Monday, March 17, 2008

Three Small Museums

Stopped at three VERY small museums in small Mississippi towns.

The first was the Delta Blues Museum in Clarkesdale. It had the main part of the house the Muddy Waters grew up in--the one room log house. Some great information and art from Pat "Son" Thomas. He had a distinctive style with small clay sculptures. Their store doesn't have a CD of Thomas Highway 61 Blues LP. They are not sure if it was re-released on CD.

LeLand Ms.: Two museums.
Didn't know that Jim Henson was grew up in LeLand. Talked to the woman at the small museum (main room is probably about 20 feet square, two smaller rooms are about 10 feet square--one is the gift shop.) She is really enthusiastic. They have two displays of original Muppets. One of Kermit playing a banjo. Both are on loan from the Smithsonian. One of the smaller rooms is a collection of Muppet stuff--toys, books, clothes. Found out that Henson's friend in high school was named Kermit.

The Highway 61 blues museum is even smaller than the Delta Blues museum in Clarksdale. But the son of James "Son" Thomas walks in (Pat Thomas). I'm the only person in the museum except for the one staff person. He asks if I have a camera and he starts playing 61 Highway Blues. Wow. He says his dad's Highway 61 Blues is available on CD but they don't have it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Got into Memphis Saturday early evening, left Sunday afternoon so there was no way enough time to see everything I wanted to.

Some of what I didn't get to on this trip (definitely going to have to get back to Memphis) Stax Records, Mississippi River museum, Graceland, the Dixon (art museum), Center for Souther Folklore, W. C. Hardy (father of blues) home and museum....

Beale Street
Got a hotel on the Arkansas side of the river--much cheaper than downtown and only five minutes away then went back downtown--headed to Beale Street. It was the night Memphis celebrated St. Patrick's Day.

The active part of Beale Street is only two blocks long but the second block is no where near as active as the fisrt block. Most of the block is blues clubs. This concentration REALLY results in a critical mass of activity. And lots of fun. Blues coming out of every door.

I ended up in BB King's Blues Club. 10 minute wait to get in. Great blind blus singer/harmonica player backed up by a stand-up base and electric guitar. Great music. They played a song titled Highway 61 (not Dylan's Hiway 61 Revisited--different song). I'll have to do some research to find out who the writer was. They ended their set with Sweet Home Chicago. In spite of being somewhat a tourist trap (routed you through the gift shop on the way out--I bough a Tee shirt), the music was great and the food was good. It was the first Mississippi River food I've had on the trip--southern fried catfish (corn meal breading) and hushpuppies. (I have my own deffinition of Mississippi River food--it includes New Orleans,cooking,walleye, corn fed beef, wild rice....)

After I left, walked by a small park with some live blues happening. Only down side was the new municipal parking ramp--it was very cheep--but why are all municipal parking ramps filthy?

Sunday morning I drove out to Graceland (10 minutes from downtown). Decided not to take the time or spend the money on this trip (It was Sunday and already kind of crowded).

Sun Records
The origional Sun Records studio is just east of downtown. Guided tour. Wait in the gift shop for it to start--good marketing move--bought up Howlin' Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis CD's while waiting.

Tour started on 2nd floor with a room of glassed in cases. Some really cool old recording equipment. An old Ampex single track tape recorder, an RCA master disk lathe, an old electric guitar amp. And then there was the large center case--a shrine to Elvis Presley. Some great recordings used on the tour--including a video of Presley's first national TV appearance (before the censors banned showing his swinging hips). The studio itself is small. Hard to believe it played a major part in the carriers of Presley, BB King (by the way, BB stands for "Blues Boy"), Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.

Waiting for the other museums to open at 1 PM--decided to have lunch on Beale Street. Silky O'Sullivans--Live blues to a small lunchtime group. And a great BBQ sandwich.

Memphis Rock n Soul Museum
This musem I'll have to get back to. Way too much to see. It does a GREAT job of tying the history of Blues, Country, Jazz and Rock to the history of the delta area--why all these musicians ended up in Memphis--why blues developed in the delta (Note, the delta refers to this reagion of the Mississippi--not the actual river delta south of New Orleans). Interesting displays on how the local music industry challenged the racial segregation of the time.

National Civil Rights Museum
Another museum that requires much more time. It is built around the Lorraine Motel--where Martin Luther King was shot--and the boarding house that Ray shot King from. The museum traces the history of the Civil Rights Movement from slavery to the present. It is one of the most powerful museums I've visited--ranking with Washington DC's Holocaust Museum.

