The Mississippi Delta

I love the Mississippi Delta, I was born on our little farm in the hills around Coffeeville, Mississippi. At around age 12 we moved to our farm on the Tallahatchie river in the delta about 13 miles out from Charlestion off highway 35. I grew up in agriculture and forestry, my grandfather was also in the timber business as he owned 4 Stave mills, one was in Red Bay, Alabama the others in Mississippi, Wooden barrels were made from staves.

I consider both the hills and delta as home; both are very differant in many ways. There are many people who live in the hills and have never been to the delta; I tell them "just make a day trip out of a visit". It is like two diffeant cultures!

A picture of my father and mother.
myself and sisters Carole and Guilia .

Here is a true story how my parents met.

Destiny, I am open minded to it! My grandfather, Robert Henry Gray, was born 1876 in Henry County, Tennessee. He worked for several years as a superintendent of a stave mill in Dixon, Tennessee. In about 1910, he made the move to Pittsboro in Calhoun County, Mississippi. At the time, Mississippi was very attractive due to its abundance of cheap farmland and forests. As time passed, granddaddy Gray moved to Coffeeville, Mississippi, which lay in the adjoining county of Yalobusha, and started his second stave mill after acquiring the one in Pittsboro.

In the 1900's My grandfather, Leon Lewis Park, moved from Union City, Tennessee to Big Creek, Calhoun County, Mississippi. Grandaddy Park acquired 400 acres, on which he farmed, and raised 5 children. His brother, Henry, moved with him, he farmed, and sold wind mills which were used for pumping water in man made ponds for live stock.

Grandaddy Park's daughter, my Aunt Maude, married, and lived across the road from the Gray stave mill in Coffeeville; they had a nice flowing artesian well. The well was created from an artesian aquifer, which is a confined aquifer containing groundwater under positive pressure. These are very deep wells and are quite expensive to put in, today around $7,000 and up. In those days one was lucky to have an artesian well. It was very good water and what was strange was that in the summer it was cold and in the winter felt warm.

Maud Park.
Momma's sister.

Robert Henry Gray had two sons, one of which was my father, Stanley, who worked for his dad at the Stave mill. After working up a thirst, Stanley would visit Maude and Roland's well for the refreshing, cold, artesian water. My father, Stanley, and I tan really well, we get very dark. I have been asked my nationality on many occasions. One summer, my mother, Anni Bell Park, was visiting her sister, Maude. Maude said, "I want you to meet Stanley Gray." Mother had seen him from a distance, she said, "Oh! You mean that little black man." Daddy was short which a lot of Gray's are, and he had a really good tan from working out side in the Mississippi summer. Well, Stanley and Anni met at the well!

In the early 20th century, many products where shipped in wooden barrels. Some people only think of wine making when they think of wooden barrels, but they serve so many other purposes! In the past there have been many foods stored within them. Vegetables were often salted and dried in them. Meats and fishes were stored and transported in them, and even sauerkraut was fermented in them.

Any item that was stored for long periods of time would be inside of barrels (mainly to keep out various types of rodents). It was also quickly found out that by using straw they could pack fragile items in the wooden barrels. Fragile items such as eggs would be packed among layers of straw. Not only did they not break, but often times it was a much cooler storage than previous methods.

With the invention of the barrel, came the word "convenient". Part of this lay in the maneuverability, such being able to glide them down a gangplank, or transport them using their handles and wheels. Smaller barrels could be strapped onto an animal. Occasionally people would float them down the river, sometimes being hauled behind a boat or a raft.

There was also a time when they were used as refrigeration units, being buried underground or put into streams. Cut in half, they were used to display products in a store, to feed animals, or make a cradle for a baby. They were even used for food preparation (such as a large bowl for mixing).

The Kentucky Barrels site is a great place to viest to learn more about staves and wooden barrels. At one time many products were shipped and storied in wooden barrels, flour for example they were not just used for ageing whiskey.

At one time the farm was close to two thousand acres. He sold 500 acres on the northeast side to his good friend, Harry Lipe. He helped Harry get started by just letting him have the land and paying for it as he could. He was a family friend for life. Harry once told me he was working for a flour mill company, said some men were in the office listening to a ball game on the radio. He stuck his head in the door and asked what the score was and they told him to get back to work. He said he made up his mind then: he would never work for anybody else again. Harry also told me he promised my grandfather that he would look out after Daddy. Harry was older. On the northwest side he sold around 800 acres to another friend, who was a friend for life. Granddaddy helped Mr. Joe to get a start.

