Tupelo is not on the radar of most travelers. As it’s the birthplace of Elvis Presley, we felt a visit here was an important component of our “Travels with Elvis” jaunt. And we’re glad we made the journey to Tupelo, just a few hours south of Memphis via scenic roads; wish we’d had more time to linger and get to know it better.
Tupelo is a small city of only 35,0000, emerged from the poverty that gripped much of the South for so long. It seems to have evolved into a comfortable middle class community through the hard work and perseverance of its incredibly warm and disarmingly polite citizens. They’re proud of the role Tupelo played in Elvis’ formative years and about so many other things in their lives. It’s not hard to find someone who’s glad to share special stories or memories about Elvis, or about football, or family, or the South — or whatever. I was completely charmed by these folks and know I’ll be back for a longer stay someday. There’s a fairly sizable contingent of the “Presley” clan — cousins, distant cousins and the like — still residing here.
I had a few thoughts as we were wrapping up our visit here: i) if Elvis had been born in today’s Tupelo, his parents likely could have made a decent living and the family would not have been forced to move to Memphis. Without an exposure to poverty and the Memphis blues and music scene, key inspirational factors in Elvis’ upbringing would have been lacking. He may indeed just have ended up in a regular job rather than cutting records at Sun studios and making Rock ‘n Roll history. ii) When I travel to other countries I like to visit the big cities for a few days but as I rule I like to get into small towns to get a better feel for the people. If someone from another country wanted to see what the “real America” is like, I can think of no better place to direct them than to Tupelo, Mississippi.
Some things to see and do in Tupelo:
1) Elvis Presley Birthplace Site: Elvis was born in East Tupelo, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Now East Tupelo is part of greater Tupelo but when Elvis was a boy this poorer part of town was a few cotton fields from downtown.
An official Mississippi landmark, the birthplace is a surprisingly busy place with buses of Elvis fans from around the world pulling up all the time. The Birthplace Site is now complex of structures and was in the middle of a $6,000,000 expansion when we visited. Here’s some of what you can see:
- Elvis Birth-home: A simple 2 room “shotgun shack” built in 1934 for $180.00 by Elvis’ dad, Vernon Presley. In one of the rooms, on January 8, 1935, Elvis and his twin brother, Jesse, were born (Jesse was stillborn). The family lived in this house for only a few years, one in a string of homes, before their deteriorating financial conditions (“dirt poor”) forced them to move elsewhere in Tupelo and later to Memphis. There’s a swing on the front porch and period furnishings, though few are original. When we visited, one of Elvis’ cousins guided us around the birth-home. The house has been open to the public since 1971.
- Statue of 13 year old Elvis holding his first guitar, a gift from his mother, which you can see in the above photo.
- Museum/Gift shop. The museum highlights Vernon and Gladys’ background in the Tupelo area, the difficult economic times they endured, as well as memorabilia of Elvis and his life in Tupelo. The gift shop sells every possible Elvis souvenir you could imagine.
- Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel. Dedicated in 1979 and funded by Elvis fan clubs worldwide; as such, it’s something Elvis personally would greatly have treasured. A simple quiet place to meditate, or get married. If you look around, you’ll find small plaques on some of the items like a pew donated by Col Tom Parker (his manager) and another by his dear friend and backup vocalist, Charlie Hodge.
- Assembly of God Church. This was the church the Presley family attended in Tupelo, moved here and extensively refurbished. Your admission includes a 360 degree movie documenting what a sermon in this church was like in the 1930s, and how the ministers and gospel music likely influenced Elvis’ singing and performing styles.
- Wall of Memories, with fountain, has many great quotes about Elvis in Tupelo (from his teachers and friends).
- Walk of life: A circle of rocks around the birth-home, one for each of Elvis’ 42 years. Etchings on the Tupelo years highlight significant events.
2) Other Elvis related sights in Tupelo: Walk or drive around East Tupelo. Take in some of the ambiance You’ll find lots of small well kept homes that probably were there when Elvis strolled these streets. While the city has grown and much has changed, there are still many sites that are much the same as when Elvis lived here:
- Lawhon Elementary School, the first school Elvis attended.
- Milam Jr. High, last school Elvis attended before moving to Memphis.
- Tupelo Fairgrounds, where Elvis performed concerts in 1956 and 1957. The land has mostly been developed into municipal offices. There’s a newly unveiled Elvis homecoming statue, featuring a larger than life Elvis holding his mike, youthful and energetic as he appeared in front of his hometown crowd over fifty years ago.
- Tupelo Hardware, where Elvis’ mom bought him first guitar ($7.75), beginning a musical legend. The story goes that Elvis wanted a .22 rifle but as a concerned and protective parent, Gladys didn’t want to buy it. One of the store’s employee handed Elvis a guitar, who strummed it and decided he wanted it instead. This old hardware store is vintage Americana. Visitors are very welcome, as were we. One of the employees generously shared his time with us, including the story of the guitar purchase, and invited us to stand on the very spot where Elvis first strummed that guitar! It may seem a small thing, but his enthusiasm made it seem mighty special!
- Lee County Courthouse, where Elvis performed his first live radio show hosted by Mississippi Slim.
- Tupelo Automobile Museum: A large and impressive collection of more than 100 classic antique automobiles spanning more than a century of automotive engineering and design. The collection includes a Lincoln previously owned by Elvis.
- Several Civil War related sites, including the Mississippi Final Stands Civil War Interpretative Center, Brice’s Crossroads National Battlefield Site and Tupelo National Battlefield. The area around Tupelo saw some of the last Civil War battles in Mississippi.
- Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo: A place to take the kids to see some bison and other animals. We didn’t get a chance to stop here.
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