Rolling Fork, Mississippi: Teddy Bears, Muddy Waters & a mansion

We're all familiar with Teddy Bears, but do you know the story behind them?  Normally, Rolling Fork is a sleepy town in Mississippi, but it has a rich history for visitors.

CHARLOTTE, February 27, 2012 — Visit the birthplace of the teddy bear and get a unique glimpse into American history.

Rolling Fork, Mississippi is situated near the western border of the state, along historic Highway 61, the citizens of Rolling Fork (roughly 2,500), are using tourism to enhance their identity, one largely shaped by American presidential, musical and cultural history.

Mont Helena, Rolling Fork, MS

Remember the movie The Englishman who Went up a Hill, but Came Down a Mountain?  It is the delightful story about the community spirit of a tiny village in Wales that unites against government bureaucracy to preserve its only viable tourist attraction.

Rolling Fork, Mississippi may not have a mountain, but it does have the same public pride as their Welsh counterparts by developing ingenious ways of promoting their legacy and heritage. 

In 1826, Rolling Fork was founded as a plantation at the junction of Deer Creek and Rolling Fork Creek. With its proximity to several other waterways, the town was prone to flooding, but that also made the land extremely fertile. Before long, agricultural crops such as cotton, corn, alfalfa and soy beans brought profit to the region. 

Despite its growth, by 1920, Rolling Fork was still an undeveloped farming community with only 500 residents in a town that had no sidewalks, paved roads or industry.  Even so, the 20th century had already laid the foundation for a budding tourism market with three significant events.

Most recently the Great Delta Bear Affair is an annual event which began in 2002 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt in the Mississippi Delta. Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, was the guest of the owner of Smedes Plantation, the famous bear hunter, Holt Collier, was commissioned to serve as the president’s guide.

Blues teddy bear

During the hunt, Collier’s favorite dog, Jocko, was attacked by a cornered a 250 pound black bear. Collier quickly leaped from his horse and hit the bear with the stock of his gun before throwing a rope around the stunned and only partially conscious bruin.

When Roosevelt arrived on the scene, his colleagues urged him to shoot the injured animal. Despite their enthusiastic encouragement, the president refused, saying that to commit such an act would be unsportsmanlike.

Though Roosevelt’s fellow hunters thought the news of killing a bear would be a great story for the press, it was the president’s decision that captured the attention of the media and the hearts of the American people. 

Political cartoons spread across the country showing Roosevelt with his bear, and the Morris Mitchom, a toy shop owner in New York, named his stuffed toy bears after the incident, the “Teddy Bear” was born.

Today, Mississippi proudly honors the Teddy Bear as its state toy, and Rolling Fork celebrates the great bear hunt with bears sculpted with chainsaws and, of course, their annual Great Delta Bear Affair.

The second notable event for Rolling Fork took place on April 4, 1915 with the birth of McKinley Morganfield. That name might not sound familiar, but Rolling Fork is justifiably proud of the blues heritage he created under the name of Muddy Waters. 

Waters’ revolutionary contribution to the music world gained national attention more than three decades after he was born with the release of a 78-rpm record featuring a pair of traditional Mississippi Delta-style pieces, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home.”

Rolling Fork, MS, home of Muddy Waters

Not only does his brother Robert Morganfield still reside in Rolling Fork, but the walls of downtown buildings feature murals honoring the town’s native son. The Blues Cabin, in the center of town, is a rustic replica similar to Waters’ birthplace. 

Waters is also acknowledged with a marker that is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail, a statewide historical project paying homage to hundreds of blues singers and their communities.

The seeds of Rolling Fork’s third member of their tourism triumvirate were planted in 1896 with the construction of a Colonial Revival style mansion on top of an Indian ceremonial ground. When the elegant residence was complete, Helen and George Harris, had their furnishings shipped by train from Madison, Mississippi.

Tribute to Muddy Waters birthplace

Before it could be appointed, fire destroyed the home leaving the Harris’ dreams in a smoldering heap of ashes. Fortunately, when the blaze erupted, the furniture was still loaded in freight cars on a railroad siding.

With vigorous determination, Helen and George rebuilt Mont Helena and finally occupied their palatial residence just before the turn of the century. Clusters of Ionic Greek columns, intricate bay windows, Gothic arches and a huge heart pine stairway quickly made Mont Helena one of the premier homes in the Delta. 

As decades passed, vandalism and neglect took their toll until 1993 when Drick Rogers, a distant relative and the current owner, restored the magnificent mansion to its original grandeur.

Today, visitors may tour Mont Helena or combine a tour with luncheon or dinner. Tours are $15. Tours with a box lunch that includes a sandwich, chips, side, dessert and a drink can be done for $25.

Seated lunches, including a tour and a story, are priced at $35. Visitors can choose from Chicken and Asparagus Casserole, Rice with Green Chilies, Salad, Rolls and Dessert, or Chicken and Spinach Quiche, Soup, Salad and Dessert.

Dinners, plus tour and story, are $50. There are three entrée selections: Catfish Allison, Parmesan Chicken or Pork Tenderloin. The pork menu includes Smoky Gouda Potato Mash, Sweet and Sour Green Beans and Tossed Salad. If you pick catfish, you will be treated to Twice Baked Potatoes, Green Bean Bundles and Crunchy Romaine Salad. The chicken entrée comes with Rice Casserole and Green Chilies, Spinach Madeline and Spicy Pecan and Mixed Green Salad with Sweet/Tangy Dressing.  All dinners include rolls and dessert.

During the spring, Mont Helena features theatrical performances of A Dream Revisited, a musical and dramatic history of the mansion using the house itself as the backdrop.  Tickets can be ordered online at: friendsofmonthelena@yahoo.com or by phone at 662-873-2080.

(www.lowerdelta.org/rolling-fork),  (www.greatdeltabearaffair.org/), (www.monthelena.com/),  (www.msbluestrail.org/index.aspx)

Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in Charlotte, NC, founder of The Magellan Travel Club which creates and escorts customized tours to Switzerland, France and Italy for groups of 12 or more. Inquiries for groups can be made at Peabod@aol.com Taylored media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others. As author of The Century Club book, Peabod is now attempting to travel to 100 countries or more during his lifetime. To date he has visited 69 countries. Suggest someplace new for Bob to visit; if you want to know where he has been, check his list on Facebook. Bob plans to write a sequel to his book when he reaches his goal of 100 countries.

 


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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

 

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