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VOL. 10 | NO. 10 | Saturday, March 4, 2017

Another Country

The wild west of Memphis getting some attention

By Bill Dries

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On the road into the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in southwest Memphis, there is a sign you might not notice on your way to the museum and archaeological site.

An arrow pointing east is the way to Memphis. The western arrow reads Chucalissa.

The sign is at the dead end of Boxtown Road, in an area more rural and remote than any other part of Memphis.

View any Memphis family scrapbook or album, turn to the 1960s or 1970s – Tonto to Wounded Knee – and you should find snapshots from a trip to Chucalissa.

The obligatory childhood field trip usually included snapshots of the largest of the mounds, with a set of steps leading to a replica of a hut at the top of the mound. Other photos might include a game of stickball in the plaza between the mound and the museum building.

“I still have my flute from being there as a child,” said Daryl Lewis, who grew up in that part of southwest Memphis where his grandmother also lived. “It was just a place to experience and enjoy. You got the feel of the ancient dress. It was something to behold.”

It still is, although the hut atop the mound is gone.

“Even when the Indians were living there, they probably burned those houses down after 20 to 25 years,” said David Dye, archaeology professor at the University of Memphis whose research includes the culture and political history of Mississippian Native Americans.

A recently constructed hut sits in back of the mound and further back, a small trail loop links to a larger trail at neighboring T.O. Fuller State Park.

In the 1930s, during the era of legal segregation, the state decided to open a park in southwest Memphis for black Memphians. Archeological digs began at the site in 1940, and today Chucalissa is nearing its 80th year as a field-trip destination.

Between the hut and the trail loop, a sign reminds visitors not to stray and if they come across any items that look like relics from the past to leave them where they are.

These days, the archaeology conducted by the University of Memphis includes the “Hackberry site” – remnants of the farm homestead of Dover Barrett, the African-American farmer who owned the land until 1938, when the Civilian Conservation Corps transitioned it into a state park.

Old bottles and bricks are on display in the museum as well as information about Walker Homes, the housing development built for soldiers who were returning home from World War II to a critical shortage of housing in Memphis.

In the plaza there is a map of the area when it was part of the Ensley plantation, before Barrett’s farm.


Chucalissa is a Cherokee word meaning “abandoned home.” And the name has other meanings for an area whose renewal is being planned around a remoteness that runs counter to calls for increased density elsewhere in Memphis.

One meaning is resilience.

“It is the capacity to survive, adapt and thrive in chronic stresses and shocks and even transform when conditions require it,” Jason Hellendrung, a consultant with Boston-based architecture and design firm Sasaki Associates Inc., told a gathering of local greenprint organizations last November at Shelby Farms Park.

Hellendrung is working with local leaders on a $60 million, federally funded effort covering three areas of Shelby County, including the south Cypress Creek area near Chucalissa and T.O. Fuller State Park.

It’s not just recovery from recent flooding, but a “bounce forward,” Hellendrung said. “How can we build something even greater?”

In a city and region known for being flat as a pancake, the area has natural hills in addition to the manmade mounds that defined Chucalissa as one of several settlements along the Mississippi River.

They weren’t Chickasaw, Dye said. They spoke Tunican – a vanished language with five vowels that are never adjacent to each other and which have stressed and unstressed syllables. It’s the reason the names of some tributaries in Shelby County have unknown meanings.

Dye is quick to add the Native Americans who built Chucalissa and inhabited it between 1100 A.D. and 1400 A.D. weren’t Tunicans.

They came from cultures that may have used the same language, but had different cultures and possibly conflicts with each other.

“This was an area that was heavily populated. There were probably 50,000 to 70,000 people living in the Memphis area and these people were intermarried. They knew each other,” Dye said. “There’s a lot of traveling that’s taking place, at least by elites. A lot of trade and exchange. It’s a world that was very vibrant up until the 1630s or 1650s, and then it all collapsed.”

Within its hills are vast panoramas dominated by large trees and abundant kudzu. Only in winter and from the tops of the tallest hills can you see how modern-day Memphis lives and works.

From the Chucalissa bluff top behind the main mound, you can see the iconic trio of smokestacks of the 60-year-old Allen Fossil Plant and its almost finished successor, the Allen Steam Plant, which will generate electricity for 2 million people in southwest Tennessee.

The new natural-gas-fired plant will also be an ecological boon for the area, replacing the coal-fired plant emissions that have been a fact of life in southwest Memphis for nearly 60 years.

It’s not the only ecological change.

The T.O. Fuller golf course is no more – now a natural area behind a new interpretive center that recently opened in the park. The interpretive center, which opened in February, overlooks what was an 18-hole golf course to the east.

The cart paths are now walking trails and the tended greens are gray and giving way to a rougher beauty.

The tee for the 7th hole – a par 3 – remains on a ridge below the center, animal tracks visible after an overnight rain where cleats once aerated.

