THERE’S A moment when I look down at my tray and find that there are rib bones stacked like toothpicks, all of the meat gnawed away, the plastic cup of beans swabbed clean, a few rogue pieces of the tangerine-colored coleslaw. Large dollops of barbecue sauce stain the loose-leaf sheets of paper where I jot a few nearly illegible notes.
“It’s strange that we’re staying so close to Memphis,” our photographer, Arshia, says. “But this was what, a five-minute drive?”
The place where we’re sitting is not where, this month, we wish you were—though Memphis, and more specifically Rendezvous, is certainly not a bad place to be. Here, the jukebox has got “Georgia on My Mind,” and wood smoke billows out into the alley, fogging up the blanched yellow signage that’s needlessly grasped at passersby’s attention for just over 75 years. But the place where we’ll be bedding down for the night feels so distant from this red picnic tablecloth that it might as well be on a different planet entirely.
As we’re waiting for the check, “Great Balls of Fire” comes over the jukebox, the hammering of the keys courtesy of the great Jerry Lee Lewis.
“That’s serendipitous,” Arshia says.
And it is.
TO REACH Mound City from downtown Memphis, it’s closer to a seven-minute drive than five. After pulling off the first exit, a lonely country road that, just beyond a railroad crossing, unspools past a modern housing development—all hulking silhouettes and big windows glowing yellow in the night—you see on the right-hand side a few pinpricks of light. These small squat structures and an enormous tree, strings of cafe lights draped along its many outriggered branches, signal a place that seems very far off the beaten path, while in fact not being very far from it at all.
It’s in one of these buildings—the old commissary, built in 1902, which was later featured in the 1989 film Great Balls of Fire—where we’d spent much of the early evening before heading into Memphis. Sipping wine from yellow plastic Solo cups, we’d heard from owners Charlie and Emily Lowrance, storytellers both, about how this place, this farm resort of sorts, had come to be.
As with anything, there’s both a short and a long answer.
The long answer takes the listener back to 1000 A.D., when the Mississippian Indians, the people who built the mounds for which the place was named, settled this area (all but one of the mounds have been destroyed in years past—their absence marked by bald-looking spots on the property, where it looks like something ought to be). Over the years, the area was often caught in the crosshairs of history—with the Indians being forced out in 1830, the town burning at the hands of Union troops in 1863, the Sultana steamship catching fire in 1865. For much of that time—and on until 2000—the property had been home to the May family along with a group of sharecroppers who lived in shacks that lined the road. That year, developers had picked up the land with the aim of developing the area for residential properties. After the bottom dropped out of the housing market, Charlie—who’d spent his early years driving past the land on his way into Memphis from his hometown in Wilson—scooped it up.
The short answer is, as Emily says, it’s just kind of funny how things happen.
In speaking with the couple, you get the sense that this all is very much a living project—rather than adhering to some grand, overarching master plan, everything the couple’s done has been because there was once a need for it, a moment when they said, Well, why don’t we give that a try? Because the thing is, they hadn’t set out to make this place what it is today. An early foray into the realm of short-term rentals—one coaxed along by an old high school friend of Charlie’s who owns a similar place in Clarksville, Mississippi’s Shack-up Inn—revealed there was a desire and a demand for this kind of place.
They moved ahead and started rehabbing the properties, taking them down to the studs, installing insulation and modern amenities that made the once quasi-dilapidated structures feel homey, cozy. In the past few years, they’ve continued to expand, putting up new buildings that match the aesthetic of the old structures, trying new things like planting blackberries and peppers, grapes for wine, always talking about the potential for what might be.
IT CAN feel somewhat surreal, staying in this place. In some ways, waking up and looking over the land, cup of coffee in hand, makes it feel as though you’ve entered a time machine or been similarly transported, as if you’ve woken up in a dream of a farm. Just outside the door, there are churned-up furrows revealing the last pumpkins of the season, a smattering of turnips and mustard greens, (all of which are free if you care to pick them). It doesn’t feel so close to Memphis. It doesn’t feel like your average Airbnb.
Together, it gives the impression of being a place you might drive by and wonder, What was it like many, many years ago? But unlike many such long-abandoned settlements, this is a place where things haven’t seized up and been left to fall, but have been changed. It’s a living place. It’s a place we wish we still were.
Head Over (Very Small) Hills
A guide to what’s around the Mound (City)
Not that you need even more history—but just up the road, there’s a museum dedicated to the Sultana, the worst disaster in maritime history. “But the Titanic …” you might say. Nope. On April 27, 1865, the Mississippi steamboat was destroyed when three of its four boilers exploded, killing 1,800 of its 2,400 passengers. (sultanadisastermuseum.org)
Big John’s Shake Shack
Some know it as Big John’s Shake Shack, others as Tacker’s Shake Shack. What’s certain, however, is that this small-town diner has been attracting well-deserved attention from folks on both sides of the river since 1977, (to say nothing of its nods from, say, Southern Living or AETN). What’s also certain: This is one place not to be missed. (facebook.com/theshakeshack)
What do you do when you’ve got one of the largest cities in the region at your fingertips? Well, for starters, you go there. For two … Well, we’ll just throw out some of our must-hits:
Far as we know, this is some of the closest Ethiopian food around. For those who’ve never experienced doro wat, beef tibs or injera, just trust us on this one. (There are several restaurants, but we’re partial to Blue Nile.)
Catherine & Mary’s and Earnestine & Hazel’s: Consider these our two favorite restaurants named for pairs of ladies, (and also, just our faves in general). At Catherine & Mary’s, you’re getting fine, fine dining. At Earnestine & Hazel’s, you’re getting the finest dive burgers this side of Midtown Billiards.
Of course, there’s barbecue, there’s the zoo, there’s Sun Studio and the National Civil Rights Museum. There’s Beale Street, and there’s the bar on top of the Bass Pro Pyramid. But if we’re being honest, that new Trader Joe’s in Germantown is a prettttty big draw for us, too.