Originally published on 13 August 2014.
“Walkin’ in Memphis! Walkin’ with my feet 10 feet off a Beale! Walkin’ in Memphis! And do I really feel the way I feel!” –Marc Cohn. Love the song!
Carol and I had the greatest time! First up: The Mighty Mississippi! Big Mud! The Nile of North America! We stopped over at Tom Lee Park, named for a black man who saw a ship capsize in the River and took his personal boat out to save several of the people onboard.
And everyone loves a good bridge:
And then off to the Peabody! We had a little time to spare, so we parked the car and went inside the hotel to get an eyeful of the beautiful and famous hotel. The weather wasn’t too awful just yet, so we also took a jaunt down Main Street, ending up at the famously bluesy Beale, where our history tour was to start.
And what a tour it was! We saw everything there was to see. Our guide, Michael, was very knowledgeable, and he was cool with my being a fellow tour guide. Sometimes other guides are nervous, so I just don’t say anything about it, but he was doing us a favor by giving us a private tour on a day when they don’t usually do tours, so I let it slip, and he was even excited about it!
So, why is Beale Street so cool and historic? Because it was predominantly black as early as the late 1800s, and that’s where the blues were born! W.C. Handy wrote the first official blues song as early as 1900. This is also a street where black people owned businesses and met with much success. Particularly in music! In the 1920s, Memphis was known as the Harlem of the South.
First fascinating fact: Memphis was founded in 1819… by Andrew Jackson! Yes, our 7th president, the only one to run the country with a balanced budget, and the first of three presidents from Tennessee founded this great city. Who knew?
Another fascinating fact is that Memphis became a sort of safe place for runaway slaves during the Civil War because it was occupied by the Union. There was a fort where slaves could stay called Fort Pickering–built by the Confederates, occupied by the Yankees. Memphis’s population quadrupled during the way, and half of those were blacks.
In 1866, Race Riots broke out between some Irish whites and the black population. Of course things like that don’t just get erased from memory, so several years later, yellow fever broke out in 1878. Legend has it, this is due to a voodoo curse put on the whites. It was believed that blacks were immune because so few of them contracted the disease, which is the same thing people believed in some cases in the 1700s and possibly earlier than that. Anyway, the fever ended in 1878.
And now… off to the Peabody! We must see the ducks! We were just a minute or two late, but the ducks had already marched into the pond. We got some pictures there:
And we decided we’d come back to see the ducks when they march back out at 5:00 pm. For now, up to the rooftop for the best views in town:
“Big Muddy” is a nickname for the mighty Mississippi. Why? Because it’s mucked up with silt and Aluvium! Michael, our tour guide, said people sometimes ask why we don’t dam the river and use all that power. And the answer is, because it’s too goopy. It would clog things up all the way to St. Louis or farther, so it’s best to just let it flow! The joke is that it’s too thick to drink and too thin to plow.
So, that’s the view from the top of the Peabody. But what’s the big deal about this hotel? Why is it so fancy, and why is it well-known? Where did the name come from? Well the original hotel, located on Main and Monroe Streets and opened by Robert Campbell Brinkley in 1869, was named for the owner’s late friend, George Peabody, in honor Mr. Peabody’s contributions to the South. And actually, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis lived there in 1870. That hotel closed in 1923, but an exact replica of the hotel was built at the current location (Union Avenue) in1925.
A few years went by, and in the 1930s the hotel manager thought it would be great (after a hunting trip and a few Jack Daniels) if he and his buddy brought back some live duck decoys and put them in the lobby fountain. When they awoke the next morning and realized what they’d done, they panicked! They thought the ducks would be terrorizing guests, pooping all over the place, etc., but no, they were still in the fountain, charming the guests! It’s been a tradition ever since.
But my favorite part is what happened in 1940. A Mr. Edward Pembroke, former animal trainer for the Barnum and Bailey Circus, volunteered to care for and train the ducks to march to and from the elevator. He was the first Duck Master, and he held the position until 1991. Needless to say, it’s adorable! Pictures to come momentarily. Keep reading…
Anyway, every president since Truman (current president still has a couple of years to be included) has stayed at the hotel. Elvis Presley’s prom was held in one of their ballrooms in 1953, Society folk have always gone there to “be seen,” several writers have written famous things there (songs, poems, novels, etc.), and actually, Elvis Presley’s contract with RCA was not only written up here, but it was written on Peabody Hotel letterhead! Rumor has it that Neil Diamond wrote “Sweet Caroline” at the hotel when he got bumped from recording something else because Elvis decided to record that day, and Elvis took precedence!
