Lord almighty, I feel my temperature rising – even though it’s early December and the air is crisply chilled. But if you grew up in a certain era, you can’t help but think of one thing when you roll into Tupelo, Mississippi.
It’s the birthplace of Elvis Presley, thankyouverymuch. And within minutes of entering our latest Good Town, we’re headed to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s first home. This is where Elvis and his twin brother, Jesse, were delivered on the night of Jan. 8, 1935. Alas, Jesse never made it past delivery.
But Elvis remains one of America’s greatest icons 45 years after his own passing.
At the Elvis Birthplace museum, you can get a feel for the King’s early years, from his original house before the family moved on to Memphis, to the church he was baptized in. Elvis used revenues from his first big concert tour in 1956 to purchase both, and the estate has ensured the upkeep for the past 30 years.
Even on a midweek morning, the place is crowded. That’s the norm, and Rhonda and Blake Lamb enjoy every moment as the tourists pour in, tour the campus, purchase keepsakes and begin with the stream of never-ending questions.
“The museum opened in ‘92 and we have 15 acres to explore,” said Rhonda, who manages the museum. “We get more than 100,000 visitors a year, and 75,000 are British. Every Thursday and Friday they arrive in two busloads.”
Rhonda has worked her way up. She originally answered a help wanted ad in the newspaper shortly after the museum opened. From selling tickets, she graduated to the gift shop, then to the front office. Now Blake, her son, manages the gift shop after years of experience in retail management.
“What I love is that there’s different people here every day, all with different stories,” Blake said.
And not all the visitors are curious tourists. Celebrities from country music stars to film directors prepping for the2022 film – “Elvis,” of course – have been spotted recently.
The Heart of Downtown
There’s more to Tupelo than Elvis. Start with the bustling downtown and the heartbeat of the business district, Reed’s, a department store that occupies an entire block and has been the town’s pride and joy since 1905.
An associate greets you the minute you walk through the door. And as we browse, we come across John L. Rush, a tailor, as he works on alterations for a recently purchased pair of dress slacks.
“I’ve been doing this 40 years,” said Rush, never pausing with his precise work. “I started at a small store in Pontotoc, where I had to learn how to do alterations because there wasn’t anyone else there. Then I came here. Now I’m the last one standing. It’s a dying art.”
Tailoring suits and custom fitting sports coats, Rush stays busy from arrival to the store closing.
“We still wait on every customer, and we pull in customers from 100 miles – from Memphis, across Mississippi and into Alabama.”
The store combines an old-time feel with modern fashions – everything from stylish men’s suits to women’s fashions to store-label clothing. There are even signed copies of John Grisham novels in stock. But it’s the customer service that gives Reed’s it’s classic feel.
It’s a family tradition that continues with CEO Jack Reed Jr., who gave up a law practice in 1980 to join the business.
“I enjoyed practicing law, but someone in my generation needed to come in and help out. We needed new blood,” Reed said. “So, I figured I’d give it a try. If I didn’t like it, I’d go back to my legal practice, but I haven’t had time to analyze the decision yet.”
There are five stores in all throughout the state, from Tupelo to Oxford to Starkville.
What sets Reed’s apart?
“I think it’s the workmanship and quality of the fabric,” Reed said. “You can touch it and feel the difference.”
The other key: personal service.
“First, we try to be listeners, not sellers,” Reed said. “And while we focus on our customers, we take immense pride in our employees. We aren’t owned by an investment group in New York squeezing out every ounce of profit. Instead, we’re locally owned. Our people get paid first and our family gets paid last. I still live a comfortable lifestyle.”
Next door is Reed’s Gift Shop and the adjoining Gum Tree Bookstore, where Liz Rose has worked for 20 years.
“We’re all about customer service,” Rose said. “We try to have the most current, on-trend items. So, when you come in, you’re not just dealing with saleswomen, you’re dealing with people who know their products and are passionate about their careers.”
The Historic Lyric
A few blocks away, Tom Booth and his two nephews are busy organizing the massive prop room at the Lyric Theater, a historic, 110-year-old facility that’s the home of Tupelo Community Theatre (TCT), one of the most respected theatrical troupes in the South.
“I’m an accountant by trade,” Booth explained. “I worked in the furniture industry, which is very volatile. Working there about put me in the ground.”
When the TCT board announced it was seeking a full-time executive director, Booth, who had been a regular on the stage as an actor, quickly made the career change. That was 20 years ago, and he’s never looked back.
And why would he? TCT puts on one incredible season of live theatre after another inside the Lyric, which seats 500 people and has 1,000 season-ticket holders. For smaller productions, from the Avant Garde to screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” they offer TCT Off Broadway, a 100-seat black-box theater that provides the perfect intimate setting.
