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The Great River Road

Highway 61

Between Greenville and Vicksburg, the GRR continues along Hwy-1 through the cotton-rich bottomlands, the landscape as unvarying as the country music that dominates the radio dial. Before the Civil War, this land was nearly uninhabitable hardwood forests and fever-riddled swamps, home to snakes, panthers, fire ants, and mosquitoes. After Reconstruction, the valuable oaks, sweetgum, and hickory were logged off, the swamps drained, and levees built. Now just the snakes and mosquitoes remain. It’s a long, slow ride, while US-61 races along to the east.

East of Greenville, just west of US-61, the town of Leland was the boyhood home of Muppet-master Jim Henson. There’s now a small and suitably warm-spirited museum, on the north side of US-82 at Deer Creek, honoring him, Kermit the Frog, and his other creations. Another 15 miles farther east, blues great B. B. King was born on a cotton plantation near Indianola in 1925, and the town honors its favorite son with an annual festival every summer. After his death in 2015, King had his funeral in Memphis but was buried in a memorial garden at the excellent B. B. King Museum (400 2nd St., 662/887-9539, daily, $15), housed in a restored redbrick cotton gin factory where King worked before breaking through as a guitar player and blues singer. King also owned, preserved, and performed an annual concert at Indianola’s historic Club Ebony (404 Hanna St.), two blocks from the museum, marked by the life-size statue of this larger-than-life bluesman.

The 50 miles of US-82 between Greenville and Greenwood pass through the heart of Delta blues country, and a number of nearby towns feature high on any blues pilgrimage itinerary. Holly Ridge holds the grave of Charley Patton (“Voice of the Delta,” 1891-1934). Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is remembered by a burial marker in Morgan City (one of three alleged grave sites for the blues legend). Farther south on US-61, Rolling Fork was the birthplace of Muddy Waters (1915-1983), while the great bass player and songwriter Willie Dixon (1915-1992) was born in Vicksburg.

Onward: The Birth of the Teddy Bear

About 30 miles north of Vicksburg along US-61, the hamlet of Onward has a historical plaque marking the birthplace of the teddy bear, originally inspired by a cub from the woods near Onward. Tied by a noose to a tree in the canebrakes, the cute fellow was found by President Teddy Roosevelt while hunting here in 1902. His refusal to shoot the defenseless animal, publicized in an editorial cartoon, garnered such popular approval that a New York firm requested the president’s permission to name a stuffed toy after him. The only rub is, T. R. didn’t actually refuse to shoot—because, in fact, he wasn’t there. But neither was the cub! According to members of the hunting party, the president’s guide, Holt Collier, an African American veteran of the Confederate cavalry, was challenged to prove he could lasso a bear. So he did, when one came along through the swamp—an old and rather weak one, as it turned out, that splashed around in a slough before they cut him loose. T. R., however, having tired of waiting for game, had returned to camp and missed the whole episode.

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