ALL ABOARD FOR READING ADVENTURE

I chased down Story Tree Books for a unique reading-dessert adventure.

Climbing the magical Dr. Seuss stairs into Story Tree Books brought back childhood (and I confess, adult) memories of climbing aboard a bookmobile. I love the experience of being on wheels, closed in, and surrounded by shelves laden with books. The day I caught up with Story Tree mobile bookshop, the truck was parked at an ice cream stand in Navarre, Florida, for a Harry Potter reading celebration. Story Tree displayed Harry Potter books and accessories under a tent outside the book truck while long lines of readers bought ice cream “sorting hat” cones, butter beer floats, and Felix Felicis Fizzes (lemonade).

The line from Dr Seuss “You can find magic whenever you look” invites readers inside.

Story Tree Books travels around like a bookmobile except the owner, a primary school librarian, sells as well as shares books. Most of all, she promotes reading for kids, primarily, and adults, who she considers reading role models. During COVID, the owner and her husband gave away 2500 children’s books to young readers!

The shelves are filled with interesting books and accessories.

Inside the book truck, imaginative displays entice you to pick up a book, open it and start reading – on the spot. Whimsical decorations accent the books in surprising nooks and crannies. The neatly arranged stacks of books continue off the shelves and onto the carpeted floor.  At night, fairy lights illuminate the inside of the truck creating an even more magical escape I chased down this mobile bookshop when compiling an independent bookstore section for my upcoming book, A Literary Travelers Guide to the Gulf South. Story Tree Books has a twice a month regular location, but I’d had trouble meshing my schedule, so I was delighted to finally meet the likeable couple and tour Story Tree. The owner says it’s her book truck dream, but her husband made it happen. And they’ve been giving away and selling books for over three years. In our short conversation, her passion for reading and encouraging young readers was evident as she described the treasure hunts she plans for the kindergartners, first and second graders who visit the school library where she is officially titled Educational Media Specialist. And the prizes for the treasure seekers? Books, of course!

The maroon and gold sprinkles represent Gryffindor from Harry Potter’s Hogswart house colors.

If I were a kid, I’d “book” Story Tree for my birthday party. They do personal special events, as well as community events like the Harry Potter ice cream venture. Imagine dressing like Nancy Drew or Velma from Scooby-Doo and having a mystery birthday party with a real book truck in the driveway, adding to the intrigue.

Just the thought makes me miss bookmobiles. The fact is I haven’t been inside one in years. Although my Florida county (Santa Rosa) doesn’t have a bookmobile, there is one in nearby Walton County. The Bay County bookmobile services three other counties.

The Topeka  bookmobile, with 121,000 miles, was sold at auction for under $5000.

My favorite bookmobile was in Topeka, Kansas, where we lived in the late ’90s. After a little research, I discovered my Topeka bookmobile was just auctioned off by Purple Wave Auctions for $4950. If I had known, I think I would have considered buying that luxury model with its beautiful blonde shelves. If I had bought it, I could be like author Nancy Gaskins of Destin. She started a bookmobile because she had such a vast collection of books to share! Even though bookmobiles are declining in number, the vibrant library system of Topeka purchased a brand-new bookmobile to replace my old favorite.

As of 2019, the Association of Bookmobiles and Outreach Services reports almost 900 bookmobiles, technovans, and mobile vehicles are hitting the roads. Some even provide entertainment like outdoor music and bubble machines while more sophisticated ones offer high tech computer plug-ins.   For me, skip the bubbles and the techno-music — a good bookmobile is parked near a great ice cream stand not too far from the beach.

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Cancel Culture: Time Will Tell if the Pen is Mightier Than the Sword

Father Ryan Park (4)

Ryan Park in Mobile, Alabama, is a sad place this Saturday afternoon. I arrive to see if the six-foot bronze statue of the Catholic priest, sometimes called the Poet of the Confederacy, is still standing.  It is – amidst broken bottles, scattered trash, unkempt shrubbery, overgrown weeds, empty flower urns, and barren ground where grass should grow. Remnants of flag hardware clang against the 20-foot flag pole, rope and flag stripped or stolen from the standard.  A homeless man sleeps on a park bench. 

The small, diamond-shaped park stands on busy Spring Hill Avenue, a few blocks from downtown Mobile. Historic St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, across a side street, casts a drab, skeletal shadow on the park. On July 12, 2021, the park and the statue will celebrate their 108th birthday.  The church is nearly a decade older but was closed in 2018 by the archbishop and is now being demolished or “redeveloped,” despite its historic building designation. The park was the site of protests in 2017 and 2020 calling for the removal of Ryan’s “Confederate” statue. Alas, Father Ryan will have to stand his own ground when it comes to Cancel Culture. Perhaps the Irish Catholic men of the of Ancient Order of Hibernia or the citizens of Mobile who jointly erected the monument will come to its aid. The Cancel Culture protestors need to do their homework.

In the coastal cities covered in my book, A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola, Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838-1886) left his mark in Mobile and Biloxi, Mississippi. Both cities have streets and historic markers named for him. But Mobile was his favorite. After the Civil War, Father Ryan spent ten years in Mobile, first as an assistant at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and then as pastor at St. Mary’s. Besides the park and statue, his presence is honored at Portier House, 307 Conti St., located on Cathedral Square, diagonal from the Cathedral. Sometimes called Bishop Portier’s House, the historic home is a Greek revival Creole cottage dating to1834 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Father Ryan lived here in the second-floor bedroom in the northwest corner from 1870 until 1877. Today the room pays homage to him with a bust, portrait, and several volumes of his poetry on display. Though he didn’t die in Mobile, Father Ryan loved the city so much he requested his body to be returned to St. Mary’s. His is buried in the Old Catholic Cemetery.

