BREAKING NEWS: Meet The Fascinating Mr. “Piss & Vinegar”

READERS’ NOTE: This is a special edition of Discover Small Town America. For those not familiar with the term piss and vinegar it is – according to one online dictionary – “a phrase used to express an attitude of somebody who is full of energy, vigor, perhaps rowdiness or excitedness”.

The Legends…

People with a general familiarity of blues music would, of course, be familiar with the late B.B. King, but probably not someone like Bobby Bland. Recreational pool players would know names like Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi, but not Larry Lisciotti. Folks with a background in the field of community planning or New Urbanism* would definitely know names like James Rouse and Andrés Duany, but probably not Dan Camp. They should. We now do. Keep reading...

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Having left Memphis, Rorie and I meandered along Highway 82 near Starkville, Mississippi (population 23,888) and saw a sign for something called The Cotton District. We decided spontaneously to detour onto Old Highway 82 and check out this place with the interesting name.

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Good signage brought us into town and we picked a random place to park. I asked a delivery man if he could direct us to The Cotton District and he said “Sir, you’re in it. This is its epicenter”. Rorie saw an amazing building down a side street so we walked toward it thinking it might be part of what came there to investigate. As we got closer, a young professional-looking woman walked toward us and Rorie asked if the structure was part of The Cotton District. She said it was, then turned and pointed to a man sitting at a table on the porch of what appeared to a cafe or pub. “He’s the one who created The Cotton District. His name is Dan Camp”, she said. We walked up to where he was seated (a place called Commodore Bob’s Yacht Club –  in turns out it was his family’s restaurant), introduced ourselves and almost immediately we were off and running. And I do mean running…

Commodore Bob’s Yacht Club

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From the start, it was clear Dan Camp is a whirling dervish, someone who’s delightfully full of piss and vinegar. Words can’t fully explain the experience we had, but we’ll do our best to give you a sense of this dynamo, who might give The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis beer commercial (“Stay thirsty my friend”) a run for his money.

Dan took us into the restaurant and introduced us to the staff. Then he made a big deal out of showing us the restaurant’s VERY small restroom. Rorie and I were thinking, we later admitted to each other, that maybe this guy was a kook. But, once he explained the photo on the wall of a little boy in a little wooden boat, its importance became clear. It was a picture of a very young Dan Camp in the boat he built from scratch with the most basic of tools. Here’s that story:

When Dan Camp was only 13 years old, he set out on what would become a five year adventure in learning how to build his very own boat. Between the ages of 14 and 16, he built this boat without any adult supervision. The whole process taught him such things as proportion – size versus environment – and specifics of boat building (loft lines, inboard engines, and white oak framing for example). But it also taught him the lessons that he still lives by today,” if you’re in doubt of what to do, just do it. Don’t ask someone if it’s OK”. And that’s just how he went about building the Cotton District and filling the beautiful and imaginative homes he created with lucky college students from the nearby university!

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Home of the Blues Day 2…Who’s Who & More BBQ

Walking Off Our Biscuits and BBQ

After recuperating from our first day in the Home of the Blues, our second day in Memphis began with a much needed power walk through the beautiful Overton Park near our B&B. This 342 acre site has walking and biking trails, a band shell for live concerts, dog park and a golf course, and is adjacent to the Memphis Zoo. A great place to walk off about 1/10th of all those southern stick-to-your ribs calories we managed to ingest.

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With our semi-aerobic exercise out of the way, we returned to the heart of the city just in time for another quick bite to eat. We had to keep our energy up for our jam-packed day!  First stop was the Central BBQ, not as well known as some of the other rib joints in Memphis, but some locals claim this is the best BBQ around. After inhaling a jumbo-sized pulled pork sandwich smothered with creamy, crunchy, sweet slaw as our late afternoon “snack”, we absolutely agreed with the locals. it was awesome. Napkins anyone?

