Welcome to Meridian
This city with its rich history and thriving culture proves you don’t have to live by the ‘88 Longitude’ to have a good time.
Story & Photographs Carmen K. Sisson
The first thing you have to understand about Meridian is that the founding fathers — Richard McLemore, John Ball and Lewis Ragsdale — could have really benefited from a dog-eared Webster’s, a quick lesson in geography, and a dash of foresight. The second thing you have to understand is that no one here cares.
True enough, Meridian sits nowhere near a major line of longitude, despite the old city slogan, “88 Degrees: A Better Longitude on Life.” The 88-degree line is actually in Alabama, between Livingston and Demopolis. But that wasn’t the origin of the name anyway. The town was first known as Sowashee Station, from a Cherokee word meaning “mad river.” Ragsdale, a lawyer, wanted it to be called “Ragsdale City.” Ball, a merchant, wanted it to be called “Baldwin.” Industrial supporters, heavily dependent on the burgeoning Mobile and Ohio Railroad, called it “Meridian,” mistakenly believing the word meant “junction.”
The bustling train station bore the brunt of the controversy, exhibiting a revolving nameplate that changed sometimes several times a day. In 1860, someone tired of the confusion and filed for incorporation as “Meridian.”
Go to Echo. Don’t ask why, just go. It’s a must. Meridian has a rich and varied musical heritage, and this urban wonder, situated in the heart of downtown, is a big part of the local lore. By the time you’re finished soaking up smoke, sucking down liquor, and grooving local favorites like Chris Ethridge (formerly of The Flying Burrito Brothers and the International Submarine Band), you’re going to be too relaxed to do much more than stroll over to Weidmann’s for a nightcap.
Meridian is the home of Peavey Electronics. Perhaps more famously, it’s the town that gave birth to the father of country music, “singing brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers. Museums offer a glimpse into the history of both. Saturday, you can tour the Hartley Peavey Visitor Center and view the guitars, amplifiers and keyboards that provide the backbeat for a nation. If it’s Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, you can wander through the Jimmie Rodgers Museum and examine his original guitar and other memorabilia.
But set aside your first night in town for Echo. Relax. Drink in the atmosphere. Taste authentic Mississippi. Enjoy.
If you stayed in one of the many hotels near downtown, you’re close to The Checker Board, a casual Southern diner that’s easy on the stomach and the wallet. Sample cheesy eggs from the breakfast buffet. Return for seconds. You’ll need your energy, because it’s going to be a busy day.
Head over to the Antique Mall of Meridian, where you can buy anything from milk glass to mantels. Grab a few bars of locally-milled castile soap. (The coconut cream-scented is divine.) Pick up a handmade kudzu candle. Scratch shop cat Mr. Bojangles behind his broken, battle-scarred ears. Be careful with the credit card. Prices are cheap and the wares are plenty. You’ll spend more than you intended, trust me.
If you’re in the mood for art, downtown is where it’s at. Whimsical, hand-painted carousel horses dot nearly every corner (62 in all, part of a permanent “Around Town Carousels Abound” permanent public art exhibit founded by hometown actress Sela Ward and benefiting Hope Village for Children). If you’re lucky, you might catch an artist at work in one of the many galleries. If you’re even luckier, you may stumble upon the Meridian Museum of Art on a day when the local artist’s group is holding a workshop.
The museum itself is small with only three rotating galleries and 500 pieces in the permanent collection, but it’s a real treat, especially if you want a taste of the state’s most prominent, up and coming visionaries. This is a Carnegie Library, one of two built in the city (one for whites and one for blacks), by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1912. Boehm porcelain reproductions, avant-garde paintings, experimental photography, tribal sculptures, traditional oils — whatever your taste, you’ll find something to tantalize your retina.
Take a picnic lunch to Highland Park, and bring along a sack of bread to feed the many birds that populate the lagoon. Built in 1908 as a hat tip to the national zeitgeist of streetcar pleasure parks, it boasts a stone footbridge, promenade, gazebo and carousel house featuring a handcrafted, historic carousel. Whether you’re young, or just young at heart, the latter is not to be missed.
Manufactured in 1896 by Philadelphia cabinet maker and German immigrant Gustav Dentzel for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition Fair, the carousel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — a designation given to only 11 carousels nationwide and the only one in the South.
