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STAX Studio - - - -
For the past forty years, my two favorite places to drive to (and
through) have been Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park and Elmwood
Cemetery. "Shelby Forest" is one of the largest Tennessee State
Parks and has the fabulous Shelby Forest General Store on its
doorstep. The 13,000+ acre park provides the best scenery in all of
Shelby County, with its canopied lanes and its drive out the the
West Tennessee shore of the Lower Mississippi River. I wish I had a
dime for every crossword puzzle I completed, or for every ham &
cheese on white with lettuce, tomato & mayo that I ate from the
General Store, while watching a barge tow glide by on Ol' Man River.
Driving to, from, through, in and around Shelby Forest is a half-day
trip (at least), a very nice half-day trip. But, if you only have an
hour or so, then the drive (and sit) in Elmwood Cemetery's rolling
terrain and arboretum, is the immediate solution for a place of
peace and quiet.
Over the years, I have attended several funerals at Elmwood
Cemetery, and I have come to think of cemeteries as sad and/or
serious places - the end of life, so to speak. But, over the past
three years, Elmwood Cemetery has "come to life" for me:
Lunch & Lecture
The first Lunch & Lecture program that I attended at Love Chapel was in April,
2008 and given by Jerry Potter, author of The Sultana Tragedy. What a
fascinating story the Sultana is! What turned out to be the largest maritime
disaster in our nation's history occurred in one of the old channels of the
Mississippi River, just a scant six miles north of Memphis (April, 1865) in what
is now an Arkansas soybean field. Jerry showed many slides and told many stories
about the Sultana, and made it quite an interesting luncheon, also piquing my
interest to go visit "the site" again (as I had been there in 1985 when I first
became involved with the Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island). That
"adventure" (and subsequent caravans) is another story for another day. I became
a "regular" at the Lunch & Lecture series after that,
even became a volunteer helping seating folks, getting their drink
requests, busing tables afterward and re-setting the room.
My big moment came when I was asked to give a presentation and my topic
of choice was "Gayoso Bayou: Then & Now" (March 12, 2010). The first town plan
laid out for Memphis in 1819 was restricted to the east by this swampy bayou.
The first bridge was not built over it until 1824. Early Memphis was founded in
the area that today is know as The Pinch District basically bounded by The
Pyramid, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Civic Center Plaza. In the
early years, canoes, rafts and flatboats would come down the Mississippi River,
swirl into the eddy of the Wolf River, and then come right up to "Catfish Bay".
Many famous explorers came through this area in the 1500s through early 1800s,
as "Before Memphis", this highest piece of ground on the river between Cairo and
Natchez, was a strategic (dry) place. That's the "Then", and the "Now" portion
of the lecture was about my modern day "Last Great Adventure" through the modern
and not-so-modern storm drain system of Downtown.
My second "Lunch & Lecture" was entitled
"Cotton & Crypts: Cotton Men Of Elmwood" and I had the good fortune to team up
with Robert Acree, long time cotton factor for Anderson-Clayton and a legend on
Cotton Row in Memphis. I met Bob though programs at the Cotton Museum. That
program was scheduled for January 21, 2011 and despite several inches of snow,
the show went on, along with a make-up date of January 28. Bob was sensational.
Not only did he explain the details of the what the "World of Cotton" really was
and is, but we also were able to tell the story of many famous Memphians -
Cotton Men - buried in Elmwood, who were the City leaders, as Cotton ruled the
area's commerce, political and social scenes.
For 2012, I am preparing on a Lunch &
Lecture entitled "The Moving Appeal" (in May or June, 2012) which will cover the
three-year odyssey of The Memphis Daily Appeal newspaper throughout the South
during the Civil War (1862-65). The determined owner and editor-in-chief was
John Reid McClanahan and he was able to keep The Appeal (today known as
Commercial Appeal) printing on a regular schedule, moving a very large press on
wagons and trains while staying one step ahead of Federal troops in Grenada &
Jackson, Mississippi; Atlanta, Georgia and Montgomery, Alabama.
The monthly Lunch & Lecture series covers a
wide variety of topics such as the Sultana Disaster, Yellow Fever Epidemic,
Tuskegee Airmen or Women Of The Civil War, and is sponsored by the Crawford
Howard Private Foundation. It is held in the beautiful Love Chapel, designed by
out late friend Jack Tucker, with a delightful sandwich lunch and a nominal fee
is charged. Reservations are required.
Costume Twilight Tour
In June, 2008, I noticed that Elmwood
Cemetery was sending some Costume Twilight Players up to Court Square at lunch
time as a part of the Downtown Memphis Commission's Downtown Alive series. I
attended and enjoyed, and then said to Kim McCollum (Executive Director of
Elmwood) that "I want to do that!" Kim responded that she had been on my
first-ever Manhole Cover Tour earlier that year (May 7) and that I was "ham
enough" to qualify! No kidding. The gist of the Costume Twilight Tour is that it
is not a Halloween "scary" type thing, but interesting and informative walk
through the grounds of Elmwood with costumed characters portraying residents buried
in Elmwood in first-person scripts of about seven minutes in length. Visitors
walk from station to station within the grounds to hear about ten or so "actors"
give their stories on a delightful Autumn afternoon/evening.
