Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Memphis In May 1857

The following letter appeared in the Memphis Daily Appeal, May 22, 1857, from a woman named Ella Kay.  Miss Kay was from New York and had made the trip to Memphis not very willingly due to the bad impression she had of Memphis and her citizens.  As for her reference to pigs "slowly promenading" around court square the only pigs you'll find these days at Memphis in May are those being served up at the Memphis in May bar-b-que contest!

From the Journal of Commerce)
       Memphis, Tenn., May 5, 1857

My Dear Journal:  never have I had a more delightful surprise than that which met me in Memphis.  I had read much of the rapid progress of this young city, but I did not--could not realize that it was a place of such importance.  We of the northern cities never can realize the greatness of this southern and western country until we see for ourselves, and not with the eyes of another.  Now that the last link has been--not, broken but united--which joins the Atlantic cities and those of the Mississippi, we may non of us be excusable for ignorance on this point.  It was against my will, my dear Journal, that I made this Memphis visit--(we women do sometimes yield our wishes to those of others)--and I supposed a "Railroad Jubilee" in Memphis would be rather a forlorn affair.  While I am in the confessional I may as well make a clean breast altogether, and acknowledge that I had formed a hasty judgment of Memphis, from having seen a few of its citizens make what is vulgarly, but very aptly called a "splurge," in my beloved city of New York; and I set them down as a class of purse-proud, extravagant men, and face-painting, gaudy-dressing, empty-headed women.  I am ashamed to confess so much, and I acknowledge that it was narrow-minded in me to entertain such ideas of Memphis people, from having seen the "antics" of Mrs. --- ----, and others of that type, as it is for southern persons to imagine that all the northern ladies are in love with Fred. Douglass, and prefer his society to that of their fathers and husbands.  I am certain that in describing my own impressions I am describing those of a very large number of persons from the East and North who have just made their first visit to the shores of the Mississippi.  with these feelings I entered Memphis; and as I toiled up the river bank, and was politely assisted into the hack by one gentleman, while another held an umbrella over my head to protect me from the rain, I inwardly ejaculated; "Just what I expected !--clay bluffs, and short streets, mules, cotton bales, and short white houses, looking up to tall brick ones!"  But I said nothing to dampen the ardor of my companion--and how glad I am that I did not !

And nor for our lodging.  We tried the Worsham House--we tried the Commercial--we tried the Gayoso, (which was like everything in America, according to Mr. Dickens, in a state of "progression")--we tried Mrs. Smith's--(relict of the lamented John Smith, I presume)--we tried all the boarding-houses--but in vaine.

Before we were fairly housed (Mem?, the polite hack-driver, demanded only $5 for our ride) chance led us into the presence of one of the handsome Colonels who composed the Committee of Reception, and through his exertions, we were kindly received and hospitably entertained by one of the ladies of Memphis--a true Southerner in all things--beauty--intelligence--wit--and charming manners.  I did not acknowledge all this at first.  She made us feel really at home, and though before her door opened, I felt like the greatest of intruders upon a private family, yet in a short time, I felt almost as though I was conferring a favor upon her--instead of the obligation being the other way.  Was not that a triumph of true politeness?  I shall never forget her  kindness, and am truly thankful that I was so soon forced to give up my false impression of Southern society.  On the way to this kind lady's residence, my companion called my attention to Court Square,--"Court Square!"  Your imagination depicts a scene of moral beauty, aided by art,--lovely walks, elegant statuary,--fountains sparkling--but the reality is, a small patch of grass and trees, the ground covered with wide seats, and a kind of extemporaneous "speakers' stand"--and tell it not in New York,--still less in Philadelphia,--without a vestiege of  enclosure! pigs slowly promenading, cows thoughtfully grazing, and a mule or two, standing motionless and stubborn, unmindful of the rain.  Even C. began to look amazed, and exclaimed, "what can they do to-morrow, in such a place as that.  And if this rain continues, how can they avoid postponing the celebration?"  The majestic Colonel smiled condescendingly, and replied, " the celebration cannot be postponed, on any account."  So that was decided.  We were welcomed by our hostess with the sweetest of smiles, and a warm grasp of the hand.  Even the glowing fire sent forth a sparkle of welcome, lightning up the rich crimson curtains, bringing out the roses on the velvet carpet, and flashing back from the picture frames and mirrors, until I almost forgot how dull and gray all looked, out of doors.  Our host pressed C. to take a room in his house, but he declined, with many thanks.  He found lodging with a great number of others in the upper rooms in the fine building in which the firm of Candee, Mix & Co., carry on their dry-goods business. These gentlemen kept "open house" on this occasion, and many shared their accommodations who would have had to leave the city otherwise.