PHOTO CREDIT TOP: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS # LOC HABS ALA,49-MOBI,38—18; BOTTOM: downtownmobile.org

Sometimes called the unofficial poet laureate of the Confederacy, Father Ryan volunteered as a Confederate chaplain, buried the dead and tended the injured on the battlefield.  He is also known as the Poet-Priest of the South. In his day, along with his priestly duties, he was also a Catholic newspaper editor, newspaper publisher, popular poet, lecturer and best-selling author. Even Margaret Mitchell mentions him in her novel Gone With the Wind.  Reading his poems like “C.S.A.” must have given much comfort to wives, mothers, and sisters who lost their loved ones in the war.

“No, no, no, they were brave for us,

And bright were the lives they gave for us;

The land they struggled to save for us

  Will not forget

  Its warriors yet

Who sleep in so many a grave for us.”

As a young Southerner he was enthralled and caught up in the fervor of war; his views changed as he aged. Several of his poems reflect his experience as a battlefield chaplain and the loss of his younger brother, a Confederate soldier who died as a result of injuries received in battle. Though Father Ryan is famous for poems like “The Conquered Banner” and “The Sword of Robert E. Lee,” he wrote many more about spirituality and faith.

If the Cancel Culture protestors do their homework, they will discover the first racially integrated Catholic high school in Tennessee is named after Father Ryan.

Father Ryan HIgh School
Nashville’s Historic Father Ryan Catholic High School has faced its share of Cancel Culture editorials, with alumni coming to its defense citing strong values taught. PHOTO CREDIT PINTEREST

Yes, Father Ryan aligned himself with Confederates and the Southern cause, offering comfort to the men and their families, but he was first a Catholic priest and, according to most, was opposed to slavery. While living in Mobile, Ryan didn’t consider himself a poet, simply a writer of verse. He often read his poetry during his sermons while parishioners copied down the lines. A Mobile newspaper publisher collected Ryan’s poems and published them, making the book an instant best seller in 1879. Most of the $1.3 million he earned from the book and its reprints went to the Catholic Church. It is available online here for no charge.   In the Author Notes in the collection, he compares poems to songs, writing “souls were always more to him than songs.” In the end, his popular post-war poem, “The Conquered Banner,” calls for those of the lost cause to take down the Confederate flag, allowing poets and writers keep its memory alive,

For its fame on brightest pages,

Penned by poets and by sages,

Shall go sounding down the ages– 

Furl its folds though now we must.. . .

Touch it not–unfold it never,

Let it droop there, furled forever,

For its people’s hopes are dead!

In 2003 scholars at Belmont Abbey College’s library in North Carolina found forty of Father Ryan’s unpublished poems. They say the poems prove he mellowed with age, and even wrote poetry honoring the Federal dead. 

Time will tell if the pen is mightier than the sword during Cancel Culture.   Within the geographical parameters of my book, I’ve encountered a litany of writers – Varina Davis, Winnie Davis, Jefferson Davis, Sara Dorsey, Sidney Lanier, Father Ryan, Vachel Lindsay  — whose words are no longer “acceptable” despite the fact they were immensely popular in their own days.  These writers created poetry, fiction and nonfiction that entertained, consoled and informed millions of readers.  Cancel Culture is erasing their literary footprints.

I worry many more unique, once-revered Southern voices will be silenced in Cancel Culture, books hidden away in musty closets because those writers spoke of a time and place no longer in favor. Do their words lose value or truth? Are their beautifully crafted sentences and stanzas to be erased because of unpopular content or a distasteful word? Will their books be banned because their descriptions of what was acceptable at the time now shames society? Should statues to writers face the same fate as statues to generals?

Brad Watson, one of the writers I discovered while doing research for my book wrote in The Heaven of Mercury, “only the dead see one another, and themselves, for what they truly were, or are.”  And it’s words like those, simple words crafted into a sentence so deep and so thought provoking, that make me realize pens can be mightier than swords. It’s only fitting the left hand of Father Ryan’s statue holds a book of poetry. There’s probably a pen in his pocket.

Note the book of poetry in Father Ryan’s left hand. Photo Credit: Diane Skelton
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Literary Mobile: On the Street Where You Live

When my hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi, renamed the street where my parents lived, my father glowed with pride. Our address now read Paul Harvey Avenue, named for the popular author and radio commentator. We’d moved up in social circles. Our street was named for someone important.

I recalled this recently In Mobile, Alabama, when researching my literary travel book.  Mobile has an entire historic neighborhood where all the streets are named for famous writers. It’s especially fitting since the neighborhood, Ashland Place, was carved out of the estate where Augusta Evans Wilson, the first woman author to earn over $100.000, lived and wrote.

Of course, she has Augusta Street named after her in a much older section of town, the Oakleigh Garden Historic District. Oakleigh dates as far back as 1830 with its crown jewels of Washington Square, a shady, sprawling park in the residential neighborhood, and the historic Oakleigh House built in 1837. Visitors new to Mobile will tell you they feel like they’re in New Orleans when they walk the sidewalks of Oakleigh Garden. Founded in 1702,  Mobile is actually sixteen years older than New Orleans.

