Last weekend I entered by 37th state in my goal of visiting all 50 U.S. states by the time I turn 50 in September 2016. I’m calling my quest “50 by 50.”
I was in New Orleans with a group of friends celebrating another 50th birthday, and although I’ve been to Louisiana destinations (including New Orleans) many times throughout the years, Mississippi was still on my “haven’t visited” list. So I rented a car for the weekend and set out to change that!
Staying within fairly close driving distance to New Orleans, I set out on I-90 and crossed over the state border and headed down to Bay St. Louis. What a pretty and interesting little town, on a bay as its name suggests, that sits on the Gulf of Mexico.
I started off with a grilled mahi fish sandwich lunch at a fun open-air grill on the waterfront, called the Blind Tiger. After lunch I drove around to explore some of the recommended sights in the area, including the St. Augustine monastery and grotto, and the very small Bay St. Louis Old Town with its original train depot visitors’ center. The depot is also home to the Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum.
But by far, the most interesting thing I saw in Bay St. Louis — and on my entire Mississippi Gulf Coast day, in fact — was the 100 Men D.B.A. Hall. This is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail, a series of markers that tell stories through words and images of blues men and women, and how the places and times they lived in influenced their music. The sites (dozens in all throughout the state) run the gamut from city streets to cotton fields, train depots to cemeteries, and clubs to churches.
In Bay St. Louis, the 100 Men Hall was built in 1922 by the One Hundred Members’ Debating Benevolent Association (DBA), and was a longtime center of African American social life and entertainment. Musicians who have played at the hall include Etta James, Big Joe Turner, Guitar Slim, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, Ernie K-Doe, Deacon John, Earl King, and numerous others here.
I arrived to find the building looking to be in great shape, with a fresh coat of paint and a thorough marker outside that detailed its history. After reading that and taking a few photos, I sat on the steps to soak in the history of the place for a few moments. About that time a car drove up and a woman got out, asking if she could help me.
“I’m just driving some spots on the Blues Trail, and stopped by to check this place out,” I told her.
To my surprise, the woman introduced herself as Kerrie Loya and said she was the owner of the building, along with her husband. “Would you like to take a look inside? Give me a few minutes to put these groceries up,” she said, indicating the bag in her arms, “and I’ll be right with you.”
As it turned out, I was really lucky to have been there at the right moment to meet Kerrie, as the 100 Men Hall isn’t always open; they have events there (mostly music) and will give a tour by appointment only. What a fun circumstance to catch Kerrie coming in and letting her give me a personal tour of the hall.
She opened it up from the inside, and as I entered and took in the completely remodeled hall that was historically accurate — from the wooden dance hall benches and chairs to the historic photographs and music memorabilia on the walls — Kerrie told me her story.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the building was so badly damaged (most of the roof was missing) that it was slated for demolition. Kerrie’s husband, Jesse, saw the signs and told her that there was no way they could let that important piece of history be erased forever. So, they bought the building and began the long process of repairing and renovating it.
But not only did they renovate the dance hall itself, but the entire building — and they live there with their two children! “Do you want to take a look at the house?” Kerrie asked me. Umm….yeah!
So this vivacious, funny, friendly and outspoken woman opened a side door from the dance hall that led into a gorgeous kitchen that was finished out with period furnishings, from the farm sink to the cabinets. From there, the personal home led back to a comfortable living room in which the beadboard walls had been painted a rich, glossy red, through an office and back toward two bedrooms. The entire place was filled with antiques and colorful artwork.
What a house to live in! And the fact that the Loyas had done all this while on a mission to preserve a piece of history that was vital in both the music and African American timeline was very impressive. Oh, and Jesse is also a musician — he is the vocals and guitar for The House Katz, the house band of 100 Men Hall.
From Bay St. Louis I drove up along the coast through Gulfport, MS and on into Biloxi. Of course, the Biloxi Blues is also part of the Mississippi Blues Trail. I also stopped at Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library.
Follow me as I check off the last 13 states on my list!