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Next it was on to the National Civil Rights Museum, which pays tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The exhibition hall is attached to the former Lorraine Motel, site of the 1968 assassination of MLK. The museum showcases the struggle for civil rights from the 17th century to the present. It is both a moving and disturbing collection of audio and visual historic facts and artifacts. The sounds of “slavery” filling the exhibit hall are overwhelmingly poignant.

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The Lorraine motel, which is part of the museum, is a chilling reminder of the tragedy that occurred on April 4, 1968 on the 2nd floor balcony.

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After touring the main building and exhibits we crossed the street to the museum annex that contained more historic exhibits about the ongoing fight for civil rights. The annex has recreated the room Ray checked into and the community bathroom he allegedly fired the shot from. Below is a photo showing Ray’s bathroom view of the Lorraine. Looking from the room window across the street to the balcony where MLK was gunned down was a very intense and terribly sad experience for both of us. It was impossible to comprehend the level of hate someone could have to intentionally carry out such a heinous crime. The wreath on the balcony marks the approximate place MLK was standing when he was assassinated outside of the room he shared with Dr. Ralph Abernathy.

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After leaving the National Civil Rights Museum and taking a moment to collect our thoughts, we wandered over to the Blues Hall of Fame, which honors those who’ve performed, recorded, or documented blues. Little Walter’s harmonica, Johnny Winter’s guitar, and Koko Taylor’s $2,000 gold boots are all displayed here, along with other items that tell the story of blues musicians nationwide. Interactive screens and guitars, stage clothing, Grammy Awards, and platinum records from artists like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan are featured. The exhibit includes so many more one-of-a-kind artifacts, most of which were donated by the musicians families. The blues may have stemmed from sadness and struggle but this is a really cool, upbeat place. So, if you love the blues and all the musical giants who made it great, you’ll love this gem!

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As a child of the 50’s and 60’s, and an oldie but goodie herself, Rorie’s must-see list also included Sam Phillip’s Sun Studio, which opened in 1950 and is the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll.

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This genre of music was the offspring of the marriage between blues and country and was born at Sun Studio where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison and a host of other legends came to record and launch a musical revolution. In 1956 an impromptu jam session took place here which became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet”.

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We loved the music memorabilia, classic jukebox, recording equipment and old photographs covering the walls. It brought back a lot of memories of a simpler time when you could actually understand the words to the music and even dance to it. This is a stop not to be missed.

After returning to our B&B (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/194998?s=22) for a little R&R, it was once again time to think about – you guessed it – eating. We decided to take a break from barbecue and followed our hostess’ suggestion to have dinner at The Beauty Shop Restaurant, a whimsical eatery in a former 60’s hair salon, complete with old-fashioned hair dryer chairs. And with a slogan of “Look Good. Eat Good.”, how could we possibly pass up this unique dining experience! Rumor has it Lisa Marie Presley came here to have her hair done back in the day.

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One of the restaurant’s specialties is handmade milkshakes in eclectic flavors like Rosemary Basil, Nutella and Sherry Fig. After consuming what we would consider to be a relatively healthy dinner, we decided to save one of those milkshakes for another trip!

Remember sitting under these hot domes with a head full of soup can rollers waiting for your hair to dry so the hairdresser could tease and spray your “do” so it didn’t move for a week?

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As our visit to Memphis and stay with Taryn at her B& B (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/194998?s=22) came to an end, Rorie was sure she couldn’t eat one more bite. Of course this was after polishing off an egg white and cheese  sandwich to tide her over until her morning snack. Imagine our surprise when we went downstairs to say our goodbyes and discovered that Taryn had made us an incredible breakfast with the most amazing homemade biscuits, one glazed with caramel sauce and the other with red pepper jelly, crisp bacon, fresh fruit, and coffee with real cream and real sugar. Rorie managed to inhale it all and Bart, who never eats breakfast impressively cleaned his plate! The perfect end to a wonderful visit.

