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|A rambler's imagination gave birth to parkway|
By Jack D. Elliott, Jr.
(First in a Series)
In May 2005 the last sections of the Natchez Trace Parkway were completed and opened to the public with much pomp and ceremony.
Construction had begun in 1938 so it had taken 67 years to complete the project. Although the names of many people were mentioned and applauded, one name was conspicuously absent, that of a person without whom the Parkway would have never existed, Colonel Jim Walton.
The Natchez Trace Parkway idea was born in the protean imagination of the colorful Colonel Walton, whose flamboyant rhetoric and disregard for the truth would take the public in thrall. In the early 1930s, Walton resided in Eupora, Mississippi. At the time he was probably in his early 80s, although the date of his birth, like the man himself, remains an enigma. In fact almost every claim that he made about his past is subject to question.
Despite his age in the 1930s he was capable of walking for miles and talking late into the night, usually about his own exploits. He claimed at the time that he was born in 1852 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. However, I have never found evidence that any Waltons lived there at the time. He also claimed that during his childhood he witnessed Lincoln's first inaugural address and watched John Wilkes Booth play Hamlet.
He often wore a bright red shirt which he said was a memento of his involvement in the Red Shirt Brigade fighting carpetbaggers and scalawags in Reconstruction Era South Carolina. Because of this activity he had to flee the United States and begin a seafaring career that took him around the world several times; he was even entertained once by the Russian Czar in St. Petersburg. This career ended when he was shipwrecked on the coast of Mozambique, Africa, in early 1886. By the end of that year he had returned to the U.S. winding up in Mississippi where he became a journalist writing for newspapers in Charleston, Atlanta, and New York. At least this was the way he told it.
He once summarized his career stating that he had variously been a "wealthy plantation owner, share cropper, cross tie hacker, log sawyer, bull puncher, editorial writer, columnist, hobo, world wanderer, sailor, soldier of fortune, [and] officer of more than one ship that staggered across the seven seas hunting cargo." Whimsically dubbing himself "the International Hobo," he claimed to be "as much at home in the banquet halls of the great and intellectual as -- in a hobo camp eating mulligan [stew] on the shady side of a cross-tie pile and sipping coffee from a cast off tomato can."
One of his acquaintances recalled that "having grown a bit old for adventuring, he had wound up in North Mississippi, where it became his custom to grace some fortunate editor with his genius for digging up local history. As long as he was provided a place to stay, food and drink and the use of a typewriter, he would unearth local legends long forgotten and weave them into beautifully told stories of the area's past. When the area was mined out he moved on to another location. Indian lore fascinated him, as did the stories of the Trace. He seemed to select for his services those papers in towns along the route of the Trace."
In 1933 Dunbar Rowland, the Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, described Colonel Jim as "a very interesting old tramp reporter who goes through the country and gathers up all the tales, stories and traditions that he hears." However, Rowland concluded, "I can not say -- that it is wise to use his statements."
Walton's rambles through the countryside often left him an evening guest in the homes of his many acquaintances. Mabel Williams Hurt recalled his "uninvited" stays at her family home in Ackerman: "We were fascinated by the unbelievable tales the Colonel told as we sat around our round oak dining table or gathered after supper around the coal-burning iron grate in our fireplace. I have no idea of his age at that time. He looked quite old to me, and he would stroke his graying beard and perhaps begin a prolonged discourse about the Czar of Russia. . . . [We children] would suppress our giggles and hide our smiles from him, because we thought he must surely be telling tall tales or embroidering the facts. As for me, I figured the children of the Czar and Czarina likely had a bigger house than ours, and they probably didn't have to give up their room for him."
Issues of his credibility aside, Walton clearly loved to visit historical places. One such visit to the inconspicuous remains of the Trace near Cumberland, Mississippi was later recalled by William Adams: "After a short walk into the woods one of the men [who accompanied Walton] stood where the ground was a few inches lower than the surrounding area. He pointed southwest and northeast and said, 'This is it. If you go southwest you run into fields and pasture. If you go northeast you will find some cuts in the hills where the trail was.'"
"Mr. Walton walked northeast and found the cuts in the hills...[He] eased back against [a] large tree and sat on the ground" and said: "Yes, yes, it was so long ago. Farmers, settlers, armies, early preachers and outlaws - lots of outlaws traveled this old trail. Now it is gone, forgotten, hard to locate."
Such intuitions certainly lay behind his fascination with historic places and fired his fertile imagination, giving birth to sundry projects, movements, and campaigns that were linked -- often awkwardly -- to historical themes. These were all characterized by an infectious enthusiasm untempered by the truth. One such endeavor led to the creation of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
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