They've replaced one wall of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel with glass so you can see the room King stayed with Ralf Abernathy the day he was shot. I had learned at the Rock N Soul museum that he had yelled down to a local sax player in the parking lot to ask him to play the gospel "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" right before he was shot. They had that song playing in the background.

In the boarding house part of the museum, you
could see Jame Earl Ray's room and the shared bathroom he shot King from. The museum even has a display explaining all the conspericy theories around King--was it someone else, was the FBI involved, was the Memphis police involved, was it an assassination planned by other black leaders? The display explains ALL sides--positive and negative--to these arguments.

All three of these museums tied back to Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.

Headed south to Clarksdale, Ms.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Native American Earth Works

The Mississippian Culture was a North American Native American culture from about 700 AD. Rements of it lasted until the French explorations and settlement of the lower Mississippi. The culture had a trading area from the Appalachians to the Rockies and from Wisconsin to the Gulf.

My first experience with remnants of the Mississippian culture was the Cahokia Mounds complex just outside East St. Louis. You can not really call the man-made hills east of St. Louis "mounds." They are too big for that. The really are "earth works." This city would have been as impressive as Machu Picchu if the building material had been stone. But it was built what was available locally. In Machu Picchu, the local building material was stone. In the central part of North America, the building material was with wood, straw, mud and earth. The only remaining structures are the earthworks. The 70 earthworks that are remaining are massive.

Monks Mound (named after the French monks who lived there in the early 1800s), the largest mound--and probably the most culturally significant--covers 14 acres and rises to a height of 100 feet. It is on a large flat plain east of St. Louis. It is the largest structure around. After climbing the (modern) steps to the top, you can see all the way to St. Louis on the other side of the Mississippi and to the bluffs beyond St. Louis. Chahokia was abandoned around the 1300s .
I also spent some time at the remains of the Grand Village of the Natchez Tribe (of course in Natchez, MS.). They appear to be the last remnant of the Mississippian culture. The remains of the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians is in suburban Natchez, MS, at the end of a subdivision road. It appears that the Natchez were still practicing the ceremonies of the Mississippian culture when the French set up a small settlement in the area in the early 1600s so there are some written descriptions of the practicing culture.

Emerald Mound is just outside of Natchez. The theory is that it was the ceremonial center of the Natchez. It is the largest earthwork in the area and the top has topography similar to that of Monks Mound outside of St. Louis.

Three downtowns

I was in Moline, Il's downtown on Thursday morning. The major attractions are the arena and the John Deere history complex--a new pavilion and a block of historic buildings. There didn't seem to be many other shops or restaurants. The John Deere history complex was well done and did seem to attract a number of tourists. There didn't appear to be any other activity.

Hannibal, Mo's downtown is all about MarkTwain. There are about half a dozen buildings that are the Mark Twain museum. Just about everything else is named to tie into Mark Twain. They've done a very good job of retaining the historic character of the downtown--the old department store is a great example of reuse--it is now a museum. Bu the place is dead. When I arrived last night at about 5:30, the only places that were open were the coffee place and the dinette. The next morning from 9 AM to 11 AM, it was still pretty dead. Checking the open hours signs, it was clear they aere not open on Friday night either.

Cape Girardeau's downtown was buzzing on Friday when I got there at 6 PM. Even now (about 10 PM, it has a lot of activity. (OK, I admit it is a Friday night--but it has places people would go to on Friday night). Only seem to have one or two vacant store fronts. The coffee shop I'm in has had a steady stream of people (In Hannibal last night, while there were people who hung out in the coffee shop, there was little traffic.)

So, why the difference?
  • Cape Girardeau has a major college (but a lot of the people downtown are NOT college students)
  • Cape Girardeau has a larger population than Hannibal but is much smaller than the Quad Cities.
  • All three cities/towns do have major development along a freeway a few miles away from downtown so that isn't an issue.
  • All three have done a very good job of retaining the historic downtown commercial buildings from the early 20th century so that isn't an issue either.
  • All three have a new riverfront park. Cape Girardeau's is half a block from downtown but is really just a concrete walkway on the river side of a 11 foot concrete flood wall. It doesn't seem to have much traffic.
  • Maybe it is art. In one block there were three art galleries. Maybe Tom Borrup is right about art being an economic development engine
I guess I really don't know why the difference. I wonder if any public affairs school has done an in depth study??

My daughter pointed out the obvious. Cape Giaradeau's downtown appeals to locals and tourists, not just tourists. The developments that were to draw people to downtown Moline and Hannibal only appeal to tourists. A downtown can not just rely on people from out of town. (My experience tonight in Memphis confirms this. While Memphis downtown does draw tourists, it draws many more locals.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Burlington, Ia

Kind of ran out of time for the trip from the Quad Cities to Hannibal, Mo. Mainly took Highway 61 and didn't stop for much. Did spend some time in Burlington, IA.

