Monday, 27 September 2010

Biloxi, Home Of Jeff Davis And The Seafood Museum

What a difference four decades make! That’s how long it had been—43 years—since I had been an 18-year-old sailor boy, away from his home in Detroit for the first time, taking his liberties on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi.
About the only thing that hadn’t changed was the brisk breeze blowing in off the Gulf. And some things were definitely missing—such as the Edgewater Gulf Hotel, that four-star hostelry done in by Hurricane Camille and Interstate motels.
We used to cruise it on weekends, chasing nubile maidens from Sophie Newcomb, the women’s college of Tulane University. Ah, me. It’s a shopping mall now, anchored by Sears. It’s also the transfer point for the 75-cent-a-trip public bus that works the shore in two sectors between Gulfport and Biloxi. Both towns have about 50,000 population. But Biloxi has definitely jumped ahead of its sister city in the tourism department.
There are two world-class museums at opposite ends of bus route #7—which also conveniently passes by the Biloxi Greyhound station. Begin with the older one. It’s the summer home of the first and only president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
Since the revered statesman of the Old South died in 1889, the centennial of his passing made this stately mansion facing the Gulf of Mexico on the land side of Route 99 the national focus of memorializing. It would be worth a visit any year.
I carried about the usual Northern liberal’s prejudices about Davis until I chanced upon Robert Penn Warren’s biography of him. From the galleys of that book I learned that Davis was a tragic humanist, a classical scholar who read Latin and Greek daily until his death—not the scumbag of popular Unionist rhetoric.
Like Robert E. Lee, he was destroyed along with the South he felt duty-bound to defend. There’s all of this and more at Beauvoir. After his death it became an old soldiers’ home for Confederate veterans and a gathering place for documentation and memorabilia on the statesman’s life and career as leader of the ill-fated secessionists.
After taking a careful look at this National Shrine, walk across the highway and wait for the bus to take you within a few blocks’ walk of the spanking new Seafood Industry Museum. Since shrimping and crabbing and oystering were at the center of the region’s economy, you end up with a good glimpse into the two-century history of European settlement there.
Make that “non-indigenous Indian settlement.” The name Biloxi (make sure to rhyme it with “luck see”) is actually the mispronunciation of the local Indian tribe’s name by another tribe coming from an entirely different language group.
It’s that kind of savory trivia that makes SIM—the museum’s acronym—so much more than a seafood industry museum. But it’s still that—in spades, and all the other weird and fascinating instruments locals devised to dig, scrape, drag and net the sea-engendered protein into their boats.
And they’re hard at work finishing the first Biloxi-type schooner to float for decades. And they were so confident they would get it and others like it together that their totebag—designed by a local artist of great talent, Walt Macdonald—advertised the impending “annual” race.
By the way, the gift store in this new museum sets an astonishing high aesthetic standard. I consider myself the King of Kitsch Killing, seeking well-designed objects and mocking cheap souvenirs. I walked out of SIM with a T-shirt, a tote, a coffee cup and several of the marvelous post cards they’ve made out of the fish cannery labels of yore.
Yes, Virginia, they also tell you the whole history of how canning got started. Folks coming there for the summer breezes developed a year-long hunger for the sea food, and Biloxi obliged. There’s also a marvelous cache of Lewis Hines photos, from the 1911-13 trip he made there to gather data for Congress in its efforts to outlaw child labor.
One other treat. Across the highway there’s a really outstanding marine research facility, with a big tankful of their subjects. It’s the kind of hands-on museum that will mesmerize your children if you go in the family way. Hop back on the bus and save some time for eating seafood.
I had a shrimp omelet at McElroy’s right on the waterfront, having the good fortune to schmooze with my table partner, a young attorney who was defending the scoundrel making the embezzlement headlines of the morning paper.
Across the street from McElroy’s is the motel I’ll stay at next time. It has pamphlets for all the local attractions. And “Your Hindu host” knows how to be friendly to casual visitors. Moreover, I’ve vowed to picket Best Westerns for a bit, because the one on the waterfront at Gulfport where I spent the night served me oysters and catfish in plastic walkaway containers with plastic cutlery. Yuck.
Even the good California white and Cable News Network and HBO couldn’t take the curse of that crummy room service away from my stop there.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 23, 1990

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