Thursday, December 9, 2010

Remembering "Monk" — aka Tony Cassatta

Posted By on Thu, Dec 9, 2010 at 3:29 PM

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Tony "Monk" Cassatta may be the most famous Memphian that people here never knew.

Let me explain: Most people living here in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and beyond had heard stories about the odd little fellow that everyone called Monk. Perhaps some of you had encounters with him. But nobody really knew much, if anything about him: his real name, his background, where he lived.

So back in 1979, Memphis magazine published a profile of this interesting fellow, written by my pal Susan Turley Dynerman, and it was one heckuva interview since Monk had plenty to say, all right, but not many things that really made sense. In fact, the story was rather cryptically titled "Who Is This Man? — The Secret Life of Memphis' Most Visible Eccentric."

That was before I came along, you see.

His attire was as distinctive, in its own way, as my own. "You can find him bundled in four or five wool shirts on days when the blacktop is hot as a skillet," wrote Susan. "And you can find him bent over his walking stick, an oversized baseball cap cocked on his head, a stub of a cigar protruding from his small, furrowed face, tapping on car windows."

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Monday, December 6, 2010

When the Liberty Bell Came to Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Dec 6, 2010 at 3:32 PM

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You wouldn't think that the folks who own the Liberty Bell would send it all over the country aboard a train. After all, it's already been cracked once.

But in 1904, they sent it all the way from Philadelphia to the St. Louis World's Fair, making various stops along the way so people could admire it. That particular tour didn't include Memphis. Then as now, it seems, we get left out of a lot of things.

In 1915, however, the famous bell was carried about the "Freedom Train" to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and on its return journey it did indeed make an early-morning stop in Memphis at the old Poplar Street Depot downtown. The date was Saturday, November 20, 1915, if you want to mark it on your calendar. Your Ask Vance calendar, I mean.

My pal Paul Coppock wrote about this day: "Confederate veterans formed the guard of honor. The biggest unit in the parade was formed by 12,000 city school children, almost every one of them carrying a flag. They sang, 'Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean' as they passed the bell."

It's hard to believe that 100,000 people — which would have been just about every man, woman, and child in Memphis back then — would jam downtown to see such a thing, but that's what the newspapers reported. Some in the crowd even demanded to touch the famous bell, and you can imagine how curators would feel about such things today, but anyone who wanted could get close enough to touch it, caress, and do anything short of taking a big gong to it.

Newspapers later proclaimed that some people actually managed to kiss the bell, and "afterwards were seen with a radiant glow on their faces, indicating that one of the ambitions of their lives had been satisfied."

My goodness. I have to confess that I have many ambitions of my life, some of them seemingly unattainable unless I recover my lost fortune, but kissing the Liberty Bell has never been one of them.

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Burkle's Bakery

Posted By on Thu, Dec 2, 2010 at 11:21 AM

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In 1936, Herman Burkle moved his little bakery from downtown to Madison and Cooper, at the time a busy intersection in "East" Memphis. (Right across the street was an Esso gas station called the "East Memphis Motor Company.") He found space in a narrow building that formerly housed the Idle Hour Billiard Parlor, squeezed into a row of businesses that included Purdy (later Purdy-Jester) Drugs, Piggly Wiggly #35, and La Vogue Beauty Salon. And there Burkle's Bakery would remain for the next four decades.

Herman Jr. and his sister, Ruth Lee (shown here), took over the business in the 1950s. They added "restaurant" to the name, and 2125 Madison Avenue soon became a Memphis institution — a breakfast, lunch, and gathering place for everyone from bankers grabbing a cup of coffee on the way to the office to scruffy art students munching bearclaws after class.

"Burkle's never tried to expand, to spice its menu with exotic dishes, or to move to a more populous or affluent neighborhood," noted the Memphis Press-Scimitar. "It was satisfied to offer well-prepared bakery foods, meats, and vegetables without costly frills. And that is what has satisfied its customers, whether they are family groups or young people from the surrounding Overton Square."

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Lu Lynch's Orchid Shop

Posted By on Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 9:23 PM

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Quite a few people, it seems, remember Lu Lynch and the nice florist shop that she owned and operated at 640 South Highland. The actual name of the place was Lu Lynch's Orchid Shop, but she sold all sorts of flowers and floral arrangements.

She opened the place in 1960, tucked in between the Trent Wood Record Shop and the Hi-Park Coin Laundry.

Lula (that was her full name) and her husband, Lester, a supervisor with the U.S. Postal Service, were founding members of the Memphis Orchid Society, and according to an old Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper account, they grew more than 15,000 flowers — most of them orchids, of course — in a nice pair of greenhouses they built behind their home at 851 Brower.