About three miles northwest of Historic Oakleigh Garden Neighborhood is Ashland Place Historic District, the first streetcar suburb outside bustling old Mobile. Development of the neighborhood, which today has 81 homes, began in 1908 after the widowed writer Augusta Evans Wilson sold the property to a developer. Houses were already popping up among the gorgeous oaks by 1926, when Ashland, the home where Evans wrote at least three novels, was destroyed by fire. Remnants of the entrance to the original 40-acre estate are still visible at the two stucco pedestals and the entrance arch. The small “guard” houses still stand but aren’t visible in the photo below.

This old postcard shows the home Ashland in the distance before 1926 when the Greek Revival antebellum home burned.
The front entry to Ashland Place in Mobile as it looks in 2021, almost 100 years after the fire destroyed the original home on the 40-acre estate.

Meet the Streets

Ashland Place, nestled between Springhill Avenue and Old Shell Road, has only four streets, each named in honor of a writer with connections to Mobile. The stately homes in this prestigious, lush neighborhood point to a time when developers honored literary and cultural figures of the day with street names, perhaps to add cultural prestige to the neighborhood.

LanierLanier Avenue pays tribute to Sidney Lanier (1842-1881). This poet, professional musician, author and editor, is a Georgia native, but spent several years in Alabama. He recuperated at an uncle’s home in Point Clear on Mobile Bay following the Civil War. He had contracted tuberculosis while a prisoner of war. Following his stay in Point Clear, he lived in both Montgomery and nearby Prattville teaching and as an academy principal. He became a professor of literature at Johns Hopkins, an ironic commentary since prior to the Civil War he had wanted to go to Heidelberg to earn his Ph.D. to become a professor. The war broke out and like many young men, his plans changed.  He penned ten volumes of poetry in his short life; he died at 39. His most noted poem is “Marshes of the Glynn” and up until the 1960s school children still memorized his poems, many about nature.  Schools, streets, bridges, and lakes across the South are named in his honor. A World War II Liberty cargo ship and a U.S. postage stamp also honored him.  

DeLeon Avenue honors Thomas Cooper de Leon (1839-1914), a poet, editor, journalist, DeLeonnovelist, and playwright who lived in Mobile the last thirty years of his life. His most noted work is Belles, Beaux and Brains of the Sixties which profiles the men and women of the 1860s — from socialites to politicians to soldiers ­­­­– especially in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia,. It’s interesting reading for those who enjoy history and a valuable resource for anyone studying or writing about the 1860s. He even includes some photos I’d never seen before of Winnie and Varina Davis, wife and daughter of Jefferson Davis.  DeLeon edited three Mobile newspapers, including the Mobile Register (now the Mobile Press Register), and managed Mobile’s Mardi Gras for years. He is a native of South Carolina; the online South Carolina Encyclopedia says his play  Hamlet, Ye Dismal Prince (1870), is alleged to be the first American play to run one hundred nights. DeLeon, who fought for the Confederacy, is sometimes called “The Blind Laureate of the Lost Cause.” He lost his vision in 1903.

RyanRyan Avenue honors Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838-1886).  Following the Civil War, Father Ryan, the Catholic priest dubbed the “Poet of the Confederacy,” spent ten years in Mobile. He was first assigned as an assistant at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and then as pastor at St. Mary’s. Near downtown, there’s a bust and a portrait of him at Portier House and a bronze six-foot statue of him holding a book of poetry at the Father Ryan Memorial Park. Though he did not die in Mobile, he loved the city so much he requested his body be returned to St. Mary’s and buried there. His most famous poem is “The Conquered Banner,” at one time required reading for school children in Alabama. He was well-known in his time for his sermons, writings, and lectures, according to Alabama Living online.  His poems are online at https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/ryan/ryan.html. Reading them gives new respect to rhyme, meter and form in poetry. (Yes, old-fashioned poetry that rhymed!) Father Ryan is even mentioned in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

LeVertLeVert Street honors Madame Octavia Walton LeVert (1811-1877), the author of Souvenirs of Travel. She was called “The Pride of Mobile” though she was born in Georgia. Her grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and her father was an acting governor of the Territory of Florida.  As a young socialite visiting Baltimore in 1827, she was the object of the poem “To Octavia” by Edgar Allan Poe.  Scholars question whether Poe actually wrote the poem or simply adapted the nine lines for her. However, it is known that Poe met her and inscribed the lines by his hand in Octavia’s album.  After her family moved to Mobile in 1835, she married a physician and began to entertain. She acquired the respected title of “Madame” LeVert. She entertained hundreds of people – all were welcome – at her “Monday” salons, reflective of the popular literary salons of Europe.  She traveled the world and was presented to the Pope, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which she wrote about in her book. The LeVert Home, the scene of the cultural salons at Royal and Governments Streets, was demolished in the mid-1900s. Fortunately, her cultural influence is remembered with LeVert Street in Ashland Place.

Ashland Place, Mobile, Alabama, 2021, Photos and Design by Diane Skelton

Driving through Ashland Place is a cultural experience in itself – as if visiting an art museum, with gorgeous historic homes reflecting architecture that respects individuality and landscape. Though these street names honor writers who may soon face the “cancel culture” firing squad, I am reminded they were the cultural and literary figures of the day.  Just like Paul Harvey was to my dad.

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Detours on the Literary Traveler’s Road

Visiting a site I’m researching for my book often propels me on a different path. I’m suddenly rushing to the library or bookstore or logging on to Amazon.com to find a book someone has recommended about the place or the writer. Nearly a hundred authors are included in A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola, and I’m trying to read something by each of them, even if it’s a small portion from google books or Project Guttenberg.

