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A merry-go-round about Meridian
This former rail crossroads now serves as a departure point for city sights and country delights

By Carolyn Thornton
Published: Mar/Apr 2001

Since 1909, a herd of 28 fanciful horses, tigers, lions, reindeer, goats and giraffes have made merry memories in Meridian, Miss.

A restored carousel in Highland Park symbolizes Meridian, a city at the center of a circle of attractions that include museums, music and historic homes. Like the town, the carousel is unique–one of only 11 such National Historic Landmarks in the country. A master carver of the Gustav Dentzel Company in Pennsylvania built it in 1895. Considering how thousands of carousels have been dismantled and individual mounts sold at auctions, Meridian’s carousel is a rare survivor, and is still in its original house.

Native sons

The Jimmie Rodgers Museum is also located at Highland Park. Meridian’s native son, Rodgers suffered from tuberculosis, which forced him to give up his railroad career. By then he’d gained a reputation as “The Singing Brakeman.” Although recognized as the Father of Country Music (he was the first inductee of the Country Music Hall of Fame), Rodgers won awards for rock ‘n’ roll, blues and songwriting.

His musical heritage serves as an excuse for concerts, pageants, contests and games during the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival, held the first week in May. At other times, his music plays at the museum, which is housed in a diminutive railroad depot. Personal letters, photos, furniture, clothing and railroading memorabilia fill the museum. The crown jewel in the collection is his custom-made Gibson guitar.

Pioneer railway men, John Ball and Lewis Ragsdale, are considered Meridian’s founding fathers. Their differing ideas on how the city should be laid out accounts for the confusing street grid that ends in triangles.

More history can be found at Rose Hill Cemetery. Tombs and moss-covered names remind visitors of Meridian’s early days. Bill East offers pre-arranged tours of Rose Hill, but visitors must contact the tourism bureau for an appointment.

If you’re on your own, look for the Mitchell graves at the top of the hill. These are the final resting sites of Brazilian-born Emil and Kelly Mitchell, who were designated the king and queen of North America’s gypsies. Curious offerings–Mardi Gras beads, coins or food–grace the gypsies’ graves.

“Usually there is a glass of wine with the open bottle left beside it,” said East, who has researched many of the notorious names found in the Victorian-era cemetery. “But once we found a three-layer coconut cake and a large bowl of fruit.” No one ever sees anyone placing gifts on the gypsy graves.

Historic homes

During the Civil War, Meridian was on Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s capture-and-burn march to Georgia. Only four houses still stood when Sherman declared, " longer exists." A little three-room cottage, used as Confederate headquarters, survived. Over a 50-year period, owners expanded the original 1858 cottage into a 20-room mansion, now known as Merrehope.

After touring Merrehope, visit the Victorian Frank W. Williams Home next door. Built as a wedding gift for his wife, the home features leaded glass doors, parquet floors and a veranda that hugs three sides of the home.

Another downtown institution is Weidmann’s Restaurant, which has been serving folks since 1870. A photographic gallery of famous visitors and historic scenes surrounds the room. When butter was rationed during World War II, Weidmann’s began substituting peanut butter–a tradition that continues today.

Movies and music

Inventiveness seems to be a Meridian watchword, particularly in the case of Hartley Peavey, whose name can be found on electronics around the world. The Peavey Visitor Center and Museum tells the story of the high school boy known as “the guy who hand-made guitar amps.” Peavey’s sound systems, amplifiers and custom guitars today are used by rock musicians, from Edward Van Halen to ZZ Top. Autographed guitars, pictures and gold records fill the Artists Room of the museum, while cutting edge musical equipment invites visitors to play awhile in the Demo Room.

At one time four theaters operated in Meridian allowing this rail center to attract big name entertainers. Stop at the Hamasa Shrine Temple Theater for a peek inside this Moorish-Revival National Historic Landmark. Free tours are available by request. Built during the silent movie era, the theater has one of only two existing Robert Morton pipe organs, designed to sound like a full 100-piece orchestra.

The 1890 Grand Opera House–with its original backdrops, Gibson Girl on the curtain and a true silver screen for silent movies–is being renovated. To see additional instruments, head out of town (Highway 19 south and follow the signs) to the 1895 Causeyville General Store. Collecting and restoring pianos and organs were the passions of the late Leslie Hagwood. Thanks to Hagwood, the store and gristmill next door are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“My husband’s daddy gave this part of the store to him for a movie theater,” Dorothy Hagwood said. She stood in the back half of the store where a row of unusual pianos (including the one from the opera) surrounded shelves of grocery items. On summer nights, they’d show movies outside using a sheet for a screen with shadows from flying insects making cameo performances.

Vintage movie posters rim the store’s walls. A small side room, which served as a doctor’s office in the 1920s and 1930s, holds a rack of videotapes. The store also sells freshly roasted peanuts from an 1890 peanut vendor stand and wedges of cheese cut from an old-fashioned cheese hoop. Corn is ground in the mill on Saturdays.

Dunn’s Falls once powered a gristmill and Stetson hat company. /Carolyn Thonrton photo
Splash down

South of Meridian (take Interstate 59 south to Savoy exit, then follow signs) Dunn’s Falls might make you wonder whether you’re still in Mississippi. This 65-foot waterfall once powered a gristmill and a company manufacturing Stetson hats. Today, this water park has a fishing pond and swimming area, while the Chunky River below the falls offers a series of rapids for canoeists. The historic Carroll Richardson Gristmill was moved and reassembled at this site–a fitting finale to round out a tour of Meridian.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

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