Burlington (pop of about 30,000) is there because or railroads. There are a number of ravines that run from the river up to the plains. These provided easy routes for the railroads.

Burlington is the namesake of The Burlington Line--on of Jame J. Hill's railroads (in addtion to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern.

Like just about all the river towns and cities, the rail freight yards next to the river have been replaced by a riverfront park. But they all still have a main line railroad between downtown and the river.

Burlington has an active downtown that isn't just a historic district. Had lunch at "The Big Muddy" bar and grill. While it was in an old railroad freight house next to the river, they didn't overdo the fake historic stuff. There was a sign on the wall "1996 Flood Level" that was at table height. When I asked if they had a "local beer," the response was "do you mean domestic?"--not a good sign. The fish sandwich was good though.

Burlington has a great looking Cable Stay Bridge over the river.

Went through a small town named "Mediapolis, IA." Only saw one printer. Town seemed to be about two blocks wide.

Resources for trip down the Mississippi

I'll be adding resources to this blog entry as I use them:

Clinton, IA and the Quad Cities

I always though of Clinton Iowa (where my Grandmother lived for the whole time I knew her) was just a sleepy, little river town that had seen better days. However, like a lot of the Iowa towns I've been going through, it seems to have a lot of industry and seems to be growing. And the industry seems to be rather mixed--not all of it is animal feed processing or food processing. Next time you hear the political commentators on the news channels dismiss the Iowa caucuses as just a small, rural, agricultural state, remember, while it doesn't have big cities, it has a significant number of small cities. I'll have to check the census data to see how diverse it's economy is.

One more political note: Most of the lawn signs from the Iowa caucuses have been taken down. I've only seen a few--and only for Ron Paul, John Edwards and Barak Obama.
Back to my road trip. Before I left Clinton, I visited their new riverfront park. It was build as part of the project that added a flood levy. It has a nice walking path right along the river but not much else (except the "River Boar" casino that all the river towns in Iowa and Illinois seem to have. At least Clinton's actually floats in the river (some are just built on pilings). Kind of a disconcerting sign on the river walk though: Notice: ....outfall from a combined sewer system... ...flow....may contain untreated sewage that could be hazardous to human health.

The drive to the Quad Cities (Davenport, Moline, Rock Island and one more) took me a ways away from the river but still in the river vally. Got back to the river a little before the Quad Cities and drove through some VERY small river towns that definitely have seen their better days.

Quad Cities
Took some time to visit my aunt who lives in Moline (she was the first woman elected alderman in Moline quite a few years ago).

The four cities have quite different characters. Bettendorf is the newest "Quad". (I remember when the area was called the Tri Cities.) It is more like the suburban extension of Davenport. It does have the largest aluminum rolling plant in the world (sided of course in aluminum).

Davenport is the other city on the Iowa side. By far the largest of the four at about 100,000. It seems to have a downtown that still has some activity.

Moline is there because a dam was build across that channel of the river to Rock Island (the island). This provided power for industry in 1837. The best known is John Deere. In fact, the most activity downtown is concentrated around the historic John Deere area. John Deere has the John Deere Pavilion, which has BIG new farm equipment and a history (at least the positive side) of mechanized farming.

I really didn't get any time in Rock Island, except for on the Island. The Island is an army base--a large munitions arsenal. The island was the location for the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi (Minneapolis--at Nicolett Island--was the location of the first bridge across the Mississippi). There are some great old limestone buildings as part of the arsenal--along with Union and Confederate cemeteries. Stopped in at the Lock and Dam 15 Vistor Center--lots of Canvas Back and Blue Bill Ducks just sitting in the river. The park ranger said they had a large number (over a hundered) Bald Eagles wintering over this year.

Took "Government Bridge" back to the Iowa side. It was build in 1895 for both railroad and road access to the island and is still in use (can't help but think about the 1060's freeway bridge in Minneapolis tha collapsed this summer).
There is a great series of articles on Rock Island (the Railroad, the song and the island) at Minnesota public Radio at

Ended up back on US 61 on my way south.

Some Mississippi Geography

[Updated 3/14, 3/17]
Not sure how to organize these blogs. I was going to just blog once a day but there are a few topics that cover the whole river. So, today I'll start the river geography post.

It has been fascinating watching the landscape change as I've driven down river.

From the source to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, the river has what I'd call a very shallow valley. For example, if flows through a very flat sand plain between St. Cloud, MN and Minneapolis.After St. Anthony Falls, the river flows through what can best be described as a ravine to the junction with the Minnesota River right at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport. It is between 50 and 100 feet deep and in places, at the base it is no wider than the river itself.