The trouble is – a snippet isn’t enough. Just reading a few paragraphs or pages doesn’t satisfy my quest for thorough documentation. Plus, my love of a good story gets in the way. I justify the hours I spend reading (rather than writing) by saying “it’s research for my book.” That allows me to curl up with a good book with the best of intentions. Besides with ninety-eight writers included in my manuscript, I’ve got some serious reading ahead to live up to my introductory remarks, “For each new author I discovered, I read one of their books, short stories, essays, or poems.” 

To be honest, I get sidetracked and usually read several or the entire series.

A Literary Traveler’s Guide focuses on popular reading. Fiction writers dominate my manuscript and that includes a multitude of subgenre – mystery, romance, young adult, historical, detective, humor, women’s fiction.

Beginning near the east, the Apalachicola part of my title parameters, I’ve discovered:

Apalachicola

Flight Patterns by Karen White. In this mystery, the main character, an expert in china patterns, returns home to Apalachicola after a decade’s absence. The author deftly takes the reader on walks around Apalachicola viewing the sites – along the waterfront, from parks to piers, to the library and museum. Her descriptions of locations are so detailed, a reader can almost smell the exotic fragrance of the pittosporum or find the fictional house overlooking the bay where the main character’s family lives. The plot adds even more local color as it features beekeepers and tupelo honey. That’s a great clue to the title’s meaning.

Wewahitchka and Panama City

Author Michael Lister captures most of my reading time. I’m fascinated with his John Jordan clerical detective series. A two-time Florida Book Award winner, Lister lives in Wewahitchka and has set almost all of his thirty-plus books in the area. As a former prison chaplain himself, Lister brings authenticity to his “Blood” series which features prison chaplain John Jordan in gritty and realistic, yet touching and philosophical reading. I’m so in awe of Lister’s series I even bought an out-of-print first edition transformed into Christmas art to support Lister’s philanthropies.

IMG_0772

Port St. Joe

“The Still Waters” suspense series is co-written by Dawn Lee McKenna and Axel Blackwell. I asked for these books for Christmas and was so involved with the main character that I finished reading all three books before New Year’s Eve. The character, interim Sheriff Evan Caldwell, lives at the Port St. Joe Marina. Grieving the hospitalization of his comatose wife, he survives on grouper sandwiches from the nearby Dockside Café. (Both the marina and café were destroyed in Hurricane Michael in 2018.) He is a “reluctant” detective, working to pay his wife’s hospital bills. I anxiously await the fourth book in the series to see how the team of authors deals with the aftermath of the hurricane and the main character’s inner turmoil.

Forgotten Coast

Claire Matturro’s Smuggler’s Daughter was recommended by both the bookseller in Apalachicola and a writer-friend who shares the same publisher. The book’s setting along the Florida Gulf Coast is rich with lonely beach nights, swamps, sinkholes, and a frightening snake-bite chapter. It kept me reading into the wee hours of the night. The past deeds of the main character, a reference librarian, have her living in fear twenty years later. Detectives, childhood friends, and teenage enemies all play a role in the murders of the state attorney and a lawyer, plus a hit and run victim.

Back on track, I recently visited Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’ last home located on the Mississippi Coast. After that visit I rediscovered Charles Frazier, award-winning author of Cold Mountain. I had read Cold Mountain the year it won the National Book Award, and, of course, I saw the film version starring Jude Law. When I learned Frazier had written an historical fiction novel of Varina Davis’ days following the end of the Civil War I rushed to the library – eight minutes before closing — to check out their only copy and see if Beauvoir was mentioned. I was hooked from the first page. Frazier’s unique account of Varina’s last years revolves around a series of conversations with Jim Limber, Jefferson and Varina Davis’ adopted black son. Varina is reunited with Limber and tries to help him piece together his past while telling her own story. I loved reading Varina and now I’m off to find a copy of a book the Beauvoir tour guide recommended, The Mysterious Life of Jim Limber.

That is, right after I finish Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe – Jo Watson Hackl’s young adult novel inspired by Ocean Springs artist-author Walter Inglis Anderson.

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Literary Traveling: Artist and Writer Walter Anderson

sIX FEET“Walter Anderson was a master of social distancing.”  That clever six-foot warning adhered to the floor of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art gave me one of the best belly laughs of the pandemic. Yes, that man rowed a dinghy eight miles a day to socially distance.

I saw the sign during a recent visit to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, when researching A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay Saint Louis to Apalachicola.  I’d always heard about the artist Walter Anderson (1903-1965) from my mother, also an artist. Only when I began working on my book did I think of him as a writer.

Ocean Springs is a sleepy little town with sprawling oaks, a tree-lined business district, cute shops and galleries, and a quaint harbor. It’s been a popular place with artists and writers for decades.  One of its greatest assets is the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. The museum features the work of Walter along with his modes of transportation – boat and bicycle. Within the museum is “The Little Room,” A painted room relocated from his studio cottage at Shearwater Pottery. Every inch of the room –ceiling to floor to windowsills and walls—is illustrated.

Seeing the museum, Walter’s massive historic-cultural murals in the attached Community Center and his brother’s art in the old high school makes an Ocean Springs visit well worth spending a day.  I also stopped at Shearwater Pottery, the Anderson family business, for a quick visit to look at their pottery creations. Along with pottery of every shape and purpose, they have a niche museum of their history, and gifts and books for sale.

Walter Anderson moved to Ocean Springs after studying at prestigious northern art schools (one is now Parsons School of Design). In Ocean Springs, he worked in the family pottery business.  On and off, he traveled the South, bicycling hundreds of miles – Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky. He wrote about these regional excursions and his travels to Hong Kong. 