From the center’s front door looking west, there is a grouping of hut-like roofs – a cluster of buildings among a swimming pool, a splash pad, basketball and tennis courts, and a new softball field. A trailhead beyond the centerfield fence can be seen near an old horse stable and wood rail fences. The trail twists and turns to link up with Chucalissa on what is called the “Celebration Loop” near the bluff top.

The park is 1,138 acres of mostly forest and hills thick with kudzu.

“T.O. is not known for what we’ve got here,” said Calvin Robinson, manager of the only state park within the Memphis city limits. “There are a lot of opportunities for the public here that they might not be familiar with. It’s a well-kept secret.”


Robinson hopes to change that starting with the interpretive center and by meeting specifically with educators.

“Hopefully we can not only show them what we’ve got here, but hopefully they will go back and put it in their curriculums to come out and visit us to learn about conservation and wildlife and sustainability practices,” he said.

Native trees and grasses are to be added to the evolving golf course-turned-habitat.

The area is the setting for Thomas McNamee’s 1990 multigenerational novel and masterwork “A Story of Deep Delight.” It is the fictional story of Chickasaw village Nonconnah, whose leader Tchula Homa finds himself trying to preserve traditional ways yet adapting to the area’s transition to a westward-expanding United States in the early 1800s.

The local resiliency effort secured a $60 million federal grant in 2016 for three areas of Shelby County. The southwest Memphis area effort will involves creating a hub around Mitchell High School and Ford Road Elementary as well as creating some new housing and buying out 30-40 houses, many of them vacant on or near the Cypress Creek flood plain.


Today, Nonconnah is a very real if small street where homes could be abandoned to Cypress Creek and its flood plain.

Hellendrung estimates almost 70 percent of the land is vacant – either homes left empty or open lots where homes once stood. The neighborhood of post-World War II homes has always been partially on a flood plain. But when the older homes were built, such development wasn’t prohibited.

Those neighborhoods are yet another layer of history that Lewis remembers well during regular drives through the neighborhood where his grandmother lived. He still sees red-tail hawks, armadillos and “a few foxes every once in a while, depending on what time of day you go down there.”

“Every third house is gone now,” he said. “We would walk to Vescovo’s grocery store. She would take us down to Chucalissa. For those who may know what a root doctor is, my grandmother was one of those as well. A bunch of the stuff we had, she grew in the backyard.”

For Lewis, the people who have lived in the area more recently are part of the same story as the land, the Indian mounds and the people who built the mounds.

“There’s nothing in Memphis that speaks that far back to the original culture – not that I know of,” he said. “I think to lose that, to let it deteriorate any further, would be a travesty for the history that has made Memphis what it is.”

Dye says Chucalissa is one of the few working archaeological sites where the public can see the results of that work. The museum includes a view into an archaeology work room.

“It gives you insight into another country – going back in time is like going to another country,” he said. “The recovery of artifacts in the scientific way is the way in which we look at the past. I think the more we know about other people and other cultures, perhaps the less we might fear other people and other cultures. ... Basically they are just like us. The difference is culture.”

The 2011 flood that made the Mississippi River rise to its second-highest level ever recorded at Memphis was particularly devastating in the West Junction and Walker Homes areas. As the Mississippi rose, so did its narrower tributaries, including Cypress Creek just west of the neighborhoods.

“A lot of the properties there actually are in the ownership of the Shelby County Land Bank,” said John Zeanah, deputy director of the Memphis-Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.

“Because the county does have so much land bank property in there, one of the things we proposed as part of the application is that we look at the vacant lot reuse strategy,” Zeanah said. “We turn some lots back to nature and that’s going to be closer to the stream and in areas where it floods more often – lots that are designed to flood to protect surrounding residential properties, lots that are designed as amenities like parks and community gardens.”

Buying out and relocating existing homeowners is a more gradual process.

“It’s a voluntary buyout. It’s really about sitting down with all of the property owners and working through the process,” Zeanah said. “The larger neighborhood, though, is affected by the fact that they are protected from future flooding as well as their new recreational amenities and green spaces that the neighborhood can enjoy.”

Zeanah estimates there are 15 homes on the Cypress Creek flood plain itself, half of them occupied, and there are another 30 to 40 homes near the flood plain in an area where there could be some restoration of the wetland area. Some of those homes are also vacant.

Mitchell High School, Ford Road Elementary School, Mitchell Community Center and Weaver Road Park are landmarks that together could become more of a nucleus in an area known for its seclusion and natural setting.

“Then building onto the fabric of the neighborhood so there is connected greenspace and a logical flow of how the green areas flow through the community,” Zeanah said. “Not just flood protection, but community enhancement. I think that’s a model that is a little bit unique in terms of our ability to do at this moment in that neighborhood.

“But it’s a model that we want to continue looking at.”

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