Elvis Sightings
Been to Graceland? Now Try Tupelo.

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 4, 2002

Next week tens of thousands of Elvis Presley fans will converge on Memphis for a frenzy of events orchestrated by the folks who run Graceland, Presley's mansion-cum-tourist attraction, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the King's death.

A hundred miles to the south, the town of Tupelo, Miss., will mark Presley's Aug. 16, 1977, passing in a quieter way. Wisely avoiding competition with Graceland's events, Tupelo holds its Fan Appreciation Day on Aug. 9, with four hours of events centered on Presley's birthplace. There'll be a dedication ceremony for a statue of Elvis at age 13, some rock-and-roll and gospel music, and a story-swapping session where the few remaining Tupelonians with any ties to Elvis will share their memories.

Tupelo's little Elvis-fest alone probably wouldn't warrant a trip from Washington. But if you're already doing Graceland (and everybody should, at least once), a half-day's journey to Tupelo is well worth the 90-minute drive down U.S. Highway 78 -- especially with the South's cheap gas.

And for those who want to see the whole arc of Elvis's life, not just the bloated Graceland end of it, Tupelo offers a glimpse at origins almost too humble to be believed.

At the heart of the Tupelo experience is Elvis's birthplace, a little white house nestled in a bend in the road on a modest residential street (now named Elvis Presley Drive). Built in 1934 by Elvis's father, Vernon, for 180 borrowed dollars, the Presley home was one of a cluster of shacks built along the edge of the farm on which Vernon was a sharecropper.

A new visitors center behind the house, easily 10 times larger than the attraction it serves, features a gift shop and the "Times and Things Remembered" museum. You have to go there to buy your ticket for the birthplace, so you might as well go through the museum and shop while you're at it.

Most of the museum's artifacts, sparsely arrayed in a single room lined with glass cases, were donated by Elvis friend Janelle McComb, who's not shy about sharing such Janelle-centric objects as her copy of a poem she wrote for Presley daughter Lisa Marie's fourth birthday -- complete with Elvis tearstains -- and a photo of Janelle talking on the phone. It was, of course, snapped by the King himself.

A pair of sneakers is vaguely identified as representative of the clothes Elvis wore as a young man; when asked if they actually belonged to him, a guide says, "Oh, yes. He ordered them from Sears, Roebuck." Okay. A few steps away, a radio is labeled "Old RCA Radio."

More compelling items include the hammer Vernon used to build his house; Gladys and Vernon's signed Elvis fan club membership cards (Dad was in the King's Klan; Mom was in the Sideburn Set); and Elvis's seventh-grade report card. "He didn't do all that great that year," the guide notes.

The museum's star attraction is a hotel towel an Elvis fan stole and preserved, while still "soaking wet," in her freezer for 17 years -- until the museum opened, prompting her to share her treasure with the world. Hanging next to the towel are two pilfered coffee cups, each with a smear of coffee residue. The King's coffee? No telling.

In a trick learned at Graceland's knee, the museum (which is operated under a license from Elvis Presley Enterprises) empties into the gift shop, where the merchandise is much like the stuff you get at Graceland -- only there's less of it. Potholders with recipes for fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. "Taking Care of Business -- in a Flash" golf balls. Guitar-shape decoupage clocks.

One corner of the store does offer a few Tupelo-specific wares: mugs, tote bags, tie tacks and the like. But both the museum and the gift shop give you the feeling that the site's not quite content to serve as a contemplative counterpoint to Graceland's glitz: It's opted instead to become part of Elvis Inc. Next thing you know, there'll be shag carpeting on the ceiling.

In the chapel next door, built with funds from Elvis fans, you're supposed to pause for a moment's meditation. You'll more likely spend the time reading the donor plaques attached to every stick of furniture and pane of stained glass. Gene Autry contributed to a pew, as did Col. Tom Parker, Elvis's legendary manager. The Baltimore fan club makes a good showing, too, with a pew of its own.

Finished meditating? Then stroll down the hill and step into the little house. The guide inside will set down her Diet Coke on a nightstand and explain that in this very room, on Jan. 8, 1935, Gladys Presley gave birth to Elvis Aaron (or Aron, depending on whom you ask) Presley and his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon.

Because this event became remarkable only decades later, after Elvis achieved fame, nobody took care to preserve much of what was original to the place. The building's the same, but everything else -- furniture, wallpaper, ceiling and floor -- is a modern replacement. It's hard to understand, then, why the rooms are roped off, the guide on one side, you on the other.

From the first room you shuffle to the second, a miniature kitchen stuffed with period artifacts. And then you're done. But resist the impulse to rush through the 20 paces from front door to back. Because those 20 paces are the whole point: Until he was 3, this was all Elvis and his family had, the extent of their world.

Suddenly you understand why Elvis needed his Graceland.