So, I said find me a railroad man (so I
could have an excuse to grow mutton chop sideburns -I thought). Well, in 2008
she found Avery G. Warner, a 60-year Illinois Central railroad veteran from
Bartlett, Tennessee - but he did not have the mutton chops! Avery G. Warner was
the engineer that handed off "The
Cannonball Express" (Engine # 382) on April 29, 1900 at Poplar Street
Station in Downtown Memphis to
who drove the engine to his death in
Vaughn, Mississippi later in the wee hours of April 30. Elmwood provided the
script, and about a week before the 2008 Costume Twilight Tour, descendants of
the Avery G. Warner family did contact me about it all. Mary Wade, his daughter and
then 99-years-young, attended the tour that evening (she is now 102). But, it
was great to "learn" a script, "act" a part and meet the family.
In 2009, I was selected to be Lloyd T.
Binford, President of the Lincoln-American Life Insurance Company, and a very
infamous Mayor-appointed President of the Memphis Censor Board from the
1920s-1950s. Mr. Binford's leadership of the Censor Board was so strict that in
Hollywood terms, it came to be known as being "Binfordized" if your movies were
banned from Memphis.
I was unable to be in the cast of the 2010 Costume Twilight Tour due to a
scheduling conflict, but I was able to assist for a while at the book table and
queuing station by the Cottage, which showed me a whole different side of the
event. But that year, I was able to be Charles G. Fisher, President of the
Citizens Relief Committee during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. The program
was entitled "Voices Of Yellow Fever" in a four-part play, with three other
actors (Vincent Astor, Cookie Swain and Linley Schmidt) portraying other roles
at a presentation in the Love Chapel at a dinner and a lunch session on
September 9-10, 2010. With so many victims of the Yellow Fever epidemics buried
in at Elmwood, Elmwood has several special programs in September annually to
commemorate both the victims and the courageous martyrs that served.
In January, 2011, at the close of giving
a "Know Your Neighborhood" presentation at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, I
was approached by Mary Clyde McKnight about her family member, John Reid
McClanahan, the owner and editor-in-chief of The Memphis Daily Appeal, who was
buried in Elmwood in 1865, but did not get a marker until 1991. His legacy was
that of publishing The Memphis Daily Appeal over a three-year period of time,
through three states and over 1,000 miles throughout the South - just one step
ahead of Federal troops from June 5, 1862 to April, 1865. As mentioned above in
the story, "The Moving Appeal" will become a timely 2012 lecture as we are in
the midst of the Sesquicentennial years of Commemoration of the Civil War. The
2012 Costume Twilight Tour is tentatively set for Saturday, October 27 from
4:00-7:00 p.m. Mark your calendar.
Volunteer Tree Waterer
There are all sorts of volunteer opportunities at Elmwood Cemetery. Currently
the staff is formalizing a three-part program for volunteers that focuses on
opportunities in landscaping, marker care and tours & acting. In the long, hot,
dry Summer of 2010, I was able to become the exalted position of Volunteer Tree Waterer. Supporters had donated about seventy saplings to replace some of the
aged, diseased or fallen trees in Elmwood (a Class 2 Arboretum in the State of
Tennessee). The older, more mature trees could withstand the heat and lack of
rain, but the younger trees could not. So, zones of about fourteen trees each
within the rolling grounds were set up for volunteers to come in on a weekly
basis to water. The volunteer would go to the maintenance compound, locate a
golf cart that had a 55-gallon drum attached to the back; then fill the drum
with water and head for his/her zone. Now, to be alone in Elmwood on a golf cart
with the freedom to go anywhere (as long as you did not hit a marker) was very
special - and boy did I learn a lot! In the eighty acres of Elmwood there are
75,000 people buried there, with all sorts of stories. It is also a great
"quiet" time to learn your script for the Costume Twilight Tour. It is always
ninety minutes well spent.
Two years ago when asked by a writer from
The Commercial Appeal about
romantic places to go in Memphis for Valentine's Day, my mind's first response
was Elmwood Cemetery - and the writer wrote that! But, Elmwood is a very
beautiful place and romantic is not a misnomer. When Tommy McEwen called me last
year to say that his brother Buddy (who passed away in 2007) had left an
intention behind to have a marker at Elmwood (to let the world know that he did
exist, since his remains were cremated), we organized a service to dedicate the
marker. So, you never know what will happen at Elmwood or how you will get drawn
into it. But once Elmwood has you, it will never let go!
Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator
. . . and a host
of wonderful volunteers . . .
I have found the staff to be always alert and
responsive, as well as full of initiative.
I am amazed by the variety of educational and historical programming that occurs
at Elmwood Cemetery, and you will be to
Elmwood Cemetery, founded in 1852 on the south
part of Memphis (at the time), is eighty acres of rolling grounds with about
75,000 residents interred.
It is located at 824 South Dudley Street, just south of Crump Boulevard. The
contact number is 901-774-3212 and the web site is