Menglewood Mural located at the First Citizens National Bank Pocket Park in downtown Dyersburg, at the corner of North Main St. and West Court St.
Having been raised in Dyer County, I grew up hearing stories related to music and how performers were connected to Dyer County history. Stories like the fact that Elvis drove a truck and would stop in Newbern before he cut his first record. I learned that James Brown and the Flames once played in a joint south of the train tracks in Dyersburg. On March 5, 1963, Patsy Cline ate her last meal and made a phone call to Nashville from the Dyersburg airport before boarding a small plane that later crashed near Camden, Tennessee. That crash took her life but also killed country music stars Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and her manager, Randy Hughes.
I learned one of the more interesting stories when I served as principal of the school in Finley, Tennessee. Finley is a small town located just a few miles west of Dyersburg. It serves all of the families from Dyersburg to the Mississippi River. The land there is mostly used for farming today. Fields of corn, beans and cotton can be seen for miles with only a few houses spotted along the roads that crisscross the landscape. But that wasn’t always the case. For the six years I served as principal from 1983 till 1989, I learned of small communities that had unusual names. Parents would refer to where they lived based on those names. Names such as Chic, Tiger Tale, Ayers, Miskelly Loop, Rush Slough and Minglewood. Each of these small communities no longer exists but still have their own unique history. Most of them had their own one room school house, a store or two and possibly a couple of churches.
Life at the turn of the last century wasn’t based on farming but on logging since all of the land west of Dyersburg was covered in trees. Many of those trees were hardwoods which would be harvested and shipped by rail to cities north and south. It’s the saw mills that sustained those small towns that nurtured yet another historic music story that’s rooted in Dyer County history. The Mengel Box Company was headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky. It operated band mills across the south, harvesting trees and shipping them by rail to cities in the north, midwest and south. The location of the first Mengel Box band mill in Dyer County was in the Trimble area.
Once most of the trees had been harvested around Trimble, the operation was moved to a location on the Obion River west of Dyersburg. As was true most places in the early 1900s, people lived near where they worked. It didn’t take long before the mill that Mengel Box ran was surrounded by homes, two schools, churches, a company store, a hotel, a movie theatre and a doctor’s office. There were also two “juke joints” where workers relaxed after a week of hard labor either in the woods or in the mill. My interpretation would be that the Mengel Box Company was located in the middle of the woods so the name of the community logically would be Mengelwood. Life in Mengelwood was hard. The schools were segregated and the bosses in the mill were white. Workers, both black and white, were paid in company script, not dollars and cents. If you needed shoes or a broom, you went to the company store and paid for those items using the company script you earned working for “the man”. On weekends one might frequent one of the juke joints to relax with a drink or dance to the music coming from a piano, banjo or harmonica.
It was inside a juke joint in Mengelwood that yet another historic music story of Dyer County develops. A young black man from Henning, Tennessee would come to play in a joint in Mengelwood on the weekends. His skills as a harmonica player were recognized throughout West Tennessee because he could play two harmonicas at once. One with his mouth and the other with his nose! The man’s name was Noah Lewis and he wrote a song about the small town on the Obion River in western Dyer County. Noah sold The Minglewood Blues to another performer who often played in Memphis. Gus Cannon and his band, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, recorded Noah’s Minglewood Blues on Victor records in the early 1920s. Interestingly, Noah Lewis was a member of Cannon’s Jug Stompers along with Gus Cannon and Ashley Thompson who was from the Brownsville/Ripley area of Tennessee. After a few years passed, Noah realized his song was popular in the black community and he wasn’t benefiting from it, financially. He changed the song a bit and recorded it himself as The New Minglewood Blues. It became a hit in the black community once more.
It took an unknown group from San Francisco in the 1960s to revive Noah’s song once more. That group spent time researching many of the songs from the 1920s and the Memphis/Mississippi Delta area and found Noah’s song. They decided to rework the song and record it themselves. They called their version of the song The New, New Minglewood Blues and they placed it on their first album. That album was called “Shakedown Street” and that group was The Grateful Dead. It was released in 1967. Over the past fifty years the song has been covered by groups and individuals around the world. From Patrick Costello to Bob Dylan, the song that began in a joint on the Obion River in western Dyer County nearly 100 years ago lives on, today.
When this story is repeated there are usually questions. Why are there so many different spellings of the town/song? Where is Mengelwood today? Can I visit the site? Are the people who wrote and performed honored or recognized for their work? The spelling issue is rather simple. In the early part of the last century, many people spelled things as they sounded. Over time, the incorrect spelling takes hold and becomes the dominant spelling. An internet search with either spelling will generate lots of information about Noah, Gus, the Grateful Dead and the song, as well as the logging town. The location is a bit more difficult to explain. There is an old bread factory located on Madison Avenue in Memphis that has taken the name of the town and the song. That building was converted to a music venue several years ago and their web page tells the story of the song. The business in the building is called “The Minglewood Hall”. Their web page leads one to believe that Minglewood is located west Ripley. Probably on TN highway 19. That is logical since Noah was from Lauderdale County, but it isn’t true. If one searches via GPS you may be taken west of Dyersburg on TN highway 104 but that, too, would be wrong. But not by much.
All the property that was once part of the town of Minglewood is private today. The Dyer County Historical Society has worked with the property owners to host a walking tour of the site several times. Out of respect for the owners and to protect those who want to experience that field trip, it’s best if we maintain that relationship. Snakes and poison ivy are a consideration, too. It’s an easy trip during certain times of the year. Contact the historical society to learn more.
When it comes to those who experienced life in the woods, harvesting trees, writing, performing and recording the music of the time, the story is varied. Most people will know of the success of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. The originators of the song earned some success but their stories aren’t as recognized. Noah Lewis became impoverished and died as a result of frostbite in 1961. He was just five miles from where he was born 70 years earlier. Gus Cannon wrote Walk Right In and several other songs that received world-wide recognition. He didn’t receive any royalties for that song until people in the music business helped correct that issue. He died at the age of 96 in 1979. In 2010 documentarian Todd Kwait produced a video DVD entitled Chasin’ Gus’s Ghost. It features John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful and tracks the story of delta blues music and its connection to the music of the 60s. The members of the Dyer County Historical Society are dedicated to learn, collect, preserve and display the many aspects of our county. Like many West Tennessee counties, there is a lot to tell and a lot of work to do. We do it for future generations because those who came before us did that work for us.
Dyer County Historical Society