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Up next: The Cotton District in Starkville, Mississippi…

We Got Them Memphis Blues

We continued winding our way through rural Mississippi finally crossing over to Tennessee and on to our goal of spending a few days wandering and eating our way through Memphis.

Originally settled by the Spanish in the late 1700’s, Memphis survived the Civil War to become one of the country’s cultural beacons. Blues artists launched their careers here, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis and the nearly century-old Orpheum Theater still features shows, concerts and films. But truthfully, it’s the promise of B.B. King and BBQ that gets Rorie “Lead Foot” Russell going 20 miles an hour over the speed limit on the 2-lane country roads!

Before checking in to our amazing B&B, we headed to the noise and funk of Beale Street in downtown Memphis. The blues were introduced to the world by bandleader W. C. Handy and the sounds of this delta music reverberate up and down this historic, musical mecca. The pedestrian-friendly street is jam-packed with people, music clubs, BBQ joints and touristy shops selling Elvis t-shirts and B.B. King key chains. It reminded us of a smaller version of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

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We couldn’t resist stopping in at B.B. King’s Blues Club named for the legendary Blues Boy (which is where the B.B. came from) to pay homage to the musician. You can just feel the history here. On the outside of the building is a poignant banner on which thousands of people have signed their names in a display of public sympathy after his recent death.

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Just down the street is the historic A. Schwab’s General Store. It’s been operating for more than a century and sells everything including voodoo paraphernalia and 44 different kinds of suspenders. Rorie zeroed right in on the old fashioned jars of candy and of course the amazing counter where they serve up ice cream, milkshakes and pie.

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After boogying to the music on Beale Street (thanks Judi for teaching me the smooth moves!), drooling over the menus at all the BBQ joints, and stopping to read every plaque commemorating famous Memphis legends, we needed to whet our whistle so we ducked into the old Blues City Cafe for a quick cocktail. Can you say “Hurricanes”?

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We Got a Little Culture (and Lots of Catfish & Cornbread)

We left New Albany with Oxford, Mississippi as out target destination. Our trip had us cruising along back roads again in “rural America” where we came upon an abandoned gas station called Country Bumpkin. How appropriate!

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The drive to Oxford was pretty short, a little over an hour in total. The weather was strange. It started out sunny and warm, morphed into an overcast sky, quickly deteriorated to menacing dark clouds, and then exploded into torrential downpours. Fortunately, it got nice once again and we had a chance to dry out our clothes, flip flops and umbrellas!

Oxford (population just under 20,000) is the county seat of Lafayette County and was included in The Best 100 Small Towns in America. The heart of Oxford is “Ole Miss” – the University of Mississippi – and from what we saw, locals are fanatical about their college sports teams! Ole Miss football is BIG!

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Our first stop in town was the Oxford Visitors Center where we were fortunate enough to meet Kinney Ferris, the Center’s Assistant Director. Knowledgeable, helpful and clearly Oxford’s #1 cheerleader, Kinney gave us the lay of the land and suggestions on what to see, do and just as importantly, where to eat. If you find yourself in Oxford, make sure to stop in and say hello.

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Right near the University and Visitor’s Center is the historic and picturesque Square, the center of Oxford’s social life. We strolled its streets admiring the Courthouse built in 1873, gorgeous architecture, and taking in the eclectic mix of restaurants, live music, art galleries, boutiques and book stores. It was a great place to people watch and soak up some Southern charm and hospitality.

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When’s the last time you actually saw a working pay phone?

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APOLOGIES and…We Still Haven’t Found Elvis

Two Lessons Learned on the Road

1. Never let Bart near a computer before he’s had at least one cup of strong coffee (he accidentally sent out today’s post before it was anywhere near complete). Hit the “send” button instead of the “save draft” button. Ugh.

2. Road kill in the South is way different from other places we’ve been. Can you say “dead armadillos”? They’re everywhere!

