Elvis Presley is synonymous with Memphis, Tennessee, but what many people don’t realise is that he was actually born 100 miles away in Tupelo, Mississippi. When planning our homage to The King we quickly decided that the two-hour drive from Memphis to Tupelo would have to be built into our itinerary. What a great decision it was! Tupelo is brimming with significant sites in the early life of Elvis, all of which can, with a bit of planning, be incorporated into a full day trip.
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Elvis was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo to Vernon and Gladys Presley, and was one of twin brothers. Unfortunately, the sibling, Jessie Garon, was still born 35 minutes before Elvis. Amazingly, the two room ‘shotgun house’ built by his father in preparation for the birth can still be visited. Thankfully, the city of Tupelo had the foresight to buy the home and surrounding property in 1957, and today the home can be seen at The Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum
The Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum sympathetically displays the humble two room house built by Vernon, with help from his father and brother. The house has been restored to its original condition and decorated with period furniture. Unsurprisingly, it only takes minutes to walk through the front door, study the two rooms, then exit the back door, but what a thrill it was to do so. Also, make sure that you take the chance to sit out on the front porch and compose your thoughts before entering.
The house is certainly the star attraction, but there are several other points of interest to check out at the museum complex. There is a small, but informative museum on the man himself, as well as the peaceful Memorial Chapel and the “Elvis at 13” statue – the age at which he left Tupelo with his parents to find a new life in Memphis.
The newest arrival at the museum is the actual church that Elvis and his family attended. The Assembly of God church was saved from demolition and was moved here in its entirety. Sitting in this church, it is amazing to think that this was where Elvis heard the gospel music that was to influence the rest of his career.
The museum has a great deal to keep the visitor’s attentions, and the tranquil outdoor surroundings of the museum complex is worth strolling through as well. We spent two hours at the museum, but if you were not pushed for time and it was a nice day, another hour could easily be whiled away here.
Lawhon Elementary School & Johnnie’s Drive-In
Just a five-minute drive from the museum is Lawhon Elementary School. We drove past and checked out the first school that Elvis attended. There is a memorial inscription at the entrance, celebrating the school’s most famous pupil. Back on the main road, and you can have a meal at Johnnie’s Drive-In. Elvis and his friends enjoyed dining at this All-American diner. You can still enjoy the food Elvis liked to eat and even sit in the Elvis booth, which sports a photo of Elvis sitting in the same booth. Please note, however, that the restaurant is closed on a Sunday, as are many businesses in Tupelo.
The Tupelo Automobile Museum
Further down Main Street, but before you get to the city centre, you will find the massive Tupelo Automobile Museum. The 120,000 sq. foot museum features over 100 automobiles representing 130 years of history. There are vehicles dating from 1886 to the present day. A rare 1948 Tucker, 1920 Cord L-29, 1937 Lagonda, 1929 Duesenberg Model J, and a large array of 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s cars and celebrity vehicles are among some of the prized exhibits.
However, the highlight and reason to visit for Elvis Presley fans is the 1976 Lincoln Mark IV that Elvis purchased, and the 33 original Elvis movie posters that surround it. As the story goes, Elvis bought the Lincoln for Jerry Kennedy, captain of the Denver Police Vice and Drug Control Bureau. Kennedy had overseen security when Elvis played Denver and became friends with Elvis. As a token of appreciation, Elvis visited the Kumpf Lincoln Mercury Dealership in Denver on January 14, 1976 and bought the brand-new car for his friend for $13,386.69. Not only can you see the car, but you can also see the signed cheque as well!
Elvis Presley Homecoming Statue
Back on Main Street, you should park up anywhere near the City Hall. In front of this classical looking government building is the Elvis Presley Homecoming Statue. This larger than life statue of Elvis’ 1956 Homecoming Concert at the Tupelo Fairgrounds was based on a famous shot called “the Hands” by Roger Marshutz. The statue was placed by the Tupelo Elvis Fan Club and the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau in August of 2012 to commemorate Tupelo’s most famous native son. Facing east toward his Tupelo birthplace, the statue is poised for a perfect photo op with Tupelo City Hall standing behind his right shoulder. The statue stands on the site of the old fairgrounds where the concert took place and was created by Mississippi sculptor Bill Beckwith.
A two-minute walk from the statue is the unassuming Tupelo Hardware. The hardware store was where Gladys, Elvis’ mother, purchased his first guitar. The story goes that Elvis was very upset because Gladys refused to buy him a shotgun for his 11th birthday, so a store employee tried calming him down by handing him a guitar that he then started strumming. He then decided upon the guitar instead of the shotgun. What a great choice!
Lee County Courthouse
Set back from Main Street is the beautiful building of the Lee County Courthouse. This is where Elvis performed his first live radio show. In 1945, at ten years old, Elvis stood on a chair and sang “Old Shep” in a youth talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show at the Tupelo Fairgrounds. WELO Radio broadcast the talent show, and Elvis won the second prize of $5 and free admission to all the fair rides. I wonder who actually won the contest. Did they become a bigger star than Elvis?
Join us next time when we continue our road trip through Mississippi and visit the beautiful city of Vicksburg.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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