Published May/Jun 2005

Above: A view from inside the Dockery House Bed-and-Breakfast creates a mood of tranquility.

Below: Jam sessions at the DeSoto County Museum in Hernando, Miss., are well-known in the area.

Before You Go
For more information, contact DeSoto County Tourism, (662) 429-0505 or click on www.desotocountytourism

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County in North Mississippi embraces traditions, offers hospitality.
Story and photos by Carolyn Thornton

On most Thursday evenings in Hernando, Miss., musicians with guitars, bass, fiddles and banjos gather in the breezeway of the 1850s dogtrot-style log cabin next to the DeSoto County Museum. The mix of musicians changes at whim, but one thing always occurs: the music draws a crowd.

A father and daughter might stop on their way to get an ice cream. Another couple unloads lawn chairs from their car and sets them up on the sidewalk. Others driving past pull into the parking lot. Whether the audience numbers 10 or none, the musicians joke and laugh, jam and sing until all hours. It’s free and just for fun.

These welcoming, unpretentious jam sessions typify DeSoto County located in the northwest corner of Mississippi, just a hop, skip or jump off Interstate 55 or U.S. Highway 61’s Casino Row in neighboring Tunica. The county has been on a fast track of growth spilling over from nearby Memphis, Tenn., yet it offers old-fashioned surprises and a slower, more personal lifestyle. Guests are welcomed as if they were long-lost relatives.

History first

It could be said that explorer Hernando De Soto opened the door to tourism when he reached the Mississippi River in 1541. Led by the native Indians, DeSoto County is believed to be where the explorer first saw the river. Four paintings depicting De Soto’s expedition hang in the second floor rotunda of the County Courthouse in Hernando. Replicas of De Soto’s signature trade beads are displayed in the DeSoto County Museum, a good place to begin a tour.

Curator Brian Hicks, who is available for museum tours, has compiled attractive displays. The collection begins with artifacts from De Soto’s era and ends with a tribute to the Memphis Xplorers arena football team and RiverKings hockey team. Both teams play in the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven.

In between, visitors learn about the outlaw Rube Burrow who planted two trees to mark “safe houses” for his band of robbers in the 1800s. The trees were easily identified because they were not native species. During a storm on July 22, 2003, one of the trees toppled. A slice of the trunk is at the museum as a reminder of that lawless era. Growth rings indicate the tree was at least 150 years old.

A piano and furniture from the 1850s Col. Tom White home, which stood across the street, recall the time his daughter, Miss Nellie, loudly played the piano for Union soldiers in order to hide the sound of Confederates hiding in the home’s basement.

“The furniture was shipped to New Orleans and up to Commerce Landing (now Tunica) then carried on wagons to the house,” said Hicks. A pharmacy now occupies the former house site.

Welcome to visitors

Martha Garner, who owns Dockery House Bed-and-Breakfast in Hernando with her husband, John, is always willing to help guests with special needs, whether it’s arranging fresh flowers and chocolate-covered strawberries for a special event or merely suggesting the best place to dine. Dockery House is one of five bed-and-breakfast inns within the county.

At Bonne Terre Country Inn and Restaurant in Nesbit, owner Max Bonnin personally greets every dinner guest. This oasis just four miles from the interstate attracts honeymooners and wedding couples, many of whom marry in the white country chapel on the grounds.

“It keeps me going to have Bonne Terre be a special place in people’s lives,” Bonnin said.

When a tree fell onto the roof of Magnolia Grove Bed-and-Breakfast in Hernando during the storm in 2003, in a surprising turn of fate, the guests took their host out to breakfast.

Antiques to boutiques

Shops and eateries surround Hernando’s Courthouse Square. Accents on the Square carries decorative items and pottery from Mississippi artists.

In Southaven, Main Street Antiques has items from more than 130 vendors.

Perhaps the county’s grandest variety of shops can be found in the compact triangular district of Olive Branch called Old Towne. For boutique shopping at its best, check out the floral arrangements at House of Fink, or home accessories and Good Earth dinnerware at Mississippi Memories. Maggie O’Hara’s Collectibles sells home decor and gifts. Mexican imports at Ginga’s and ladies’ clothing at Jackibel’s also are good finds.

Beyond Old Towne on a country lane is Brussel’s Bonsai nursery.
“Bonsai thrive here,” said owner Brussel Martin, “because the climate is similar to Tokyo’s with long growing seasons and mild winters.”

In addition to selling tools, containers, plants and accessories, Brussel’s Bonsai holds periodic classes and lectures on the art of training bonsai.

Local attractions

Cedar Hill Farm in Hernando presents families with endless nostalgic delights from hayrides to pony rides. Youngsters love the rabbits, sheep, goats and potbelly pigs at the petting zoo. The farm welcomes day visitors to picnic, fish or walk the trails.

Music fans will enjoy driving by Jerry Lee Lewis’ ranch-style home, easily identified by the gold pianos on the gates. Currently tours are no longer offered at this Nesbit attraction.

In Horn Lake, a flower shop now occupies the cottage where Elvis Presley honeymooned on a ranch with Priscilla.

Blockbuster author, John Grisham, practiced law from two different offices in Southaven, both located along State Line Road. Residents say he wrote part of his novel, “A Time to Kill,” sitting outside the County Courthouse in Hernando while waiting between court cases.

And until the 1960s, DeSoto County was considered the wedding capital of the South.

“As long as you were tall enough to look over the (registrar’s) desk, you could get married there,” said Kim Terrell, executive director of DeSoto County Tourism Association.
Golf enthusiasts will be welcome in DeSoto County, boasting five 18-hole courses. Arkabutla Lake in the southern part of the county is great for sailing and other water sports.

To uncover a treasure in its many shops, enjoy the outdoors or simply partake in old-fashioned Southern hospitality, look to DeSoto County for a great getaway.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

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