Benton, is a small southern town located within a "S" curve of the Big Black River. it's a town with a rich history and a colorful tapestry of stories. The town can boost of a population of some forty five hundred people. Old Highway 15 runs right through Benton. Its from the intersection of Old Highway 15 and New Highway 18 that one gets into town. Here at this intersection in a part people call "West Benton" one will find a general store run by the Berries family. The John Noel Berries was one of the first of a wave of "Dirt Farmers" as the elite delta planters call them to settle this area.
Unlike the rich, dark, coffee colored soil of the Yazoo Delta. Soil that smells of the earth and is always moist and damp, the soil here in this section of the country was a light sandy color. Hard veins of red clay made the soil hard to farm and only the desired bottomland at the banks of the Big Black and later around Townson Creek could yield a cotton crop worth fooling around with.
Many of those early settlers turned to raising cows and row crops. The remains can be seen today. Dozens of old abounded barns and broken fence lines and crumbling stone walls. Mare the landscape of the gently rolling meadows. Along with abounded homesteads that have gone belly up over the years. All of these sights can seen as one travels down New Highway 18 and down the dozen or so miles of Old Highway 15 that plays into Old Benton Road.
Also toward Old Highway 15 is the "Benton Country Club" here the elite of the town gather to play golf, swim. Social's are held here. Its members are mostly Protestant, either attending First Benton Baptist, United Methodist or St. Mary's the local Episcopal Church. Membership has never been extended to the Catholics and most of those tend to flock to the Yazoo City Country Club in Yazoo City.
Here the wealthy and powerful businessmen and farmers gather to drink and talk local politics while there ladies plot and scheme of the up and coming social season. Men who no doubt still treasure the white sheets of the Klan there grandfathers wore and are stored beside old service uniforms from the second world war. There are loving stored in old stream trunks in guest bedroom of there stately manner houses.
The Benton Country Club is closely tied to "Benton Academy" a former segregation academy that was founded by local businessmen and farmers. These men refused to send there children to the newly desegregated schools that came about as a result of "Brown v. Board of Education". Since only those with money could attend, and almost all of those who belonged to the Benton Country Club supported the founding. The two became wedded.
This divided the community in a way that has never been healed. With the children of middle and lower middle classes attending the local public school "Benton Agriculture High School" that focused more on vocational programs that academics and the upper-middle to wealthy class that could afford to send there children to "Benton Academy" a school that focused more on academics.
This can still be seen today. Most of those who attend "Benton Academy" go to attend major universities. While those who attend "Benton High School" go on to attend Junior Collages. it's a simple fact of life here in Mississippi.
But back to Benton if one takes a left at the old Gulf Gas station. The one right across from Benton Storage, another business owned and operated by the Berries family then one will be taken straight to the heart of Benton, the downtown section. Here only three city blocks from the massive slopping concrete levee that made Benton a major port on the Big black. One will find a long row of shops, bakeries and dry good stores. To many to list but we'll hit on the major ones. But I'll hit on the major ones, ones that have been mentioned in regional publications.
Starting off are list we have "Coleman's Steaks & Chops" owned and operated by Maxwell S. Coleman and his wife Cookie C. Coleman, the pair have been serving up USDA Choice Delmonico, Porterhouse and Sirloin and thick Chops since they opened in nineteen ninety. In two thousand and two they where voted "Best Steak in the Delta!" By a publication out of Jackson, MS.
Up next is "Johannes Malt Shop" The local hotspot if you will. Johannes is known its home dipped shakes and old fashion malted milks. Her hamburgers are made using on USDA Choice ground chuck and are known for being the biggest, juiciest hamburgers around. Each burger comes with a fountain drink a big basket of home cut French fries.
The "Seal Lily Café" has been a local stable for years. Its open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and remains open till the wee hours of the morning. Known for there crispy fried chicken, and known region wide for there special homemade pecan pie that is always topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Up next we the "Benton Pharmacy" beside being the only pharmacy in town. Its also doubles as a gift shop. The Martin Family has owned and operated the pharmacy since it first opened in the eighteen hundreds. Like most of the shops in downtown Benton, it has passed from father and son. And in some cases mother to daughter.
Rounding out the list we have "The Dixie Land Palace" a old cinema located downtown. A two screen operation the "Palace" as many of the locals call it has been in operation for more than fifty years.
In closing this section, there many other shops make Benton special. And many events are hosted in the downtown area through out the year. The best thing for one to do, is simple take a stroll one day and discover this section of Benton for yourself. You never know what you might find hidden in this little corner of Mississippi.
Next up we have Wilson Creek, named after Wilson Robert Potter. Who happen to be the first elected mayor of Benton and oversaw the town evolving from a small river front hamlet to a booming city of twelve hundred souls back in the eighteen hundreds.
Wilson Creek, is clear, cold and swift moving creek that begins in the hills and ends in at the Big Black. Some of the oldest homes are located here, back before a well was dug, people used the creek for washing and drinking water. The houses here number one to a hundred and ten. The houses are mostly one story brick cottages, with black slate roofs with screened in front porches that sit only a stone throw away from the brick street. Wilson Creek Road is the name given to this section, Wilson Creek Road feeds into old Highway 15. At the end road there a marsh that suppose to be haunted.
The source of the haunting has been a source of urban legends. Some claim there a house located in the marsh and in the marsh a witch lives. Others have reported orbs of light floating among the brackish water. Still other late night travelers have report dancing balls of fire above the reeds. Much like the will O' wisp of Western and Eastern European folklore or the Onibi of the folklore of the East. What ever the source, many even the bravest and stoutest refuse to travel pass the marsh at night.
Next up is Townson creek, often shorten to Town Creek. Like the other section of Benton Townson Creek is named after a creek that pass through the area. The houses here are stately Victorians and Edwardians. Having been built by flourishing merchant class of the town. Many of the people who live here, also belong to the 'Benton Country Club' and send there children to 'Benton Academy' the streets are paved in brick and a trolley makes hourly runs though this section of Benton. Toward the end of the row of houses, sitting on a high hill is a old abounded water tower.
Going on local rumor, the water tower is suppose to be haunted by the ghost of a girl who jumped from the railings one Halloween night. A small memorial plaque at the bottom has been placed at the location her body was recovered from. Since many teens like to explore the tower and local ghost hunters have been reported poking around, the Benton Police Department has taken to keep a closer watch on the area. There hourly patrols keep most of the lurkers at bay.
The last location I would like to cover for this part will cover the old Confederate Ship Yard that was located here during the civil war. During the "Yazoo Pass Expedition" Union forces passed through Benton on there way to attack Yazoo City. The small force of Confederate forces left to garrison chose not to fight them in the town itself but twelve miles from town in the woods. At that time the road between Yazoo City and Benton was nothing but a log road and the outnumbered rebels hoped to use the cover of the woods to there advantaged.
This band of some four hundred men and two hundred boys was commanded by Col. Albert Sidney Johnston. Albert had enlisted at the outbreak of the war as a private with the "Benton Rifles" and had rapidly risen through the ranks. He had served with the regular Federal army in the Mexican-American War some years before. The town's library is named in his honor.
The battle was a savage one, vastly outnumbered. The small band did there best to slow the advancing column. Using hit and run tactics and using the woods as cover. The rag tag group inflicted one thousand deaths on the advancing Federal forces at steep cost. Three hundred or so southern men where killed in the melee that would later be called "Battle of Benton Road" For it took place along the "Benton Turnpike".
Though there efforts where in vain. Yazoo City fell to the Federal Army, after epic six day struggle in and around the town. Some sixteen hundred Confederates and eighteen hundred Federal boys where killed in the battle. The town was set to the torch and leveled to the ground. But the victory was a hollow Victory.
The Confederate Shipyard had been moved, along with a half finished Iron Clad. The ship had been towed down the Yazoo River, into the main channel of the Mississippi River and to Benton. A make-shift yard was quickly constructed in the town and a small token defense force from the Vicksburg was sent via rail to hold the town in case of attack.
This token force numbered around five hundred men. Most of them where shoeless and lacked the proper equipment to put up a decent defense. Never the less, this force was given the task of holding the town and the shipyard. And though Federal Forces never did pass through Benton again, due to capture of Vicksburg and the changes of chances of the war. The event and the battle still lives on in the collective memory of the town and the families who sons and fathers fought and died in that battle.
And the fate of the ironclad, it was finished some weeks later. At that time the city of Vicksburg had been encircled by Federal Forces was in a state of siege. The ship, named the "CSA Vicksburg" was ordered to sail to the aid of the city along with the small force stationed in hopes of breaking the siege or at the very least, aiding the forces within. The ironclad never made it out of the Big Black.. The place the ship went down is now, colorfully called "Haunted Bayou" because of the reported sighting of the ship plowing the waters on moonlit nights.
In closing. Benton is a small town, full of character and history. From blue's singers, Civil War battlefields too reward winning eaters. You'll find the culture of Mississippi here. So we invite you to come, give us a holler. You'll be glad you did. We'll till next time friend.