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Life on the Mississippi Riverside

Photos courtesy of John Ruskey
Photos courtesy of John Ruskey

“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise…” – Mark Twain in Eruption

The Mississippi River has been depicted many times in books and movies as having a life of its own and the people who live alongside the 2,320 mile long stretch most likely would agree. Starting in Northern Minnesota and meandering its way south to the Gulf of Mexico, “Ol’ Man River” certainly does as it pleases and makes no apologies for its independent nature.

The River plays an important role in the lives of the people who share space with it, affecting their daily lives both recreationally and professionally. And that statement has never been truer than with the people of the Mississippi Delta who live up and down Highway 1 and beside the mighty waters of the Mississippi.

Highway 1 is the westernmost highway in the Mississippi Delta. It runs along the dominant levee in some places, joining small farming towns as it rambles its way from a junction with US 49, south of Tunica, through Greenville and south toward Highway 61, also known as “The Blues Highway”.

Photos courtesy of John Ruskey
Photos courtesy of John Ruskey

People who live with the River, up close and personal-like will tell you that life on the Riverside is probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen; unless of course, you live there and then you know how special it really is.

Billy Bassie is one such person. Bassie lives in Gunnison and owns Bassie’s Service Station and he’ll tell you in a heartbeat, he loves his hometown and being “Riverside.”

“My family has lived in Gunnison for over 100 years,” Bassie said. “Life along the Riverside is slow and easy. And the friendships are true.”

Bassie said his business is located in a prime spot on Hwy 1 and when the hunters come from the local hunting clubs – Bassie’s is their pit stop.

“We sell lunch meats, gas, and recently added deer processing to our services,” he said. “The hunters who come here to hunt are a great part of our business and we also have people who travel here to fish in the Mississippi River. They put in their boats at Dennis Landing and get to it.”

And while many locals fish and hunt there and people from the surrounding areas, Bassie said that as far as tourists go, they don’t get very many.

“Gunnison is kind of a well-kept secret,” he said. “And truthfully I’m kind of glad the tourists haven’t discovered how beautiful it is and how good the fishing is here. We catch crappie, brim, striped bass and catfish.”

Bassie said friendships in Gunnison, a community of about 600 people, were long ones and that everybody knew everybody and pretty much always had.

“We have a community spirit here in Gunnison,” he said. “I used to sell bait at my business and a buddy of mine came up to me once and said, you know, I want to open a bait shop. Well, I couldn’t keep the bait alive anyway and the only reason I had started selling them to begin with was I couldn’t ever find any when I wanted to go fishing. So I quit selling them so he could open up his shop.”

zmissiCalvin Ward has been the mayor of Benoit for nine years, but has been a resident of the small town for 40 years. Ward is very proud of his town and said that he would rate it as the number one small town along the Mississippi River from Memphis to Vicksburg.

“It’s a great place to live,” Mayor Ward said. “We have less than 1,000 people in our small town.”

Along with being mayor of Benoit, Ward also owns a 2,200 acre farm where he grows corn, soybeans and wheat.

“Our operation is actually two entities in one,” he said, “C&R Farms Partnership and KR Ward Farms, Inc.”

Ward became mayor in 2005 when he retired from teaching and coaching and he said he really enjoys what he does as mayor.

“Being mayor is a fun job,” he said. “When I ran for mayor, I promised nothing, but stated that there were four things that I would love to get accomplished. Three of those things we’ve done, but number four is still out there. Benoit needs some industry or more businesses, in general, something to bring more income into our small community.”

Ward said the town of Benoit, while not financially rich, was rich in so many other things like good friends, neighbors and a great community to raise a family.

“Life in Benoit is wonderfully easy and slow-paced,” He said. “It’s going to church and working hard and staying close to the river and the land. We are very dependent on agriculture here. If I had the choice of living anywhere in the Mississippi Delta, it would be Benoit.”

