Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Living History of Nitta Yuma - April 2017

The Living History of Nitta Yuma 

One family with deep roots (and deeper quirks) wants to turn their hometown into a Southern tourist destination 
By Billy Watkins - April 2017

Henry Vick Phelps III walks one of the few roads left in Nitta Yuma, which has a population of around 20. 

More than 6,000 eyes and not a blink or a wink. It is one of the largest doll collections in the state. More than 3,000 fill the sizable building that served as a general store in the 19th century. That is just one of the oddities of Nitta Yuma, a Delta community near the banks of Deer Creek in Sharkey County, 40 miles north of Rolling Fork and 35 miles south of Leland. Its story is like many others throughout Mississippi. Once a boom-ing cotton community with a population approaching 600, Nitta Yuma is now home to about 20 souls who wouldn't consider living elsewhere. 

But itty bitty Nitta Yuma also is unique. It had electricity before Vicksburg or most cities in the United States. 

A Sept. 23, 1896, story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal carried the headline "Nitta Yuma Is Up To Date." The story said Nitta Yuma was "entitled to distinction as the most remarkable town on earth, in point of enterprise and metropolitan progress." It went on to say, "Nitta Yuma's single street is illuminated by electricity" thanks to the "enterprise and liberality of Henry Phelps, the proprietor of one of the stores." It described Phelps as an "accomplished electrician."

Family members whose roots are 200 years deep in this fertile soil want to share Nitta Yuma with the world, and they have plenty to look at — including nine buildings constructed before the Civil War. "A lot of people preserve their home place, the house they grew up in," says 60-year-old Henry Vick Phelps III, who grew up on this property and still lives here, as does his sister, Carolyn May, and his 28-year-old son, Vick. "But we went a little further and kept the other buildings, too." 

Phelps credits his grandparents, Henry and Dorothy Phelps, for having the good sense to let the structures be. "We'd like to have a coffee shop, a place where people can stop and relax and then go through the buildings," Phelps says. "We want to reconstruct the houses back to their original form. We'd like to work with the Delta and serve as an ambassador for the South and for tourism. It's not going to hap-pen overnight, but it's something we can do steady along. "I think our audience would be anyone with a passion for old houses and the South and architecture." 

Bear tracks and buried dolls 

Nitta Yuma means "bear track" or "trail of the bear" in the Choctaw language. 

It was settled in 1768, with an original population of 25. In 1805, Burwell Vick purchased the land with jewels from the Choctaws.

The land eventually became a plantation owned by Vick's son, W.H. Vick, who developed what's called the 100 cotton seed in 1843, a seed that that helped planters maximize pounds of cotton per acre and was eventually sold commercially. 

In 1901, when the nearly 6,000 acres was divided among the four children, Henry Phelps became owner of the family homestead. It's now in the hands of his grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

And while some of the buildings still need to be renovated, others are ready for viewing. Among them: The general store/doll house and its thousands of occupants. The dolls were owned by Dorothy Cole Phelps, mother of Henry III and Carolyn May.

"Her father and uncle owned a funeral home," May explains. "She and her friends used to act like they were having funerals. They would bury dolls and say a prayer over them. "Later on in life, the memory of burying those dolls bothered her.

She started collecting them when she was 35. She died in 2011 when she was 99. What you see here are the dolls she collected over the course of 60 years." They sit side by side on rows of shelves. Others stare out of glass cases that were part of the store. Many look the same. But then there is the Planter's Peanut Man, smiling at you like an old friend. There, too, are Bozo, Popeye, the Jolly Green Giant and Howdy Doody. One glass counter holds only Barbies. This is the Delta, after all, and society status matters. "Whenever people come in here, they'll say, `Oh, I had a doll just like that one,' and point," Phelps says. "It really hits home with women of all ages."

Sprinkled among the dolls are musical instruments: A miniature piano. A snare drum. An accordion. A French horn, trumpet and trom-bone. A rusty harpsichord. I ask Phelps if he is sure the dolls don't talk and play music when darkness comes and humans are out of sight. "You never know," he says and smiles. Other Nitta Yuma buildings ready to visit include: »A furnished antebellum home built around 1855.

It was moved here from the Cameta Plantation, about two miles away. "My daddy gave this to my mother as a wedding present," Phelps says. 

The home where Phelps grew up and still lives. The original family home burned in 1901. Phelps' grandfather re-modeled the family's carriage house, which was built around 1760, and made it their main residence. »A late 18th-century log cabin, which was restored to its original look and moved to Nitta Yuma by Henry II. »A chapel built in 1988 to replace the one lost in a 1901 fire. It includes a plantation bell made of silver dollars hanging from the ceiling. A couple from Belgium is scheduled to have the first wedding there sometime in the fall.

No place like home 

"This place is a lot of work," Vick Phelps says. "Just keeping the grass cut is a project." But he loves it here and appreciates his family's history. He proves it whenever his dad wants to check a family fact. "Alfred the Great (former ruler of England) is my 35th great-grandfather," he says. "Remember Lewis and Clark, the explorers? 

Clark's brother, John, is my fifth great-grandfather. "It's pretty cool going back and learning this stuff, knowing your roots. It definitely helps you realize where you want to be." Contact 

Watch: Video tour of Nitta Yuma.

Billy Watkins at 601-961-7282 or bwat-kins@jackson.gannett. coin. Follow @BillyWat-kinsil on Twitter.
July 29, 2017 - 5:00 p.m.
The Headstone Dedication and Celebration of Bo Carter
Nitta Yuma Cemetery
Nitta Yuma Plantation - Sharkey County, Mississippi

Join us for the headstone dedication and celebration featuring the original fiddle used by Alonzo Chatmon, the actual National Style N guitar once owned by Bo Carter and all of the amazing musicians who plan to perform at the event in Nitta Yuma, MS on July 29, 2017, such as....

- Ron Bombardi (who like Armenter Chatmon, or Bo Carter, adopted a new name as a musician, "Jersey Slim" Hawkins) is a professor and philosopher with dextrous mental abilities, which he readily transfers through his body so he can walk around town, talk to people, and even write a few simple words every now and again in the academic journals and monographs. The longtime fiddle player for the Stompers, in fact, models his playing style after the Mississippi Sheiks most-accomplished fiddle player, Lonnie Chatmon, the brother of Bo Carter (The two brothers stand to the left of Walter Vinson in the below photo). It is very fitting then that his hero's fiddle will be available for his use in Nitta Yuma.  Lonnie Chatmon's fiddle may be heard once again with the steel-bodied National Style N guitar of Bo Carter.

Bill Steber is the photographer who got the good shots of the most recent group of the blues legends, whose work you may have seen at the local university or in Oxford American magazine, but he doubles as one of the potent musical forces behind the Murfreesboro, TN-based Jake Leg Stompers.
- Blues musician Andy Cohen's amazing career has spanned decades so I have prepared a collection of content for your reading and viewing pleasure HERE or you can visit his website HERE

- Blues traveller and musician Steve Cheseborough's admiration and enthusiasm for the music of Bo Carter is all but limitless. He has informed the owner of the National Style N guitar of Bo Carter!!!! And he is Nitta Yuma bound and down!!! Click HERE to read Cheseborough's epic quest for his own personal Holy Grail of the Blues!

- Moses Crouch is a hill country musician of the most committed order who is often heard cooking up his liniments and draining out special orders of snake oil juice with the Memphissippi Medicine. Despite being the youngest musician to confirm thusfar, his repertoire includes plenty of music with an old soul...

Miles Floyd, the grandson of Armenter Chatmon, will be on hand at the event. So will the original instruments owned and played by the Chatmon family.

Henry Phelps, the landowner of the small hamlet, plans to have a large celebration and reception with food and refreshments following the dedication. He has done many excellent renovations of the historic buildings in Nitta Yuma, and the commemoration of Bo Carter's headstone offers everyone a chance to experience this jewel of the mid-Delta through the lens of a unique celebration.

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