In the 1800s a lot of towns were started like this and communities, a land owner who wonted to have friends, family or people he trusted joining his property sold or gave them land to farm or live on. It is my understanding this is how Meridian, Mississippi got started.

Granddaddy kept 360 acres for the farm. He raised cotton. As a child one of the amazeing observatiosn of these trips to the farm was when he and the people who lived and worked there would meet and gather around the artesian well, they would approach him one at a time and say: "Mr. Gray I need $300.00 for my teeth!" or whatever there needs were and he would write a check and hand it to them and they would say: "Thank you!" and step back, I told a friend once, all you had to do was ask my granddaddy for money and he would give it to you and he said: "Oh he will not", I said: "Yes he will". I never asked for money, that is just something you did not do. Christmas dinner was at granddaddy’s and everyone spent the evening. Sometime in the afternoon my grandmother would say: "Your grandfather wants to see you", and all us kids, (I had three sisters and two cousins), we would run to the hall and he gave each one of us a dollar, back then you could buy a lot with a dollar. My middle sister Guilia's birthday was on December 26 so she got two dollars. Granddaddy was the first generation Gray to move to Mississippi and he did this because the timber and land was so plentiful. Back then you would buy land for 25¢ or $1.00 per acre, I have seen the papers, and remember this is land that had massive tracks of hardwood timber on it.

Granddaddy is at the back of this log truck.
His brother-in-law Fred Austin is at the front..

Granddaddy was from Henry County, Tennessee out from Paris around the Kentucky Lake. The family first settled in Montgomery County, North Carolina, then on to Stewart County (around the Kentucky Lake) Tennessee and then Henry County. This is a reason the family had two family cemeteries. One in Stewart County on Kentucky Lake and across the lake over in Henry county. The family had a ferry and traveled across the lake form the old home site to what would become the new site in Henry county. They built a large antebellum home on the new site. This house burned down in the 1940's. We had two old family homes to burn during this time, my grandfather Gray's family home in Henry County and my grandmother Gray's home in Dover County, Tennessee. Back in these days state and county lines and names were changed and this area was relative close in proximity. His father had a tobacco farm, worked in his father's store and was a school-teacher. You will learn more about the old family on the My Roots page.

The old family home in Henry County was a large two story antebellum house of the classic style, it had four 4 octagonal columns.I have drawn a picture of the house from an old photo of the house that my grandfather Gray had.I used CAD for the drawing and have placed it on the My Roots page.Wallace Etheridge,a first cousin of my grandfathers, lived there with his mother as a child; his mother was a Gray.

Wallace said about the house in Henry county, "The boys slept upstairs and the girls downstairs." The boys used the back stairs and the girls used the main stairs.The boys rooms had furniture made by the farm hands and the girls furniture was made by craftsmen or imported. One time a sideboard on the outside wall came loose and Wallice helped to repair it and said "it was very wide and long; the house was built out of big timbers."

The Gray Family Cemetery site in Henry County Tenneesee, shows a list of all the people buried there, and pictures of the cemetery. Also the Gray Family Cemetery site in Stewart county Tenneesee, Grays Landing Cemetary, offers a lot of useful information.

These links are from Curtis and Sue Jacksons site Cemeteries of Henry county, Tennessee.

This was my grandfather Grays house in Coffeeville. My father is standing on the front steps. a photographer came by and asked if he wanted his picture taken, dad said, "Yah." He was five years old. His mother paid for the picture and the rest is history. My dad was born in 1912 so this was taken in 1917. World War 1 was just getting underway then. Once when dad was a little boy he walked down town, found a new bike at a store and rode off telling them to charge it to his dad, he was the babby after all. When I was a boy dad would ride me on the handle bars of his bike, some times he would fly/ride up the steps of this house, do a U turn on the porch and back down we would go!

I don't know how old this house was at the time of the picture but I always remember it being a well-kept house. When I was a child it was painted a nice yellow and trimmed in white and it had a white roof. When granddaddy had a new white roof put on he asked my middle sister Guilia what she thought about it, She said. "It looked like snow," Everything was fine.

A picture of my father and mother.
myself and sisters Carole and Guilia .