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Now for the Real Story

Saying “goodbye” to Phenix City, Alabama, we set our sights on Tupelo and New Albany, Mississippi, where we would be staying the night. Today’s journey is about 375 miles. But before crossing the state line from AL to MS, we naturally stopped at a Welcome Center. Most state “Welcome Centers” are of the plain vanilla variety, with rest rooms and a few brochures touting local attractions and hotels. Taking advantage of Alabama’s Welcome Center was a much different and much nicer experience. The brick building in which it was housed was stately and the lush plantings on its grounds made us feel like we were in a beautiful public garden. However, what stood out most to both of us was this brochure prominently featured on the wall near the entrance. Yes, that’s bacon. Uh oh…

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Tupelo here we come…

We followed  Highway 78 to Tupelo and were really impressed by the beauty of the rolling hills, forests and mountains we saw along the way. It reminded us a lot of our many previous meanderings along the back roads of New England.

In case you’re too young to remember, or are from another planet, Tupelo is the birthplace of those famous swiveling hips and sneering lips belonging to homeboy favorite – Elvis Aaron Presley! Although his legend is still larger than life everywhere throughout Tupelo, there’s so much more to this city than the birthplace of the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

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Elvis at 13

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This 2 room house was built by Elvis’ father, uncle and grandfather.

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Here’s the church the Presley’s attended which was later moved to the the museum site.

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Pecans, Peanuts and Mobsters

We left bright and early Monday to begin our latest small town journey on the way to our final destination: Memphis, Tennessee. Our sojourn took us through the rolling hills of Ocala, Florida and it’s beautiful horse farms. Sadly, we needed three rest stop “breaks” before we finally crossed the border to Georgia.

Our route took us on some bucolic back roads which offered beautiful vistas of pecan orchards and peanut fields. As stunning as these scenes were they also shattered some long held beliefs. Who knew that pecans and peanuts didn’t grow in cans – already roasted and salted?

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We drove through the city of Ashburn (population of 4,152) – nicknamed The Peanut Capital of the World – on our the way to our first stop in Americus. This small town (population 16,359) is considered the heart of Jimmy Carter country. The concept that grew into Habitat for Humanity International was born in 1976 at Koinonia Farm, a small, interracial, Christian community near Americus. Habitat International’s world headquarters are located there.

Downtown Americus features beautiful Antebellum and Victorian architecture. The Windsor Hotel, which opened in 1892, is a stunning example.

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After enjoying our stroll in town we headed for nearby Plains (population 683), which  is the birthplace and home of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and the location of Jimmy Carter’s National Historic Site. The site, run by the National Park Service, includes the Plains high school which the Carters attended and now serves as the Carter Museum, and Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign headquarters.

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Having met with President Carter on several occasions, Bart couldn’t resist sitting behind a replica of the desk that is in the Oval Office and which was used by Kennedy, Carter and subsequent Presidents.

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Rorie is “Plainly” nuts. She did taste some peanut butter ice cream but did not – believe it or not – indulge in any servings of ice cream here. It’s early…

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They’re Baaaack…

Bart and Rorie are taking the Tour back on the road to Discover Small Town America in the Southeast. Bart’s new gig as an advisor on the America’s Best Communities program (Country music star Vince Gill is ABC’s spokesman – http://nbcnews.to/1HiU2PU) has them stoked to visit some new and other better-known small towns.

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They’ll be departing from the Gulf Coast of Florida and traveling highways and byways on their way to Memphis, TN, where diets and tight pants will be put aside to make way for some great barbecue and other southern goodies.

While they know they’ll be checking out places like Plains, GA, home of that famous peanut farmer, and Oxford, MS, hometown of authors William Faulkner and John Grisham, and the campus of the University of Mississippi, Bart and Rorie will be getting an “insider’s” scoop on other hidden gems to add to their itinerary from good friends Clay (a native of Mississippi) and his wife Mary (who’s from Georgia).

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If any Tour “followers” have ideas about other people and places (and eateries) Bart and Rorie should check out during their upcoming travels, please post them here. Stay tuned…