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Renee's Route: Natchez Trace


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    Sign marker  entering the Natchez Trace

    Trace is a French word for animal track and the fabled Natchez Trace was created centuries ago by bear, deer, bison, etc., as a migratory path to locate food sources, water and salt licks. Paleo-Indians, who migrated into the region, followed this footpath when traveling and hunting. The earliest documented European explorer, Hernando de Soto, arrived in 1541 and was met by native resistance that lasted more than 200 years and is interpreted along the Trace. The Trace linked settlements in Kentucky, Ohio Valley and Tennessee with the southern region of the Mississippi River. www.nps.gov/natr

    Today the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway follows the footprint of the original historic path that runs through three states from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN. Along the road mileposts indicate sites of historic events, individuals and seven Native American mound sites. Visitors can also enjoy 2,202 plant types, 364 types of wildlife, 12 neighboring state parks, 17 types of birds, 15 nature trails, 205 mammal and fish species and a plethora of outdoor activities.   

    In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt approved the construction of the Natchez Trace Parkway, it began in 1938 after the plan was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was completed in 2005. This iconic drive has the distinction of being a National Scenic Byway, an All-American Road and designated portions are listed on The Gold Record Road on The Americana Music Triangle and The Blues Trail.

    The Natchez Trace Parkway Visitor Center, located at milepost 266 in Tupelo, is an important stop on the parkway. Here you can obtain all the information necessary to pick your path. The center offers a 12-minute orientation film and exhibits on all aspects of the Trace.  

    I began the drive in Tupelo, Mississippi, near the Trace's midpoint. In 1859 the existing settlement of Harrisburg was renamed Gum Pond and relocated nearer to the railroad line. It was again renamed Tupelo after the native name for a type of tree. www.tupelo.net

    On January 8, 1935 Elvis and Jessie Presley were born in a 2-room cabin constructed by male family members. Jessie was stillborn. The family was evicted in 1937 but remained in Tupelo until Elvis was 13. The foundation of Elvis' music was established in Tupelo, shaped by country music radio, his home church, area black churches and interactions with blues musicians in the Shake Rag neighborhood. His first 1945 public radio performance resulted in a prize of $5.00. In 1948 the family packed up the car and moved to Memphis for greater opportunity.

    Elvis Presley Birthplace complex consists of 13 sites including buildings, memorials, historical markers, movies and exhibits. Self-guided tours begin at the Walk of Life, a circle paved with granite markers denoting significant points in his life until age 13. The $180.00, 2-room Birthplace is in the circle's center. The shotgun house has been restored and contains period furnishings. Other highlights include the relocated Elvis' Childhood Church, the museum, a statue of "Elvis At 13", Story Wall and "Memphis Bound", a replica of the 1939 green Plymouth the family drove to Memphis. www.elvispresleybirthplace.com

    An overlook was recently created with benches, interpretive information and a sculpture of a milk-crate seated 11-year old Elvis in front of a standing, caped Elvis at the height of his worldwide popularity. "Becoming" was unveiled in 2015 on a site where Elvis played as a child.

    Tupelo Hardware Co. has been family owned for 90-years and is the place where Gladys Presley purchased her son's first guitar. Visitors can purchase souvenirs and hear to a recounting of the sale. A replica is on display. The instrument was not his first choice and legend has it that Gladys apologized for not being able to afford what he wanted. His alleged reply, "That's alright mama." www.tupelo-hardware.myshopify.com

    For a time the Presley's lived in the Shake Rag Black Community north of Main Street. Music filled the enclave and Elvis was, no doubt, influenced. So many important musicians were in the area that it is a site on the MS Blues Trail.

    One of the premiere stops on the Natchez Trace route in Tupelo is the Tupelo Automobile Museum, a private collection of more than 100 antique, classic and collectible vehicles in a 120,000 sq.-ft. display. Self-guided tours are chronological and highlights include a Tucker, a Duesenberg, a unique pizza delivery car and cars owned by BB King and Liberace. A Lincoln owned by Elvis is displayed in an area filled with Presley memorabilia and a complete set of his movie posters. Information on individual cars is available through audio and video. www.tupeloautomuseum.com

    Johnnie's Drive In is said to be the oldest restaurant in the city and a place where Elvis liked to dine. It is affordable, the food is good and, if you are lucky, you can sit in the Elvis Booth. 908 E. Main St. 

    The Blue Canoe is a must.  The restaurant features live music and one of the "Top 10 Burgers" in the state. 

    The heyday of The Trace was 1785 to 1825, before steamboats. Goods were transported by flatboat down the Ohio to Natchez and New Orleans. Goods were sold, boats were dismantled, the wood was sold and workers walked back north along the Natchez Trace. Crime was rampant and tales of ghosts, murders and hangings abound. Meriwether Lewis, traveling on The Trace in 1809, stopped for the night at an inn and was either murdered or committed suicide. He is buried along the road.

