Park With A Past

Dear Vance: I found an old book about Memphis that contained a photo of Confederate Park (above), and the statue of Jefferson Davis is missing. Wasn't that an important element of the park from the beginning?

— D.W., Memphis.

Dear D.W.: No, it wasn't.

I guess I could stop right there — after all, I did answer your question — but my editor insists I fill these two pages with words instead of nice pictures, so (sigh) I suppose I'll tell you just a bitmore about one of the most controversial parks in our city's history.

If you compare then-and-now photos of Confederate Park, you will see a subtle but dramatic transformation over the years — different walkways, statues, cannons. Just about everything has been revised and revamped. And if you somehow managed to find some really old photos of the site, you might be amazed, because Confederate Park actually began its existence as a public dump.

Hard to believe (okay, this being Memphis and all, maybe it's not so hard to believe), but in the mid-1800s, everyone here just pitched their trash right into the river. According to historian Paul Coppock, the site of Confederate Park was mainly a heap of garbage, "a disgraceful portion of the promenade . . . where an aged man and his mule lived in a shack, surrounded by junk, broken bricks, and street sweepings."

Nothing remotely "Confederate" appeared on the site until 1901, when Memphis hosted a national reunion for the United Confederate Veterans and erected an 18,000-seat pavilion to host many of the activities. After the convention, however, the wooden structure was demolished, and the land stood empty until 1907.

That's when 2.7 acres along the bluff were turned over to the Memphis Park Commission to be transformed into — as the old wooden signs used to say — "A Memorial to the Old South." Robert Galloway, then chairman of the park commission, explained, "My idea being to make this an old Confederate fort, with fallen-down stone parapets, guns partly concealed by vines, and white jessamine." I'm not sure why he was so fond of that particular flower, but the park commission did erect a handsome stone wall, added some walkways and derelict Civil War artillery, and Confederate Park officially opened in 1908.

Still no statue of Jefferson Davis, though. Be patient.

Despite the "Confederate" theme, over the years the little park became a dumping ground (again!) for a lot of odd junk. The Civil War guns were sacrificed during a World War II scrap metal drive, replaced by battered artillery from World War I. Mayor E.H. Crump bought a totem pole during a trip to the Northwest and erected it smack in the middle of the park. The Jaycees hauled in a concrete block inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Everyone, it seems, had strange ideas for ways to "improve" the park. In 1958, the City Beautiful Commission declared it would build a giant fountain there, "the first of a series of refreshing pools and fountains in Memphis." That never happened, though in the early 1960s the park commission added a "rising mound of earth," where they planted red, white, and blue pansies to form a giant Rebel flag. That proved hard to maintain, as you might imagine, so it didn't last long.

In 1962, though, Confederate Park faced its greatest battle, when a Philadelphia company called City Stores announced it would transform six blocks along Front Street into a shopping complex called "The Great Mall." Confederate Park would be replaced by a "Hall of Fountains," which developers promised would be a "place of great beauty."

There was just one problem. No one could determine just who, exactly, owned Confederate Park. And quite a few people wondered if a shopping complex couldn't find a better home elsewhere in the city. City Stores eventually abandoned the project entirely, and Confederate Park remained intact.

There have been other bizarre struggles over the years. In 1964, the park became infested with 18-inch-long Norway rats, which newspapers described as "filthier than most rats, with an insatiable craving for grease and blood." That's not exactly the kind of thing that would lure visitors to the park with picnic baskets stuffed with fried chicken. The creatures dwelled in tunnels beneath the sidewalks, and exterminators were called in to finally vanquish these beasts.

That same year — almost a full century after the end of the Civil War — the park finally got its centerpiece, a larger-than-life statue of Jefferson Davis (top left). The president of the Confederate States of America had lived in Memphis from 1875 to 1878 and ran an insurance agency here before retiring to the Gulf Coast. A group called the Jefferson Davis Statue Fund Association raised enough money — though I can't remember the exact cost after all these years — to build an eight-foot bronze statue on a 12-foot granite base. The base was designed by Memphis' own Crone Monument Company, whose work graces many of the elaborate tombs in Elmwood, and the statue itself was created by an Italian sculptor named Aldo Pera.

I suppose I could tell the entire life history of Pera, and how he was selected to produce the Davis sculpture, but I really don't think that's very interesting, do you?

In the late 1990s, the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation wanted to build a cancer survivors' park on the site, but they eventually constructed that in Audubon Park. The most recent controversy has been repeated attempts to drop "Confederate" from the name, since it offends more than half of our city's population, but I'm staying out of that fray. Years ago, my own family offered the park commission as much as $100 — that's right, one hundred dollars — if they would rename the site Lauderdale Park, and replace that statue of Jeff Davis with one of me, but did they listen? No.