Yazoo City

Full of mystery, beauty and economic growth

By Angela Rogalski

Photos by Dawn Rosenberg Davis

From the home county of Bentonia bluesman, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and his Blue Front Café, which is the oldest surviving juke joint in Mississippi, to American writer, Willie Morris, whose memoir “My Dog Skip,” a story about a boy and his dog growing up in Yazoo, was made into a major motion picture; Yazoo County is as interesting and diverse as the river it was named after.

The area is rich in history and in flat Delta farmland, with a backdrop of gently rolling hills thrown in to further its distinct uniqueness. In fact, a very interesting, albeit eerie, part of Yazoo’s history involves the “Fire of 1904,” where nearly every business and resident of the City were completely destroyed, and is said to have been initiated by the “Witch of Yazoo,” who vowed revenge on the town for perceived injustices done to her by local law enforcement of the time.

Whether you believe the local legends or not, there is one indisputable fact: Yazoo County is determined to be in the forefront of economic growth and development in the Mississippi Delta. Being the first Delta county you encounter when traveling North out of the state capital of Jackson helps put Yazoo in position for this.

Kristi Mills is the new Director of the Yazoo County Chamber of Commerce. Mills says that Yazoo is very proud of a couple of new businesses that have opened and of the new Willie Morris Parkway that promises to keep Yazoo County flourishing and growing in the near future.

“Signaturez Bar & Grill in downtown Yazoo City opened not too long ago and they’re famous for their chicken wings,” she adds. “So, we’re very happy about that. And of course, in the spring we saw our first Wal-Mart open up and that was a big deal for us. And then there is the new Willie Morris Parkway that is out by that Wal-Mart that we’re extremely excited about. In fact, we just recently erected a Willie Morris monument there. The plan hopefully is to see more economic growth in that area in the future.”

Mills adds that the downtown revitalization that has been an ongoing effort is still moving forward as well.

“Downtown is doing really well. The colorful downtown buildings are a daily draw for visitors and for Christmas we’re planning the fantastic display of lights that we normally have, and to coordinate the colors of the lights with the buildings. The revitalization of our downtown area is important and the project has been an ongoing effort by many in the community that is moving along quite well. So, we’re very proud of that.”

Tourism is also a very important aspect of the city and county’s growth, and Mills says that this past 4th of July, Yazoo City held their 3rd annual “Yaz Summer Blast,” a big multi-day event that draws many people.

“The weekend before the 4th of July, we had our “Yaz Summer Blast,” and it was great. We had fireworks and so many visitors from out of town just for the event. Main Street was blocked off and we had an entire weekend of music, food, fireworks and many street vendors. It was just amazing.”

Mills says the Chamber is also growing stronger by adding more members on a regular basis.

“Our Chamber hasn’t had a director for a while, but now that I’m here, my job is to try and get the Chamber back up to speed. I’ve been working hard on that. Since I’ve been in the position, I’ve brought in 60-plus members already, either first-time members or renewals; a combination of the two. And I’ve only been in the office since June 1, 2017. I’m also visiting each one of the businesses as I can on a weekly basis and talking with them, trying to get them involved with the Chamber. And so far, it’s been a really positive experience.”

The Willie Morris monument that was erected on the new Parkway was created by the city of Yazoo and Deltaview Custom Design Monuments in Yazoo City. Husband and wife owners, Britton and Mary Ann Hill, have been in the monument business since 2012, when they saw an opportunity to fill a need in the community and took it. Mary Ann Hill says the idea of the Willie Morris monument with “My Dog Skip” on it, which was erected at the Parkway came from the town’s mayor, Diane Delaware.

“Mayor Delaware wanted this statue out there and so we helped the city with the creation of the stone monument in honor of Willie Morris on the Parkway,” Hill says. “It has “My Dog Skip” on it, which is really a great symbol of remembrance for Mr. Morris. The monument was special ordered by the city, and we did all of the sandblasting on the statue. The city sent us what they wanted on it and we designed it. We were very honored that our city contacted us and asked us to help with this. It was a very special day for us.”

