A Hero’s Welcome.
Enjoy warm hospitality in the hometowns of American heroes, icons and originals on the Parkway from Ridgeland to Tupelo.
The hometowns of Elvis and Oprah, a town named for a Revolutionary War hero, the site of a battle where a fearless Confederate general won an unlikely 11th hour victory—this 170-mile segment of the Natchez Trace Parkway, from Ridgeland to Tupelo, became a path to destiny for some pretty famous Americans, which is one of the reasons why traveling on the Parkway today will put you on the path to friendly communities and a thoroughly satisfying immersion into American history and culture.
Start your journey with a browse through some true American originals, the one-of-kind creations at the Bill Waller Craft Center, the 20,000-square-foot exhibition center, retail gallery and educational center for the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. This 400-member collective representing artisans from 19 different states has earned national acclaim for their exquisitely hand-made arts and crafts ranging from pottery to baskets to textiles.
With its central glass staircase and glass front views of the Ross Barnett Reservoir, the Crafts Center makes for an inviting and very comfortable stop. In the earliest days of the Natchez Trace that kind of comfort was unimaginable, of course, but a walk through the wooded loop at the site of the former Brashiers Stand (which in 1806 advertised itself as a “house of entertainment in the wilderness”), you may imagine how ruggedly beautiful this area must have been, as you pass by two carefully preserved sections of the Old Trace.
Not all of the natural beauty of this portion of the Parkway is original—like the creations of the Craft Center, some of it has actually been man-made. As the roadway’s gentle curve hugs the crystalline waters of the Ross Barnett Reservoir, blue herons standing in the shallows, loons dipping low over the glassy expanse, you may find it hard to believe that sixty years ago, this body of water was nothing more than an idea. Today, it’s a 33,000-acre paradise, with more than 100 miles of shoreline—a haven for all manner of outdoor recreation, not to mention contemplation, as you’ll see and enjoy for yourself at the Scenic Overlook.
A little further north, at the Cypress Swamp, you’ll want to take the self-guided tour of moss-draped wetland, where the wizened “knees” of bald cypress emerge from the water like totems.
You’ll find another portion of the Old Trace when you reach Kosciusko, the city that began as one of the oldest settlements on the Natchez Trace. Visitors sometimes think “Kosciusko” is an Indian name, but in fact the town was named in honor of a Polish general who became a hero in the American Revolutionary War; you can find out more at the visitor center and museum.
If people today aren’t familiar with General Tadeusz Kosciusko, one native daughter of this small town is so well known she need only use her first name. The Oprah Winfrey Road is a popular drive-by attraction for visitors, taking them past the Buffalo United Methodist Church where Oprah worshipped as a child, the Winfrey family cemetery and the house that was her birthplace. The woman who’s told millions of Americans to “live your best” has made sure that the children of hometown do, as well, with the 32,000-square-foot Attala County Boys & Girls Club, founded with the assistance of the television superstar and mogul.
Oprah has said, “As a little girl growing up here in this town, I started dreaming about my own possibilities.” And indeed, dreamers of all kinds are welcome in Kosciusko. With its picturesque Historic Downtown Courtsquare and scenic streets lined with graceful Victorians and stately Greek Revival homes, the city has proven so inspiring to painters that their portraits of Kosciusko have earned the city official designation as one of the “Prettiest Painted Places in America.”
And certainly one of the prettiest places in this pretty town is the Mary Ricks Thornton Cultural Center, a converted church with gothic spires and stained glass windows, that along with the historic courthouse, serves as a downtown landmark. And the beauty found in Kosciusko doesn’t only arrive in traditional form. L.V. Hull’s delightful ethnic yard art makes her home one of the town’s most charming and sought-after destinations, where shoes on stakes “bloom” among the lilies and cannas, and where everyday items find vibrant new life as found art objects.