Nearby settlement Gautier (pronounced Go-Chay), about twelve miles to the east, also played an important role in his story as a writer.

While recuperating from hospitalization for mental illness, Anderson, his wife and children lived at Oldfields, an antebellum home on the Mississippi Sound in Gautier. No longer working in the family pottery business, he farmed and entertained his children with art and stories. From Oldfields, he’d launch his boat and row or sail the eight miles to the Horn Island wilderness to paint, write in his logbooks, and study nature. He’d often spend days at a time observing the island’s creatures – crabs, insects, birds — at times seeking shelter from storms by beaching his boat and climbing underneath it. These experiences are recorded in The Horn Island Logs. The book, published posthumously, is a record of his life, experiences, and observations of nature on Horn Island, the largest of the four barrier islands off the Mississippi coast.

Oldfields, Gautier, MS

From a visit to Oldfields in April 2021

Oldfields, originally a pecan plantation, belonged to his wife’s family. His wife, Agnes “Sissy” Grinstead Anderson (1909-1991), a poet, wrote the memoir Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson. His daughter Leif Anderson (1944- ), a dancer and artist, wrote Dancing With My Father and Dancing Through Airth.

Officially known as the Lewis-Oldfields House, the abandoned homestead is on the state’s list of Ten Most Endangered Historic Places.  Severely damaged in Hurricane Katrina, it is located at 1901 Water’s Edge Drive in Gautier. 

It’s right at the end of the 1970s’ style subdivision on a bluff overlooking the Sound. Glorious in its decay, Oldfields was purchased in December 2020 by the Mississippi Historic Trust

When I stopped to verify the location for my book, I was able to walk around the property. From the back yard I could see the islands across the sound. To stand on the rise and think about Walter Anderson rowing to study nature and write was enchanting. I understand now why watercolorists tour Horn Island to recapture that magnificence of nature – far from society.

Horn Island is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and accessible only by boat. It is a designated wilderness area, but private tours, like for those for watercolorists, are available with authorized commercial operators listed on the National Park Service website or at the Gulf Islands National Seashore office at 3500 Park Road, Ocean Springs. Or you can take your own boat.

Now that government properties are reopening after COVID, I plan to go back to Gautier to visit the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge.  In 1944, Anderson, a visionary environmentalist, recorded log entries describing a walking tour north of Gautier to a colony of sandhill cranes. In 1975, ten years after Anderson’s death, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge for the endangered Mississippi Sandhill Crane and its disappearing wet pine savanna habitat. Only about 100 of the cranes are still in existence, and the bird is considered the rarest in America.  Anderson’s painting of the sandhill cranes at dawn adorn a portion of the east wall in the artist’s “The Little Room” in the museum. I’d like to be inspired by seeing the real sandhill cranes and write about them too.

 

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Mississippi’s lost literary landmark still inspires writers

Beauvoir, between Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, has rich literary history for Southern women writers. Most people think this is the back of the house, it’s actually the front.

I stood in the very house where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clemens once stood.  And I walked on the same solid cypress plank floors where three famous women writers walked. Southern authors Sarah Dorsey, Varina Davis and Winnie Davis all lived and wrote at Beauvoir. It is also the same historic site where Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States, wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.

For me, that house, Beauvoir is definitely a literary landmark and an interesting site to include in my Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola.  I visited Beauvoir recently to see why its literary landmark was revoked by United for Libraries. After my two-hour tour of the home, library cottage, museum and Presidential Library I was convinced Beauvoir is a literary landmark – despite its paranormal investigation events, weddings and Civil War association. This property inspired writers in the late 1800’s, and Beauvoir’s stories inspired me.

Located along the Mississippi Sound on Highway 90 between Biloxi and Gulfport, Beauvoir, was built in 1852 for the wealthy Brown family. It served as a summer home for them as well as its second owner, writer Sarah Dorsey (1829-1879). A Natchez socialite and wife of wealthy lumberman Samuel Dorsey, Sarah traveled in literary celebrity circles in the U.S. and Europe. Guides at Beauvoir say she was present at the first reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and also at one of Charles Dickens’ salon readings.

She wrote six novels, four of which were published in books form, the other two serialized. She penned the biography of Louisiana Governor Henry Watkins Allen, a rare task for a woman at the time. Biographies were usually reserved for male writers.  She came from a wealthy and literary family – her two aunts were authors and publishers.  Before her death, Dorsey, who had been fascinated with Jefferson Davis, willed Beauvoir to him – going to great extremes to write her own family out of the will. Nonetheless, her descendants include notable Southern Mississippi writers William Alexander Percy and Walker Percy.

dorsey

In her literary travels, Dorsey was also acquainted with Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) and, according to a tour guide at Beauvoir, Clements visited Dorsey at Beauvoir. But it was the Davis women, the wife and youngest daughter of Jefferson Davis, who captivated Oscar Wilde while on his American literary tour. Wilde had said the one American he wanted to meet in America was Jefferson Davis, perhaps because of a family connection. Davis knew Wilde’s uncle (Wilde’s mother’s brother) who was a judge and lawyer in Louisiana. Wilde’s cousin also died while serving the Confederacy.  Oscar Wilde visited Beauvoir several times, according to the tour guide, but was disliked by Jefferson Davis. If Davis liked someone, he placed his hand on the guest’s shoulder and another on his dog’s head, introducing the dog to his guest. Not the case with Wilde. Consequently, the dog, Traveler, wouldn’t allow Wilde to walk the grounds of the house. The dog kept Wilde inside the house, while other guests leisurely strolled the sprawling estate and gardens.

