"What's in Memphis, Missouri?" Mark asked.
"I have no idea," I said -- and many a road trip has begun on even less than that.
So off we went, north on Highway 61 to Clark County, where they were advertising the annual Mule Festival in Kahoka. We missed it by eight months, otherwise you'd surely be reading about it right now. We turned west onto U.S. 136, which was also labeled "The Avenue of the Saints," presumably for all the churches on it.
Just before Memphis, we came upon a historical marker, which filled us in on some details. Memphis, Missouri, was founded in 1843 by a man from Scotland -- and it's named for the Memphis in Egypt, as well. There was a Civil War battle nearby, the Battle of Vassar Hill, during which the fighting was so intense that all the trees around were made useless to the mills because they were filled with lead. The sign simply said, "The Confederates withdrew," making it sound like our Memphis' Civil War action.
So on into town we went, past the welcome sign (population 2,094 and a "Tree City, USA") and into that surreal world of visiting a place with the same name as your place. We saw, on a town square that looked like Collierville 20 years ago, the Memphis Theater, the Commercial Bank of Memphis, Memphis Auto Parts, and the Memphis Democrat newspaper. The lead stories in the Democrat were that a snowplow had flipped on Highway 15 (no injuries) and the Christmas talent show was won by -- sigh -- an Elvis impersonator.
We walked into the courthouse, outside of which there is, for no apparent reason, a replica of the Statue of Liberty. I walked into an office and introduced myself to a man who turned out to be an associate district judge. I was looking for the mayor, but he was still teaching his building trades class over at the high school.
The judge told me about some of the highlights of Memphis and the greater Scotland County area: the historical museum in an 1858 mansion, a memorial to a local World War I casualty, a round barn, and the 1862 Jacob Maggard home, which served as a hospital after the Battle of Vassar Hill. I later found out that the kid they built the World War I statue of, Parnell Patts Burnett, was actually killed by an immunization shot at Ft. Riley, Kansas. They don't make a big deal out of that one in Memphis.
While the judge and I were talking, in one of those perfect small-town moments, a man came in and asked for the keys to the Masonic Hall. The judge reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of keys -- and just what other keys would a district judge possess? -- and handed the guy the whole thing. Memphis is the kind of place where, when people duck into the Dollar Store to get some shaving cream, they leave their car motors running. Oh, and the way they say it, it's "Memphis, Missura."
I had to ask the judge about the biggest case he ever saw in his courtroom. He told me about the time a guy got four months for shooting a bald eagle. They never would have caught the guy, but his hunting buddy turned him in.
The judge also informed me that Scotland County was the home of Ella Ewing, the Missouri Giantess. Born in 1872, she grew to eight feet, four inches, weighed 277 pounds, and wore a size 24 shoe. (She always insisted her feet be hidden in photos and on stage.) At the age of 18, she went on the road with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and later toured with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show for a few years, then came back and built a home for herself. The home has eight-foot doorways, six-foot windows, and 10-foot ceilings, and if the heat hadn't been turned off for the last couple months we would have gone to see it. The tourist season in Scotland County was long over the day Mark and I were in Memphis, and the temperature was 8 degrees.
It was so cold, and Memphis so small, that after a couple hours Mark and I realized that we had seen pretty much everything. When we stopped on the way out of town to take some pictures, two pickups pulled over to see if we needed any help.
I had to wonder if that would happen in our Memphis.