During the end of the last Ice age, the Minnesota River (call Glacial River Warren) carried a huge amount of water and carved a much wider valley.

For some reason (I may decide to research this some time in the future, starting at the downriver end of St. Paul there are some very tall, very steep bluffs along the river. South of Red Wing, Mn it is not uncommon to see vertical cliff faces of limestone.

It also looks like the rivers entering the Mississippi from the east (Wisconsin, Illinois)are significantly larger than the rivers entering from Minnesota and Iowa. From the east the St. Croix, Wisconsin, Chippewa, Illinois and Ohio rivers join the Mississippi. On the west side, the only big rivers seem to be the Minnesota and Des Moines.The river valley slowly widens as you drive into Iowa. At Clinton Iowa, the bluffs disappear abruptly. From there South [I'll fill in where it ends when I get there], The river runs in a rather wide valley. Bot the valley ends at some rather steep hills. On top of the hills it's rolling plains.

South of Hannibal the limestone bluffs returned. As I was driving down the Illinois side, the river was right next to the road on the right and the bluffs were next to the road on the left. It turns out that the valley was still just as wide. The river was just on the far east side of the valley (St. Louis on the other side of the river is in the river valley.

The river's current is much more noticeable after St. Louis. Above St. Louis, the Lock and Dam system creates 29 "pools." South of St. Louis there are no more dams and the river is free flowing. I would not want to be in that current in a small boat (e.g. smaller than a barge).

South of the Ohio River the valley flattens out. It is the aluvial plain of the Mississippi--thousands of years of flood have deposited all the mud it was carrying down from the north. Also south of the Ohio, the river seems much bigger and faster. (I couldn't get to Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio--it was flooded.

Surprise--at about Vicksburg, hills--it is not flat. Took the last 40 miles of the Natchez trace to Natchez--a National Park Service Parkway from Nashville to Natchez that follows the historic trail.

[More to come as I see more]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Minneapolis to Clinton, IA

This was a fast trip. I didn't stop for much since I got a late start this morning. The good side of that is everything is relatively close to home and Bev and I can take our time checking out some cool things along the Mississippi.

One place I did stop was the National Eagle Center in Wabasha Minnesota. It is in an area of the River that stays open all winter and attracts a lot of Bald Eagles. But, my luck struck again. Yesterday was sunny and perfect for Eagle soaring (using the thermals caused by the Sun heating the ground. So they got their fill of flying and fishing. Today was cloudy--no thermals. So today, they just relaxed and digested their meals from yesterday. But I did see six eagles overhead on my way down the river. The picture is of a Golden Eagle that has a broken wing that didn't heal properly. His name is Donald.

The geography is interesting. In the upper Mississippi, the river is in a rather deep valley starting in St. Paul (in Minneapolis it is in a ravine). As you get to southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and that part of Wisconsin, it is what is called a driftless area. For some reason, during all the glacial events during the Ice Ages, this area was never covered by a glacier. No glacial drift was deposited and the tops of the bluffs were not cut off. So there are some great limestone bluffs all along the river.

Still in the snow. In fact, Southern Wisconsin along the river looks like they had huge drifts. Places higher than my car.

Time to stop. I managed to leave my laptop's power supply in Minneapolis so I'm trying to conserve battery power.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Minneapolis to New Orleans Road Trip (via the Mississippi)

I'm almost ready to start this road trip. Just a few more things on my to-do list that need to be done.

After going through some guide books and listing everything I want to do along The River, I have one problem:
  • Too much to do in too little time.
I have to be in New Orleans for the Nonprofit Technology Conferenc next Wednesday. Leaving tomorrow morning gives me seven days to drive the about 1500 miles. That may sound like a lot of time but there is a lot to see along the way and this is definately not be a freeway trip--a lot of slow, winding roads.

One way I'm dealing with my time limitation is to cut off the two ends of the river:
  • I'll be starting in Minneapolis (my home) and not from Lake Itasca (the source of the Mississippi). This will save the 200 miles from Minneapolis to Itasca (by a direct route) and 430 miles back along the (still frozen) Mississippi.
  • I'm actually be skipping all of the St. Paul part of the river and start the real trip in Red Wing MN (far SE corner of the Twin Cities metro area). I figure I can drive the river road here any time.
  • I'll be ending in New Orleans, not at Venice, LA--the town at the end of the road near the actual mouth of the Mississippi.
The plan is to get to the Quad Cites in Iowa/Illinois by tomorrow night.

I will also be twittering along the way at