On one documented visit, Wilde spent the night of June 27– Winnie’s 18th birthday — with the Davis. Wilde entertained three Davis women–wife Varina, daughter Winnie, and cousin Mary –long after the elderly Jefferson Davis had retired for the evening. No doubt the dog kept Wilde in line.

What stories this place holds for the literary traveler.

Adjacent to the house, stands a replica of the library cottage Sarah Dorsey rented to Jefferson Davis after his release from prison. The original was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, Beauvoir itself was not destroyed. Eighty-five per cent of the original home is intact.

The recreated writing cottage and setting still offer the breezes and the view of the Mississippi Sound that Davis would have experienced – well, without the bustling highway or sandy man-made beach.  The library cottage, contrary what it looks like from Highway 90, actually sits behind the house. The front of Beauvoir faces Oyster Bayou, allowing breezes to cross the veranda and through the home from the Mississippi Sound to the bayou. This photo from the Rice University archives of Davis on the library cottage porch could easily be restaged today. Missing from the scene, however, is writer Sarah Dorsey assisting Davis with his manuscript. Some scholars attribute some of the language to Dorsey.

Beavoir BW DAvis

TOP: image from Rice University archives: Jefferson Davis writing his book at the library cottage at Beauvoir. BELOW: May 2021, the replica of the writing cottage destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Both Varina and daughter Winnie moved to New York to work for Joseph Pulitzer on the New York World following Jefferson Davis’s death. The widow finished her husband’s autobiography and wrote regular columns for The World. In 1888 Winnie published her first book, An Irish Knight of the 19th Century about Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet. Before her early death at age 33, Winnie also wrote two novels, The Veiled Doctor and The Romance of Summer Seas.

Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis (right) She shared the first name of Varina with her mother. Image public domain from Wikicommons

Beauvoir’s hearty construction has withstood hurricanes, storms and social unrest as the Sons of the Confederate Veterans continually maintain and restore its beauty. The trompe-d’loeil murals and furnishings take the visitor back in time to when writers and musicians gathered in parlors to entertain each other with the art of fine conversation and storytelling.

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Beginning in Bay St. Louis: the real Visitor’s Center

Literary Landmark Site: Bay St. Louis-Hancock County LibraryNo more rummaging through tourist information racks for me. From now on when I travel, I’m stopping at the destination’s library first. When fact-checking for my upcoming book in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, I stopped at the Bay St. Louis-Hancock County Library.  It’s an American Library Association Literary Landmark and I’d never seen one before.

I wanted to photograph their literary landmark plaque and explore their treasure trove about Stephen Ambrose, the writer who earned the library its designation. An American historian, Ambrose’s name is a household word thanks to books like Undaunted Courage and movies like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.  Stephen Ambrose used this local library when doing research for his books. That’s what I knew before I went into the library.  But once inside, I discovered so much more.

Not only do they have the plaque, they have Ambrose’s entire personal library, which his family donated upon his death. There’s a super “READ” poster featuring his image, biographical placards, and the bronze Literary Landmark distinction plaque.

Library collage

I walked out of the library with more information that I could imagine – more than any visitor’s center could offer. One young librarian, excited about the community where she lives, recommended places to eat and jotted down names of her favorite restaurants and coffee shop. She told us about Old Town Bay St. Louis, its cute shops, and the independent bookstore. She wrote down directions on small pieces of paper – the kind you write Dewey Decimal call numbers on when you look for a book in the stacks.

I knew Ambrose lived and wrote on the beach in the “house with the windows,” and I knew he had built a writing studio there.  But I didn’t know where it was. The librarian in the Ambrose collection searched for the address of the house for me. Her search encountered the same obstacles I had faced, but she had a new tactic: contact the local historical society. She wrote down their contact information on little paper.

Before leaving the library, my friend and I made a quick tour of the magical children’s section complete with a shady front porch, rocking chair, Rapunzel and her tower, Jack and his Beanstalk, Peter Rabbit —  a non-Disney world of imagination. The placed was filled with creativity from ceiling to shelves. I barely noticed the computers, hidden on the front porch. Thank goodness my friend took pictures – I was too in awe to even take one picture in the children’s section.

BSL Library

Bay St. Louis-Hancock County Library children’s section. Photos by Marion Keener

Before we could make it to the historical society, we stopped at Bay Books, where the bookseller magically produced a copy of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi: 1699 Celebrating the first 300 Years. And there it was – on page 22 — a photo and the address of The Ambrose House, the lovely home where Stephen Ambrose lived and wrote.  We drove off to find it. A wooden stake with the house number still stands on the overgrown vacant lot.  I suspect Hurricane Katrina washed away the “house with the windows.”

977 Beach BlvdAs I headed north on South Beach Blvd. I spotted a historical marker with a familiar name – no, not Stephen Ambrose, but Pearl Rivers, an early crusading woman journalist from New Orleans. She had a summer home on this beach, now also washed away.

The quaint, beach town of Bay St. Louis seems to be the perfect place to begin my book,  A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South” Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola. I start my quest on the Stephen Ambrose Memorial Vcant Lot?Highway in Bay St. Louis and continue my literary trek all the way to Apalachicola, Florida. I hope you’ll join me.

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Left: Pearl Rivers enjoyed a summer home in Bay St. Louis. Address marker on right was the location of Stephen Ambrose's "house with the windows."