This was our house on the little farm next to Coffeeville, that backed up to my Grandfather's property, it set on a 40 acres with a creek and small pond with ducks. It included a large barn, chicken house, smoke house, and one servant's house.

Our house at the Coffeevile Farm.
Nell, Guilia & Robert. My oldest sister Nell was very smart
and highly talented, she excelled in art and music.

Me angery with my mother, our barn in the back
ground, it was quite a place, I have many fond memories of it.

Dad & me, my second Christmas.

My 10th birthday, I clearely remember thinking
in 10 years I will be 20 and have it made, well I still dont have it made!

The home site,on the Delta farm.

The bald spot at the lower left of the road had a really nice artesian well that had a big flow for over 60 years. This was where the overseers house stood, which was, very large built of cypress. At the center-right is where our home was, under the tall pine trees. These are the tallest trees in the picture, and I have marked this with a bright spot.

A view of our lake.

The Delta was not new to me, for I used to ride with my father and grandfather just about every weekend from Coffeeville to the farm in the Delta, Granddaddy had a royal-blue 1949 Chrysler and a red 1950 International Pickup. The trips were long but we traveled fast, so this was always an adventure! This was about a 90 mile round trip, and the road from Coffeeville to Oakland was gravel for about 17 miles. Then from Oakland to where we turned off to go to the farm it was paved, then the road to the farm was gravel for about 3 miles. My Grandfather, along with his friend Joe Denman built this road. Joe’s land joined ours to the south. I loved the lake on the place, a lot of good fish have been caught out of it, Dad and I used to go frog gigging at night. You sure could encounter the snakes at night as they would come to your light. I used to enjoy taking a boat and paddle about the lake. I stayed busy, never a dull moment!

The Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Musenm

The Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Musenm in Jackson is a great place to visit; one can pretty much spend the best part of a day!

I learned to drive using this red International pick up. I started at around 13 driving around the farm. They say the type of vehicle one learns to drive is what they will favor during life. I still like pick-ups with a clutch and shift. Granddad also had this big Dodge Stake Truck as it was called Here is a picture of my dad and me, and I have included a small picture of such a truck so you can get a better idea of what it looked like. When I would make my mother really angry (which was rare), I would run and get in the bed of this truck. She could not climb in the bed because it was so high off the ground. I remember this like it was yesterday. Momma liked this truck because we could all fit in the cab comfortably!

Granddaddy’s 1949 Chrysler and red 1950 International pickup.

This is an Image
of a 1949 Dodge Stake Truck.

I took the pictures of the 1950 Internations Pick-Up, 1949 Chrysler and 1949 Dodge stake truck at car shows. They are just like the vehicles I knew as a child. The Chrysler had a fluid drive transmission, It had a clutch to put it in first gear and reverse, other than that you did not have to shift gears.

Dad and me in our Dodge Stake
Truck, I loved this truck!

Our Delta Farm

This was just an average sized farm. It had five houses, (two were large), two barns, one repair shop for the tractors, seven small storage houses plus other structures that came and went according to the need. Dad and I built a small log cabin in a really big oak tree on the backside of the lake. So you could say it was a log cabin tree house! Dad had a section of timber land around Oakland that was about halfway between Coffeeville and the Delta farm. Sometimes we would go over to the Oakland place to find a Christmas tree. My sisters and sometime momma would come along. On one such trip we went in the model A truck dad had built. My momma was resting on the front fender and said, "Stanley, something is stinging me!" She had gotten too close to the battery, so needless to say her cotton dress was not the same--battery acid you know. Bob, your mother Dorothy drove this Model A into a light pole once. She said, "That was the only way I knew how to stop it". Truck or people were not hurt. By the way, this Model A truck had a top dad made out of a Cola sign. It was really like a hippie hot-rod, sounds like early-day flower-children, but it really wasn't. Carole always said they were ahead of their time. Dad was testing his Model A truck on the highway, got stopped by the highway patrol and the officer told him, "I don't want to see it back on the highway!" It had two transmissions, one was out of a Lincoln plus some modifications to the engine.

Two school friends from local adjoining farms found the log tree house and wanted to buy it from me, but it was not for sale. The river farm was so different from the hill place. It had bayous on the front property plus a 12-acre lake on the back side, plus ponds to the southwest and the river. For a boy this was just amazing. I fell in love with the Delta. I don't think my mother or three sisters felt the same. Dad liked the hills as well as he grew up there. The Tallahatchie River was about a mile from our farm, that is if you followed the road. If you went as the crow flies, it was closer.