The 1st of May dawned clear, and became brighter every moment, until there was nothing to remind one of the rain, unless we chose to look at the ground--and who would do that, when there was so much that was more agreeable to look at, above the ground?  We had a fine position for seeing the procession, as it formed in the Square, and after marching around it, passed directly up the street.  A tall, long-haired individual, belonging to the establishment of Candee, Mix & Co., gave us a hint occasionally, as to who were passing--so that we could soon distinguish the different military and fire companies, and the most honored guests.  How differently Court Square looked!  Now it was a shifting scene of gay beauty; one moment a mass of ladies and children, looking like a bright flower garden--at another filled with manly forms in handsome uniform--the mass of figures on the pavement, in the windows, the balconies--everywhere such a sea of silks--such an avalanche of broadcloth, and oh! such beautiful faces,. that I wished myself a man--just for the pleasure of trying to decide which was the prettiest, so as to fall desperately in love--perhaps you think that I did the next thing to it, and fell in love with some of the aforesaid "manly forms," But I confess that I preferred my little New York friend,) who accompanied me and my aunt,) to all that throng of splendid looking men.  Still, I must admit, there is something rather sublime in those immense whiskers, so much the fashion in the South.

I cannot give you much idea of the number of persons present, but some say there were 50,000.  I suppose the papers will afford you a better description, and the number of spectators, than a "feminine" could--so I will only say that the whole immense mass proceeded in carriages and on foot, to the Navy Yard, where, about three o'clock, a most sumptuous repast was set out by Joseph Specht, confectioner.  Such extensive eating arrangements I never before witnessed.  I can readily credit that there were preparations made for 50,000 persons.  The ornamental part was by no means neglected, and there were numberless specimens of fine confectionery on the tables.  The way in which full dishes replaced empty ones, as fast as they were needed, was like magic--and all so quiet and orderly that it seemed like a first-rate hotel dinner.  I believe every one got plenty to eat, and I saw many devoted mothers carrying away handkerchiefs full of oranges and cakes to their interesting little families.  I heard it remarked on all sides, that the day passed without a single disturbance of any kind, and only one intoxicated person did I see, in all that vast throng of people of all grades and tempers.  Some of the happiest and most smiling faces I saw were those of the colored population. One of them exclaimed, "Bress de Lord! we will have a chance to trabble now, as well as de Miss' and Mas'r--dis railroad aint none of dem ablitioner railroads what runs under de groun' and carries de niggers away from deir own folks."  So it seems even the blacks have some idea of the benefits of this railroad.  (By the way, the colored people here are about as independent as any class I ever saw, and do not seem to be near so hard working as our hired girls North.)

On the evening of Friday there was a large ball at the Exchange buildings, and a splendid display of fireworks from the bluff.  The latter were truly beautiful.  A handsome arch spanned Main street, which was a brilliant affair, having the initials of the four railroads which radiate from Memphis, in blazing letters.  From the center of the arch, a chandelier made of evergreens hung, and the arch was festooned with the same, while three flags surmounted the whole.  We stopped in the Odd Fellows' Hall for a few moments, where a fair was being held for the benefit of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  The crowd was so immense that we got out as quietly as possible, and returned to the residence of our kind entertainers.

Of the Saturday's celebration I will not now speak, as I have already trespassed upon your indulgence, while I have given vent to my personal feelings instead of giving you the full particulars of all that was said and done on the occasion.  I have not mentioned the names of the orators, or even said anything about the great benefits that will result from this connecting of the East and the West--because abler pens than mine can express all that I feel better than I can, and because you will have heard and read all about that, long ere this reaches you.  Whether mine comes too late or not, I am, dear Journal, your friend and admirer.
                                                                                  Ella Kay.

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