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Trees worth writing about

FOak signA tree is a tree is a tree is definitely not a tree when it comes to literary traveling along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  I visited two massive live oaks, older than the country we live in, that have inspired storytellers and poets for at least two centuries. Photographing them for my book posed a challenge. No matter how far back I walked, I still couldn’t get the entire tree in the camera frame. Finding one of them was almost as challenging as taking the photo. The hard-to-find one is in Ocean Springs, the other, its marker pictured above, is on a college campus.

The massive Ruskin Oak in Ocean Springs spawned a delightful legend. The story goes that in 1885 the British naturalist, art critic and poet, John Ruskin attended the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans and traveled to Ocean Springs to visit his English friend John B. Arnold, who was president of the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans and owner of a beachside cottage in Ocean Springs. The story continues that the Arnold family and Ruskin enjoyed an English tea sitting under a majestic live oak tree.  Of course, there’s no evidence Ruskin ever visited America much less Ocean Springs, but as a naturalist, he would have appreciated the tree now named in his honor. The Ruskin Oak measures more than twenty-eight feet in circumference. It stands, well more like it sprawls, in the shady, quiet residential neighborhood, Ruskin Oaks. It takes up what appears to be an entire neighborhood lot. The branches touch the ground, and it looks more like a wall of shrubbery than a tree. No wonder it has inspired a legend. And that’s why the Ruskin Oak will be in my book, The Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South. According to Ocean Springs’ archives, the tree was once part of the Many Oaks Estate, but in the 1950s the estate was replatted as a subdivision. The tree is almost 400 years old.

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I am compass-challenged but can usually find “south” if there’s water nearby. So I researched its location and was pleased my directions led me directly to the tree. It is on private property in a quiet neighborhood, but slowly driving by didn’t seem to bother the residents. To see the Ruskin Oak, from the center of downtown Ocean Springs take Porter Ave., go west to Saint John’s Episcopal Church on the corner of Porter and Rayburn. Take a left on Rayburn and go one block to Cleveland, then take a right one block to Ruskin St. The oak is at the end of Ruskin on the right (westside).

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The Friendship Oak at the University of Southern Mississippi on the Gulf Park campus in Long Beach.

The stories of the even larger and older oak are fact, not fiction. The Friendship Oak is located on the Gulf Park campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach on Highway 90. Under this 500-year-old oak under poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) taught college women in 1923 and 1924. For seventeen months, Lindsay, a popular poet who drew large crowds performing his rhythmic poetry across America, taught at Gulf Park College, a newly opened two-year finishing school for girls. It is now the site of USM.

The college’s first president recruited Lindsay, his old college friend, who had come to Gulfport to recuperate from surgery. As the poet-in-residence, Lindsay both wrote and taught poetry. Young women learned poetry in several picturesque places including a platform built around the Friendship Oak. They also studied in a cabin they called “the hut” and by the moonlight and bonfires on the beach. At Gulf Park, the poet produced some of his best work after finding his muse, a college student from Tennessee, who eventually spurned him. Lindsay preferred the celebrity lifestyle and declined a salary but asked for paid housing at Gulfport’s luxurious Great Southern Hotel. He walked the three miles along the beach from the hotel to campus, wearing a dapper white linen suit, complete with white socks. During his brief stay at Gulf Park, he wrote some of his most creative poetry, experimenting with new styles. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is mentioned in his work written while at Gulf Park as well as the seven remaining years of his life.

The majestic tree’s low-lying limbs are supported with assists and markers tell the story of the famous tree, here long before Columbus.

 

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UFOs lure literary travelers to Pensacola Beach & Gulf Breeze

Note the alien peeking out the backdoor of the Futura UFO house on Pensacola Beach.

One of the weirdest, quirkiest parts of the book I’m writing sends readers just up the highway from where I live. That’s where the UFOs were sighted in 1987 — or so husband and wife Ed and Frances Walters claimed in their book The Gulf Breeze Sightings, published in 1990.

There’s plenty to research about the Gulf Breeze sightings. Plus, Molder mentions them in the first episode of The X-Files. So of course they’re included in my Literary Travelers Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola. This part of my research is providing plenty of entertainment along with some legitimate searching in my neighborhood.

Reports vary on the number of UFO sightings around Gulf Breeze, Florida, between 1987 and 1988, up to 170 sightings and 135 witnesses. Twenty-five years after the sightings, people are still talking about the Gulf Breeze UFO sightings, though the “proof” (and the book) was officially debunked in 1990.  

Back then, Walters’ UFO sightings and Polaroid photographs sparked a cottage industry of publishing along with a media frenzy. Walters wrote three books, The Gulf Breeze Sightings, UFO Abductions in Gulf Breeze, and UFOs Are Real: Here’s the Proof. In pure Florida tourism fashion, Gulf Breeze and the surrounding towns cashed in. They named a bar and a used car lot with UFO terms like “Area 51.” Restaurants added extraterrestrial items like UFO sundaes to the menus, and entrepreneurs sold alien souvenirs and T-shirts with drawings of aliens on the beach. Tour buses visited and organizations hosted international UFO symposiums at Pensacola Beach. 

Local singer Ken Manning’s music video “Gulf Breeze UFO” won one of Florida’s film and motion picture association’s top awards in 1999, even after the debunking. And this music video is a hoot – toe-tapping lyrics with aliens popping out behind Mister X in a trench coat! Watch it and I promise you’ll belly laugh loud enough to be heard in outer space! It’s on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AaIl-vHIns

You see, in 1990, after Ed Walters moved out of his home at 612 Silverthorne in Gulf Breeze, a tiny model UFO made of Styrofoam plates resembling the one he claimed to have photographed was discovered in the attic. Also, in 1990 a witness, using only his first name and living in Chicago, told City of Gulf Breeze officials he had been present during the UFO fake-photo session. But at late as 2006, Ed Walters, no longer married to Frances, told the Pensacola News Journal he still stood by what he saw.

