No 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.
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.
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.”
As 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 Highway in Bay St. Louis and continue my literary trek all the way to Apalachicola, Florida. I hope you’ll join me.
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."