Rosedale is another small town that cleaves to the Mighty Mississippi and is happy to do so. Robert Maxwell is the Port Director for the Rosedale/Bolivar County Port Commission in Rosedale. Maxwell has been director since 2010. Maxwell said life on the Riverside for him is about more than just the recreational side of it, the River is all a part of his daily job.

sunset-over-the-mississippi“Of course, people who have grown up here and around the River for most of their lives certainly enjoy getting out and onto the water,” Maxwell said. “But for me and the actual port our mission is to help and support the agricultural community in the surrounding areas. We load and unload barges ourselves at the public terminal. Most of the other large grain elevators are privately owned, several of them are on property that is leased from the port commission.”

Maxwell said the port itself was very good for the citizens who live alongside the river, because a lot of them worked there.

“There are several employees at various locations here that do travel from farther away,” Maxwell said. “But a lot of locals definitely work here. So it certainly gives some life to the Riverside and in Bolivar County in particular, it’s really the biggest employer on the west side of the county.”

Bubba and Linda Roden live in Scott, Mississippi, and own the restaurant 5 o’clock on Deer Creek, which is situated very close to the water itself. Bubba Roden said you could almost see the levee from his restaurant.

“If you ride right out to Highway 1, you can definitely see it,” he said. “We’re right at ’27 Break Hunting Club, right across from the levee. And that’s where Deer Creek starts, right there at the highway.”

The Roden’s lived in Swiftwater on Lake Whittington until 2011 when the flood came and totally destroyed their home. When they decided not to rebuild there, they moved to Scott and built their new house themselves, with the help of some good friends. It wasn’t much at first to look at, Roden said, but over time and without hiring a contractor, he and his brother-in-law and some very good friends turned it into a beautiful home.

“It’s all cypress inside and out,” he said. “And my wife got the big kitchen she’d always wanted.”

Not long after losing their home to the flood and rebuilding in Scott, they also lost the auto parts store they owned when it burned to the ground.

“We bought the NAPA store where I had worked at for about 15 or 16 years and kept it a little over two years. Then we lost everything again when it burned to the ground. And now here we are with the restaurant,” Roden said. “Right now, 5 o’clock on Deer Creek is opened at night, only on the weekends. But the 1st of October, we’ll start opening on Thursday nights too.”

Mississippi-River1_88132_44034-978x426Roden said the restaurant has been very well-received by both locals and people from the surrounding areas, serving steaks, shrimp, char-broiled oysters, crab legs, hot tamales and a host of other tantalizing items from their menu.

“My wife and I both cook at the restaurant,” he said. “It’s me and my buddy, Jamie Hearn and we cook on grills and broilers outside and my wife prepares the shrimp for us to cook. We have a screened-in area outside where we do all the cooking.”

Life on the Riverside for the Rodens has proven very rewarding as their business has picked up steam and is steadily growing.

“We get a whole lot of locals and everybody that comes tells some of their friends about it and we have more to show up,” Roden said. “We draw from Cleveland, Greenwood, Indianola, Greenville and it’s just steady growing.”

Roden said that the Monsanto Company was right in the heart of Scott and conducted the majority of their tours there, where they bring farmers and growers in to learn, and that his restaurant had been doing all the meals for them during the week.

“That helps business tremendously,” he said. “And we’re very appreciative.”

The restaurant has been opened now for four months and has gradually built up its business.

“We probably had 31 the first night, 40 the next night,” Roden said, “and we’ve had several weekends where we’ve had over a hundred customers.”

Roden said he had been through a string of misfortunes, with the flood and fire that had happened to him and his wife but they didn’t ever let it get them down.

“We now have our restaurant, a beautiful home and we’re not far from the River,” Roden said. “It just proves that when things are bad; they’re not really bad. You just have to pick yourself up and roll on, like the River.”

Angela Rogalski is a HottyToddy.com staff reporter and can be reached at angela.rogalski@hottytoddy.com. This story first appeared in the Delta Business Journal – a publication based out of Cleveland, Mississippi, and owned by HottyToddy.com contributor, Scott Coopwood.

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