Under Delta Skies

For travelers wanting to revel in the luxuries and the lore of the Delta, there’s no better place than Greenwood

Story & Photographs Carmen K. Sisson

It is pitch dark. The kind of dark where you can almost hear the cotton stirring in its bolls and the corn straining to reach the heavens. The kind of dark where the sky is a floor of strewn diamonds and a patch of moon glimpsed between the clouds is as welcome as an old friend seen from the door ajar. The kind of dark where you suck the air between your teeth and let it fill your belly with the fullness of life.

Standing at night in sock-feet on the porch at Tallahatchie Flats, the world seems pregnant with possibility and impossibly beautiful.

“That’s so Delta,” proclaims Greenwood’s official website, but for the uninitiated, that’s about as useful as a plow to a polar bear.

To understand the Mississippi Delta, you need to experience it for yourself, and Greenwood — population 15,205 at the 2010 Census count — is a fine place to start.

Founded on the fickle fortunes of “white gold,” Greenwood, incorporated in 1844, benefitted greatly from the confluence of the Tallahatchie, Yalobusha and Yazoo rivers. The nutrient-rich, alluvial soil and temperate climate provided abundant cotton yields, and the proximity to the rivers made easy access for shipping. Before long, Greenwood laid claim to the title of Cotton Capital of the World.

But as prices plummeted, the local economy began to falter. Today, nearly 40 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, with little more than asphalt separating the haves from the have-nots.

It is a city where you can sleep in an iron bed covered by a tattered quilt or enjoy ice-cold champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries while luxuriating between 300-thread-count sheets. It is a city where you can spend an afternoon or a lifetime, but a weekend jaunt will give you the best of both worlds.

We’re going to outline a whirlwind agenda, but honestly, Greenwood is best savored in slow, lingering bites.

FRIDAY
The first place you will probably notice is Grand Boulevard, named one of the 10 most beautiful streets in the nation for its 1,000-plus oak trees. It’s not only a pleasure to drive, it’s also a cyclist’s dream, with integrated bicycle share lanes, an annual Bikes, Blues & Bayous ride and an honorable mention as a bicycle-friendly community.

The stately homes also command attention, especially the one at 413 Grand Boulevard, which played a key starring role in the 2011 box office hit, “The Help,” as character Hilly Holbrook’s house.

When you start seeing corn and are sure you are lost, look to your left. There, plunked between the cotton and soybeans, lies Tallahatchie Flats.

Six rustic cabins, or “tenant houses,” whisper a subtle invitation to kick off your shoes, take a seat on the porch and prop your feet on a milk crate until sunset.

The houses, rescued from local plantations, sleep two to six, and each comes with its own story and 1940s-style furniture. Some houses still bear remnants of newspaper — cheap insulation — on the walls. Butter churns and enamel pails serve as garbage cans. Televisions come equipped with rabbit ears, and Wi-Fi is sketchy at best. Take it as tacit permission to unplug.

Slip outside to enjoy the nightly bonfire (bring your own marshmallows and hot dogs). Wander down to the Tallahatchie River. Or just sit on the porch and wave to passing farmers. Out here, anything goes.

SATURDAY
Begin your day at Robert Johnson’s grave — well, one of them anyway. Less than a mile past Tallahatchie Flats, you will find Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and in the adjacent cemetery, you’ll find one of the most curious legends and interesting headstones in the South.

Johnson died in 1938, allegedly poisoned at a nearby juke joint, but where he’s buried — Greenwood, Morgan City or Quito — is a secret he took with him to the grave. Don’t forget to leave a guitar pick for good luck, and don’t be shy about taking pictures. Superstitious folks say you might capture Johnson’s ghost.

If you’re hungry, head to Veronica’s Custom Bakery, which has the best eggs Benedict this side of the Mason-Dixon line. You’ll work the calories off on Howard Street, where chic temptations await.

The centerpiece of Howard Street is the Alluvian Hotel, an unparalleled, albeit pricey, indulgence. You can have half the experience at a fraction of the cost at the spa, with a Delta River Rock massage, Riverside Revival bath, Sweet Tea manicure or Alluvian Fields pedicure. Men are pampered here, too, with camouflage robes, Gentlemen’s Hot Towel facials and Pine Sea scrubs.

Across the street is the lust-worthy Viking Range retail store and their signature cooking school. Hands-on classes are offered for budding gourmands, but armchair cooks might prefer the one-hour “Lunch and Learn.” They cook and teach; you look and eat.

