Hwy. 51 Revisited: McComb, Mississippi

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.

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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.

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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.

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Hwy. 51 Revisited: A roadtrip experice

By Jesse Brooks

Welcome to Highway 51 Revisited. From now through the course of the next couple of weeks I will take you on a journey on Highway 51 that starts in Tangipahoa Parish and ends in Memphis. This is a chronicle of summer trip I took in 2016. This highway tells a story, and each week I will tell you the story of various stops along the way.

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I have a confession to make: I have only been to Walt Disney World once in my life, and that is something I am more than okay with. Growing up, all of my family’s vacations were taken in the summer since both of my school-teaching parents would be home with us for the next three months. We didn’t grow up with a ton of money, and Disney World became one of those ultimate vacations goals that maybe we would reach “one day.” Don’t worry. One day, when I was a teenager, we made it to Disney World. It was okay.

While we put long lines and mouse souvenirs on hold, my parents became masters in the art of the short-run road trip many summers before.

Whether we were exploring or going through routine, Highway 51 was always essential in our lives growing up. I remember trips to come face-to-face with living history at Confederate Camp Moore in the Village of Tangipahoa and special dinners at Middendorf’s on the highway far South in Manchac. I also remember going to Sullivan’s Drive-In in Amite for malts for a moment’s escape from the abuse of the Louisiana summer heat. When the wanderlust hit us hard enough we went into Mississippi to drive through towns we had never heard of before when we were kids. There was a feeling of discovery we gained watching the landscape and local cultures change right before our eyes. We would stop at every roadside attraction and read every historical marker. Little by little, we were picking up pieces of the story of America.

Even on longer trips where we travelled by interstate, we would be sure to take detours toward the highways so we would not miss the main-streets of the towns we passed. If we purchased anything, particularly food, it had to be local. I remember my father telling me that it was the local diners, butchers, department stores, and groceries that were the original personality of America. If any of it still remains in this age of corporate interstate commerce then we should never ignore it. These institutions are the pride of their communities.

I’ve always applied that philosophy to my own communities. I’ve felt connected to everything along Highway 51 as if it were more than road and the histories of each town were pieces of a puzzle. The road has been like a vein carrying the life blood of my existence.

I named this series similar to Bob Dylan’s famed album Highway 61 Revisited because he must have shared a similar emotional attachment to the highway that connected his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, to New Orleans. Like Dylan chronicling the mystic of blues legends, writers, and historical events of his highway through his music on the album, I will attempt to do the same on my highway that shares a similar, yet mildly advertised, history through this series.

I will bring you to towns that gave America the expansion of the railroad through blood, sweat, and tears. I will bring you to drive-ins that refuse to fold up shop. We’ll see the birthplace and the grave of a man said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical abilities. We’ll also visit the home of a literary genius that changed American literature as we know it. I will tell you about a place that expanded three American-made genres of music and set the soundtrack of the world.

These stories are the story of America, thriving on the life-vein we call home. Most of all, these stories make up the story of us.

Our first chapter starts in McComb, MS. Click here to travel further down the road with us. 

A message from owner Gayle Benson to Pelicans fans

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While we are heartbroken by the loss of my husband, we are also tremendously grateful for the overwhelming love and prayers we continue to receive. Tom Benson’s love for his teams was rooted in his love for the fans. There was nothing he enjoyed more than greeting fans on game days, driving around training camp practices to shake hands or seeing so many loyal fans welcoming the team back from a road trip- win or lose. He felt a special connection to our incredible fan base because he truly felt like a fan himself -a hardworking, passionate New Orleanian who loved everything about his city. Following the Super Bowl victory, his first order of business was figuring out how he could share the Lombardi Trophy with as many of you as he could. He vowed that our trophy would be the most traveled, touched and photographed in the history of the NFL and ordered that a tour of the Gulf South be scheduled so that as many fans as possible could have their turn with it.

To his very last day, Tom Benson’s greatest hope was to bring more championships to our fans. I want you to know we are more committed than ever to make his hopes a reality. We will never forget his belief in what truly powers our teams- our fans. I would like to assure you that we planned carefully for this day and, while my husband could never be replaced, I am blessed to be surrounded by a wonderful leadership team and staff and we will move forward successfully together. We cannot thank you enough for all of the joy you gave my husband and will continue to do everything within our power to make you proud of our teams and city.

Thank you for your continued prayers and support as we celebrate my husband’s extraordinary life. Most of all, thank you for your unwavering devotion to our teams and city. I look forward to sharing many more special times together.

Gayle Benson
Owner
New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans

OFA baseball senior Layne McLin signs with Bossier Parish CC

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MOVING ON- Oak Forest Academy senior Layne McLin signs his letter of intent to play for Bossier Parish Community College on Saturday, February 17 with his family and Coach Tony Salim and staff present. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

After two strong seasons with Oak Forest Academy baseball, senior Layne Mclin, who plays the infield positions and at pitcher, will play for Bossier Parish Community next season after officially signing a letter of intent on Saturday, February 17.

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“I had one more solid strong offer, but the reason why I chose Bossier was so I could go with one of my best friends, short-stop Caleb Cleveland,” McLin said.

Cleveland is also a senior at OFA, and is expected to play a big role for the Yellow Jackets this season.

“It was just an offer that I could not pass up,” McLin said. “I’m looking forward to spending time with new baseball players and rooming with my friend. As far as the future, I just want to keep moving up in baseball and go until I can’t go anymore.”

OFA Head Coach Tony Salim praised his ability as a hitter, saying that the power McLin provides in the middle of the line up is “something you really can’t coach.”

“One night we scored eight runs and tonight we scored 13,” Salim said. “We scored a lot of runs this weekend and a large part of that was having him in the middle of that order.”

McLin has been an exceptional player throughout his career. Last season he was an All-District selection in MAIS AAAA Div. I, and he received All-District 9-2A honors and All-State Honorable Mention at his previous school, Doyle High in Livingston.

McLin will join a Bossier Parish squad that went 21-29 last season under Head Coach Bobby Gilliam. The program was home to 30 players that went on to play for professional organizations. Bossier Parish is a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association.

“I fee like if I hadn’t played ball at Oak Forest I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in today,” McLin said. “Coach Tony prepares us well if we’re able to take the next step. Anything you need help with, you name it, and he’ll take the time to help you figure it out.”

Salim said that several of his layers are currently being recruited while three of them have already made verbal commitments to college programs. He also said he expects the OFA senior class to have six or seven players to sign letters by the end of the season.