All fun facts. Hope you enjoyed them as much as I did!
Moving along… Back to the river. Indians settled here centuries ago, but Spanish conquistador de Soto thought it would be great if he claimed the land for Spain and used the Indians for breeding and as warriors. That didn’t exactly fly, and de Soto died a year later, across the river, of malaria. About 100 years later, French-Canadian explorer Louis Joliet came to town, but the Indians were all gone by then, likely from European diseases from de Soto and his men.
Fast forward to the time of the American Revolution, and the area now known as Memphis was considered part of the colony of North Carolina–it was the far frontier! The years moved on, and that’s when Jackson came along in 1819, made a bum deal with the Indians currently inhabiting West Tennessee, and gained Memphis for the state of Tennessee.
And there you have it! After that, this was Cotton Country. King Cotton. That area has amazing topsoil, 50 feet down in some places. This discovery at the beginning of the 19th century and the growing market for cotton combined to mean more labor. And that happened to manifest itself in the form of slavery. In the late 1700s, people really thought slavery would go “out of style” soon, but now that there’s this new need for labor, slavery seemed to be there to stay.
Memphis became a sort of safe haven for runaway slaves both before and during the Civil War. There was a stop on the underground railroad just outside of town: The Burkle Estate, now called Slave Haven. Carol and I took a tour of the house, and it was very informative! During the war, the Union occupied Memphis, so blacks felt safer there if they could get to town.
I know that sounds like I’ve bounced around a lot, and I guess I did, but I hope you followed! Anyway, we ended up our tour at what used to be Confederate Park. The name was changed to Memphis Park, but it’s still more widely known as Confederate Park (even on Google). Michael was a fantastic tour guide, and I’m so glad he showed us around! We left him at Tamp & Tap, a restaurant across the street from the Peabody. We were hungry, and it was great! They even have strawberry chess squares!
And we happened to time things just perfectly. It came an absolute downpour while we ate, but it stopped when we finished! We wanted to go to the Slave Haven museum, which was just past walking distance (especially with the possibility of more rain!), so we drove there. And we were so glad because it came a real live thunder-and-lightning storm while we were in there! Sorry, no pictures inside the museum.
We really learned a lot at the museum. Quilt patterns had special meaning, drums were universal communication devices, and of course songs has special meaning, too. Slaves would come to this house, wait for the owner to give them the go-ahead, and RUN the distance of two blocks to the River, where a boat would be waiting for them. And then they were off. They just needed to make it to the Ohio River, and they’d be able to cross over into Canada and be free. Of course, no one kept records of how many slaves came through as runaways, and there is any number of homes on the underground railroad that we don’t even know about. No one kept documentation because if any of that had been found, they’d be thrown in jail or killed! The only reason we know about this house is because of Mr. Burkle’s granddaughter, who listened to her grandfather’s stories as a girl and told the oral history to others in the 1970s. Fascinating!
Again, with the threat of rain, we decided to just drive around downtown for a while and look at the buildings. They’re amazing! Some of them must have such a history, but many of the businesses in the buildings have gone out of business, and no one who wants them can afford to own and maintain an historic building. Here’s an example:
Amazing building. This is the Tennessee Brewery. After a quick Wikipedia search, we discovered it was a HUGE brewery in its heyday. We heard later that someone has indeed bought this one and is planning to renovate and reopen, but WOW! What an undertaking!
And then it was time for the ducks! We got back to the Peabody around 4:30 for the 5:00 event, and people were already filling the lobby! The Duck March was about to commence…
SO CUTE! And in honor of the Duck March, I decided to make a new friend…
Please meet Mr. Peabody Pembroke! Named for the Peabody and the original Duck Master, Mr. Pembroke. He’s my new travel companion. Please like him on Facebook!
He will be accompanying me on subsequent trips. Thanks for joining me in Memphis! Subscribe to my blog or check back in the next few days for our adventures in Gettysburg!