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The Coca-Cola museum recounts the history of the first bottled Coke.

JACK WEATHERLY: A trip to Vicksburg in the 200th, or so, anniversary of statehood

JACK WEATHERLY

This city is, of course, best known for the 47-day Civil War military siege that led to its capitulation on July 4, 1863.

Mississippians are marking the state’s 200th anniversary in 2017, overlooking the four secession years.

Mississippi’s state motto ought to be left to Mr. Faulkner, arguably its most famous native son, who wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

True, and it never changes, though it is revised.

And for the future, who knows?

Nobody is likely to redevelop the National Military Park and its 1,340 monuments and 17,000 graves for Union soldiers. Same for Cedar Hill Cemetery, where 5,000 Confederates are interred. The sides are still separated in death.

My wife and I celebrated our 39th anniversary here over the weekend.

We stayed at the circa 1830 Anchuca Mansion and Inn, which was restored, even if its elegant décor is not exactly “reconstructed.”

The house on the Vicksburg bluffs had been a residence leased to Jefferson Davis’ older brother, Joseph, who had lost his Warren County plantation, Hurricane, because of the war, just as Jefferson had no country, having lost his adoptive Confederacy and been refused restoration of his U.S. citizenship.

Word got out that the younger sibling was in town and a crowd gathered on the street below the third-story balcony. From there, the old statesman, four years after the war, delivered an appreciative impromptu speech.

Thunder and flashes were moving across the river toward us when our cellphones awakened us at 6:45 a.m. Sunday with that terrible, modern alarm that sounds like a goose being strangled.

We were guarded in our canopied bed by an image of Davis and his commanding generals – with their ghost armies.

Ghost stories are a staple in the South; there simply are so many ghosts. Doesn’t every Southern family have one?

Vicksburg offers such tours to get in touch with “the other side,” as if reading about the past isn’t enough.

For whatever reason, this time the town was spared during the storm.

Vicksburg doesn’t change much. That’s good in one way, not so good in another.

It’s like the Mississippi River. Slow but persistent.

One wishes for a nice infusion of cash, a magic wand waved over the city to make the decay disappear, while preserving the past.

Twenty-five years ago, the state approved dockside gambling along the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast. While that helps – Vicksburg has four casinos – there is no panacea for a poverty-ridden state.

A boy walks down Washington Street, sipping a Coke out of a plastic bottle. Did he know that bottled Coca-Cola was perfected on that street by Joseph Biedenharn in 1894?

Did the couple from Australia visiting the Coca-Cola Museum know that without Biedenharn’s innovation, they could not have helped to teach “the world to sing in perfect harmony” – to quote the old Coke television commercial? The syrup would have spoiled before it got to the Land Down Under.

The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, which the family donated to the city, lays out the story of what had been touted initially as a stimulant, including that it had a smidgen of cocaine in it, along with a lot of caffeine.

The flood wall along the river tells a broader history of the city in 32 murals, primarily by Robert Dafford’s realistic paintings, which cannot be appreciated by a drive-by. They must be seen up close for their detail.

We got another perspective of the city from The Ten Top South Bar and Grill atop the Trustmark Bank building, which offers a view of the Yazoo River Diversion Canal traffic.

A replica steamboat slowly moved upstream and started a very slow turn in the narrow channel toward the shore.

Forty-five minutes later, the hull of the six-deck, 268-foot-long America nudged the concrete ramp of the landing, tied up and lowered the gangway, still known as the “stage” since the days when showboats arrived and gave locals a little taste of the show,

The boat encountered 87-mile-an-hour winds in its downstream cruise from Memphis to New Orleans, according to first mate Mike McLeod.

“Nothing she couldn’t handle,” he said of the American Cruise Lines craft.

Gleaming tour buses were waiting on the other side of the flood wall for the 162 passengers’ 24-hour stopover.

They wouldn’t be staying overnight in the nearby Portofino Hotel, which closed in July 2015 and has been vacant ever since. The ornate hostelry was built to accommodate gaming tourism. But things may be looking up for the Portofino. The Vicksburg Post reported that the hotel owners have been issued work permits to get it ready for reopening.

Not far from there is the Catfish Row Art Park for children, so named for the old wharf that was made famous by historian David Cohn, who wrote, “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”

And the South will never end as long as there are Southerners to talk about it.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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