I know what you're thinking. So yes, I used Bing and Google to "fly" over their old house, and it looks like those big greenhouses are still there, though I don't know if any orchids are still growing in them.

"The orchids are like a family," Lu told a reporter in 1967. "We have a special feeding program for them. We watch the temperamental ones. We make sure we do not pamper them, but develop strength, sturdiness, and dependability." Just as Mother and Father did with me, and look at me today!

Lu Lynch's Orchid Shop remained in business until 1975, when the Lynches retired. For many years, the store operated as a pawn shop. I don't know what's there today.

"Orchids are a real therapy," Lu once told the Press-Scimitar. "If I am tired, I go into the greenhouse, and suddenly I am serene again." Perhaps we should all try to grow some. A little serenity would go a long way these days.

PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Welcome Wagon Building's Spinning Globe

Posted By on Tue, Nov 23, 2010 at 12:56 PM

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Years ago, I wrote about the Welcome Wagon company, which had been founded in Memphis by a fellow named Thomas Briggs (below). He built a stunning, four-story building (also below) overlooking Court Square, and several newspaper articles mentioned that Briggs planned to mount a giant neon globe on top of his headquarters. I expressed some doubts that this globe was ever installed, because I've seen lots of pictures of downtown, and had never seen such a thing.

Well, I was looking in the wrong places. Because in the front of a 1966 Kingsbury High School yearbook is a nice color shot of downtown (shown here and below), and right in front is the globe! Wow. What a fantastic thing to put on a building here — it reminds me of the globe they had on the "Daily Planet" building in all the Superman comics.

The question now, of course, is: WHAT HAPPENED TO IT? Does anybody know?

The story of Thomas Briggs and Welcome Wagon is a pretty interesting one, and since I've got some time here before I take my usual two-hour lunch, followed by my two-hour nap, I'll sum it up for you.

Years ago, you see, when you moved to a new city, a Welcome Wagon hostess would appear on your doorstep, bestowing nice gifts and free samples from the merchants of your city. It may seem a strange concept today, especially as people barricade themselves behind security doors, call blocking, caller ID, and other devices that would stump the most aggressive Welcome Wagon employee, but it was a huge success at the time, and it made Thomas Briggs into one of the wealthiest men in Memphis.

Continue reading »

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Rin Tin Tin at the Memphis Zoo

Posted By on Mon, Nov 22, 2010 at 10:25 AM

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I really enjoy the offbeat questions I get from readers from time to time. Such as this one, from C.A. in Corinth, Mississippi, who asked me, "Was there ever a dog statue at the Memphis Zoo?"

This puzzled me, since as far as I know, just about every creature in the world is (or has been at one time) on display at the zoo except for dogs and cats. Pet-type dogs and cats, I mean. So when I asked what made her think such a statue ever existed, she replied:

"I have the statue. Bought it from an elderly lady. She said it came from the Memphis Zoo. It is Rin Tin Tin and has it on the statue. It stands 12.5" tall. As you can see it has some damage. It was an outside."

Okay, by "it was an outside" I guess she means that it once stood outside, somewhere. But judging from the photos, this statue seems to be made of plaster, which wouldn't have survived long after a Memphis rainstorm. So, assuming the "elderly lady" is telling the truth about it coming from the zoo, I can only presume it was sold years ago at the gift shop.

But why would the Memphis Zoo sell plaster statues of Rin Tin Tin, the famed German shepherd who starred in his own TV series, who — as far as I know — had no connection with Memphis?

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Kingsbury High School - 1963 City Champs

Posted By on Mon, Nov 15, 2010 at 11:37 PM

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A few weeks ago, I found myself at an estate sale, buying books and all sorts of odd things. When I was leaving, I glanced in a cardboard box sitting in the driveway. Dumped inside, like so much trash, were more than a dozen old trophies, and I plucked this one from the pile, paid for it, and brought it home.

It was just covered in dirt and dust, and the base had come off, but when I cleaned it up and repaired it, I discovered it was quite a find. What you have here is the trophy presented to the basketball team of Kingsbury High School for winning the City Championship in 1963. It's a pretty cool-looking trophy, don't you think, with a plaque that lists Coach Bill Todd, and the members of the varsity team: Clyde Barnard, Tippy Rankin, Herb Slate, Mike Butler, Arthur Boone, Barry Cochran, Dave Grosmann, Alfred Stapp, Bob Shelton, Joe Hurt, and team manager James Durham.