Granddaddy Gray, Dad & Dads catfish.

Our hill farm at Coffeeville was exciting. It was small; 40 acres, but had plenty of space. We had horses, cows, pigs, chickens, roosters, honey bees, dogs, cats, rabbits and ducks plus a wonderful creek that I learned to swim in as a boy. My sister Carole wanted a goat, but I don’t think momma would allow that, so Carole got rabbits instead. There was a pecan grove and a peach orchard on the Delta place. I heard my mother tell my dad one year that she had gotten enough money from the pecans to pay for Christmas. She sold eggs at the local grocery, and we had our own milk so momma made her own butter. But she could be modern, too. I remember when margarine came out; momma told daddy about it and said if you want it to look like butter you can add a food coloring. Then she said, "I am not making butter any more. If you want butter you can go over to your mother’s and get it because Mrs. Gray still makes it!" Then she walked off to the kitchen. Dad used to say your mother could make a really good cake from scratch until Betty Crocker came to town--no more cakes made from scratch.

Me in the 3rd grade.

I am the second on the left in the back row (fourth row), by best friend Doris Jean Is on the right end of the thrid row, we have the bigest smiles!

We had a large Victorian house with high gables and roof. I well remember the long icicles that hung off the eves of this house during the cold winters. Easter we had big Easter-egg hunts and invited all our friends. Christmas was always nice. We heard sleigh bells on Christmas eve from outside, sounded like they were on the roof. There were also some really interesting buildings on the farm, like the a wonderful big barn built with support timbers and rafters from Africa, plus a variety of other buildings. There was also a small house by a pond, with a cherry tree. This is the only place I saw ducks. The only thing in this house that worked was a cuckoo clock. No one lived in it and we were told not to play there. The property had big pecan trees, large oaks and cedar trees. We used to play in the pecan trees, although we were told not to play in the pecan trees as well! During the winter we were told to stay off the ice, so what do you think we did? This was on the town limits of Coffeeville. It was less than a mile from school. We could walk across our field over to the back of our granddaddy Gray’s property and house.

This was my first car, a 1949 Plymouth. I am proud of the fact that I painted it myself with a paint brush. I just recalled when I was a boy how I painted my old green bike with white house paint and used a chicken feather. It turned out camouflage, kind of green and white, not bad. The dog is 'Nellie Bell'; a black lab, a smart and loyal one! School at Charleston was different. I missed my friends at Coffeeville, eventually I made some new ones, but it was never the same. I think the people of the hills are more genteel by nature and those of the Delta are more assertive and maybe aggressive. My mother was getting her hair done in Charleston when Willima Strider, and a lady from a neighboring farm came in. The beautician introduced momma to Willima and said, "Ann is your neighbor and like you, a river rat." Momma pulled the chair cloth off and said, "No one calls me that!", and walked out of the shop, never to return!

I loved the towns of Clarksdale and Greenwood. My favorite men’s clothing stores were Laundries and Shankermans in Clarksdale, and we did our major shopping in Clarksdale, Greenwood and Memphis. My father sold his cotton in Greenwood. A farmer has to sell his cotton to a broker and this was big business. Charleston was about 17 miles away; Clarksdale and Greenwood about 45, and Memphis was over 100. So when you live in the Delta, one does not think about driving, you just go. The roads are flat and straight and most folk drove vehicles with large engines and rolled! Please remember this was in the 60's when cars had large motors and gas was cheap. Momma always said she liked something that would get up and go!"

Melinda Covington at age 4
Melinda is a niece, the second child born.

This is a picture of Guilia's daughter Melinda at age 3. This is the type of winter we use to have. I enjoyed taking a long walk in and during a snow storm. Some times dad and I would go rabbit hunting.

By this time, 1958, major flooding in the Delta was pretty much under Control. The flood of 1927 caused the building of two reservoirs/dams in this Area at Enid and Grenada. The Great Flood of 1927 was one of the most powerful natural disasters of the 1900’s. Following several months of unusually heavy rain during late 1926 and early 1927, the Mississippi River flooded. During the height of the flood, the river was over 80 miles wide at some locations.

See the National Geographic site to read more about the Greatest Flood in History, 1927.

