Monday, August 19, 2013

Mississippi's Mt. McKinley: Woodall Mountain

Mississippi is known for many things: great food, wonderful music, good literature, and warm, friendly folks, just to name a few. Our natural resources are abundant too – from agriculture to hunting and fishing, we pretty much have it all. One thing Mississippi does not have much of, however, are mountains. In fact, the tallest “mountain” we have would only qualify as a big hill in much of the rest of the country. But, it is what it is, and Woodall Mountain, located in the northeast corner of the state in Tishomingo County, is the highest natural point in Mississippi. At 807 feet, Woodall Mountain is located just south of Iuka, which is the Tishomingo County seat. At the top of Woodall Mountain is a National Geodetic Survey station disk and a small gravel area for those who wish to climb to the summit and enjoy the view. Until 1998, there was an observation tower on top of Woodall Mountain, but it was removed at that time. Several other peaks in the area are nearly as tall as Woodall, but the second highest elevation in Mississippi is way down south in Prentiss County, where Lebanon Mountain “soars” to a height of 794 feet. By comparison, the nation’s tallest peak is, of course, Mount McKinley at 20,320 feet above sea level. Overall, Mississippi ranks seventh from the bottom in average elevation. Delaware is the flattest state in the nation, just slightly lower than Florida and Louisiana in mean elevation.
According to some accounts, Woodall Mountain was at one time known as Yow Hill. If so, the peak was likely named for George Yow (1828-1897),  who is buried in the nearby New Prospect Cemetery. Apparently, Mr. Yow was a patriotic chap (for the Confederacy, that is), as in 1862 he named his newborn son Jefferson Davis Yow. Many other members of the Yow family are buried close by, but about 1887 the hill was reclassified as a “mountain” and named for Zephaniah Harvey Woodall, Jr. (right), who served as sheriff of Tishomingo County from 1880 to 1892. It was during Woodall’s term that the county courthouse (left) burned. The fire consumed the upper floors of the structure, which was built in 1870 at a cost of $6,749, and was supposedly set by arsonists trying to destroy evidence in a murder case. The courthouse was rebuilt, retaining the bottom floor, and today serves as the headquarters for the Tishomingo County Historical & Genealogical Society.

Zephaniah Woodall was born in 1827 in Morgan County, Alabama, located in the north central part of the state. He was married three times (his first two wives apparently died, possibly during childbirth). By the time he married Rebecca Wynn in 1863, he had moved to Tishomingo County. That same year, he enlisted in the Confederate Army, serving in Co. B, 11th Alabama Cavalry. Also known as Burtwell's Cavalry, the regiment was composed of several consolidated companies of men from Alabama and Mississippi, among them Lt. Col. John Francis Doan of Iuka. The 11th Cavalry fought with Nathan Bedford Forrest in several late-war engagements in Alabama, including Sulphur Trestle, where Forrest's men captured a fort held by Federal troops. Fought on September 25, 1864, 200 Union soldiers were killed during the engagement, including the fort's commander. The rest of the garrison was captured and sent to prison, and many of these men died on board the ill-fated Sultana. The Sulphur Creek Trestle, interestingly, is considered by many to be the setting for Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," published in 1890. Bierce, a Union veteran, had been stationed at Sulphur Trestle earlier in the war.

Among those captured at Sulphur Trestle was another officer (left), the colonel of the 9th Indiana Cavalry. He was sent to a prison camp, where he remained for the rest of the war.  After being paroled, he returned to Indiana and then purchased a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Soon after arriving, however, his entire family came down with malaria, and his wife Emily died on August 20, 1866. Heartbroken, he returned to Indiana, leaving his plantation in the hands of a business partner. When his partner disappeared with what money remained in the failed plantation, he declared bankruptcy. Within ten years, however, he built a pharmaceutical company and become one of the wealthiest men in America. Today, the corporation which bears his name, the Eli Lilly Company, is among the top pharmaceutical companies in the world.

After his service in the Confederate army ended with the surrender of the 11th Alabama Cavalry in May 1865, Zephaniah Woodall returned to Tishomingo County and raised eleven children, most of them by his wife Rebecca Elizabeth, known as Betty. As noted earlier, he became the county sheriff in 1880. Col. John Doan, who also served in the 11th Alabama Cavalry, returned to Iuka and also married three times. He was the father of a dozen children, besting his old comrade Zephaniah by one. Then, as so many did in the years following the Civil War, the Woodall family picked up and moved west to Texas, settling in Hill County. There, the Woodalls lived the remainder of their lives, far away from the mountain which bore their name. On Christmas Day in 1900, Betty died, followed in 1910 by old Zephaniah himself. He and Betty and many of their children and extended family members rest today in the Hillsboro Cemetery, including daughters Ladie, Henrietta and Duanna, shown together in this photo (above).

Back in Mississippi, the big hill is still called Woodall Mountain, even though the Woodalls headed west more more than a century ago. The hill has certainly seen it's share of excitement through the years, including the September 1862 battle of Iuka which took place a short distance north of its heights and was likely used as an observation post by Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans. Still in private ownership, Woodall Mountain was most recently owned by Robert L. "Bob" Brown, a successful Iuka businessman. Ironically, Brown, who passed away in 2011, moved to the highest point in Mississippi from the small Delta town of Sledge, a decidedly flat piece of ground.

(1) Map:
(2) Courthouse:
(3) Woodrall:
(4) Sulphur Trestle:
(5) Lilly:
(6) Woodall sisters:
(7) Survey Disk:

Thursday, August 15, 2013

McAlister's Deli: Sweet Tea in the Heart of Dixie

In 1989, Martin Davidson, a New York native and a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, directed a film which focused on race and society in the 1950s. Previously, Davidson had won acclaim for directing the 1972 film The Lords of Flatbush. Heart of Dixie starred Ally Sheedy, Virginia Madsen and Phoebe Cates. Set in Alabama, the plot centered on Southern belle Maggie DeLoach (played by Ally Sheedy) and her sorority sisters at a fictional university who begin to sense the changing social order and their place in the “new” South. Released in August 1989, Heart of Dixie generated generally good reviews. For example, the New York Times found the film to be a “clear-eyed, funny and affecting movie.” Others thought it lacked focus (and some, not surprisingly, found the “Southern” accents to be a bit much). Unlike the New York Times, a reviewer at The Washington Post hated it. "Ally Sheedy, Virginia Madsen and Phoebe Cates combine their negligible talents in Heart of Dixie," the Times wrote, "a melodrama so full of hams, it oinks." On the whole, though, Heart of Dixie was fairly well received, though it certainly did not win any awards. 

The screenplay for Heart of Dixie was based on a book by author Anne Rivers Siddons (right) titled Heartbreak Hotel, published in 1976. The book was Siddons’ first novel and was based on her real-life experience at Auburn University. At Auburn (then officially known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute), she was a member of the Delta Delta Delta Sorority and (no doubt) enjoyed her time there. However, she was also a bit of a “rebel” on campus, at least as far as race was concerned. As a columnist for the student newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman, she was outspoken in favor of integration. The administration at Auburn tried to suppress her column and ultimately removed her from the paper, but the incident drew national attention. After graduation in 1958, she became a senior editor for Atlanta magazine and published her first book in 1974. Another novel, The House Next Door, was made into a Lifetime television movie in 2006. A horror story, The House Next Door was praised by none other than Stephen King. Siddons continues to write, most recently publishing Sweetwater Creek in 2005, set in the low country of South Carolina. 

Although the movie Heart of Dixie was set on the fictional Randolph University campus in Alabama, many of the film locations were in Mississippi, most notably on the campus of the University of Mississippi and in and around Oxford. Among the movie locations was an old gas station about a mile from the Ole Miss campus which was converted for the film to a 1950s diner. After the filming had been completed, a local dentist named Don Newcomb (left) purchased the property. A native of Ripley, Mississippi, Newcomb had worked as a teenager at a soda fountain in his hometown before attending school at Ole Miss, where he earned a degree in dentistry. After serving in the U.S. Navy, Newcomb established his dental practice in Oxford, but he was also involved in other buisness interests, including a couple of local restaurant franchise operations. In 1987, when Heart of Dixie was filmed, Dr. Newcomb saw an opportunity to start his own restaurant in the converted gas station and two years later, along with his office manager, Debra Bryson, and two sons, Newcomb opened the 'Chequers' restaurant. The name was too much like the 'Checkers' restaurant chain, however, so Newcomb changed the name in honor of his wife's parents. He called it McAlister's.

