In this episode of The Fine Art Photography podcast, we discuss the excitement and mystery of visiting and shooting abandoned places. In this case, we talk about the abandoned community at Hushpuckena, Mississippi, with a description of the scene, and a little history.
Full episode transcript
In this episode, the story of the abandoned buildings at Hushpuckena Mississippi
Hey everybody Keith Dotson here. Welcome back to another episode of the fine art photography podcast. In this episode, I’ll talk about one of my favorite pursuits, photographing abandoned places. In this case, we’ll be visiting Hushpuckena, a collection of ruins along a dirt road called highway 61 in the Mississippi Delta.
What I wanted to do in this episode is bring you along with me in exploring this location — that once was a town. I’ll do my best to paint a mental picture for you of the sights, the sounds, and the smells — oh, that musty, earthy, dusty, smell of moldy old buildings. Soil and Rot.
There’s something poignant about abandoned places that have fallen into neglect and disrepair. These are places people once cared about. They decorated and cleaned and took pride in them. They raised families here. They made love here and had arguments here. Perhaps people were born here or maybe someone even died here.
The thing that makes me especially happy is when I discover and photograph abandoned places and then learn a history of the buildings. In this case, there’s a lot of detail to be gleaned from the various corners of the internet, and I’ll tell you not only the story of the buildings, but also of the people who built them.
I love shooting and exploring abandoned places so much, I even published a book of photographs and stories about abandoned places in 2019. I’ll include the link to that book in the description, in case you’re interested.
I also posted a ten minute video of this incredible place on YouTube — look for that link in the write-up as well. It’s not narrated, so this podcast will give you a nice background for the visuals.
When it comes to abandoned places and derelict ruins, few places can match the state of Mississippi — it’s a can’t miss destination if you love shooting ruins or even photogenic places with a lot of character that aren’t abandoned yet. I promise you, if you take a turn down a back road in Mississippi, you’ll find something amazing to photograph.
Fans of Tom Waits may have heard him sing the line “I walked from Natchez to Hushpuckena … in his 1999 song Pony. Otherwise, blues aficionados may have driven past the nearly extinct community of Hushpuckena on Highway 281, bound for Clarksdale, Cleveland, Greenwood, or other blues highway destinations. Many — if not most — of the greatest blues musicians were born within 100 miles of this place.
Hushpuckena was an agricultural community and had been a flag stop on the Illinois Central train line.
To get to the abandoned buildings in Hushpuckena, you have to know what you’re looking for. They sit on the side of a narrow dirt road called Highway 61, just off the bigger and busier paved highway 281, which runs deep into the Mississippi Delta. You roll past a few ramshackle homesteads where people still live, the road crunching under your tires.
Finally, you arrive at the site of the ruins, at the intersection of 61 and 2nd Street, which is a stretch of pavement that barely exists. It’s being slowly overtaken by encroaching grass, and shadowed by tall, overhanging trees. Down the street, sticking up out of the tall grass, there’s an old cathode ray tube television that someone dumped face-down on the pavement.
At the intersection you see a red dirt road surrounded by a lot of woods, with a partially collapsed house on one corner and two derelict commercial storefronts across the street on the next corner. The opposite side of the street is just woods — I heard something big walking around over there — probably a deer.
Back in the woods there’s another big house, barely visible from the road, but I didn’t try to get in to see that one — it’s very overgrown, and somewhat ominous back in there — a big hulking shadow.
There are also two adjoined commercial storefronts on the corner of Hwy 61 and 2nd Street. The corner building features a very faded, painted sign that says “R.C. Tibbs & Sons” on the top row, and below that, it says what I have interpreted as “Merchants and Planters.” I read references elsewhere calling R.C. Tibbs a merchant and planter, so it seems to fit the barely legible text on the sign.
The 2nd Street wall of the Tibbs building features a large, faded old ghost sign. It’s practically incomprehensible — probably many old signs bleeding through each other — but along the bottom strip you can barely make out the words “Muscular Aches” — so it was an ad for some type of pain reliever.