But don’t eat too much. Save room for Delta Bistro and its bread and butter pudding, served warm and drenched in caramel sauce. Heaven on a plate and worth the drive from anywhere.

Also on Howard Street, visit the gorgeous TurnRow Book Company and stuffed-to-the-gills Mississippi Gift Company. Both are locally owned and operated, with upstairs galleries chock full of work from Mississippi artists.

Another option is the 14,000-square foot Museum of the Mississippi Delta, where you can see an authentic Civil War cannon, purportedly one of only two in the nation still operable today, and a 38-foot dugout canoe, used by moonshiners to transport hooch from a nearby island into town.

For supper, we’ve heard rave reviews about the porterhouse steak at Giardina’s and the broiled pompano at Lusco’s, but know this: Attire is dressy and dinner for two can easily top $100.

SUNDAY
After Saturday’s whirlwind tour of Greenwood, you’ll probably want to sleep in. But before you leave, have lunch at Crystal Grill, which serves up Southern charm and excellent sweet tea. The restaurant is known for its breaded cutlet and brown gravy; the candied yams are a big hit as well.

Now here’s the catch: If you visit Crystal Grill on Sunday, you can’t get their famous, made-from-scratch, mile-high chocolate or coconut meringue pies. Those are only served Tuesdays through Thursdays and are included with the price of your meal at night.

But you can still get the lemon icebox pie, which has just the right amount of tartness and creaminess to make it memorable.

If you made arrangements in advance, you may be able to end your trip with a swamp tour via pontoon boat at Tallahatchie Flats, or craft your own driving tour to suit the fancy of any film, music, art or history buff.

Whatever your plans, you won’t get to everything, because once you arrive, time stops.

It’s those big Delta skies, with towering cumulus clouds drifting over freshly-tilled soil, and that big Mississippi sun rising and sinking and rising again. It’s being wrapped in the songs of the bullfrogs and cicadas and childhood summer memories of catching lightning bugs and snitching scuppernongs from the neighbor’s fence. It’s the feeling of living close to the land, drinking in the spiritual energy of this storied place.

But mostly, there’s just something about Greenwood that’s so … Delta. Once you go, you’ll understand.


WHILE YOU’RE THERE

First Stop
The Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau has a wealth of information about the must-see places in not only Greenwood but also the Delta and other areas of the state. Computers and smart phones are valuable trip planners, but there’s no substitute for being able to stick a driving itinerary in the car or in your pocket to make sure you don’t miss anything. Bonus: CVB executive director Paige Hunt and business office manager Elizabeth Stowers are treasure troves of tips and tidbits you’ll find nowhere else. greenwoodms.com

Burgers and Blues
If you’re looking for a casual atmosphere, live music and a great burger, check out Webster’s Food and Drink, a neighborhood bar and favorite hangout. We suggest going on a Monday, after 4 p.m., when their specialty burgers are under $10. Try the Delta Burger — topped with a fried egg, cheddar cheese, french fries and gravy. It might sound like a heart-attack-on-a-plate, but the local folks swear by it.

Our Little Secret
High praise has been heaped upon Mai Little China for its innovative fusion of Chinese, Asian and neo-French Asian menu. It is listed among the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the nation and offers a buffet six days a week. Traveling with picky eaters? They also serve standard Southern fare, including fried catfish, chicken fingers, green beans, cornbread and chicken spaghetti. mailittlechina.com

Spiritual Oasis
Tucked away at the end of a winding gravel road, you’ll find Chapel of Mercy, built by brother and sister duo Lee and Magdalene Abraham. A lot of history is packed into the chapel’s 800 square feet, from the century-old pews, handmade by Franciscan monks, to the Virgin Mary tapestry, a European marvel that is more than 200 years old. Also, don’t miss the exquisite statue of Mary Magdalene, circa 1780 and carved from a single piece of wood. The remote setting is ideal for private prayer and contemplation and is available 24/7 to people of all faiths.

A key code is necessary to enter. Write to marymack1@bellsouth.net for details.

Civil Rights
Those interested in the Civil Rights movement won’t want to miss Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, located eight miles outside of Greenwood in Money. The abandoned store, now covered in kudzu and vines, was the location of a pivotal moment which some say was the catalyst for the movement. Pull to the side of the road and envision the store in 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till was standing in front of the store and allegedly whistled at the white shopkeeper’s wife, which led to his lynching. His mother wanted the world to know what had happened, so she invited the media to take photographs at his open casket funeral. The horrific images shocked the nation and galvanized citizens to take action.

greenwoodms.com