The Lauderdale Library contains a set of old Kingsbury yearbooks, and the 1963 edition of the Talon tells the story of that team's accomplishments: "Completing their most successful season in the history of the school, the Falcon basketball team had a record of 26 wins and 2 losses. They won the Eastern Division and beat Frayser 54-49 for the City Championship. The Falcons were one of the highest ranked teams in the state, at one time being voted second place by the Associated Press."

Some of the scores were rather impressive. Kingsbury walloped East 82-47, beat Overton (ranked #1 in the state) 62-55, and set an all-time scoring record by completely overwhelming Trezevant 131-24. Other lopsided victories were over Catholic 82-41, Humes 89-48, and Westside 101-48.

And yet, half a century later, the actual trophy commemorating that remarkable season lay in a dusty cardboard box, neglected and forgotten. Very depressing. I'm glad I rescued it, but would prefer that it go to somebody at Kingsbury who could truly appreciate it. So if any of these team members are still around, or anybody who cares about the history of that school, just get in touch with me. I already have plenty of trophies of my own.

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Here are some other shots of the trophy, and below you'll see a photo of the team, from the 1963 Kingsbury yearbook. For some reason, the players in the photo don't exactly match the names on the trophy. I don't know why.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Burger Chef in 1968

Posted By on Thu, Nov 11, 2010 at 3:18 PM

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Since I'm posting old photos of high-school hangouts (such as Beal's Dixie Kream, below) I thought I'd share an ad for Burger Chef that I found in a 1968 yearbook for Immaculate Conception High School.

The food at these places was pretty good, I recall, but what was more memorable was the bizarre architecture, with that weird segmented arch erected over most, if not all, the Burger Chefs in town.

The address shown in the ad is wrong, since that would place it across the street from the Children's Museum. According to old city directories, in the late 1960s, the Burger Chefs in Memphis were located at:
3562 Walker (since demolished)
4382 Highway 51 South (building still standing and used as another restaurant)
682 N. Mendenhall (demolished)
3701 Lamar (demolished)
2450 Central (demolished; a Dollar General stands on the site)
153 North Cleveland (the building is still standing, but vacant).

Burger Chef was founded in Indianapolis in 1954 and the chain spread quickly throughout the country. It eventually became purchased by Hardee's, I believe, and the last Burger Chef closed in 1996.

Does anybody remember the girls (or the Burger Chef employee) shown in this ad?

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Beal's Dixie Kream - TODAY - Wow!

Posted By on Sun, Nov 7, 2010 at 7:46 PM

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Last week, when I posted the images of Beal's Dixie Kream taken in the 1960s, I sort of hoped that the place might still be open — perhaps run by the children of the original owner, Hazel Beal.

Boy, was I wrong. My pal Jeff Crook ventured down Old Highway 78 this weekend, and found the place, just about at the Mississippi state line. This is how it looks today. Pretty depressing.

Here's what Jeff had to say:

Hi Vance. I think I found Beal's Dixie Kream. I"ve attached the photo.

The place is in Mineral Wells, next door to an establishment that used to be called John's Creek Cafe. The cafe's sign has been painted over white, but there are some neon beer signs in the window and a sign on the door that says "No one under 21 allowed." Sounds like a charming place to see some genuine local color, but I had the wife and kids in the car, so I just took a photo of the wreck next door.

The building now appears to be owned by a concrete company whose fence runs all the way up to the walls, and maybe through them. I didn't open the door. It had a padlock, which looked broken. Maybe somebody broke in to set the fire.

Thanks for your hard work, Jeff. I always like it when readers do all my work for me.

PHOTO BY JEFF CROOK

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Beal's Dixie Kream - Olive Branch, Mississippi

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 2010 at 2:32 PM

Beals Dixie Kream in 1966
  • Beal's Dixie Kream in 1966
So the other day I was looking through a stack of 50-year-old yearbooks from Olive Branch High School. Doesn't everybody do that on a Saturday night?

I didn't find any Lauderdales among the students, but one thing I did notice was an ad in the back of all the yearbooks, for an establishment called Beal's Dixie Kream. Yes, that's right — it (and the owner's name) was spelled Beal — without the "e." Sometimes the ads spelled the name of the place "Cream" but the neon sign out front says "Kream."

The owner, as you can see, was Mrs. Hazel Beal. No mention of a Mr. Beal, so I wonder if she was a widow? Divorced? None of my damn business? (choose one)

The yearbooks spanned 1960 to 1967, and one thing that caught my eye was how the brick exterior changed over the years. In a 1961 ad, it was apparently a solid color, but in later ads it clearly had a checkerboard pattern. What's curious is that by 1967, the walls were back to being one color. Too bad the ads were in black-and-white, so I don't know what color(s) the place was painted. I bet it was quite festive, and since it appeared in every yearbook, THE place to go on Friday and Saturday nights in Olive Branch.

