Some places in the Mississippi Delta are known for the blues. Others have gained a reputation for the celebrities they have produced, such as Jim Henson, who created the Muppets, or Morgan Freeman, the actor.
But this city, perched on the banks of the Mississippi River, has gained distinction for something quite different: brown water.
People who live here think nothing of the dirty-looking liquid that flows from their faucets, but visitors assume there is a plumbing problem when they flush the toilet or turn on the shower. Most would never consider taking a sip of it, even after they are told the water is safe.
Kay Bigge, a clerk at the Greenville Inn and Suites, is used to guests running to the lobby in shock after they turn on the water. Most assume it's dirty because it comes from the Mississippi -- which it does not -- or that the pipes are rusty, she said.
"They are afraid to drink it, and a lot of people don't want to bathe in it or brush their teeth. They go out and buy bottled water," said Bigge, who has lived in Greenville more than 50 years. "I try to tell them about the benefits of it. It makes our skin really soft, and it makes your hair look nice. When my daughter was in a beauty pageant, we took some along in bottles just so she could wash her hair."
Brad Jones, director of Greenville's Public Works Department, insists the water is pure. To be sure, the department tests it for bacteria every month at 64 locations.
Greenville's water comes from the Cockfield aquifer, which is fed from eastern Mississippi. The water filters through three ancient cypress swamps, picking up particles from wood and vegetation thousands of years old, Jones said. The particles are dissolved in the water, giving it a brown color. Most other cities in the Southeast that receive fresh water from the aquifer have installed filtration systems that make the water clear.
But people in Greenville like their water brown.
"As long as it is not coming from the Mississippi River, we can live with it. No one would drink it if it came from the river, no matter what you did to it," Jones said. "Our water actually has a good flavor. It's not salty, and it's not laced with elements that are normally found in city water supplies."
Still, most businesses are not willing to take the chance of scaring customers. Most restaurants use bottled water or have filtration systems for clear ice cubes and drinking water.
A few years ago, the Chamber of Commerce began posting a poem in local businesses, hoping to ease visitors' fears. Hotel workers don't have to explain the brown water anymore; they leave that to Fredricka Nelken, a Greenville resident who wrote the poem a few years before she died in 2000 at 82:
Our Delta water has passed test after test
The ecologists prove it's the very best.
Its mineral content is one of renown
But visitors ask: "Why is it brown?"
Guests who come to visit prepare for a bath,
We hear shouts of revulsion and then a gasp.
They flee the bathroom in robe and gown
"I can't bathe in that water -- my God, it's brown!"
We assure these people of its medicinal good
And praise the water's values just as we should.
They're not convinced, they continue to frown
"We can't drink this stuff -- the ice cubes are brown."
We try magical prose, behave like a genie,
But guests will never accept a brown martini.
They love our hospitality in each hamlet and town,
But they demand bottled water -- your water is brown!
Strangers eye each glassful with doubt and disgust
"Do you purify this stuff with Delta dust?"
They like the taste but find it hard to drink down,
Because esthetically it's pathetic -- this water is BROWN!