    Eighty-seven miles from Tupelo along the Natchez Trace Parkway is the city of Florence, Alabama. The land, once part of the Chickasaw Nation, was sold off as soon as the last treaty ceded the land. The city's architect, Ferdinand Sannoner, was tasked to name the city in 1818 and he chose Florence after the city of his birth. You should begin your visit in the $2-million Visitor's Center with exhibits and information to enhance your stay. www.visitflorenceal.com


    W.C. Handy, "The Father of the Blues", was born in Florence in 1873 in a one-room cabin. He was not the first to play the blues but he was the first to write down and publish this "new" form of music that blended religious and secular styles with worldly themes. His works, Beale Street, St. Louis and Memphis Blues influenced other musicians and popularized the genre. Both his father and grandfather were ministers and his family was not pleased with his career choice.



    The W. C. Handy Birthplace, Museum & Library honors the man, his accomplishments and his legacy. The site was originally funded by Handy in 1954. The complex now consists of his birth home, museum, Black Heritage Library and an extensive collection of memorabilia and items that belonged to Handy, many donated by Handy and his family. Highlights of the collection are the restored cabin, his brass trumpet, handwritten sheet music and the piano on which he composed "St. Louis Blues". The site is listed on the Blues Trail. Florence's 2018 W.C. Handy Music Festival will be staged July 20-29. The 10-day festival has been held since 1982.                          www.wchandymusicfestival.org

    To tour the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is to walk through the state's music history beginning with the lobby's bronze star homage to Alabama's music influencers. The stars lead to the Hall of Fame Gallery, which features portraits of Inductees painted by Tuskegee artist Ronald McDowell. Memorabilia from many Alabama Music Achievers resides in the gallery filled with memorabilia, dioramas and outfits of featured artists. Sequential galleries include Popular Music, Country Music, Muscle Shoals, Gospel Showcase, Alabama Songwriters and a complete recording studio where visitors can record their own song. The objects on display are awe-inspiring and include the group Alabama's Tour Bus, Commodore's stage outfits and a 12-foot jukebox. www.alamhof.org

    While W.C. Handy gave birth to the blues the adjacent city of Muscle Shoals took music to a new level and it is internationally recognized as the place that rocked the world. Two of the most influential recording studios are located there and they are both open for tours.

    Rick Hall and two partners founded Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) recording studios in 1959.  The partnership ended and FAME's first hit came in 1961. The Allman Brothers, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Alabama and Wilson Pickett recorded hits here, along with numerous others.

    The Swampers, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, established their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, in 1969 in an old coffin factory. Their first client was Cher, followed by Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Rolling Stones and Paul Simon. The studio has been restored to its former glory with the assistance of Dr. Dre. www.msmusicfoundation.org

    Before you rejoin the Natchez Trace Trail be certain to stop in Stagg's Deli. This family-run market now serves made-to-order meals. The Stagg's hamburger is rated #4 in North Alabama's Top Cheeseburger poll.

    Franklin, TN is approximately 115-miles north of Florence on the Natchez Trace. The city was founded in 1799 and named in honor of Benjamin Franklin. Modern Franklin is a stop on the music trail and is renowned as a place where visitors can hear live music every night. Downtown Franklin's Great American Main Street is filled with unique shops, eateries and historic properties. A complete list of venues, festivals and special events is available online. www.visitfranklin.com

    A circular brass time capsule, engraved with "COU", is imbedded center stage in The Franklin Theatre and it is indeed a center of the musical universe. The restored theater was constructed in 1937 and closed in 2007. It reopened in 2011, on the same footprint, and now hosts more than 600 events annually. It has been deemed the "greatest small theater venue in the country" and presents A-List artists. The balcony, built originally to accommodate segregation laws of the era, now features a clubhouse. The Franklin was redesigned like a recording studio, with no reverb, and $2-million in audio and lighting equipment. Tours include artworks and artists' spaces.

    A few miles from Franklin, just off The Trace, is the village of Leiper's Fork, established by settlers with Revolutionary War land grants in the 1790s. The village is a National Historic District and a popular dining, shopping and entertainment destination. Puckett's of Leiper's Fork is an absolute must. This grocery store morphed into a restaurant and music site in 2002. The food is delicious, the people are friendly and the music is awesome. www.puckettsgro.com, www.visitleipersfork.com


    The best selling novel, Widow of the South, is set on Carnton Plantation and based on events surrounding the 1864 Battle of Franklin. The house was used as a field hospital and bloodstains are still visible on the 2nd floor. No slaves were present in 1864 because they had all been sent deeper south. Tours of the 22-room brick house showcase original furnishings and are offered year round. www.boft.org/carnton  

    Nearby is the 1830 Carter House, a farmhouse that functioned as the federal command center during the battle. It has the distinction of being the most bullet-riddled building left from the Civil War. More than 1,000 bullet holes are visible. www.battleoffranklintrust.org

    Nine-miles from the northern end of the Natchez Trace Trail stands the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge, the nation's first double arch bridge and the first segmentally constructed concrete arch bridge in the country.  It is 1,572-ft. long, 145-ft. high and offers panoramic views. www.scenictrace.com



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    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.  

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