Ms. Charlotte Davis wanted to show me everything.
I was standing on the porch of the log cabin next to the museum, and when I turned she had appeared on the steps, an older local lady with tight white hair, asking why I had decided to visit. I had the odd feeling she had been waiting outside for someone to show up.
I had passed the highway exit for years, intending to stop, but my drive was already 14 hours. Now I had pulled off and allowed myself a single hour, knowing I would pay for it later but that it might be my last trip.
I had thought the museum was named for the first European explorer to the area, the man who told those in Aquixo, Casqui, Pacaha, Quiguate, Coligua, Calpista, Palisema, Quixila, Tutilcoya, Tanico, Cayase, Tula, Guipana, Autiamque, Anoixi, Quitamaya, Anilco, Ayays, Tutelpinco, Tianto, Nilco, and Guachoya that he was the Son of the Sun. He tortured and killed some of them, maybe because they knew nothing about the gold he came for. After a time he died of fever and was thrown in the River of the Holy Ghost, as he called the Mississippi. He had said he wanted to find a water route to Mexico.
But the museum was named for the county, not the conquistador per se, so it was a fine little museum of county history. Ms. Charlotte took me through the rooms and showed me every grouping of artifacts and its interpretive signs. She did not introduce herself, so I thought she was the director. After we had the familiarity of half an hour, I asked, and she said she was a volunteer docent.
The county was very American, the sort of place where a founder had “donated 40 acres he purchased from the Chickasaw to be used to create the county seat.” In 1836 the “white population was 140 souls”; four years later it was 7,000. That was the period of the Chickasaw’s forced removal, 800 miles, to the Indian Territory. The county was home to three Confederate generals, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose family moved from Tennessee when he was 12 “to a new farm vacated by the Chickasaw.”
Ms. Charlotte showed me a Springfield rifle in a glass case and told me how heavy Civil War weapons and gear were for the soldiers to have to carry. She walked me over to a low chest across the room to show me a Civil War sword sitting there in its scabbard and told me to pick it up. It made its point. She showed me two artillery shells said to be from Fort Sumter and let me touch them as she explained their uncertain provenance. On her behalf I wanted to believe, knowing this is how legend, even myth, is made. I was needing to get going.
Ms. Charlotte walked me around at a prescribed pace and showed me how half the county died in 1878 from Yellow Fever, one of many plagues. She showed me the single poster about slavery, emancipation, then the stripping of freedom in the 1870s. She showed me moonshine stills and police billy clubs; signs about Mississippi Joe Callicott, Big Walter Horton, Jim Jackson, and Memphis Minnie; the fringed jacket of Jerry Lee Lewis, The Killer, who has lived here many years; photos of the county as “Marriage Capitol of America” (the record was 114 ceremonies one Saturday in June, many years ago); and materials about civil rights activist James Meredith, who was shot here in 1966 during a march.
Ms. Charlotte wanted to show me one more photograph, in a large glass case with a cotton bale, gunny sacks, and a bale hook. The photo was taken in the late 1940s, “directly behind the museum.” In it, wagons pulled by horses and mules are piled high with cotton. A young man stands behind one of the wagons and looks at the camera. He wears tall cowboy boots, jeans held up with a rope, a white t-shirt, and slouch hat. He is smiling under the brim of his hat, maybe, and is country skinny—strong and hardworked and baked brown.
This was Mrs. Charlotte Davis’s husband, she said, who had died in 2020 after many years of marriage. She seemed happy at my surprised pause.
My goodness, I said. How does this one museum bear up under all this history?