Down the Road at the Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center

 Down the Road at the Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center

The Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center opened recently in Tunica County on US Highway 61. The center marks the first phase of a project that will transform what was a visitors center much like other visitors centers across the state into a cultural center and museum that authentically conveys the rich music history of the Mississippi Delta.

The basic structure of the Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center is a turn-of-the-century wood-frame train depot. It was moved from Dundee, Miss. and renovated to become the new center.

The Gateway to the Blues project was spawned by the imagination of Webster Franklin, CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Mississippi Delta native. “I was out driving one day and ran across the building. I knew Harrah’s (Caesar’s Entertainment) had a blues collection in storage and thought this would be a great home for it,” Franklin said.

Caesars Entertainment was contacted and agreed to supply its collection for the project, and Edgar and Janet Hood, owners of the train depot, graciously donated their historic structure to Tunica County for the cause.

“Without Caesars this wouldn’t have been possible,” Franklin said. “We are so grateful for Edgar and Janet Hood’s contribution to this project as well.”

With the Caesars and Hood’s commitments in hand, efforts to secure funding from the Mississippi Department of Transportation were successful. R. Scott Barber, regional president, Caesars Entertainment Mid-South Region, explained how Caesars became involved. “We have a great working relationship with the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau and when they approached us to lend our blues artifacts to the Gateway to the Blues museum, we were all in…we did not have the space inside our facilities to properly house and display the artifacts for the general public, so we were more than happy to loan our blues artifact collection to the Gateway to the Blues Museum.”

More than 500 blues-related items from Caesars Entertainment will be showcased in the museum facility. The construction of the museum portion of the attraction is now taking place at what was the previous visitor center. The new Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center will be connected to the museum and act as an entrance to the 4,000 square foot facility. The museum will feature a Caesar’s collection that at one time was housed in the Blues & Legends Hall of Fame Museum inside Horseshoe Casino Tunica.

Franklin said the visitor center, which attracts almost 40,000 guests annually, is expected to see an increase in visitorship of 100,000 per year as a result of the new Gateway to the Blues center.

The train depot structure is filled with its own unique history. While it has been used as a grain storage facility for the past few years and the train tracks it served were pulled up some 40 years ago, it remains the last original train depot in Tunica County. According to the Hood family, W.C. Handy, the bandleader known as the Father of the Blues, often played at the depot. Handy is said to have first heard an element of blues music while waiting for a train at another depot in Tutwiler, Miss. Handy would go on to publish “Memphis Blues,” the first blues song, and his “St. Louis Blues” has become a jazz standard.

The depot has been restored as part of the visitor center project in a way that keeps its rustic charm. The weathered wood exterior keeps its aged patina. The green shingle roof remains. Inside, the original wood plank floor has been sealed but not refinished. Virtually all the structural components of the center are original to the building.

“We’ve had people come in and ask, ‘When are you going to paint it,” Franklin laughed. “Most people get it and appreciate what we’re doing.”

Atop the depot is the new “Gateway to the Blues” sign. The red, white and blue sign is the same shape as an iconic Highway 61 road sign. Highway 61, synonymous with the blues, is known as “The Blues Highway.” Historians and people who have been around long enough to know can attest to the fact that Highway 61 was a vital north-south connection before the interstate highway system existed, running from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta and Memphis, to St. Louis and stretching all the way to Minnesota.

The museum and visitor center project has been successfully executed to date and plans for the museum show attention to every detail. The museum will take a caring and interactive approach to telling the story of the blues, Franklin said. The design firm for the project is Design 500 Inc. Allen and Hoshall, PLLC are the architects and engineers.

The exhibit floor will include a “What is Blues Music?” gallery and an area that answers the question “Why Here?” Other galleries include “Evolution of the Guitar,” “Evolution of Form, Style and Dissemination,” “Delta Blues” and an interactive area where visitors can further experience the blues by writing and recording their own blues songs.

Visitors will learn more about such important figures as Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Tommy Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Robert Johnson and many more.

“It is our hope that this new visitor center attraction alongside US Highway 61 will give the millions of visitors to our area a glimpse into the role the Mississippi Delta has played in shaping the music all of us listen to each day on the radio,” Franklin said.

Barber echoed Webster’s sentiments, “The Gateway to the Blues Museum will be a wonderful educational opportunity and a must see attraction for Mid-Southerners and those visiting the Mid-South. The Mid-South is rich in culture and history and the Gateway to the Blues Museum will be a first class outlet to help tell the region’s story.”

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