McAlister’s Deli was a instant hit with Ole Miss students and became a popular local eatery. Featuring a more upscale version of fast food and focusing on sandwiches and salads (but known especially its sweet tea), the restaurant retained many features of the original gas station. In 1992, Newcomb opened a second store in another college town, Hattiesburg, and a year later added another one in Tupelo, where there was a branch Ole Miss campus. In 1995, the Tupelo store became the first franchise McAlister's location (opened by a doctor from Oxford and a businessman from New Albany).  Three years later, the company was purchased and became the McAlister's Corporation and moved its headquarters to Ridgeland. Since then, McAlister's has grown to more than 300 locations in 23 states, ranging as far west as New Mexico and as far north as Indiana. The restaurant has also expanded into the college food service market and into shopping mall food courts. The prototype of the smaller-sized McAlister's Select was opened in Ridgeland's Northpark Mall in 2002. Although Dr. Newcomb and son Chris Newcomb remained with the corporation for a number of years, they have since left to pursue other opportunities, including Newks Eatery, founded in 2004 by the Newcombs and Debra Bryson. After opening the first Newk's in Oxford, the chain has since expanded to almost thirty locations across the South.

From from its origin in an abandoned gas station in the "heart of Dixie," McAlister's Deli has proven to be a huge success. Based on that success, there is no reason to think Newk's won't be just as popular.

(1) Heart of Dixie:
(2) Siddons:
(3) Don Newcomb:
(4) McAlister's:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mississippi's Prehistoric Whales

Many, many years ago (as in many millions of years ago), much of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas was covered by ocean water. As a result, evidence of prehistoric marine life is abundant throughout the region. The largest of the sea creatures which once roamed the warm waters of this ancient sea were species of whales. The discovery in the 20th Century of their skeletal remains in Mississippi and elsewhere caused quite a sensation. Fossils of prehistoric creatures are nothing new, however. In fact, paleontologists and collectors have been digging up Mississippi's geologic past for quite a long time in search of the next great discovery.

No doubt the area's first inhabitants (the native people) were keenly aware of all the odd bones that occasionally popped up, and settlers in the region who put plows in the earth found them in such abundance that they were almost commonplace. In fact, large vertebra from what would later be identified as prehistoric whales were often used as furniture or as filler in house foundations. The first scientific examination of the area's fossils, however, was conducted by Richard Harlan (left). Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1796, Harlan was a naturalist, herpetologist and paleontologist, among other "ists," and a medical doctor. While still a student, he spent a year as a surgeon on board a ship bound for Calcutta, where he marveled at the mysteries of the Euro-Indian culture and remarked with disdain about the "barbarians" of the lower castes. Fascinated with human anatomy, he collected at least one "Hindoo" skull from a funeral pyre (a trophy later thrown overboard by a superstitious crew). Harlan would later make another voyage to Europe to pay homage to his peers in the scientific community, taking time to visit Paris and other French towns, where he found the "villages filthy, streets narrow, [and] the people barbarous and ignorant." Back home, despite his obviously patrician world view, he built a solid reputation as a medical doctor and scientist, where he collected, among other things, human skulls, numbering as many as 275 at one point. It was Harlan, who was also interested in paleontology, who first identified some of the bones that had been collected from the ancient sea beds. The bones and vertebra had been collected from Arkansas, and Harlan named them Basilosaurus, meaning “King reptile.” It was a dramatic find, and Harlan gets credit for the early identification. While he was the first to classify these fossils, he did get one thing wrong: it wasn’t a reptile after all.

It was a prominent British anatomist and paleontologist named Richard Owen who, after studying the spine and other pieces of the “King reptile,” determined that it was in fact a mammal and a prehistoric whale. Because of the type of teeth found with the skeletal remains, Owen renamed it Zeuglodon cetoides (meaning “yoke teeth”). However, according to the protocols of taxonomy, it is the first name given which takes precedence. These days, both the Basilosaurus and the Zeuglodon refer to prehistoric whales of the same general type, though the Zeuglodon is generally smaller. Richard Owen (right) is perhaps best known for coming up with the term “dinosaur” and for establishing the Natural History Museum in London. Although he was on the cutting edge of scientific endeavor in the mid-19th Century, he also had a reputation for being a thoroughly dislikable person. Apparently a bitter and vindictive man, Owen was described by various individuals, including his sometimes rival Charles Darwin, as a “most deceitful and odious man,” a “malicious, dishonest and hateful individual,” “driven by arrogance and jealously,” “dastardly and envious,” and "a damed liar." Despite this, and despite a charge of plagiarism late in his career, Owen was knighted by Queen Victoria and contributed greatly to the study of the prehistoric record.

