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Today is August 23, 2017

Mississippi Seen

Tough assignment: Stories of the Mississippi Delta

Tough assignment: Stories of the Mississippi Delta

The Mighty Mississippi River at Rosedale. Photo: Walt Grayson

The photograph that accompanies this article was snapped almost as an afterthought. It is of the Mississippi River at Rosedale. Jack Coleman had taken me to this particular spot to point out the historic attributes of the river here. North of town the White River empties into the Mississippi from the west, and south of town the Arkansas River joins the Mississippi.

Historically, Marquette and Joliette explored down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas before they decided the Mississippi probably emptied into the Gulf of Mexico and not into the Pacific as they had hoped. They turned around here and went back to Canada.

Jack grew up in Rosedale on the Mississippi River, and I grew up not all that far south, at Greenville. As I was telling Jack the first thing my Daddy told me about the Mississippi, Jack joined in and said it along with me, “Stay away from that river, boy. It will kill you.” Obviously, that piece of river wisdom got passed around a good bit.

Jack and I had met a week or so before my visit to Rosedale at a Delta party in Greenville. At the party Jack was telling all of us about his plans for a new business venture at Rosedale. A distillery. According to Jack, the distillery, along with related retail stores and restaurants and everything else that goes with it, will occupy several of the old empty stores in downtown Rosedale and will employ a number of local residents.

I was intrigued by all this because I have agreed to produce a half-hour “Mississippi Roads” show for next season about the Delta by myself. I am excited about doing the show. But when it comes to having to narrow down a topic as complicated as the Delta into just a half-hour of television time, I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

Think about it. The Delta really just started hitting its stride in the early years of the 20th century. There had been white settlers there as long ago as before the Civil War. After the war the Delta was popular with former slaves seeking to buy land to start farming on their own. The huge cotton plantations didn’t appear until the late 1800s and especially into the early 1900s.

All that to say, in the course of just a 150 years, with most of it happening in the past 100, the Delta has gone from swamps and canebrakes to drained acreage thriving on cotton for decades, meanwhile growing cities and towns and villages that also thrived for a long time.

But now, most of those cities and towns and villages are in decline to one extent or another. Not one of them is the way we remember them from when we were young.

We’ve also experienced decades of people leaving the Delta, and factories packing up and leaving, and even such venerated institutions as Greenville’s once huge tow boat industry falling by the wayside. Thirty different tow boat companies at its height—none now.

So to hear Jack being excited about what could happen in Rosedale is obviously counter to the mainstream of what has been happening in the Delta lately.

But for me to tell the stories of all the different cultures in the Delta and their combined blended culture is way more than a half-hour of television will allow. And then to also find people like Jack Coleman excited about new things soon to happen there easily makes this Delta show a much harder task.

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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