Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Greenwood Centennial

In 1834, John Williams bought 162 acres of land at $1.25 an acre in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and established a river landing and trading post. The land he purchased had previously been Choctaw territory but had been ceded to the United States government in 1830 with the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The landing was called (appropriately enough) Williams Landing and would become the town of Greenwood, which was incorporated ten years later. Due the central location of the new town in the cotton-rich Delta, Greenwood flourished, later earning the nickname the “Cotton Capital of the World.” A century later, the citizens of Greenwood celebrated the centennial of their city with an elaborate festival which included a recreated village, parades, pageants, exhibits and a grand ball. The festivities went off without a hitch, with one tragic exception. 

Spring festivals had already been a tradition in Greenwood for a number of years prior to 1934. For example, in 1932, the “Gala Spring Fesitval” included a parade, dozens of exhibits displaying flowers and local products and, oddly enough, a reproduction of the Nova Scotia village of St. Pre’, made famous by the 1847 Nathaniel Hawthorne poem “Evangeline,” which was a highly fictionalized account of the Acadian exodus. In 1929, the story was revived in a popular film by the same name, starring the Mexican-born movie star Deloris del Rio. In 1934, she posed for a statue of “Evangeline” to be placed in St Martinville, Louisiana (right, where the statue remains today). Why the story of Evangeline was part of the Greenwood festival of ’32 is a bit of a mystery, but by all accounts it was a popular attraction.

For the centennial celebration, an even bigger festival was planned. The main attraction would be a reproduction of the original village at Williams Landing. The reconstructed town, located near the American Legion stadium at the corner of Front Street and Walthall, included a general store, a saloon, a log cabin and “an Indian wigwam.” The general store was used to display items related to Greenwood’s history collected by members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, while the saloon had beer for sale. Construction of the buildings and planning for the activities at Williams Landing (above) was led by a committee of the Chamber of Commerce, including a young lawyer named William S. Vardaman, Jr. Plans for opening day included an attack by “a tribe of wild Indians.” According to the Greenwood Commonwealth, the Indians were scheduled to “make their way stealthily up the river in boats and about dusk…terrify the unsuspecting settlers with their blood-curdling war whoops and dances performed by the light of flickering torches and blazing bonfires.” Following the attack by the “wild Indians,” on Thursday, May 3, 1934, visitors enjoyed a square dance. No doubt, with the aid of free-flowing beer from the saloon, a good time was had by all. 

Throughout the weekend, the Spring Festival and Centennial celebration included plenty of activities, including a golf tournament at the country club, a flower show (complete with a tabletop miniature garden with miniature cabins, shrubs and a lake), a dog show, horse show, a fiddlers’ contest and a dance recital “featuring 16 beautiful dancers” from the Mississippi College for Women in Columbus. At the Paramount Theater, children were offered a free viewing of a “Mickey Mouse cartoon picture show,” while Mississippi State College presented a “Lilly White Minstrel Show” in the high school auditorium. One event which attracted a great deal of attention was a tennis match between two nationally-known stars, Bryan Grant and Gilbert Hall. Grant, who was known as “Bitsy” (he was only 5’4”), was a native of Atlanta. In 1930, he won the U.S. clay court championship and repeated as champion in 1934 and 1935. He was also very competitive on grass courts at Forest Hills, New York, and played on the Davis Cup teams for three straight years beginning in 1935. A member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, “Bitsy” Grant (above) continued to play tennis past age 70. He died of cancer in 1986. His opponent in the demonstration tennis match in Greenwood was Gilbert Hall, a native of New Jersey. Although Hall did not achieve the same level of success as Grant, he played professional tennis until 1959 and won nine tournaments. As exciting as the tennis match and the attack by the Indians must have been, however, the big moment for the festival was the parade on Saturday. 

Stretching more than two miles, the festival parade featured five marching bands, including the Mississippi State College band, the Drum and Bugle Corps from the American Legion, high school bands from Greenwood and Grenada, and a “harmonica band” from Water Valley. Complete with automobiles, horses, and beauty queens, the Commonwealth reported that the parade was “a pageant of gorgeous colors, depicting in kaleidoscopic manner the historical high lights” of Greenwood and the nation. Indeed, many of the floats had a historical theme. The town of Itta Bena, for example, had a float called “The Days of the Red Skins,” while the local Rotary Club submitted entries for the “Spirit of ’61” and Hernando de Soto (above). Other themes included the “Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” the “Spirit of ‘76” and “Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin,” a float backed by the Planters Oil Mill. In addition to the floats, several towns and business decorated trucks for the parade. The prize for best decorated truck went to the Coca Cola company, with honorable mentions for both the Pabst Blue Ribbon and Budweiser trucks. 

While thousands of visitors crowded the city to watch the parade and enjoy the exhibits, one person was not on hand to witness the spectacle. At noon on the day of the parade, William S. Vardaman, Jr., one of the festival organizers, died from injuries he received earlier that morning. Vardaman had been attending the Grand Festival Ball at the Greenwood High School, which was held the night before. Vardaman graduated from the high school and then went to Ole Miss. At twenty-six years old, he was considered “one of the most promising young lawyers in Mississippi.” He was certainly well connected. Not only was he the only son of a former mayor of Greenwood, he was also a nephew of former Mississippi Governor and U.S. Senator James K. Vardaman (top left), known as “The Great White Chief.” As a former editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth, J.K. Vardaman had strong connections in Greenwood. Thus, it was almost assured that his nephew would also enjoy a successful career. The band for the Festival Ball was the Anson Weeks Orchestra, a popular dance band from California. Weeks (lower left) formed his band in 1924 and recorded for both Columbia and Brunswick records. In 1931, the band garnered attention from an appearance on the “Lucky Strike Magic Carpet” radio show and had begun touring nationwide. 

Apparently, the Anson Weeks Orchestra was a big hit in Greenwood, as the band was still playing at 2:00 a.m. During a break, young William Vardaman ran out of the school building to his car and ran into the flagpole in front of the school, fracturing his skull. Today, the old Greenwood High School is the Davis Elementary School (right). Vardaman lingered until noon, when he died at the Greenwood Leflore Hospital. Funeral services were held the following day at 4:00 at the family home on Grand Boulevard. All of the pallbearers were Ole Miss graduates and all but one were lawyers, including Paul D. Montjoy, Jr. (right) “Little Monty,” as he was known, was a member of the Ole Miss cross country team and was described in the 1926 annual as “staunch of heart and fleet of foot.” Among his law school classmates that year was a young attorney from Carthage who was “possessed of a liquid eloquence precipitated from his smiling lips in cadence with the elastic motions of his hands.”  His name was Ross Barnett.

Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of William Vardaman, Jr., the centennial celebration of Greenwood’s founding appeared to be a signal success. In just twenty years (in 2034), Greenwood will be celebrating its bicentennial. Time will only tell if a similarly ambitious observance will be in the offing (though perhaps this time without the "wild Indians"). 

(1) Greenwood:
(2) Evangeline:
(3) Williams Landing:
(4) Grant:
(5) Hernando de Soto float:
(6) James K. Vardaman:
(7) Weeks:
(8) Davis Elementary:
(9) Montjoy:

Friday, March 21, 2014

E.H. Dial and "The Queen of the East"

In the late 1860s, Joseph R. Dial moved with his family to Meridian, Mississippi, from Sumter, Alabama. Still recovering from the near total devastation wrought by Union troops during William T. Sherman's expedition in 1864, Meridian could hardly been considered a city. Men like Dial, though, were attracted to the promise of future growth due to the railroads located there. Dial operated a saw mill and cotton gin, and apparently did well, as he built a house for his wife Emily and their family by 1870. In time, he would become one of the most respected citizens of Meridian in the post-war era. It was another member of the Dial family, however, who would have the biggest impact on the future of Meridian.

Edwin H. Dial, born in 1853, graduated from the University of Mississippi law school in 1876. After practicing law in Kemper County for a short time, he moved to Meridian in 1877. Active in politics, he ran for Secretary of State in 1881, but lost the race to Henry C. Myers, a Confederate veteran from Marshall County known for his “knightly courage and gallantry…and his magnificent physique." After losing statewide office, E.H. Dial (right) was elected mayor of Meridian, a position he held from 1893 to 1901. During his term as mayor, the city saw a number of improvements in public works, including the installation of a sewer system and some paving of streets. Meridian also saw the introduction of electricity, including electric streetcars, and the city enjoyed a boom in industrial and commercial development. In addition, Mayor Dial was responsible for much of Meridian’s code of ordinances. In short, it was during his administration that Meridian entered the 20th Century, both literally and figuratively. According to an illustrated history of Meridian published the year after his term as mayor ended, Dial “builded with heart, brain and conscience for his City's permanent betterment, along high lines of civic, social and material development.” With all these accomplishments, though, Mayor Dial is perhaps best remembered for a play.