In 1845, another curious individual made his way South to study and recover these strange bones. Albert Koch, born in Prussia in 1804, immigrated to the United States in 1826 and settled in the German-speaking community of St. Louis. In the mid-1830s, he opened an “museum” establishment which featured a variety of theatrical acts, including magicians and ventriloquists, wax figures, live bears and alligators and an assortment of other oddities. Included in this menagerie was a mastodon skeleton that Koch has unearthed elsewhere in Missouri. When assembled, the mastodon was quite a bit larger than it would have been in real life because Koch added extra parts and (failing that) blocks of wood to fill the creature out. This, of course, was a big hit with the public, but paleontologists were not fooled. Despite this, Koch went to Alabama to look for more bones and unearthed the same type of whale that Harlan had found. When Koch assembled this “monster,” he mistakenly (or purposefully) took parts from several different creatures and built a skeleton that measured 114 feet long! With this great “sea monster” (and others he harvested from the region), Koch (who began calling himself a doctor) exhibited his creatures in New York, New Orleans and other cities. Eventually, he took his show to Europe, where King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was so impressed he purchased the great whale, despite his own scientists’ doubts about the authenticity of the assembled skeleton. In time, only one of Koch’s “immense antediluvian monsters” survives today (the mastodon, located in Richard Owens’ British Museum). The two whales assembled by Koch were lost in the Chicago fire and in the WWII bombing of Berlin, respectively. While Koch was definitely a showman, he did work diligently at uncovering fossil remains in Alabama, and that natural curiosity eventually - over many years - kept the interest in dinosaurs alive in the hearts and minds of the American public until the beginning of the 20th Century, when more scientific expeditions began to explore the fascinating field of paleontology. (To learn more about Koch, there is a fascinating article in Alabama Heritage at

In Mississippi, just as in Alabama, there’s long been an interest in dinosaurs. Back in 1843, about the time Albert Koch was digging up whale bones in Alabama for his traveling museum, the great Natchez historian, geologist and naturalist B.L.C. Wailes found the partial remains of a prehistoric whale, the Basilosaurus, on the banks of the Pearl River, and he reported in an 1854 geological publication that whale vertebrae had been found in abundance in five central Mississippi counties. It wasn’t until 1971, however, that a nearly complete whale skeleton emerged from the Mississippi soil. In June of that year, members of the Mississippi Gem and Mineral Society excavated a Zeuglodon whale from Thompson Creek in Yazoo County, near the Tinsley community, south of Yazoo City. Not surprisingly, this fossil-rich area is also the site of the first oil well in Mississippi in 1939. To be sure, there have been other fossil finds in the area. For example, in 1962, during construction of the Ross Barnett Reservoir dam, a very intact skeleton of a “huge prehistoric monster” was unearthed near Pelahatchie Creek. Although the skull was not recovered, the workers and geologists who examined the vertebra indicated that the rest of the creature was intact. By all accounts, the find was a Basilosaurus. Unfortunately, the skeleton was not preserved, and was reburied in the dam.

The Zeuglodon whale from Yazoo County was recovered, however, and now resides at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. Lovingly known as "Ziggy," he (or she) greets all who visit the museum with a toothy grin. There have since been other whale discoveries, including the remains of a Basilosaurus in Madison County (left), uncovered during a construction project. All these fossil remains ultimately led to the designation by the Mississippi Legislature in 1981 of the prehistoric whale (both the Basilosaurus and Zeuglodon) as the official state fossil. I think Richard Harlan, Sir Richard Owen and certainly Albert Koch would be proud, although Owen would probably never admit it...

(1) Whale:
(2) Harlan:
(3) Owen:
(4) Koch:
(5) Basilsaurus:
(6) Clipping:
(7) Whale discovery: