Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Two Days in Corinth

In this small North Mississippi town, tales of aviators and lion cubs live on, and voices from the past are heard again

Story & Photographs Carmen K. Sisson

There are no strangers in Corinth, so you might as well accept that from the get-go. With a scant 14,000 people plunked in Mississippi’s smallest county, everyone is either family, ex-family, soon-to-be family or adopted family. And as soon as you squeeze over the threshold of Abe’s Grill, you realize every faction is here, packed into a space barely wider than a railroad car.

Extroverts will be in hog heaven, but introverts may be tempted to bolt. Don’t. Stop and inhale the bacon. Grab a bar stool and a cup of coffee and get comfy at the 17-seat counter. The room is casino-dark thanks to tin signs, bumper stickers and license plates covering every vertical surface, but it sets the stage for the gleaming grill and the man behind it, Abe Whitfield.

His food draws people from around the world. The bacon is salty-savory, the biscuits melt in your mouth, and there’s a plethora of sopping choices, including redeye gravy, sawmill gravy, chocolate gravy and sorghum syrup.

But people are also drawn by Whitfield’s folksy authenticity and gregarious showmanship. He waves his spatula, pausing a beat before delivering a punchline with the impeccable timing that says he tells this joke often. A few women blush. But everyone laughs.

Whitfield, his wife, Terri, and their son, Ryan, have been running the diner since 1974. Terri arrives at 1:30 a.m. on weekdays to make the biscuits from scratch. Abe, 63, works 15-hour days.

“You’ve got to love this business to do it,” he says. “I reckon I love it.”

He turns to a woman at the end of the counter who is looking forward to her favorite dish — the scrambled pork brains and eggs her doctor banned from her diet a year ago. Her cholesterol is good again, and a celebration is in order.

“If you tried ’em, you’d like ’em,” Abe cajoles, tipping the plate in my direction.

This seems like a fine time to explore the rest of Corinth.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Work off your breakfast calories strolling the neighborhoods downtown. Each street holds a hidden jewel, from historic markers to an array of architectural styles.

Don’t miss Fillmore Street, where you’ll find Corinth’s oldest, most rustically beautiful church, Fillmore Street Chapel, built in 1871. At the end of the street is First Baptist Church — and Mississippi’s tallest steeple.

Then head to Crossroads Museum, also home to the 1,000-item Coca-Cola Museum.

At $5 to enter, the museum seems a bit sparse, but ask Executive Director Brandy Steen to show you her favorite exhibit. She’ll spin a wild tale about World War I aviator Roscoe Turner and his lion cub, Gilmore. She’ll tell you about Gilmore’s tiny cub-sized parachute, and you won’t believe her. But when she plays the video of Turner and cub, go ahead and hand over your wallet, because you’re going to want Turner’s biography, and maybe a trinket or two to remember the visit.

Spend the rest of your afternoon downtown exploring the business district. Consider skipping the famous slugburger at Borroum’s Drug Store and getting the perfectly-charred cheeseburger instead. And make sure to get an old-fashioned milkshake. The chocolate and butterscotch are outstanding.

Or, try family-owned Dilworth’s Tamales, a charming 1960s-era drive-thru only diner where a dozen tamales, mild or hot, will set you back $3.

And don’t miss Franklin Cruise home furnishings, where mother-son duo Karen and John Frame sell everything from thousand dollar couches to inexpensive gifts. Francophiles will love the myriad of Eiffel Tower-themed items, and John is a veritable fount of knowledge about where to go, what to do and where to eat.

His supper suggestion: Juju’s Shrimp Boat Cafe, which serves fresh seafood daily from Bayou La Batre, Ala. He promises it’s the best seafood you can buy without driving to the Gulf Coast.

If you’re lucky enough to land in Corinth on a Thursday, grab a blanket and head to the courthouse lawn around dusk. A free bluegrass concert, “Pickin’ on the Square,” is held every Thursday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

A stroll through Contraband Camp is a relaxing way to begin your morning. A winding trail leads you through the site, with life-sized bronze figures telling the tale of the 2,500 to 6,000 former slaves who fled there to hide in Union territory following the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. The statues depict the simple joy of domestic life for the newly-free: a woman ironing, a man planting crops, a child learning to read.

If you stand beneath the canopy of trees and close your eyes, you can almost hear their voices.

Now, head back to the Crossroads Museum and explore the railroad tracks which run alongside it. Chances are, you’ll see someone having their picture taken at the spot where the railroad ties form an “X.” One of the most photographed places in Mississippi, it is one of the most important places in American history.

As the junction of the Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads, this “X” made Corinth a vital transportation hub for the Confederacy — and a target for Union troops. Thousands of men died fighting to control this 16-square-foot patch of soil.

When it’s time for lunch, White Trolley Cafe is the place to be, and the slugburger is the thing to eat. The deep-fried pork, beef, and soy grit “burgers” originated in Corinth during the Great Depression, when they cost a nickel and nickels were called “slugs.”

Borroum’s Drug Store is most famous for them, and many people say theirs are the best. But White Trolley has equally ardent fans, and if you end up liking either version, you can find them both (along with those from other vendors) at the Slugburger Festival, held every year on the second week in July.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

White Trolley’s version is thinner, slightly beefier, and crispier on the edges than Borroum’s, which makes it a standout. A devotee has even set up a Facebook page called “I Wish I Had a White Trolley Slugburger from Corinth, MS!” The page has garnered nearly 600 “likes” so far.

Most people order it with mustard and onion, but you can add cheese, mayonnaise or even ask for a “double slug” to make it more substantial. A regular slugburger will set you back 85 cents, and a slugburger with cheese costs 99 cents.

For people like Brooke Gray, sitting at the yellow Formica counter brings back happy childhood memories. Her father brought her here often when she was a child; today, she brings her 4-year-old son, Brayden.

Somehow in Corinth, the present always loops back to the past, for the two are interwoven.

Never is that more clear than at the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center. The 15,000-square-foot facility is part of Shiloh National Military Park and is operated by the U.S. National Park Service. Not only is the museum free, it’s also one of the best history museums in the South.

Every detail is arranged for maximum impact, beginning with the meandering sidewalk.

At first, the path seems pointlessly indirect. Then you see a brown cap, carelessly left on a ledge. As you get closer to the entrance, the discoveries become more frequent. Rifles, bags, books — war detritus casually flung in the grass. Each bronze replica begs to be touched. Absorbed.

Inside the museum, interactive multimedia exhibits detail the misery inflicted upon Corinth during the war. Outside, a babbling stream commemorates 100 years of American history. Beyond the gate lies a Confederate cemetery. It’s a good place to end your trip.

As the sun sets and the shadows grow long, Abe Whitfield is finally leaving the grill and John Frame is locking the doors at Franklin Cruise. Outside White Trolley, a man leans up against the cinderblock wall, holding a Jack Russell terrier while talking with employees.

You won’t believe this — in fact, you’ll probably vehemently deny it. But one day, when you least expect it, you’ll get a fierce craving for a slugburger.  You’ll look out the window and think, It’s a pretty day for a drive … and you’ll be back in Corinth again.