Clarksdale — After clearing up some last-minute details, the Shack Up Inn added a new twist to its unusual hotel property — the Cotton Gin Inn on Hopson Plantation opened five new rooms this month on the site of Mr. Hopson’s cotton storage bins to Clarksdale visitors.
Blues enthusiasts, honeymooners and Delta locals alike have made the pilgrimage since 1998 to one of Clarksdale’s more offbeat accommodations, paying $50 and upwards an evening to spend the weekend in one of six sharecroppers’ cabins at the site. The Cotton Gin Inn was a way to expand the property’s capacity while still offering service in such an unusual setting, said Head Shackmeister Bill Talbot.
Talbot said the idea of buying the Hopson Plantation property in the mid-90s at first was to just preserve the site’s heritage in cotton and blues and allow the five original investors to have a place to go to share their blues obsession. But the more locals heard about the good times to be had on the plantation, interest rose in using the property for other gatherings and visits.
“If we weren’t using it, people would walk up to us and ask if they could rent the shack,” said Talbot.
The Shacks officially opened for business in 1998, and while the initial investment in moving the various buildings to the property has paid off handsomely, the atmosphere and marketing of the place has remained determinedly tongue-in-cheek. With names like The Cadillac Shack, The Fullilove Shack and The Robert Clay Shack, each cabin, while retaining the authentic appearance on the outside, has been made over on the inside with all the amenities, including central air, window units, refrigerators, coffeemakers and full kitchens in two of the cabins.
Keeping the same sensibility
That sensibility has carried over into the five new guest suites as well, said Talbot.
Each one features cypress batten-board paneling, corrugated iron ceilings and copper detailing, while offering guests full hotel amenities like televisions with more than one channel available. Several Delta artists have been commissioned to paint murals for the bathrooms, including Kristen Bonnard, Gerald DeLoach, Stan Street and Greg Birdsong, Talbot said.
The new rooms rest on concrete slabs that once held the plantation’s cotton storage bins. Talbot said that when Hopson pioneered the mechanical cotton-picker in the 1940s, the owner found that he could harvest more cotton in a day than could be ginned by his machinery, so he built five bins next to the gin to hold the overage until the gin could catch up.
Plans are in the offing for the gin itself. The machinery was cleaned out of the building in the 1970s, leaving the hulking structure empty and ready for the owners’ future plans. They hope to add a second floor to the new suites in the next year, along with renovating the gin into a separate building with meeting space and other amenities.
“Maybe move the lobby out of my house, and have a real lobby with a gift shop,” said Talbot, the only owner to live on the property full-time.
The opening of The Cotton Gin Inn is good news for Clarksdale all around, said Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art.
“It’s exciting because Clarksdale is really becoming an interesting place to stay,” he said.
His shop, offering live and recorded music for the region’s blues tourists, often becomes a starting point for visitors looking for other places in town to go and soak up some atmosphere. Once he learns they’re in town for the day, Stolle often works to convince his visitors to spend the night, referring them to several properties in the area. “My whole thing is to turn the two-hour visitor to Clarksdale into the overnight visitor,” Stolle said.
Other popular properties all have their own unique qualities that appeal to different visitors, Stolle said. The Riverside Hotel is famous for its connection to the demise of blues singer Bessie Smith, while Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake appeals to the Tennessee Williams fans that come through the area, Stolle said. The more sophisticated Belle Clark Bed and Breakfast offers a little more pampering to visitors, while the Ground Zero Blues Club now gives tourists a chance to really experience the blues scene in the Clarksdale area from three furnished suites above the venue. “You have to be a blues lover!” said Stolle.
That down-home atmosphere
But the down-home atmosphere seems to be working particularly well for the Shackmeisters. Stolle said he sends people out to the plantation everyday, especially visitors puzzled that they can’t find it in the local phone book.
“I’d say the Shack Up Inn is the most popular and most well-known,” he said.
A quick scan of the Web-based guestbook shows visitors from Australia, Indianapolis, Britain and points closer to home in Mississippi. Talbot said the eclectic nature of customers attracted to the Shacks makes for some interesting weeks at the property.
“It’s strange that some days all we have is Europeans. Then the next week everyone here’s from Jackson,” said Talbot.
But not all the guests are just looking for an old-fashioned good time. Talbot said that the Shacks have had their share of business travelers.
“We have a few businessmen who have found us good for their mid-week occupancy,” he said, adding that some local companies have even sponsored corporate retreats on the property.
Stolle said that what makes Hopson Plantation and the Shack Up Inn so interesting to him, a native Midwesterner, is the care the owners are taking to continue maintaining the physical history of the Delta, saving its humbler architectural features for posterity.
“What they are doing is preserving something that maybe people wondered if it needed to be preserved,” said Stolle.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at firstname.lastname@example.org.