Like most ice-cream joints, Beal's offered milkshakes and a variety of sandwiches. But it also provided customers with "Memphis telephones" so they could "Talk While You Eat." In fact, look at the 1966 advertisement, and there's the phone booth, right in front.

The ads say Beal's Dixie Kream was located on Highway 78 at the Tennessee/Mississippi state line. I haven't driven out Lamar in a while (probably ever since Maywood closed), so does anyone know what happened to this cute little place, and what's there now?

Here are some other views of it, taken from the old yearbooks:

Beals in 1961
  • Beal's in 1961

Beals as it looked in 1965
  • Beal's as it looked in 1965

Beals in 1967. Note the popcorn maker.
  • Beal's in 1967. Note the popcorn maker.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Overton Park's Little Log Cabin

Posted By on Wed, Oct 27, 2010 at 2:26 PM

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A couple of weeks ago, I enthralled my half-dozen readers (yes, I'm talking about you) with photos and a few words about the odd Japanese Garden that once stood in Overton Park. Surely you remember what I said? If not, scroll down and read it again. Better yet, gather your children around you as you do so; reading the inspiring story aloud to them may deter them from a life of crime. It certainly can't hurt.

Anyway, I was rummaging through my old postcards archived in the Lauderdale Library, searching for other images of that garden, when I came across these two cards, and thought I'd share them with you. Why? Because they actually pay me to do this. Hard to believe, but it's true.

After they — and I don't know who, exactly, "they" were, since I wasn't around at the time — but as I was saying, after "they" demolished the Japanese Garden after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "they" were left with a little empty island in the middle of the lake, so "they" put a rather bleak little fountain there. And here's an image of it, below. Oh, I could stare at it for hours!

But at some point, "they" erected a cute little log cabin on the island, as you can see in the top image. I have no idea how large (or small) this structure was; somebody should have stood beside it when they snapped the photograph, to provide a sense of scale. What were you thinking, cameraman? And I also don't know what purpose it served, or where it came from, or what happened to it, so please don't ask me about any of that.

What I DO know is that this is not the present-day Rainbow Lake in Overton Park. This lake, as I've said before, was filled in when they constructed the Memphis Academy of Arts complex.

And that concludes today's history lesson on Overton Park.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Wilson Field and Amelia Earhart

Posted By on Fri, Oct 15, 2010 at 1:03 PM

Harry Wilson and chief pilot R.S. Weaver at Wilson Field in 1950
  • Harry Wilson and chief pilot R.S. Weaver at Wilson Field in 1950
Six years after Amelia Earhart vanished in the Pacific, her airplane crashed and burned at a little-known airport in Memphis.

If that sounds like an episode from The Twilight Zone, let me explain. A Lockheed Vega was one of the first airplanes that Earhart purchased, but she replaced it with a larger plane before attempting her doomed flight around the world in 1937. The Vega crashed upon takeoff at Wilson Field on August 26, 1943, while it was being ferried across the country by a new owner. Blurry pictures taken right after the crash (such as the one below) are filed away in the Memphis Room at the main library.

The wreckage remained visible for years, joining a fleet of other demolished and dismantled aircraft that caught the eye of anyone driving past the cluster of hangars and dirt runways at the northeast corner of Ridgeway and Raines Road.

Wilson Field was owned and operated by Harry T. Wilson. A self-taught pilot since 1915, Wilson had flown in the Signal Corps during World War I and teamed up with Vernon Omlie, one of this area's first aviators, in the 1920s. He took over Omlie's Mid-South Airways Corporation after the older pilot died in a plane crash near St. Louis in 1938.

Wilson moved the company to Memphis Municipal Airport, but had to relocate several miles east when the U.S. Army commandeered the city's main airfield during World War II. During the war, he supervised pilot training for the military. In later years, he provided flight classes, aircraft maintenance, and other services, and slowly built up a sprawling "boneyard" of vintage airplanes and parts.

In the 1960s, a reporter visited Wilson Field "in the quiet countryside" and noted that "airplanes remain on the field from World War II training days. Weeds and young trees grow through their fuselages. Wilson says one man wants one of the old planes as a plaything for his children."

It was certainly an odd place. Many years ago, I confess to a bit of trespassing, when I went with some friends to explore it at night. At the time, there was even a big old DC-3 parked there, and we climbed through a door, roamed through the cluttered cabin, and sat in the cockpit. Suddenly, a light flashed on in the hangar across the field — we didn't know anyone stayed there at night! — so we got spooked and scurried away, half-expecting to get shot before we reached our cars.