On the road beyond Kosciusko, the French Camp Historic District tells another inspiring story of possibility and of more heroes helping children. Founded as a stand by Louis LeFleur in 1812, French Camp later became a town, which still later opened a school. As much of the town fell away, the school and its mission continued to thrive. Today, French Camp is both a home and school for boys and girls in need, as well as a fascinating historical site. On the Colonel Drane House tour visitors can see how a Revolutionary soldier lived, watch a blacksmith work his bellows and every fall watch sorghum being made. Stay overnight at the beautifully tranquil B&B, and be sure to enjoy some delicious mud cake at the Council House Café.
Further on, the Jeff Busby Overlook on Little Mountain is a scenic rest stop where you can picnic, camp or hike a trail, and from there it’s time to head into history, to fascinating and important Native American historic sites.
The six mounds that comprise the Bynum Mounds, built between 2,100 and 1,800 years ago, date back to the Middle Woodland period of prehistory. With its fact-filled exhibits, the Chickasaw Village tells a later story, creating a vivid picture of early life along the Trace, right down to the authentic native plants that grow along the Village’s self-guided trail. At the Chickasaw Council House picnic area, you can see the site of Pontatok, once the capital of the Chickasaw nation in the 1820s.
Ready to go even deeper and wider into history? Encapsulating and explaining the rich and varied history of the Natchez Trace is no easy task, but at the Natchez Trace Parkway headquarters and Visitors Center, interactive exhibits succeed in creating a portrait that is at once comprehensive and compelling, educational and engaging. More than 60,000 people visit the center each year, to see the exhibits, to get information about other areas of the Parkway and to take the self-guided walk through forest re-growth.
From the Visitor Center, it’s off to Tupelo where the question isn’t whether you’ll visit the Elvis Presley Birthplace, it’s simply when. The tiny shotgun house is part of the Birthplace Center that includes a park, a museum with a multi-media immersion into Elvis’ life and artistic influences, a gift shop and a chapel. On the grounds you can stand in front of the life-size bronze statue of “Elvis at 13,” Elvis’s age when he and his parents moved to Memphis. You can also take the Elvis Driving Tour to the childhood places of his heart. At Tupelo Hardware, you can stand in front of the glass case where Elvis saw his first guitar.
Standing at the tiny birthplace you can sense the improbability of it all; standing on the Brice’s Crossroads National Battlefield Site you can get a good feel for how Nathan Bedford Forrest rallied his overmatched force to an improbable victory. At the interpretive center/museum, a video is available; on the site there are hiking trails and the Confederate Gravesites exhibit, where the remains of 13 unknown Confederates lie (milepost 269). Re-enactors converge on the site every year and do the impossible, making a long ago battle come to life.
All around Tupelo, you’ll see the evidence of people who believed in possibilities. Private citizens making their own dreams real are responsible for three of the city’s popular attractions. At the Oren Dunn City Museum, named for its founder, you’ll find an entire village of artifacts, complete with a Memphis street car that had once been converted into a well-loved local diner. Tupelo businessman Frank Spain drove all over the country to locate the classic gems in the Tupelo Automobile Museum that now boasts 100 cars, everything from a Tucker to a Duesenberg to an 1886 Benz. And at the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo, where the largest herd of buffalo roam this side of the Mississippi River, along with giraffes, pigmy goats and other exotic animals, the dream of local resident Dan Franklin runs right on schedule in the “bison buses” taking visitors into the “wilds” of Tupelo countryside.
A herd of buffalo in Mississippi? It seems improbable, but then it must have seemed improbable that a poor boy born in a tiny shotgun house or a poor black girl born only a few miles away would both grow up to be superstars, each in their own way. But then, whether it’s creating unique yard art or converting old streetcars, building a recreational paradise from scratch or building children’s lives one a time, people here don’t shrink from a challenge. They’re true originals, and truly glad to host visitors, which is one of the many reasons why you’re sure to enjoy your hero’s welcome on this section of the Parkway.