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Today is October 15, 2018

Tales from Mississippi’s wild side

A new museum in Leland joins the growing number of attractions devoted to the culture, heritage and history of Mississippi. In this case, it’s all about the outdoors.

By Debbie Stringer

Tales from Mississippi’s wild side

Among the donated items exhibited in the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum are vintage outboard motors, background, and a wooden boat that was used to rescue victims of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, as shown in the photo on the easel.

The Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum celebrates the state’s deeply rooted outdoor sports traditions, and their evolution. Generations of Mississippians have fished, hunted, boated and camped—some for sport, others to put food on the table. A fortunate few have managed to build a career or business on their passion for the outdoors.

Whatever their reasons for venturing into Mississippi’s woods and waters, these outdoor enthusiasts emerge with a treasury of knowledge and tales to tell. Their experiences enliven the wide variety of exhibits awaiting visitors at the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum.

Displays feature more than 3,000 items donated by sportsmen and their descendants. The collection encompasses historic photographs, firearms, bows, casting lures, game calls, full-mount taxidermy, prehistoric animal bones, boats, outboard motors and much more.

THE IDEA BEHIND the 15,000-square-foot museum started with Billy Johnson, curator and founder of the Highway 61 Blues Museum, also in Leland. Johnson and other like-minded individuals formed the nonprofit Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Foundation in 2013 to set the project in motion.

The museum is located in the historic Joe Turner Hardware store building, which operated for more than 100 years in downtown Leland. South Delta Regional Housing Authority, the property’s last owner, donated the brick building for the museum. While renovating the interior, organizers retained as much of the old store’s character as practical.

“We tried to preserve its heritage,” said Robert “Bob” Hitt Neill, secretary-treasurer of the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Foundation and the author of several outdoors-related books.

“These are the original floors, and we fixed the original ceiling. We put cypress on the walls—not original, but it just fit. And we tried to use all the old counters and showcases,” Neill said.

The store’s nuts-and-bolts bin cabinet now displays a large collection of modern and vintage fishing lures.

After four years of planning, renovating, exhibit building and artifact collecting, the museum opened last June. More than 1,000 visitors attended its two-day grand opening weekend. By the end of the summer, the museum’s visitor book had filled with more than 1,200 names from 27 states and seven foreign countries.

Leland is a stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail, which may account for a large portion of the museum’s out-of-state visitors. These visitors learn not only about Delta roots music but also Mississippi’s hunting and fishing traditions.

THE MUSEUM’S EXHIBITS are housed in three large themed galleries.

“We start with the original hunters, the Indians,” said Neill, a member of Delta Electric Power Association.

This exhibit displays some of the thousands of Indian points and other artifacts Neill and his brother, Beau, collected from their family farm in Washington County. Some of the items date back 10,000 years, according to the Harvard archaeologist who conducted an excavation at the site in 1970.

Flanking the entrance is a collection of whitetail buck mounts donated to the museum by Bobby Woods, of Greenville. Woods is a four-time winner of the Mississippi Bowhunter’s Association Bow Hunter of the Year award.

Historic photos of hunts and hunters hang above displays of Mississippi-made turkey and duck calls. Included are silver trophies donated by Preston Pittman, a world champion turkey caller (the only person to hold five different world titles) and a member of the National Outdoor Hall of Fame.

In one showcase stands a full-body wild turkey mount, in a color variation with partially white plumage. “That’s one of the most spectacular mounts that I know of. I’ve never seen one like that,” said Neill, a long-time turkey hunter.

Mounted wild ducks and geese, a wing-flapping duck decoy and a mechanized feather plucker fill a corner of the duck hunting gallery. Propped against the wall is a Mississippi-made “Alligator Boat,” a small fiberglass boat/duck blind.

The next gallery focuses on fishing and boating. Exhibits include a large assortment of vintage outboard motors, a wooden boat used to rescue victims of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, an early Super Skeeter fiberglass fishing boat and a canoe made by Grumman before the company converted to aircraft production during World War II.

THE MISSISSIPPI OUTDOOR HALL OF FAME occupies the third gallery. Individual showcases display memorabilia, photos and brief biographies of each of the 17 inductees, beginning with famed hunter and former slave Holt Collier; he guided President Theodore Roosevelt on a Delta bear hunt that inspired the creation of the Teddy bear.

Others include pioneering conservationist Fannye Cook, coon hunting legend Bill Tinnin, successful game call maker Will Primos and Mossy Oak brand founder Toxey Haas. New inductees are added each year.

Scattered throughout the museum is a virtual zoo of mounted animals, from mink to bear, fish to snakes. A mounted 11-foot alligator, its toothy jaws gaping, doubles as a designated “selfie station” for youngsters.

Visitors may end their tour in the museum gift shop, which offers T-shirts and books with outdoor themes, including Neill’s own titles.

THE PUBLIC’S RESPONSE, in both visitation and donations, has museum organizers already planning an expansion of the facility as well as special events and exhibits.

“We have four storage buildings full of stuff that people have brought, that we don’t have a place for. If we had four times the space, we could fill it up,” Neill said. “It turned out even better than any of us envisioned, and stuff’s still coming in.”

The Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum is located at 302 N. Broad St., in Leland. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Group tours and special event hosting are available. For more information, call 662-686-7789 or visit MSWildlifeHeritageMuseum.com.

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