After the failure of a levee at Mounds Landing, Mississippi, the flooding river flowed with the force of Niagara Falls. The levee failure eventually resulted in the flooding of an area the size of Connecticut. Ten feet of water covered towns up to 60 miles away from the River. Even after five weeks, the area around Mounds Landing was covered with 100 feet of water.

My Grandfather Gray had a large stave-mill in the area that became the farm, Wood staves is what they used to make barrels. At one time he owned 4 of these mills, one was in Red Bay Alabama. He lost a lot during the '27 flood, they used oxen, many drowned! In the end, the Flood of 1927 affected an area of 27,000 square miles, about the size of all the New England states combined. Over 130,000 homes were lost and 700,000 people were displaced. 246 flood-related deaths were reported. Property damage was estimated at 350 million dollars, equivalent to approximately 5 billion dollars today.

This was our home, built in 1958.

My parents built the Delta house in 1958. I was with my mother when the contractor asked her where she wanted the house built. She said, “On this high rise, I feel if there is ever any high water it will be safe," This proved to be true. I around 1971 I was in one of the floods with my father. It is interesting in how this happened. I had been working in Senatobia, a town about 85 miles away, and I decided to leave that shop. The flood was in progress and I did not know about it. You have to remember this was before cell phones and computers. I did not have a phone where I lived nor was there one in the shop. I did not own a TV nor did the shop--life was so much easier back then. I drove home and my father had met my mother, sister and niece in his boat to take them to our house. My sister was teaching school in Charleston so they were staying in town. I was not working so I stayed with my dad for the duration of the flood. I don't know how it would have gone for him if I had not been there. His hair grayed quickly. People came by in boats checking to see if the house was vacant for if it had been, they would have looted it and dad knew this. That’s why he would not leave. We ate a lot of duck…I love duck and am a pretty good cook!

My Father and Mother at home
on the delta farm.

Our house was the only building that was not flooded in our area, but the water came right to the top step of the backdoor. The house was built on a high rise which was an indian mound, the water had to rise a lot to climb that hill which had quite a slope to it. This was the first time our area had flooded since I could remember. Dad would not leave, my mother and sisters took and apartment in Charleston, dad and I went in and out in our boat. One evening we went to Charleston and came back late, this was in November, it was cold, a fog set in and we got lost, we sheared a pin on our motor, luckey for us some men were duck hunting in the area. They heard us talking and helped us get out, they had trucks parked on high ground and radio to them to turn there lights on to give us a way out , If it had not been for them I would not be writeing this now, we would have drifted in the river and died form exposure, I had no idea that I was so cold until we got back to the house and heat, I have heard that when one gets lost they walk in circles, you can do that in a boat as well, I was holding a compass trying to direct dad and the boat was just going in circles, I was getting dizzy just watching it, miracles happen in strange ways!

Let me back up a bit. How we handled this is that we parked our cars and truck up on high ground, close to the highway. This was about five miles off. We traveled by boat to the cars and drove to where-ever. You see, the highway that ran through that part of the county was built-up really high from the land, so that when the land flooded, the highway was safe to travel. Charleston was built on hills. One drove out of Charleston into the Delta traveling west through a mix of hills and Delta land running south and east. If one went northeast, they were back in the hills. Charleston was called the gateway to the Delta.

Where we lived was a sportsman paradise. My favorite hunting was bird. I enjoyed hunting quail, dove, but duck hunting was my favorite! We used to hunt deer around Grenada Lake at Torrance. This was a good area for deer for at the time, deer were just getting populated in the Delta. Our Aunt and Uncle had a winter home on Grenada Lake and we would stay with them on Occasion. They spent the summer in Maine. There were some really nice horse farms in our area, so Tennessee Walking horse shows were quite common. I grew up with horses, dad had some beautiful horses so horsemanship as I call it, came natural to me. No, I did not ride in the shows but just enjoyed them with my friends, We ate steaks, had some Old Charter--those were the days, no worries!

My mother Ann, a photo
I took by one of the pines
that we planted in the
back yard. Momma lived to be 93.

Sister Nell, on the left; Jane Gray.
sister Guilia on the right.
Jane was dad's sister.

Sister Nell, on the left;
sister Guilia on the right.

Nell was the first born child in a family of adults, she was very well cared for. She studied Piano, Voice, Art, Ballet. Nell was very good in art and music.

My Grandfather Gray's house today,
where dad grew up.