612 Silverthorne, Gulf Breeze, Florida Below: Inscriptions from the Estate Sale copy book To “Bobby,” from Ed Walters “We must live our livesas if it is not read but the truth is strange. Your Friend, Ed” From Frances Walters, “Gulf Breezians like you & your parents have made this easier for us. Thanks for your support. Frances”

There’s a sadness to this story, though. I bought a copy of the Walters’ book at an estate sale in Gulf Breeze a few years ago. The book is autographed by both the authors, who must have known the book’s original owner, Bobby. The personal inscriptions point to a story behind the story, unspoken troubles in Paradise. The couple, after all, were well-respected leaders in the community.

Despite the debunking, locals still love the lore. And it’s understandable. Driving along U. S. Highway 98 through the Naval Live Oaks, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore,it’s common to spot strange lights and shapes in the pitch-black skies. Even now along that stretch at night, I look up to the dark skies, wondering.

And sure enough in 2019, a credible sky watcher reported nighttime, flashing beacons of  light to a local TV news stations while watching the skies over his backyard. https://weartv.com/news/local/florida-man-captures-video-of-ufo-sighting-in-gulf-breeze.

In the summer of 2020, a Pensacola Beach hotel group revamped its putt-putt golf course using a UFO and alien space theme. The 18-hole mini-golf course, now named UFO’s, is a kitschy tribute to the sightings complete with alien mannequins in golf attire.

My research includes some interesting photos of drive-by sights including the house on Silverthorne in Gulf Breeze , the kitschy, clever miniature golf course, and two Pensacola Beach “alien” homes – one with an alien peeking out the back door.

All that excitement right in my own backyard, where we have a clear view of the Southern skies, a good view of the International Space Station whisking overhead, and then, occasionally, some things fly by and we just can’t identify them.

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Before Audubon, this writer-artist documented the Gulf South

bartram-park-8Before Audubon, came Bartram, canoeing and hiking through the West Florida territory, exploring, documenting, and sketching images of flora and fauna and Native Americans.

William Bartram came a decade before John James Audubon was even born, though Bartram isn’t a household name. He traipsed through the untamed wilderness of what is now parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee and wrote about it – leaving his mark in scientific and literary circles. I recently traced his footsteps in part of the Florida Panhandle —  not on foot or in canoe. I drove.

He visited the Pensacola area in 1775 and his observations are recorded in his book, now considered by some as the first environmentalist book. Its official name is Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions; Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. 

Phew! No wonder folks call it Bartram’s Travels.

His literary style –filled with flourish, ornate description, and poetic language, influenced the romantic movement, according to Bartramtrail.org, in particular, writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge. 

I know he influenced Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Florida’s greatest woman writer and author of The Yearling. In her 1941 cookbook Cross Creek Cookery, Rawlings mentions Bartram’s food references to bear and rattlesnake and his fondness for pilau. Though the University of Florida special collections lists her copy of Travels as eaten by termites, a digital copy of the original Bartram’s book is available online at the Library of Congress.

Bartram’s visit to Pensacola was almost accidental – he was visiting the Perdidio River, Mobile, and parts of Baldwin County, Alabama, when he ducked into the Pensacola area. He almost has more historical markers than hours spent here. 

When verifying literary landmarks for my book, I thought Bartram would be easy – six historical markers installed by garden clubs along with one city park. I’d been to William Bartram Park before for bustling art shows and festivals. This time I went for a peaceful, early morning stroll around the park overlooking Pensacola Bay. I walked the sidewalks, studied the abstract sculpture, read the DeLuna Fiesta monument (in need of repair) and witnessed where Hurricane Sally had washed the soil away from the roots of some giant oaks (also in need of repair). 

The 2.6-acre public park is near the historic district and downtown Pensacola (211 Bayfront Parkway). Bartram described Pensacola Bay in his 1791 book as “safe and large enough to care for the combined havens of the world.”

I’d like to think this park is where he stood when the British governor of West Florida invited him to stay a while and dine with his family. The view of the bay is beautiful here, even with the bridge under construction. It’s also a good place to see some snazzy boats moored at the small craft marina.

Across Bayfront Parkway is historic Seville Square and University of West Florida’s museums, preserved and restored historic homes, and the Old Christ Church from colonial days.

Oar HouseOne other marker-spotting expedition was successful but required several laps around the block due to the crowds and busy parking lot. The marker at the Oar House Restaurant at 1000 South Pace Boulevard is out front near the sidewalk, but on a busy Saturday, the people waiting in line and the check-in hostess’ podium blocked its view. (Those waiting in line won’t be disappointed — the food is really good, here).

My next stops in Bartram’s trek ended in disappointment. I couldn’t find the historic marker at the I-10 rest stop east of Milton even though I walked every square inch of it. Further research indicates it was removed.

At Fort Pickens on Pensacola Beach, after several loops in the car, I went inside the gift shop and asked the park ranger the location of the William Bartram marker. She answered, “I’ve never had the question before. I have no idea.” She then handed me a Fort Pickens guide so I could look for myself. 

Fortunately, an environmentalist writer-friend in Bowling Green remembers the marker – it’s on a walking trail. So I guess I’m going to have put on the big boots and grab a walking stick and hit the Bartram Trail across the dunes. Locating the markers at the Lillian Bridge on the Perdido River and at the Alabama Welcome Station are going to have to wait until I survive my hike!

 

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