Partial to Home: Revisiting Highway 61

 

New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Estill, Mississippi was built in 1918. It now sits vacant and unused overlooking Deer Creek, Old Highway 61 and the Delta landscape beyond.

New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Estill, Mississippi was built in 1918. It now sits vacant and unused overlooking Deer Creek, Old Highway 61 and the Delta landscape beyond. Photo by: Birney Imes/Dispatch Staff

 

 

 

Oh, God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son" 

 

Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on" 

 

God said, "No" Abe say, "What?" 

 

God say, "You can do what you want, Abe, but 

 

The next time you see me comin', you better run" 

 

Well, Abe said, "Where d'you want this killin' done?" 

 

God said, "Out on Highway 61" 

 

-- Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited" 

 

 

 

I'd seen lots of country churches, though none with such lovely proportions or so beautifully sited. So it was on a clear spring day in 1986 I happened to be standing on the banks of Deer Creek, my head under a dark cloth, scrutinizing on the ground glass of my 4x5 view camera a reversed image of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Estill, Mississippi. 

 

The church faces west toward the creek and Old Highway 61, which runs alongside the muddy brown stream through this stretch of the Delta, just north of Hollandale. 

 

On a recent afternoon, after visiting with friends in Cleveland, I drove that once-familiar piece of highway. Encountering the church was like an unexpected meeting with an old friend, one who has aged noticeably, but well. The handsome structure now sits vacant and unused, white paint peeling from its wood siding, its tin roof brown with rust, a NO TRESPASSING sign tacked to the right of the main entrance. 

 

The building is flanked on three sides by the implements of commercial agriculture. An assortment of harrows and discs, their blade gangs in the upright position, like Roman sentries with raised spears, bordered the south edge of the church's graveyard. 

 

Commercial agriculture, now largely mechanized, has little use or nostalgia for these humble, increasingly rare wood structures -- those that housed sharecroppers, their juke joints and even their houses of worship. Nor does it require the workforce it once did, thus explaining the demise of these pin-prick towns. 

 

After snapping a couple of pictures with my cell phone, I moved in for a closer look. Reads the cornerstone: "LEAVE THESE ALONE FOR THEY HAVE DONE GOOD WORK, NEW HOPE M.B.C. ESTILL, MISS. APR. 28, 1918. Then the word SISTERS followed by a list of names. Another side of the cornerstone, the one that lists the church's founding deacons, reads, "BEHOLD I LAY IN ZION A GILDED CORNERSTONE." 

 

 

 

Well, Mack the Finger said to Louie the King 

 

"I got forty red-white-and-blue shoestrings 

 

And a thousand telephones that don't ring 

 

Do you know where I can get rid of these things?" 

 

And Louie the King said, "Let me think for a minute, son" 

 

Then he said, "Yes, I think it can be easily done 

 

Just take everything down to Highway 61" 

 

-- Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited" 

 

 

 

Just past the city limits of Hollandale a yard sale sign beckoned. The 13-foot kayak hanging out the back of my pickup needed a warning flag. I circled back hoping to find a red T-shirt I could tie to the back of the boat for visibility. 

 

Before I could get out of the truck, Gail Keith, barefoot in jeans and a pink T-shirt emerged from the house. Later I'd meet her husband, Garvin, whose recently deceased aunt owned the whatnots, shoes and clothes piled on the card tables in their front yard. 

 

"She had enough clothes for 10 people," Gail said. "I bet you she had 50 pairs of shoes. No one can wear them. All these Delta folks have fat feet." 

 

Gail and Garvin are in the crawfish business. They get their mudbugs from Eunice, Louisiana, and sell them from a trailer at the Stop 'n Shop in Hollandale on Wednesdays and Fridays for $5 a pound. 

 

What about the tomato plants, I ask. Are they for sale? 

 

Turns out they are not. Super Fantastic is the variety, said Garvin. You can only get them in Brandon, Mississippi, he said. 

 

"Our tomato plants get 7 foot tall and 5 feet wide," he said. 

 

"Why don't you leave that here," Gail says nodding toward the kayak, now adorned with a red V-neck T-shirt. 

 

"You gonna sell it?" I reply. 

 

"Naw, I'm going out in it." 

 

I asked Garvin if she would do that. 

 

"She's done everything else," he said. 

 

Continuing south to Vicksburg that afternoon, I would pass oversized chainsaw sculptures of Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt and Holt Collier in downtown Rolling Fork, the county seat of Sharkey County where the famous "Teddy Bear" hunt occurred in 1902; the remains of Margaret's Grocery, an exuberant, well-documented religious shrine, once purported to be a country store; and Vicksburg herself, the old, elegant river town that still bears the scars of a war fought more than 150 years ago. 

 

As Mr. Dylan's lyrics suggest, the curious traveler will find plenty to marvel over when wandering in this part of the world. 

 

Birney Imes' email address is [email protected]

 

 

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