By Dr. Lee Owen
It has been a long time since I was a young boy on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta. One of my special memories is of trips up Highway 61 from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis and The Peabody Hotel.
Back then the highway had two lanes and it was as straight as an arrow. The cotton fields, crossed by cypress bound bayous on each side, reached almost as far as the eye could see.
The very top of the Delta was where the hills on the east and the river on the west converged. The road would rise into Tennessee just south of Memphis going straight up into the hills. Then, a huge transition would occur in the landscape as old 61 turned into Third Street in downtown Memphis. And there sat, like a huge brick box with windows, “The South’s Finest, one of America’s Best,” The Hotel Peabody.
Aunt Lucile would swing the big car into the back of the hotel. The doorman, Moses, would run up to our car and happily say, “Welcome, Miss Lucile.”
The cold air in the hotel had a smell distinctly its own. It was the air conditioning of the ’40s and ’50s in hotel lobbies and movie houses. The odor of smoke and perfume and good bourbon drifting down from the “Creel Room”, hearing Mississippi friends saying, “Hi, Lucile,” seeing bell boys and Memphis businessmen and a little man in a uniform with a pill box hat calling out “Page for Mr. Donaldson” and elegantly dressed Delta people was my first introduction into a sophistication I had never experienced.
Food was always high on the list of things to do on our trip. Breakfast would be in the basement of the hotel in the cafe. Lunch was most often down toward the river on Union Avenue at a place called The Little Tea Room. Across the street from the front of The Peabody was Jim’s Place which had the reputation of the best steaks in Memphis.
At age eight I was more or less turned loose in the Peabody. I would ride up and down in the elevators. There were four of them, all operated by men who knew me. My big adventure was to go to the top floor, get off, and wander around. On one end of the top floor was the Skyway, the place for dinner guests with an orchestra which played every night on the band stand.
During the day the Skyway was empty, and I really thought it was spooky. On the west end was the wonderful “Plantation Roof”, the open air club with scattered tables and a replica of a plantation house. I learned later it was the home of the ducks.
There were five movie houses along Main Street in Memphis. The Malco had the “Mighty Wurlitzer” which would come up out of the floor being played by a little man. This happened between each show.
Shopping was important to Aunt Lucile and she would make it to all the department stores. To the south was Goldsmith’s still run by the Goldsmith brothers. Going north was “Levy’s Ladies Toggery.” Lowenstein’s on Main Street was the store I liked best because of the wonderful toy land they had on the eighth floor every year before Christmas.
There were special places on the four corners where Monroe crossed Main Street.
Broadnax Jewelry store on the southwest corner, was the perfect place for young men from the Delta to buy engagement rings. Lowenstein’s Department store was on the north west corner. Walgreens on the south east corner was to me the best place of all. They had long candy cases holding my favorite cinnamon hard candy. On the fourth corner was the Wm. Len Hotel. The Wm. Len was where we would stay if it was a “bad cotton year”.
Street cars ran from downtown Memphis out to Overton Park. It was very exciting to ride the street car and go to the zoo.
One of the last things we did before returning home to the Delta was to stop at a florist, buy flowers and go out to Elmwood Cemetery, and put flowers on family graves. Some of the graves in Elmwood dated back to the yellow fever epidemic and to the Civil War.
I always thought of the trip home as long, but I do believe I slept through most of it since I would be awakened by the words, “Wake up…We are back on the place, old man.” I might explain that the term “out on the place” was frequently used in the Delta to refer to a plantation.
The trips to Memphis would eventually end. But in my memory they are stamped never to be forgotten.
Dr. Lee Owen grew up in Shelby, Mississippi. He attended Vanderbilt undergraduate and medical school and he served as a pediatrician in Jackson, Mississippi for fifty years. He and his wife, Sophie, live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.