By GUEST BOHEMIAN DONALD CHRISTIAN
In a time long ago, I was a duck hunter in North Alabama dreaming of better days in the field. My former wife’s mother grew up in Bolivar County, Mississippi and after a few years of questions like “Are there any ducks over there?“ and “Did you ever hear Muddy Waters when you were younger?” with no real answers, I decided to embark on an adventure to the former in-law’s old family farm in Bolivar County.
For years I heard the stories of the great place known as The Delta, of being “presented” at the Delta Debutante Club in Greenville, of her cousin Dave “Booga Bottom” Harris; of Bruno Fava, the former bootlegger turned Alligator merchant and the cutting remarks to her husband from the “hills.” What followed was a ten-year love affair with the Delta, her waterfowl, her restaurants, her people, the land and more trips over and back than I can recall.
I met Bruno and Vito, the proprietors of the Fava dynasty on Highway 61 and of course Charlie the deaf mute, Bruno’s trusted driver. On many a night after hunting I stood in Bruno’s package store while the locals came in to buy chilled ½ pints of Crown, red solo cups and single Kool cigarettes. I soaked up the tales of “panfa” sightings at Rena Lara, 5 gallon evictions, a man named Big Hands who occupied the double tenant house we later converted to a duck camp and a thousand other tales of life in the Delta. We ventured out to the old Booga Bottom Store to have photos taken, had more than one encounter with George at Uncle Henry’s, and spent a hell of a lot of time driving Highway 61 and the back roads of Bolivar and Coahoma Counties.
The sands of time shift, people die, people get divorced and eventually the mother of my children took control of the hunting camp I worked so hard to build. In the name of progress it, and all appurtenances thereto were bulldozed and the ground where it, the old barn and the magnificent pecan trees once stood is now growing soybeans. For these reasons and a few others I had not been back to the Delta since The Great Recession. I since married a lovely woman born and raised in South East Alaska who is fascinated by nearly anything Southern and so we embarked upon planning a long weekend trip over to take in the sights, take photographs and eat at some of the legendary Delta restaurants.
As a Southerner I of course keep up with family history matters and recalling that some of my Alabama people had skipped out to the Delta in the 1830s I began searching to see if I could locate any descendants. Although I have never met the great Delta photographer Maude Clay, I have admired her work for many years and during a recent e-mail exchange asked if she knew of any Lawlers from the Dublin area. She replied that she did not but did know some from Rosedale. With that hint I began a search that led to Dr. Hilliard Lawler, III of Indianola. It seems my 3rd great grandfather (Benjamin Lawler 1798-1863) and his 3rd great grandfather (Eli Lawler 1796-1858) were brothers and so we are 5th cousins! Now granted that is a distant cousin, but this is the South and so I sent a letter off to Dr. Lawler and he gave me a call on the day we arrived in the Delta. He shared a little of what he knew of the Lawler plantation near Dublin and invited my wife and I to stop by the next day. We stayed at The Alluvian in Greenwood and spent the better part of the next day exploring the country side out from there, stopping at Minter City, Webb, Dublin to check in on some of my Lawler kin buried at the Cherry Hill Cemetery and then on to Sumner. Although the clouds were dark, we managed to get a few photos along the way, that is until my wife, who for some reason decided to wear open sandals on a wet, muddy day in the Delta; was viciously attacked by fire ants. (That is another story for another day.)
We made our way back to the hotel to dress for our planned evening meal at Doe’s and stopped along the way at Indianola to meet Hilliard and his wife Mary. (Who explained that as much as they would love to join us at Doe’s, the Ole Miss game at 8pm would take priority.) Hilliard broke out the family papers, showed me a few family heirlooms from the Lawler plantation days and I shared some of what I know about the Alabama cousins that have lived in Madison County for more than two hundred years now. Hilliard and Mary were gracious hosts and insisted that we stop by to see his sister and her husband (LaMarr and Hal Winn, III) in Greenville, so we did just that. We had a great visit with LaMarr and Hal and met his sisters who had just arrived from New Orleans before heading on to Doe’s where the place was uncharacteristically empty because of the Ole Miss game.
The next day we drove over to Benoit to get a glimpse of the Burrus house and then on to Shaw, Shelby and Rosedale before departing for home. We talked along the way about the Delta, about the restaurants, the towns and places we visited and of her impressions of the place. Overwhelmingly the emotions were of sadness for the incredible poverty and decay but we also spoke with fascination and amazement of the broad, flat fields that go on forever; the simple beauty of the landscape and the parade of artistic talent from the Delta to New York and back. There was talk of Willie Morris, William Eggleston, Maude Schuyler Clay, William Faulkner, Birney Imes, John Grisham, Alan Lomax’s trips down to record the locals, of Son House, Honeyboy Edwards, Muddy Waters, and of towns like Merigold, Rosedale, Shaw, Benoit, Alligator, Duncan, Dublin, Sumner and Sledge. Of course we talked of our meals at Luscos and Doe’s and I shared (for the fifth time or more I am sure) stories of my trips to Crawdads in Merigold, the Ranchero in Clarksdale and Uncle Henry’s up at Moon Lake.
I suspect it is as true today as ever that the Delta is a complicated place. There simply is not a place in the South that is more Southern or that has the “texture” of the Delta, but there is also the rural decay, crushing poverty, abandoned commercial buildings collapsing upon themselves, business windows encased in steel grates or bars and the crowds of young men standing on the streets of Rosedale drinking malt liquor at ten a.m. on a Sunday morning. I confess in the past to having complained some of the boring suburban uniformity of my hometown and that upon entering the city limits of Huntsville the night of our return on that wide, smooth ribbon of black asphalt known as I-565 I was thankful for the clean streets and well maintained neighborhoods of the place I call home. I feel for the Delta’s people and hope that someday soon the quality of life for all her people will improve.
The Delta is a beautiful and amazing place, but it’s complicated.
Donald Christian was born and raised in Huntsville, Madison County, Alabama where he has practiced law for twenty-four years. He is the eighth generation of several lines of his family to live and work in Madison County, Alabama; he received a BA in History from the University of Alabama and a J.D. from the Cumberland School of Law. His interests include Southern culture and history, music, photography (digital and film) and writing. He and his wife Tracey spend much of their free time traveling and photographing the forgotten roads and places of the South.
Link to Donald Christian Flickr Album – Delta Adventure
Read PART ONE by Donald Christian