Tupelo, Miss., proudly sings the praises of Elvis Presley, its most famous son. But you don’t have to be an Elvis fan to appreciate this small northern Mississippi town. The stories Tupelo shares are universal: tales of humble beginnings, faith, music and small decisions that change lives in big ways.
Elvis Birthplace: Start where it all began
Many visits begin where it all began, the Elvis Presley Birthplace. The two-room clapboard home where Elvis was born and spent his early years and modest church where his family worshipped remind that the Presleys were of modest means.
Through the magic of video screens, modern visitors feel as if they are sitting elbow to elbow with the Presleys’ fellow parishioners. Often, tour planners don’t tell their group about this surprise. “The hidden screens come down and you feel like you are in the 1950s Church of God worship service,” said Jan Pannell, sales manager for the Tupelo Convention and Visitor Bureau.
In a movie theater at the site’s Elvis Presley Events Center, groups can watch a short film about Elvis’ early days. The center is also perfect for
receptions or dinners featuring grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, an Elvis favorite, or Southern specialties like fried catfish or pot roast. Dinner entertainment can include a visit from the King. “We have many Elvis Tribute artists in the area,” Pannell said. ”We can do 50’s Elvis, 1968 Comeback Special or Vegas era Elvis. We have them all and they are all professionals.” Another possibility? Gospel music by a local choir.
Tupelo Hardware changed music forever
Though the birthplace is where Elvis’ life began, Tupelo Hardware Company is where his musical career was born. The downtown store is happy to share the story of its role in Elvis’ incredible career. “It’s where his mom, Gladys, bought his first guitar,” said Pannell. The story goes that Elvis wanted a gun, but his mom talked him into a guitar. “It changed the world,” said Pannell. Tupelo Hardware Company, by the way, still sells guitars. “Lots of them,” Pannell added.
The hardware store and every other downtown business are locally owned, which makes dining and shopping a treat. Smells of barbecue, fried chicken, cinnamon rolls and blue-plate specials scent the air.
Reed’s department store is as welcoming as it was when it opened in 1905; men’s clothier, MLM, keeps in mind its slogan “dress better than you have to” as it outfits gentlemen.
An exotic animal adventure
Elvis had a soft spot for animals, especially his horses, so chances are he’d applaud the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo. It’s the typical collecting story, with an exotic twist: you buy a few bison and before long, there’s zebra, an African lion, lemurs, Capuchin monkeys, boa constrictors, a tarantula… . The current tally at what is now Mississippi’s largest zoo stands at 125 species. Groups can board the Monster Bison Bus when it’s cool and an open-air trolley on warm days to meet zebra, bison and Watusi cattle or get in touch with friendly creatures at a petting zoo. Trail rides, camp outs and picnics in a pavilion with food from one of 150 local restaurants are easily arranged. The park reminds some of their days on the farm; for others, it brings unexpected thrills, like feeding a giraffe.
Tupelo’s story stands on its own
Ninety miles south of Graceland, Tupelo is a logical stop on a trip to Memphis. But its story is strong enough to stand on its own.
“When people think Elvis, they think about Graceland, but you don’t know the whole story unless you see Tupelo,” Pannell said. “This is where it all started.”
For more information:
Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau