! Music, comfort food and southern hospitality run deep in the Delta. The legendary Blues Highway (U.S. Route 61) is an unforgettable journey evocative of a delicious slice of Americana represented by a genre of music known as the Delta Blues. Spilling out car windows and church doors, soul, gospel and R&B can be heard around every bend in the road. I enjoyed the rural quirkiness, the hard-to-reach wonders and found it necessary to budget extra time for enjoyable and unscheduled conversations. The Delta’s the real deal when it comes to the embodiment of the American road trip experience.
If you’ve ever been to Vicksburg or any part of Mississippi Delta, please leave a comment below as I’d love to hear about your experience. For more information on Vicksburg, visit their website directly.