Wilson, hailed by the Memphis Press-Scimitar as "a pioneer figure in aviation in Memphis," died in 1975. I don't really know what became of all the wrecked airplanes, but rows of houses now stand atop the old grass runways of Wilson Field.

PHOTO OF HARRY WILSON COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES. PHOTO BELOW COURTESY BENJAMIN HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY.

Amelia Earharts former plane
  • Amelia Earhart's former plane

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Monday, October 11, 2010

The Trimble Monument in Forest Hill Cemetery

Posted By on Mon, Oct 11, 2010 at 4:15 PM

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Forest Hill Cemetery has many fine monuments, but one of the best is the Trimble Monument, showing a beautiful young lady weeping by the side of a tomb, beneath a stone canopy supported by massive columns.

The inscription reveals this is the last resting place of Frank Trimble (1840-1915) and Lilly Shelton, identified as "his wife" (1852-1899).

Who were these Trimbles, and why did they build such an impressive tomb, you ask? Just sit back and I'll tell you. Wait, you're leaning back too far! Can you still see the computer screen? Okay, then.

After weeks of research (well, I mainly just walked across the room), I turned up a 1911 edition of Who's Who in Tennessee. Frank Trimble rated a mention, which told me that he was born in Hazel Green, Kentucky (don't you love the names of some of these small towns?). He moved to Illinois at the age of 22, then ventured to Memphis during the Civil War, where he became a merchant. That didn't last long, what with the war and all, so in the late 1860s, he started a real estate firm, called simply Frank Trimble and Company, dealing in "farm lands, etc."

The Who's Who also told me he was a Royal Arch Mason (the best kind), a member of the Knights of Pythias, and a member of the Episcopal Church, though which one it didn't say. It gave all that, and yet not a single mention of "Lilly Shelton, his wife."

Old city directories in the Lauderdale Library reveal that Trimble and Company was located downtown on Madison, while the Trimbles themselves resided at 23 South Diana, just south of Madison. The house was torn down years ago, but Trimble Place — which runs for two blocks behind Overton Square and stops at Diana, close to where the house was — remains today, as yet another (more humble) monument to the Trimbles.

Some of their descendants, including Dr. Peter Trimble, DDS, still live in Memphis.

The years have not been especially kind to the monument in Forest Hill. From a distance, it still looks magnificent, but venture closer and you can see that the wind and rain have etched away the details on the statue's face (see below). It's still quite beautiful though, and considering that drivers have a good view of the monument from the nearby expressway, one of the most admired tombs in the cemetery.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Al's Golfdom & Al's Golfhaven

Posted By on Thu, Oct 7, 2010 at 1:15 PM

Al and Susie Fister in the 1980s
  • Al and Susie Fister in the 1980s
For years and years, the place to "hang out" in East Memphis was Al's Golfdom, and in Whitehaven it was Al's Golfhaven, both owned and operated by Al and Susie Fister (shown here).

The Fisters moved to Memphis in 1960, hoping to open a driving range, since (hard to believe) our city didn't have one. They scouted around and purchased a cotton field on South Perkins and opened the Golfdom complex. It was slow going at first, but within a few years, they had expanded — adding a pair of nice miniature golf courses, snack bar, batting cages, go-karts, and a giant slide. Al's became so popular that it stayed open 24 hours a day. During the winter, they even sold Christmas trees. When celebrities came to town — Lee Trevino, Bob Hope, and others — they headed out to Al's to practice their swing.

In 1965, Al expanded his operation, buying up 20 acres of farmland on Raines Road, right by the expressway, and opening Al's Golfhaven, a somewhat larger version of the place on Perkins.

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Remember the red tractor that picked up the golf balls? The driver was protected by a cage, but he became a moving target whenever he ventured out into the big field.

I could tell you more about both places here, but I won't. Instead, you must go out and purchase the October issue of Memphis magazine, where you can read the whole thrilling story, beginning on page 58. You'll be glad you did, I assure you.


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ALL IMAGES COURTESY AL AND SUSIE FISTER

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Who Was "Cotton-Eyed Joe"??

Posted By on Mon, Oct 4, 2010 at 8:20 PM

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This curious quarter-page ad ran in the back of a 1961 yearbook for St. Mary's Episcopal School. It did not appear in yearbooks before or after that. I checked. Just that one year.

So the obvious question is: Who was "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and why was he memorialized in the St. Mary's yearbook in 1961? In "loving" memory, no less.

I will patiently wait for an answer, dear readers. C'mon, I can't do this without you.

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