The Tibbs building stands with front doors wide open, side doors too — but it still has a roof and most of it’s floor. The adjacent building has no roof, and it’s front doors and windows are all long gone — so it has basically turned into a walled garden filled with greenery and fallen tree branches.
On the day I visited Hushpuckena, I found the interior of the Tibbs building littered with pieces of the fallen ceiling, a dirty old mattress, and bunch of black, plastic trash bags that have spilled forth their contents, which appeared to be mostly old receipt books and papers from a doctor’s office. I didn’t enter the building, but from what I could see, it appeared the documents were from the 1980s. Everything is dusty, and there’s a lot of evidence of rodents. As you stand in the open doorway, you are greeted with that smell I mentioned — the smell of old abandoned places.
It’s a dark, cavernous space with high ceilings made of wooden strips, some of which have come undone and curl downwards. Regularly spaced lights dangle from the ceilings on long cords — some of them with white glass globes still intact.
Based on older photographs found online, there used to be a few wooden counters in front of long rows of wooden shelves that lined the walls. The counters are all gone now, but some of the shelves remain, although in poor condition.
The flooring along the back of the store has collapsed. I could hear deep inside the long space the sound of water dripping from the rafters. Just a single, occasional drip.
In addition to the front entrance, there are open doors on both sides of the building. One opens into the building next door, the other opens out into tall grass and weeds along 2nd Avenue.
Just outside that 2nd Avenue door on the side of the Tibbs building rests a rusty old Mosler safe, turned onto its side among the weeds and tall grass. It looks as if someone tried to remove it from the building but couldn’t manage the weight. It tumbled over on its side and there it still lies. It’s one of the old models with a small landscape scene pasted onto the safe door, above the combination dial.
The R.C. Tibbs listed on the sign of the old building was Robert Clinton Tibbs (1859-1946), a merchant and planter. Born in Harrisburg, West Virginia, he married an Illinois girl named Susan Norman. They lived in North Dakota for a while, where some of their children were born.
R.C.’s father Eugene Tibbs served in the Confederacy under General Robert E. Lee.
In 1895, at age 37, R.C. Tibbs moved to Hushpuckena, where he operated a mercantile store and worked as a planter. Presumably, his namesake building was raised shortly thereafter, but we can safely say that it did not exist prior to 1895.
Our best clues to R.C.’s activities and interests comes from this obituary on Find-a-Grave, which says this about his life:
“Mr. Tibbs always manifested a commendable interest in civic affairs. He helped build the first school building of Hushpuckena, and served as a member of the county school board, while under President Theodore Roosevelt he served as Postmaster. His religious faith was indicated in his membership in the Baptist Church and throughout his entire life he had ever been true to any cause which he had advocated.”
It’s interesting that R.C. Tibbs is listed as a Baptist, because some of his descendants are listed as Catholics. Regardless of his civic accomplishments, his most visible legacy is his ruined but still standing mercantile store on the dirt road in Hushpuckena — and of course the accomplishments of his descendants, many of whom became educated professionals.
The couple’s children included Clara Murphree of Tunica, Mae Harris of Duncan, Maud Taylor of Hushpuckena, Robert Norman Tibbs, and Eugene Clinton Tibbs, both of Hushpuckena, with eleven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Daughter Maude graduated from college and worked as a school teacher in Hushpuckena and did bookkeeping for the “Tibbs store” prior to her marriage in 1916.
R.C. Tibbs died in 1946 at age 87 after four years of illness. He’s buried at the nearby Shelby Cemetery. Photographs of R.C. Tibbs and his wife Susan can be seen on the Find a Grave website.
I said that Tibbs had many professionals in the family line. In fact, there have been many doctors in the family. R.C.’s son Eugene Clinton Tibbs (1904 – 1969), and grandsons Eugene Edward Tibbs (1934 – 2008), and Robert C. Tibbs II (1931 – 2005) all became physicians.
There are still Tibbs family members serving as doctors in the Cleveland, Mississippi vicinity today.
Dr. Robert C. Tibbs also wrote a memoir, which was published post-mortem. The book is called This Petty Place, and is still available on Amazon. I’ll include that link in the description as well.
Here is the Amazon synopsis of This Petty Place, quoted verbatim:
“Often times the history of the Miss. Delta is lost in the effort to make more exciting and glamorize its past. The travail of the ordinary working classes, the plebeians and lower elements, who exerted most of the physical toil and sweat and anguish of clearing this land, draining its forbidding mosquito swamps, saving it from the raging river, then bringing some aspect of civilization to it, are painted over completely or glossed with an imperfect brush and sometimes left out entirely. These tales are about some of these people. How their ranks are encumbered by long generations of consanguinity, isolation, fear and superstition and how their disposition, character and religion are molded by this. They evoke a closeness and affinity to place and an almost palpable perception of some of their simple pleasures and fears, their cravings and needs and their response to the daily burden and elation of living. THIS PETTY PACE is the tale of the author.” — End Quote.
The building attached to Tibbs Store is more mysterious. The only clues I have about it are based on this shipping information stenciled on the ironwork columns that were sent from the manufacturer in Memphis. The company name appears to be Mott & Ward, although the first letter in “Mott” may not be an M. It’s obscured by corrosion on the metal.
I didn’t notice the logo for the ironworks manufacturing company, but a blogger claimed these ironworks were made by Chickasaw Ironworks in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s a company I’m unfamiliar with.
As I said earlier, the Mott and Ward building (for lack of a better name) — is wide open to the elements. The roof is long gone, and the floor resembles an unkempt garden, filled with greenery and dead leaves. Along the adjoining wall, some of the thick plaster has fallen away, revealing a vividly colored wall ad underneath. That tells me that the Tibbs building was constructed before the Mott and Ward building. Having been covered all these decades, that old wall paint is still colorful, unlike the faded sepia color of the other ghost ad on the 2nd Street wall. Unfortunately, there’s not enough plaster removed to see what the vivid wall ad says.
Now let’s talk about the partially collapsed house on the other corner.
The partially collapsed house was a private home with a post office in the front. Something I read online said the postmaster lived in that house for more than 40 years. I’ve gathered these facts from people who lived in Hushpuckena or had relatives there, based on their comments on photos found in various places online. It appears that the post office portion was a later addition to the house, and that part has totally caved in, leaving only an undulating heap of gray wooden shingles. The way they catch the light, they look like the scaly skin of a giant snake or maybe a dragon, resting in the shade of the tall trees all around it.
The rest of the house is in poor condition, but still standing. I peeked into one of the open windows and saw a room with bright green wall coverings drooping from the warped walls, and a floor covered in detritus. There are crushed cardboard boxes, dinner plates and animal food bowls, old books and papers, and a single gold stiletto heel. Against one wall was propped an old fashioned high chair for a toddler.
Entire lifetimes of moments occurred within those collapsing walls, now lost to history. I guess the thing I find so compelling about photographing abandoned places like these, is that they are a reminder of the ethereal nature of life itself.
That’s all I’ve got for this episode. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.
Sources and Links
My book of abandoned places: Unloved and Forgotten: Fine Art Photographs of Abandoned Places by Keith Dotson, 2019
This Petty Place, about life in the Mississippi Delta by Robert C. Tibbs II
Find a Grave: Robert Clinton Tibbs
Find a Grave: Susan Minerva Norman Tibbs
Find a Grave: Eugene Edward Tibbs
Legacy.com: Dr. Eugene Edward Tibbs
Suzassippi’s Lottabusha County Chronicles: Hushpuckena on old highway 61
Urban Decay: “The Mississippi Delta 9: Hushpuckena and Shelby”
NOTE: This blog post contains Amazon Affiliate links. I may earn a small commission on qualifying purchases.