We stopped in the Visitor’s Information Center at the Mississippi state line and were impressed with the attractive building, the interior décor, and the friendly, helpful staff. A colorful carousel horse caught our attention so we were given a handsome and useful publication on Meridian, a town not far down the road. With graphics and copy so alluring we had to pay the town a visit, see the carousel and more.
This eastern central region of Mississippi is called “The Pines” for good reason. For miles of our route the roadside was densely forested with tall loblolly pines and hardwood trees. It is also the region where Tennessee Williams lived and penned his plays, where Howlin’ Wolf was raised and where John Grisham studied accounting before he turned his pencil in and began writing novels.
Meridian is an interesting hub with a lot of past and its future still breaking through. It is the county seat for Lauderdale County, and Mississippi State University has a strong presence in the town’s former “Grand Opera House of Mississippi.” Meridian’s street banners are proud reminders of a colorful past.
The carousel highlighted in the brochure is a rare two-row stationary style, designed by Gustav Dentzel, lives in Highland Park. It debuted at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and then was bought by the City of Meridian and moved to a building Dentzel custom designed for it 1909. The building was closed for the season, so we were only able to peer through the windows at the animals and other ornate carvings. Instead we had to content ourselves with the colorful banners and painted carousel horses that were peppered around town.
Other banners proclaim the importance of the railroad, which is central to Meridian’s story, and goes back to the 1830s when a wealthy land owner gave away pieces of property to get people to move to the area. The increased population attracted the interest of two railroads that build crossing lines of track through Meridian. His scheme worked and the town began to grow. The Confederate Army had a headquarters here during the Civil War until 10,000 Union troops arrived. They leveled the town and tore up the railroad tracks before they moved on. General Sherman declared the town a wasteland, but the tracks were restored and trains running in less than a month. After the war Meridian became a manufacturing and agricultural center with timber and cotton as the main crops.
A carousel horse, with an “iron-horse” engine painted across it’s chest, stands in front of the restored railroad station The station is surrounded by old hotel buildings that date back to 1890-1930, the town’s heydays.
Some sections of the old downtown have not fared this well. Blocks of wonderful old architecture are waiting for reconstruction and new life.
We were especially intrigued by the sign hanging from one old building that read “For Sale Reclaimed Lumber & Brick.” From the sunlight showing through the empty windows, it appeared that the owners had been disassembling the place floor by floor with barely more than the façade left standing. We guessed that the parked U-Haul truck was ready to take more of it away.
After seeing this demolition, it is no surprise that the one antique shop we visited in town is a restorer’s dream. We learned that Meridian is the starting point for the annual four-day, 502-mile-long US 11 Antique Alley and Yard Sale that takes place each year in May. The offerings go all the way up to Bristol, Virginia, and a lot of towns and communities along the way use this event as an excuse for additional events and festivals.
Don is really good about pulling the car over so I can jump out to take pictures. He keeps the engine running…like the get-away driver in a bank heist. In downtown Meridian I got out of the car to take a picture of some beautiful Art Deco ceramics on an old building that is easily the tallest building in town and for many miles around.
I was standing in front of the construction barrier taking photos when two workmen came over to joke with me about needing a permit. I told them how excited I was that the grand old structure was getting another go at life. They advised me that this sixteen-story office building was built in 1929 and is going to be a Courtyard by Marriott when it reopens in three years. They told me that a visit to the penthouse suite would be an excellent reason for us to plan a return stay.
Mississippi has a system of Historic Trail Markers that help curious visitors learn more about the state’s history and culture. Meridian has both Country Music Trail and Blues Trail markers dotting its streets. It is also the home of Jimmie Rogers, known in music circles as the ”Singing Brakeman” and the “Father of Country Music.” A museum and annual festival celebrate his short but distinguished career.
The city itself has also developed a Civil War Trail and a Civil Rights Trail. Markers, like this one in front of the Merrehope House, offer information on each site along the trail. Accompanying online video and educational resource packets have also been developed for those who want to delve deeper into local history.
Nestled in the southern foothills of Appalachia and surrounded by three lakes, Meridian is a nice getaway for those who enjoy outdoor sports, camping, hiking, bird watching, and golf. We found it a convenient stopping point in our travels and returned for an overnight stay on our trip back home. We also came back to sample the famous fried green tomatoes at Weidmann’s, the oldest restaurant in Mississippi.
We were surprised to see the streets, which had been fairly quiet by day, jammed and we were lucky to find a newly vacated spot to park. Across the street a large and lively crowd was gathered to listen to Bishop Gunn, a rock-and-roll/country Mississippi band that was in town for a one-night performance. Meridian was living up to its musical heritage.
With the concert going across the street the old wrought-iron rimmed Balcony Bar at Weidmann’s was filled. We promised ourselves that we would definitely plan to have a cocktail there when we returned to Meridian for dinner and a stay at the skyscraper hotel that would by then hopefully be restored to grandeur.