People from all over the nation came to be pronounced man and wife here. Before he was a millionaire and Civil War legend, Coroner Nathan Bedford Forrest pronounced people dead here. Here, John Grisham wrote his first best-selling prose and at the turn of the century, a thriving community of musical talents arose; artists who migrated to Memphis when they weren't playing minstrel or medicine shows.
Elvis and Priscilla honeymooned here. Hernando DeSoto traveled through here and left two of his names behind. Today, at the top of Mississippi, the golf courses are greener, the blues are bluesier and the land is still spawning successful musical artists after more than a century. Where DeSoto once explored, you'll discover a vast territory, prime for leisure and recreation, and the high point for unparalleled hospitality at the gateway to Memphis.
When babies are born in this easy-going portion of the Mississippi Hills, that's what they are in effect issued, because for the rest of their lives they'll live with one foot in Mississippi and one foot in Memphis.
Sound like a tough balancing act? Not for the folks around here. In fact, people from all walks of life have found this unique location advantageous--whether it was the 20-year-old Forrest beginning in business with his uncle in Hernando before going on to greater fortune in Memphis; or DeSoto County proto-blues greats Mississippi Joe Callicott, Garfield Akers, Frank Stokes and Elijah Avery plying their talents in Beale Street clubs and recording studios and even earlier on the Memphis streets, busking as it was called; or in more recent history, Southaven resident John Grisham using Memphis as the evocative backdrop for his first smash thriller.
Explorer Hernando DeSoto came through this area on his way to the Mississippi in 1540 and some three hundred years later residents chose to honor the explorer by naming both the new county DeSoto and the new county seat Hernando. In 1845 Forrest was elected Hernando's first constable and coroner and though he moved on to Memphis, his political bent was established; he became a Memphis alderman in 1858 and after the Civil War, returned to the city and to a controversial political profile.
While Forrest would remain enmeshed in racial divisiveness, for the folks in DeSoto County the war ended at Appomattox, Vir. By 1872 DeSoto County's first free school for African-Americans had been formed and by the turn of the century Hernando and the DeSoto area had become home for a community of great African-American guitarists who would lay down the tracks for a great new art called the blues.
Stoking a new style of music.
Guitar great Frank Stokes came to Hernando as a child in 1895 and within a few years he was commuting to Memphis, busking on the streets and developing a loyal following and a repertoire that included minstrel tunes, rags, country tunes and folk songs. Today some actually consider his influence equal to W.C. Handy's in the birth of the blues. What's more, when Stokes teamed up with Garfield Akers (who had been touring with a traveling medicine show) and the pair set off to play the tent circuit, some say Stokes' style influenced the young Jimmie Rogers, a fellow Mississippian, who would go on to earn the title of "Father of Country Music."
By the 1920s, the infant Memphis recording industry was drawing Mississippi Hills musicians with new opportunities. Gus Cannon's "Jug Stompers" jug band began recording hits while Stokes joined the Beale Street Sheiks in 1928 recording "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do," a classic later famously covered by Bessie Smith. In late 1929, lifelong Nesbit resident Mississippi Joe Callicott signed on as second guitarist to Garfield Akers. Callicott's "Love Me Baby Blues" became another popular cover subject for later artists like Ry Cooder.
Mid-century, as Hernando was rocking the country as the national marriage capital (even Life Magazine did a report,) the newly minted art of rock and roll came to DeSoto County, up close and personal, when both Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis made homes here. But it would be at the end of the twentieth century when rock and blues would form their own marriage with the unique sounds of the North Mississippi All Stars, the award-winning blues-rock jam band formed in Hernando.
Today, DeSoto County still swings, although it’s with golf clubs on the four championship golf courses and with pro hockey sticks at the DeSoto Civic Center, northwest Mississippi’s premier venue for concerts, sporting events, and conferences. And if your recreation leans more toward power shopping, this place is in a league of its own with antique stores and other venues that combine past and present in completely charming settings like Olive Branch's Old Towne, a delightful shopping and dining attraction anchored by the historic Wesson House. You may want to start your tour here, or you may want to start it with a little more drama; a legal thriller that pre-dates Grisham's – the dramatically majestic murals depicting Hernando DeSoto's arrival, which adorn the interior of the DeSoto County Courthouse in Hernando. The Courthouse and the Courthouse Square are both historic sites you won't want to miss along with another must-see, the DeSoto County Historical Museum, where the antebellum parlor and the historic log cabin are only a few of the highlights.
DeSoto is also home to a number of historic resting places like the Confederate Monument, one of the oldest in the state, which reigns over the grounds of the old Hernando Memorial Cemetery and where the remains of more than 150 soldiers lie. Joe Callicott, Gus Cannon and Memphis Minnie are all buried in DeSoto County and no blues aficionado will want to leave without paying their respects to those early giants, including Big Walter “Shakey” Horton, all of whom have Mississippi Blues Trail Markers in DeSoto County. Elvis' honeymoon cottage is here and is for sale again, but you can still drive by and envision the King (and his queen) of Rock-n-Roll during that special time in history.
Once you're this close, there's no reason to wait; pull out your Memphis passport and head for more of the King at Graceland. It is, after all, one of the most-visited private residences in the United States, second only to the White House. And no wonder. From jets to jump suits to the red MG Elvis drove in Blue Hawaii, Graceland is all Elvis, all the time, including two special exhibits, “Elvis Lives: The King and Pop Culture,” an interactive exhibit allowing you to experience how Elvis influenced pop culture as we know it today and the “'68 Special” at Graceland Crossing, which offers a look at this historic television event through videos, photos and displays of artifacts from the 1968 program. After Graceland, take a guided tour of the famed Sun Studios, where Elvis, Jerry Lee, Howlin' Wolf and others got their start.
In Memphis, musicians like Elvis, Lewis and Callicott found great success, but there was something that always pulled them back home to the Mississippi Hills. Once you've been here, you'll feel it too.
You'll be back. And we'll be here.