In 1889, E.H. Dial wrote “The Queen of the East; or The March of Progress,” a play billed as “a History, in Outline, of the Growth and Development of the City of Meridian, Mississippi, from the Earliest Period of Its Existence to the Present Time.” "The Queen of the East" was performed at the brand new Grand Opera House. Occupying one-third of a city block owned by the Marks-Rothenberg Company, the opera house (left) was designed by Gustavus Maurice Torgerson, a Swedish immigrant who also designed several other buildings in Meridian, including Witherspoon School, the old Meridian city hall and the main Marks-Rothenberg building. + The new theater opened its doors on December 17, 1890. According to the Times-Picayune, the opening was a huge success. “The townspeople and neighbors, especially theatre goers, were full of pride, curiosity and enthusiasm,” the paper reported. In addition to the “brilliant success” of the opening performance, which was “The Gypsy Baron” by Johann Strauss, the Picayune gushed over the opulence of the theater. “[It] is built in modern style and is equal to any amusement place in the south,” said the writer. “The stage and its scenic stock are capable of accommodating any large production on the road, and all the paraphernalia and appointments of a first-class theater are found in the new theater.” The Mobile Press Register agreed. “The theatre is undoubtedly one of the prettiest in the South,” the paper wrote, “and one in which any city would take pride.” The performance of “The Gypsy Baron,” staged by the Conried Opera Company, was, naturally, standing room only. Before the show, the overflow crowd was addressed by the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, Judge Thomas H. Woods, who had traveled from Jackson for the occasion.

Heinrich Conried, the namesake of the Conried Opera Company, came to the United States in 1878 from his native Austria. After working in the New York theater circuit as a stage manager and a minor character actor, he founded his own opera company which toured the country in mostly German language theaters. In 1903, he became the manager of the famous Metropolitan Opera House in New York and brought, for the first time, the works of Richard Wagner to the American stage. Conried’s success in staging Wagnerian opera was not without controversy and it was only after legal wrangling with Wagner’s protective widow, Cosima Wagner, who also happened to be the daughter of Franz Liszt. Mrs. Wagner not only wanted to protect the purity of her husband's work, she might also have objected to Conried because he was Jewish. Regardless, Conried (above right) won the right to stage the operas and under his direction "Parsifal” was performed for the first time outside of Bayreuth. He even managed somehow to stage the entire “Ring” cycle. In presenting these and other great German works to American audiences, Conried also introduced several great new singers, including Enrico Caruso. The cast for the traveling performance of “The Gypsy Baron,” which was sung in German, included Miss Rita Selby as “Saffi,” the gypsy girl. According to a society journal of the period, Selby had “a chalky complexion, a pretty figure, but a very large mouth, which was displayed to good advantage when she sang high notes.” Apparently, her voice attracted the professional attention of Heinrich Conried and captured the hearts of audiences “all the way from New Hampshire to San Antonio, Texas.” * After many years in the theater business, Conried’s health declined and despite a trip to Europe to recuperate, he died in 1909. To honor his contribution to the theater, funeral services were held in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. At the close of the lengthy service, the choir sang a selection from "Parsival,” and then the funeral procession wound its way to the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn to the strains of Chopin's "Funeral March." So distraught was Conried’s widow that she supposedly never passed by the Metropolitan Opera House again.

Back in Meridian, Edwin H. Dial prepared to bring to the stage his play "The Queen of the East." Although the performance date at the opera house (seen here in 1890) is thus far unknown, it was probably in the early months of 1891. Officially, the play served as a fundraiser for the erection a monument to the Confederate dead at Rose Hill Cemetery. The play also likely contributed to Dial's election as mayor in 1893. Sporting a long list of cast members (in excess of sixty people) drawn from prominent members of the community, all segments of Meridian's “ruling class” were represented, including railroad barons, retail merchants, captains of industry (both candy and cigar factories were among those highlighted), newspaper editors and ministers of nearly every church in the city. From the opening act set in antebellum days to the “Era of Present Prosperity,” the play featured several lengthy soliloquies by such memorable characters as “The Spirit of Progress” and the “Goddess of Health.” Among the other cast members was twenty-six-year-old Julia Rothenberg Threefoot, a sister of the Rothenberg brothers (and half-sister of Israel Marks) and wife of Kutcher Threefoot, a longtime member of the Board of Education. Also in the cast as “Meridian” was Miss Mary White, daughter of Benjamin Virginius White (lower left), who was a Confederate veteran and very active in the Knights of Pythias. He was also for many years the city treasurer and chancery clerk for Meridian. Edwin Dial himself played the part of “Eli,” a sort of seer who had a clear vision of the city's future growth. Unfortunately, included among the acts was a scene set in the “deep dark forest” in which three members of the “Ku Klux” named Jim, Bill and Mike (all played by prominent men of the community) hung a white carpetbagger. The scene ended with “Bill” triumphantly standing with his foot on the body of the carpetbagger and proclaiming “Boys, he’s undoubtedly a dead carcus!” Aside from the unfortunate (to say the least) scene described above, the play came to a triumphant conclusion with the “Grand March of the Industries and of Progress.” With all the representatives of commerce and industry surrounding the throne of “Meridian,” the “Spirit of Progress” began a lengthy verse, as follows:

Meridian, thou city of the lofty pine!
These nymphs of commerce at thy beauteous shrine
Bow their proud heads, and with one heart agree.
They honor themselves when thus they honor thee.
Thy supple feet, by fairies brushed with flowers.
Shall fleeter grow with time, and all thy power -
The world shall see, and seeing know thy worth.
And Commerce bless the era of thy birth.
Thy past is hallow'd by many a sacred scene;
Most of thine acts, thank heaven, toward virtue lean.
Graves of thine honored dead crown neighb'ring hills -
Their mem'ry yet the living present thrills.
As thou didst pray me, I have come to thee.
And found, on coming, thou art fair to see.
Thy hills I've touched with this, my magic rod,
And homes sprung forth where lately Nature trod.
Thy fact'ries' music mingles with the sound
Of that sweet music from thy rills around.
My subjects---Thrift and Industry and Brawn -
Have hither been by thine own virtues drawn,
The tide which looks and, timid, often waits.
Is moving ever towards thy tow'ring gates.
And here to-night---while eyes of Friendship feast -
I crown thee, fair one-- Queen City of the East!

It is from this verse, penned by Edwin Dial, that many believe is the source of Meridian's nickname "The Queen City." Others contend that the name comes from the Alabama, New Orleans, Texas & Pacific Junction Railway Co., whose lines crossed at Meridian and was collectively known as the 'Queen & Crescent' route. In this case, the ‘Queen’ referred to Cincinnati and the ‘Crescent’ was for New Orleans, in recognition of the railroad’s terminus point. The Queen & Crescent was established about 1893 by William Hardy, who was also responsible for the development of Hattiesburg and Gulfport. Although it's certainly possible the Queen & Crescent is the source of Meridian's nickname, Dial's play preceded the railroad by a couple of years. Yet another theory of the origin of the “Queen City” involves the “Queen of the Gypsies,” Kelly Mitchell. Her funeral in 1915 was a huge event, with approximately 20,000 Gypsies in attendance, and her grave in Rose Hill Cemetery still attracts thousands of visitors each year. The true origin of the city’s nickname may never be known with certainty, but the play seems most likely. Whether Edwin H. Dial inspired the name or not, though, there is no doubt he played a major role in developing Meridian into a prosperous and growing city at the beginning of a new century.

The house constructed by Joseph Dial and subsequently owned by Mayor E.H. Dial stood for approximately 135 years. A one-story, Italianate structure, the house was purchased by the City of Meridian in 1996 with hopes of restoring it. Unfortunately, the Dial House (top left) was demolished in 2005. Today, the site is marked with a historical marker. The site of both the "Gypsy Baron" and The Queen of the East" is, however, alive and well. The Grand Opera House, completed in 1890, was in operation until 1927, when competition from moving picture theaters and legal complications closed the opera house. For decades, the building was vacant. Finally, following a complete restoration, Meridian's Grand Opera House reopened in 2006 and is again a venue for theater productions and musical acts. Now known as the Riley Center (lower left), the opera house is owned by Mississippi State University. No doubt, Mayor Dial would be pleased that the opera house is once again a part of the “Queen City.”

+  G.M. Torgerson’s son was born in Meridian in 1896 and spent part of his childhood in Oxford, Mississippi. After high school, he worked for several newspapers and was editor of Hearst’s American Weekly. He also wrote short stories and detective tales. In 1937, he moved to Hollywood to write a screenplay based on one of his mysteries, and he died there the following year. Edwin Dial Torgerson was named for Mayor E.H. Dial.

*  In 1893, Selby secretly married George Tilford, the son of a wealthy New York grocer. The marriage was a surprise to the patriarch of the family, who was unaware his son had been slipping off to the theater to watch Selby performing on stage. Because he did not approve of his son’s marriage, Charles Tilford left George only $6,000 per month in his will (from an estate estimated at $1 million). When in 1901 creditors sought to secure a portion of his monthly stipend to pay debts, George Tilford argued in court that he was unable to support a family on less than the full amount, as he had been “raised in idleness” and was therefore unaccustomed to work.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Dial:
(2) Meridian:
(3) Grand Opera House: http://www/
(4) Conried:
(5) Gypsie Baron:
(6) B.V. White:
(7) Kelly Mitchell grave:
(8) Opera house interior:
(9) Dial House:
(10) Riley Center: