Building on the site of memories

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 5, 2000

VIDALIA, La. –&160;The roads are paved and a riverwalk is halfway built, but when those who lived in old town Vidalia look at the site of Vidalia Landing, a proposed tourist draw to be built on the banks of the Mississippi River, they see something very different.

That’s because their minds take them back more than 60 years to a time when Vidalia, now a town of more than 5,000 people across a levee from the river, was a small hamlet on the banks of the river itself.

There was Front Street, sitting almost in the river back then and now underwater for more than 60 years. Beyond that were Carter Street, then a residential area, and Vernon Street, then the site of such businesses as the Concordia Sentinel newspaper, law offices and a gambling hall.

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&uot;My father used to participate,&uot; said Percy Rountree, referring to the gambling with a twinkle in his eye. &uot;He stood in that place and said he would quit gambling forever. … And he did this 20 or 30 times.&uot;

Memories, it seems, last longer than promises.

From their vantage point on the riverfront, directly under the bridge to Natchez, Rountree and fellow lifelong residents Charles &uot;Dutch&uot; Beard and Sidney Murray Jr. stood watching the river pass, remembering when they, as boys, used to routinely jump off the two ferryboats heading across the river and swim safely to the shore, or attempt to swim from the bank itself.

&uot;We would all run to the side of the boat when word got around that someone was going to jump off,&uot; Murray said.

&uot;One time Robert Calhoun and I thought we’d swim from a sandbar upriver to the other side. It didn’t look far,&uot; Rountree said. &uot;We ended up way downriver, past where J.M. Jones Lumber is on the Natchez side, and had to walk up to the ferryboat landing.&uot;

They could also point out the landmarks of old Vidalia without a second thought.

There was the silent picture show across from Rountree’s grandfather’s house. There was the post office, across from the Sentinel, and the meat market. There was the first prefabricated house in Vidalia, bought from Sears. These men can tell you where the Hills’ house was, and the Toles’, and the houses where they themselves were born.

&uot;Where the key business is now is where the Sinclair filling station was back then, and that was the last thing you came to when you headed out of town on the highway. … Over there was the old school … all 11 grades in the same building,&uot; Murray said, pointing past the levee to what is now the site of Vidalia Upper Elementary.

It is said that when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used dynamite nearby to help make a new course for the Mississippi River in 1940, the entire school building would shake.

And the Corps’ project to change the course of the river is what transformed the old Vidalia into the new Vidalia a Corps of Engineers project. With the course of the Mississippi changing, the whole town had to be moved in from the riverfront to where it now sits behind the levee.

The plans were to do away with the town entirely, sending its residents to Natchez, the still newly formed town of Ferriday and points beyond the Miss-Lou.

&uot;But there was a push by residents and by the state to keep the town and simply move it, and that was that,&uot; Rountree said.

There is no simple way to move an entire town and Murray, who was 12 when the town was moved, admitted that &uot;my world looked like it was coming to an end.&uot; Still, Murray recalled that people took pride in how smoothly the transition went.

&uot;It was said that if they came to move a house when the table was set for dinner, not a fork would have moved when they finished,&uot; Murray said.

Beard, who would be sent to fight in World War II in 1940, recalls the transition as being more difficult, especially when one had been drinking while the moving was taking place.

&uot;I came out of Bob’s Nightclub and I couldn’t find my house,&uot; Beard said.

&uot;But a lot of people had that trouble,&uot; Murray deadpanned.

The old Town Hall building was moved to its current location across from Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where it still stands as the only surviving building from the old town, Murray said.

The Town Hall served not only as the seat of government but, on some nights, as the dance hall as well. Beard said the barber that gave him bangs as a boy earning him his nickname, &uot;Dutch&uot; sed to grow his own hair long and comb it over his head to compensate for going bald on top, but that didn’t stop him from dancing.

&uot;I still see him holding that hair on top of his head and dancing with that lady,&uot; Beard said, doubling over with laughter.

Memories of places and the people who occupied them have formed bonds among the people who were born in Vidalia early enough to remember the old town. As Murray, now chairman of the Vidalia Riverfront Authority, put it, &uot;if you run into somebody from the old town when you’re off somewhere, its like running into family.&uot;

In the early 1990s, Murray became instrumental in making plans for the Vidalia Landing development — which town leaders hope will become an attraction with stores, hotels, an amphitheater and the like — at the same site where his boyhood home and others like it used to sit.

Building on the site of memories, Murray admitted, &uot;has been strange.&uot;

But he, Rountree and Beard seem to see the future plans as simply a welcome extension of Vidalia’s rich past. In fact, photos and other memorabilia from the old town and its moving period will be prominently displayed in a &uot;gateway center&uot; planned for the riverfront, helping ensure the past wont be forgotten.

&uot;They’re doing a great job over here,&uot; said Beard, his eyes taking in the riverwalk as a young man and his daughter stroll past.

&uot;It’s wonderful,&uot; added Rountree. &uot;I never would have thought someone would come up with an idea like this. Not in a million years.&uot;