To say that it’s stunning is a gross understatement. Every inch shows meticulous care and incredibly detailed artistry. A double row of 28 fanciful zoo animals — hand-carved and stripped to their original paint coat — is interspersed with chariots, which beg for a sweetly romantic moment. Indeed, the carousel has been the site of many first dates and marriage proposals. It bears homage to the miracles that can happen when enough time (11 years), enough money (approximately $112,000), and enough heart (immeasurable) is given to historic preservation and restoration.
Take a minute and look upwards. Admire the 64 original oil paintings in canvas and wood. Remember a time when craft was king and art was everything. It’s a breathtaking experience, and at 50 cents per ride, it’s a bargain.
It’s easy to wile away the afternoon at Highland Park, but other joys lie hidden throughout the city.
Explore Merrehope, a 20-room Victorian mansion that is one of only six historic homes left standing after Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating destruction during the Civil War.
Wander down to the Union Station historic district and see where Meridian’s history began as a “child of the railroad.” Pull up a chair and listen to Meridian Railroad Museum director Mick Nussbaum, who relishes the “detective work” of sussing the town’s industrial heritage and has spent years amassing collectibles as well as an impressive library of railroad tomes.
Wander outside the museum and view a vintage Meridian & Bigbee caboose, a 56-seat coach car and a 90-year-old Pullman sleeper that briefly served as a popular local diner and was used as child actress Natalie Wood’s playhouse in the 1966 movie, “This Property is Condemned.”
Imagine Meridian before the railroad came through in 1860, turning it from a sleepy agrarian community into a Southeastern powerhouse and multi-modal epicenter for Amtrak, Greyhound and other transportation services.
Stroll across the street and get an old-fashioned shoeshine at The Shine King. Take time to talk with owner Ernest Robinson, who got his start as a teenager at a downtown newsstand in order to buy a bicycle. Get him to tell you about a long-forgotten art. Sure, you can text or chat on the phone while he shines — you wouldn’t be the first. But you’d miss the chance to talk to a man who loves shoes (he owns more than 66 pair and religiously, fanatically keeps them polished) and loves Meridian.
“It relaxes my mind to just sit here rubbing on shoes,” he says. “People don’t get their shoes shined like they used to. Nowadays people don’t care about their shoes, but back then, people were particular. It makes me proud when people get off the stand and say I brought their shoes back to life.”
As the sun sets, take an evening stroll through Rose Hill Cemetery. Leave a memento at the grave of gypsy queen Kelly Mitchell, who is apparently partial to fruit, jewelry and cheap liquor. Ponder the quotation placards sprinkled liberally throughout the grounds. Ponder the riddles of the universe and questions of eternity. Or just breathe deeply and prepare for the night ahead.
No question about it, if there’s a performance happening at the MSU Riley Center downtown, that’s the place to be. The lovingly restored 1889 Grand Opera House is a sight to behold. Thanks to decades of lawsuits, the original building went largely untouched for decades after its closing, leaving the original woodwork, wainscoting, wall coverings and lambrequin intact and ripe for an ambitious $25 million restoration project by Mississippi State University, the Riley Foundation and community leaders in 2006.
The stage has been shared by the likes of Big Head Todd and The Monsters and the Meridian Symphony Orchestra. Upcoming performers include the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Bruce Hornsby, Robert Earl Keen and Jonny Lang.
Honestly, this is the best reason of all to make a trip to Meridian into a weekend-long affair: Brunch at Weidmann’s Restaurant. Sure, you can go to Weidmann’s at other times, but brunch in this upscale downtown eatery is a luxe experience. Rub elbows with the movers and shakers of Meridian. Chat with the waitresses. Or just sit by the window and people watch. Yes, they still serve the quaintly eclectic peanut butter and crackers. Yes, they’re open again after a brief hiatus and management revamp. Yes, they’re better than ever.
A meal incorporating all the favorites will set you back $35, but one bite of the shrimp and grits will make you forget the cost. My recommendation: a crab cake appetizer drizzled with remoulade and served on a fried green tomato, fresh Gulf shrimp served over cheese grits and topped with ham and a light cream sauce and Black Bottom pie for dessert.
Elegant, extravagant, oh-so-Meridian and worth every penny.