West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center
The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center is the hub of West Tennessee culture. Located in Brownsville, Tennessee, right in the center of Memphis and Nashville, the Delta Heritage Center has on its historical grounds Flagg Grove School, the one-room schoolhouse Tina Turner attended as a child, along with the last home of the blues pioneer and West Tennessee iconic musical influence “Sleepy” John Estes. There is also a West Tennessee Cotton Museum, a West Tennessee Music Museum, and a Hatchie River Museum complete with a small aquarium. The center also has a gift shop and several dozen, if not hundreds, of brochures and maps for those passing through, those looking for something to do, and those who just don’t know what the western part of this great state has to offer. The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center also hosts a number of different events. “We try to be a cultural connection,” says Executive Director of the center, Sonia Outlaw-Clark. “So we’re doing everything from music, like our Concert on the Porch series and our blues fest to book signings to art expos—we just finished a quilt exhibit last week—to a heritage museum. We have basket weaving classes going on right now, along with art classes and other community events, so it’s kind of an eclectic mix.” If you are an avid Cypress reader, you know that in the last issue we covered one such event at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center: the Exit 56 Blues Fest (Volume 1, Issue 1. pp. 69-72).
The building that houses the heritage center was previously a steakhouse that sat empty for quite some time. Then, in 1998, the mayor of Brownsville at that time acquired the building. According to Ms. Outlaw-Clark, “It was [Mayor Banks’] brainchild to have—because we sit right on I-40—a Welcome Center, something to showcase our culture, to get people off the interstate, maybe on some back roads, and check out our small towns.” Mayor Webb Banks was what one could describe as a visionary. He knew that Brownsville couldn’t stand on its own as a tourist attraction, so he had the foresight to use the heritage center as a collection of all of West Tennessee culture, from agriculture to music to natural formations unique to the area. By becoming a regional epicenter for information and celebration of that culture, the heritage center is becoming more well-rounded in how these ideas can be showcased in a realistic way.
The heritage center started out as a tourist information center, and it still provides those services. The center also provides information for the states surrounding Tennessee, so, for anyone passing through, information about all sorts of travel spots and other locally-owned and run attractions for Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, the Carolinas, and others can be found at the center. Since Memphis, Nashville, and other larger cities in the areas can stand on their own, the rural parts of Tennessee and the other states aren’t on the radar as tourist destinations when there are plenty of noteworthy, entertaining, informative, and just plain interesting destinations scattered throughout the more rural areas, often having unique and interesting histories and events that are left out in travel plans because people just don’t know what is out there. The people behind the heritage center recognize this issue, and they do what they can to promote the less well-known travel spots. “It builds on the principle of how we know we have to stand together, so we also have to stand together with the states.”
There are a handful of museums at the heritage center, but three specific ones that are showcased the most often are the Cotton Museum, the Hatchie River Room, and the West Tennessee Music Museum.
The Cotton Museum was the first museum developed at the heritage center. A local farmer donated a lot of the equipment; he also donated a lot of money and manpower to set up the cotton museum. Included in the museum is old farming equipment used by farmers, along with an actual record book used by one. Even if you are not particularly interested in cotton or where it comes from, it’s still neat to see not only some of the inner workings of something we use every day, but also to see the impact that just one agricultural commodity to the whole of West Tennessee.
The Hatchie River Room was put together by the Nature Conservancy. The Hatchie River is actually considered one of the 75 Great Places in the World to save, because it’s the last wild river in the Mississippi river system—this means that it hasn’t been touched by man. The river still flows and erodes, supporting hundreds of species of birds and 11 species of catfish —the most of any river in North America. Ms. Outlaw-Clark described the purpose of the West Tennessee Music Museum: “We have [this museum] because music is such a part of our culture.” Over the years, with the addition of the “Sleepy” John house and the Tina Turner schoolhouse, the center has now become more of a music destination. “We still have all the tourist information and we’re still happy for people to stop for that reason, but we have a lot more people stopping here on purpose now, planning us as one of their stops on their trip because of our music heritage.”
The museums at the Delta heritage center have been known for being more authentic than museums that one might see in a bigger city, with people coming from other parts of the world praising the Tina Turner museum as being more informative, because you get to see not only her life as a performer, but also her roots; the museum gives a glimpse into where she grew up and how she lived before she became famous. Touring museums that get down to the nitty gritty and don’t just touch briefly on the subjects of more rural lifestyles provide a more realistic learning experience. The museums at the heritage center lack glamour on purpose; the real life within the area is presented accurately and is not meant to entice tourists for the sole purpose of generating revenue. In this way, the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center strives to provide that level of integrity in any event they host or any information they share with the public. It's free in admission for whole grounds for anyone to go through and explore, but the center does provide a guided tour for a small fee. Ms. Outlaw-Clark envisions the heritage center as only improving over time without added cost to future visitors: “Part of the original vision of the center was that it be a free facility, and I believe in that vision as well. When we added the Tina Turner museum, we had a lot of people comment that we would have to start charging now, and I said, ‘No. I don’t want to.’ We’re supported by the City of Brownsville—we are a City of Brownsville facility—and as long as we have that support, we will continue to be free.”
Ms. Outlaw-Clark has a vision for the museum to continue more of the music theme. She would like to have outdoor art to showcase West Tennessee artists. “I’m always open to new events for the center to host because I think that is part of what [the Delta Heritage Center] should be — a celebration of our West Tennessee heritage.” For more information about the center, or if you need any information from the center, you can send an email to sonia.clark@westtnheritage or give them a call at (731) 779-9000. However, you are always encouraged to stop by the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center to see for yourself. And as Ms. Outlaw-Clark says, “Don’t think that if you’ve seen [the Heritage center] once, that you’ve seen everything, because there’s always something going on.”