It’s not the only artistic endeavor in town. Tupelo also has a symphony, two ballet companies, youth theatre and an art gallery, yet TCT manages to hold its own.
“Theatre is the great melting pot,” Booth said. “You have people here who could buy the theater 10 times over working next to actors who have to scrape up money for gas to get here for rehearsal.”
And, like everything else, there are ties to Elvis. Like the Lyric balcony. In the 1940s, the venue was segregated for movie screenings, with a separate entrance for Black patrons. When a young Presley climbed into the balcony to watch a film with a friend, the story goes, he was sent back to his original seat.
Where the Buffalo Roam
There’s so much to explore in and around Tupelo. Start with the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444-mile scenic drive that winds from Tennessee and Alabama before spending most of its time in Mississippi. Tupelo is the halfway point for roadsters, bikers, cyclists and hikers who want to explore “10,000 years of history” at a more leisurely pace than interstates allow.
Equally original, but even more exotic, is the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo, a wildlife refuge founded by Dan and Sheila Franklin.
Got an hour? Drive through the expansive park, where buffalo, ostriches, zebras, Watusi cattle and longhorn steers meander over for a meal you purchased at the gift shop. Just hold on to your bucket tight because these exotics will snatch the feed away if you let them.
There’s also a petting zoo, where you can get up close with turkeys, pot-bellied pigs and ponies. There’s also a Giraffe Barn, Reptile Exhibit, Bird Barn and Chickasaw Indian Village, which honors Mississippi’s original inhabitants.
But it’s the park’s namesake, the buffalo, that take your breath away. As you approach, they roam a hillside, and that visual transports you back into the 19th Century American West – or at least a Kevin Costner flick. In person, they are massive, but non-threatening.
However, after our day’s sightseeing adventure, we’re really hungry.
A Bait Shop and Meals on Old Truck Wheels
Ask around for the best barbecue in town and everyone tells you to head to the bait shop. Seriously.
Clay’s House of Pig (C.H.O.P.) never disappoints. It’s the brainchild of the late Clay Coleman, a young man still beloved by his staff as they patiently smoke ribs over a grill out back and serve customers who pack the joint each day.
“When you come here to eat, Clay wanted it to feel like you’re in your own backyard,” said Joe Turner, the manager of the restaurant. “He was always the life of the party.”
So, what about the bait shop it’s housed in? Well, that was Coleman’s first venture, and for years it was a success. But then came the recession, and just when the economy picked up big box stores came into town selling the same bait and tackle at cheaper prices.
But Coleman always loved cooking, beginning with barbecue competitions with his father. He began serving sandwiches at the bait shop to help produce revenue during slower months. When the barbecue fare began outselling his original merchandise, he made the conversion complete.
“What sets us apart is that we have a different style and technique,” Turner explained. “Everything’s made fresh and smoked with charcoal and pecan wood, which is milder and sweeter than hickory and mesquite.”
Coleman’s story is told lovingly on the restaurant’s website, where he credited success to a higher power: “I’m just managing the chaos.”
As we depart C.H.O.P., we head back into town only to find a food truck parked next to a downtown office building, where another big line is forming.
What’s all the fuss? We see Leslie Curle and Mallory Rikard waiting patiently and nudge them for information.
“We come here at least once a week,” Curle said. “They’ve got the best burgers in town. They’re hand-patted, they don’t skimp on the toppings and they’re quick.”
The sign says Local Mobile. As we explore, we learn that Local Mobile is Tupelo’s original food truck. The owner, Curt McLellan, is a food service veteran – and the husband of Ashley McLellan, Regions’ Tupelo market leader and our tour guide on our visit to Elvis’ Birthplace.
Working with him in the cramped kitchen of the 1984 truck is Ashley Prince. They were friends socially when Curt got a wild hair that he was going to try this venture.
“He posted that he needed help with a food truck,” Prince said. “Nine years later, I’m still here five days a week.”
A former Ole Miss Rebel baseball pitcher – the same program that just won the 2022 College World Series title, if you haven’t heard – Curt McLellan grew up working at a restaurant in Jackson as a teen. He started out with the same chain after graduation in Nashville, Tennessee, before becoming a Davidson County health inspector. When the McLellan’s returned to Mississippi, the lure of serving enticed him to try something new.
“There were no food trucks in Tupelo, so we got all the improvements and decided to start on a trial basis,” McLellan said. “We did it right from the beginning. And, for me, it’s the perfect job: I get to cook and talk to people all day long.”
As for us, the sun is setting. The road beckons. Don’t be cruel, but it’s time to head home.