By Jesse Brooks
McComb, Mississippi is the kind of town that seems to get by on day-to-day business. It doesn’t beat its chest to declare that it is better than somewhere else or decorate itself as something flashy. However, the best way to describe McComb is welcoming. You can walk into a public place or a locally owned business, and people smile and greet you. They ask you how you’re feeling and talk directly to you like they’ve known you for years.
Though McComb may sound like a typical sleepy Southern town, history suggests that it wasn’t always that way. Like so many towns that reside on Highway 51, it exists because of the expansion of the Great Northern Railroad, known today as the Illinois Central Railroad. The city was founded in 1872 after Henry Simpson McComb decided to move the railroad’s maintenance shops to the area. Railroad employment caused a city to form and blossom.
Over the turn of the century, McComb at times went through periods of unrest. The Illinois Central Shopman’s Strike of 1911 brought violence to the city over a period that lasted nearly a year, and the strikes were eventually disbanded due to a lack of success. McComb suffered extreme violence against African-Americans throughout the 1960s, including 11 bombings after the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 the following summer and African-Americans in the South finally received protection at the polls.
However, in eras of great struggle often something beautiful is born. The railroad became a facilitator for the exchange of great ideas, and musicians and artists from McComb began to make their mark on the world.
A Mississippi blues trail on Highway 51 begins in McComb, and it starts in a big way with “The Originator” himself, Bo Diddley. Born in McComb in 1928 and named Ellas Bates, Diddley’s songwriting is considered a key element in the popular transition from blues to rock-&-roll. Diddley introduced a five-accent Afro-Cuban rhythm to blues and country music known today as the “Diddley Beat.” The beat is a cornerstone in modern rock, pop and hip-hop music. A blues trail marker in his honor is located at the city railroad station.
McComb is also the birthplace of New Orleans gut bucket bluesman Lil Freddie King. The guitarist, who still performs regularly in the Big Easy at age 77, is mentioned on an official state blues trail marker near the railroad station.
McComb’s railroad station also serves as its official railroad museum. Inside is a full explanation on the town’s founding and development, as well as documentation of railroad life. The museum is open on Monday through Saturday at 12-4 p.m., and admission is free.
For weary travelers looking for a feeling equal to coming to a grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon, The Dinner Bell is perhaps McComb’s biggest attraction. Since moving to its present location in 1959, the restaurant has held an esteemed reputation in producing all of the essentials in Southern cuisine. Remarkably, though the business has changed owners over the decades, everything seems virtually unchanged. Dining is set up family dinner style, and several dinner parties share a place at a revolving Lazy Susan table that features mainstays like fried chicken, green and lima beans, yams and banana pudding. The table’s choice of food already seems endless enough, but weekends offer even more options. The Dinner Bell is a lunch only institution that opens on 11 a.m. on Tuesday-Sunday and closes at 2 p.m. It’s best to arrive early and not procrastinate on the opportunity.
HOME COOKIN’- The Dinner Bell in McComb, MS is more than a restaurant. It’s an institution. Photo by Jesse Brooks.
McComb has other dining options available in downtown such as Topisaw General Store for lunch and The Caboose, a more upscale restaurant and steak house.
New businesses are coming to McComb’s downtown, and the streets can be pretty busy mid-day. Economists say that America is going through an “urban renaissance,” and McComb seems to be set on being a part of the movement as former city buildings like the Palace Theater are being renovated for the purpose of regular multi-use. For the first time, the Palace Theater was used as the venue of the McComb Blues Music and Arts Festival in 2016.
McComb doesn’t demand your attention but it appreciates it. It may not be loud, but it fights and it has fought forward through times of unrest and economic ups and downs. What McComb can teach the rest of small town America is how to hold on to your local identity. In McComb, there are some things that will never change, and that is what makes it strong.