Once his family moved out of this shack, Elvis lived in various spots -- none extant -- around town until he was 13. The town's other remaining Elvis sites, which are included in a self-guided tour organized by the city's visitors bureau, need only a drive-by viewing: Two schools he attended, a church built on the site of the one the Presleys attended, and a barbershop that sits where a grocery store he frequented once stood (and where he heard locals making music) are of interest only to the most dedicated fanatics. For others, their prime value is that they take you through neighborhoods filled, if appearances can be trusted, with young people of very modest means.

You have to wonder: What's to keep history from repeating itself?

The Tupelo Fairgrounds, where Elvis performed in 1956 and '57, has been razed to make room for houses and shops. For now, a glance out the window is all you need.

On the other hand, you'll want to set a spell at Johnnie's Drive-In. If you're only eating one meal in town (and that ought to just about do the trick), have it here. You can order a chocolate milkshake so thick the straw is useless; barbecue sandwiches (including a peculiar but tasty variety dressed with lettuce, tomato and mustard instead of traditional coleslaw and BBQ sauce) are served on paper wrappers in lieu of plates. The onion rings are huge hoops of onion in a crisp batter, and hot dogs are of the bright-pink-tinged "red hot" kind, served on hamburger rolls.

A notarized affidavit displayed on the wall has Elvis's boyhood chum, James Ausborn, swearing that he and the future King consumed cheeseburgers and Royal Crown Colas (which Elvis, oddly enough, called R.O.C.s) here. Owner Don Knight tells me that folks who knew Elvis still frequent the joint -- and that I've just missed the local druggist, an Elvis impersonator.

Johnnie's is fun, but Tupelo Hardware, the last stop on the tour, is by far the best -- and most authentic -- Elvis site in town.

The store is the kind of place that prevailed in the days before Home Depot. Stacked to the ceiling with bolts and screws, hammers and awls, it's full of Tupelo men stocking up on hardware. But every day, buses and cars packed with tourists pull up in front, and people stream in to see the store where Elvis's mother bought him his first guitar.

He went for a bicycle, legend says, but wanted a rifle; Gladys steered him toward the guitar, for which she paid $7.90. The guitar is now in private hands, but the store has framed photos of the artifact hanging at about the spot where the transaction took place.

Nobody here seems too much in awe of Elvis. But the men who work at Tupelo Hardware -- including proprietor George Booth, grandson of the store's founder -- are happy to talk about their town's famous son, even with folks who clearly have no intention of buying a wheelbarrow or hinge.

And here's the best thing about the store: In a world where anybody who uses the words "Elvis" or "Elvis Presley" must print the Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. copyright notice -- and pay a licensing fee if the object's for sale -- Tupelo Hardware says no dice.

Sure, the store sells T-shirts and yardsticks (sorry, no guitars) noting its role in rock-and-roll history. But in defiance of Graceland's stranglehold on the Elvis franchise, the souvenirs here proudly say "Tupelo Hardware: Where Gladys bought her son his first guitar."

You go, Tupelo Hardware! And long live Gladys's son.

Jennifer Huget last wrote for Travel on Elvis Week in Memphis.

Details: Tupelo, Miss.

Three hours is about all you'll need to do Tupelo, Miss., up right, unless you want to visit the buffalo farm, the U.S. fish hatchery, the site of the last major Civil War battle in Mississippi or the automobile museum that's due to open in the fall. But Elvis is clearly the main draw.

GETTING THERE: Northwest offers connecting service from Reagan National to Tupelo for about $240 round trip, but Memphis would make a better home base. Fares start at about $220 from the three D.C. area airports. From Memphis, drive 100 miles south down U.S. Highway 78.

ELVIS PRESLEY CENTER: The center (306 Elvis Presley Dr., 662-841-1245) comprises a museum, a chapel and a park, but the big draw is the King's birthplace. It's open daily, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (it closes at 5 p.m. October-April) and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The birthplace ($2) and museum ($5) -- or see both for $6 -- are the only Elvis sites with fees.

DRIVING TOUR: The Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau (399 E. Main St., 800-533-0611, www.tupelo.net) provides maps for the self-driving tour of the key sites of Elvis's early life. Call ahead if you'll be visiting on a weekend, as the bureau is only open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or print the map off the bureau's Web site.

The tour is organized with driving, not drama, in mind, but as the sites are all within spitting distance of one another, you can afford to go out of order, as I did. Remember: This is the South, so key sites such as Johnnie's Drive-In (908 E. Main St.), where Elvis noshed, and Tupelo Hardware (114 W. Main St.), where his mother bought him his guitar, are closed on Sundays.

INFORMATION: For a visitors guide with restaurant and lodging options (the town has two dozen hotels, most of them national chains), contact the visitors bureau. Details : Mississippi Tourist Information Center, 800-927-6378, www.visitmississippi.org.

-- Jennifer Huget

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