Deltaview Custom Design Monuments is the only monument company in Yazoo City. “We’re not the only one in the county, but we are the only one in the city,” Hill says. “My husband and I did some research; we went to North Carolina and took some classes in sandblasting, and basically started the business from scratch. We get blank monuments, they’re precut stones, but we do all of the sandblasting on them. As a small business, we saw a need for a monument location here in Yazoo City and we also believe we’re helping families in the community at their times of need. We feel like our business helps people, and we enjoy that feeling.

“Our town isn’t large, but in the last few years it has just turned completely around. A few years ago it looked like our downtown was going to die like many other ones in the Delta. Today when you go downtown Main St., you will see colorful buildings, people walking up and down the street, wonderful places to eat and many locally-owned shops.”

Dawn Davis is Communications Coordinator at the Yazoo County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Davis says everyone involved with the Willie Morris Parkway have really been working hard to prepare for expansion and growth.

“The people involved with the Parkway have really made a concerted effort to have development-ready lots out there, which is great to see. This is going to be great for Yazoo, everyone is very excited about the potential development there.”

Davis adds that while tourism in Yazoo County is always very important, new business growth of any kind can only help the overall economic landscape of Yazoo County.

“Any new businesses in Yazoo, whether they’re directly related to our tourism industry or not, can only benefit other areas of our community and bring in more people, which in turn will bring more economic growth into our County.”

Annual events including the Yazoo County Fair are always an important part of Yazoo’s economic picture. And Davis says everyone at the CVB is excited about this year’s Fair.

“The Yazoo County Fair is a huge event that draws people to Yazoo County from all over the place,” Davis says. “It is generally held within a week or so of the Mississippi State Fair, and offers one admission fee that covers all rides. There is free parking and just a great family-friendly atmosphere that really helps the event attract visitors. People know they can come to the Yazoo County Fair with their kids and not have to worry about them running around a bit. It’s a great event. This year the Yazoo County Fair is Friday, October 13 through Saturday, October 21.”

Antique Days is another event coming up in October, Davis adds, and is an event that draws quite a unique crowd.

“Antique Days is an event held at the Triangle Cultural Center on Main Street in Yazoo City,” Davis says. “The event is kind of a celebration of agricultural processes of yesteryear. It features live entertainment, handmade arts & crafts, activities for children, a kibbe cook-off, antique engine demonstrations, free buttermilk biscuits with fresh cane syrup or local honey, and more. It’s a wonderful event.”

Davis is happy to report that Yazoo County’s tourism economy is thriving. She says that tourism revenues have increased significantly each year since 2014, and they’re on the same track for this fiscal year.

“Yazoo is home to five Mississippi Blues Trail Markers; the oldest juke joint in Mississippi that is still in operation, the Blue Front Café in Bentonia; and what may now be the oldest blues festival in the United States—the Bentonia Blues Festival, started in 1972. Blues tourists come to Yazoo from literally all parts of the planet to experience an authenticity that is becoming harder to find now that Mississippi’s blues tourism has become such a big business.”

“Yazoo County is a particular draw for international visitors,” Davis continues. “The annual Bentonia Blues Festival takes place one week after the tremendous Chicago Blues Festival. International visitors will often plan their visits around a string of events like this. The same is also true during September and October when the Bridging the Blues series of events brings visitors to Mississippi including Yazoo County.”

Phil Williams is Chairman of the Bank of Yazoo. From a banking and financial perspective, Williams is seeing the ongoing growth and development of Yazoo County as a positive impact on the economy that he hopes continues.

“Obviously, the Willie Morris Parkway is definitely a positive development for Yazoo County. It opens up some potentially, very nice commercial opportunities for us. And with Wal-Mart opening, there are usually some businesses that generally just open up around a Wal-Mart, which will provide jobs. Local businesses don’t normally compete with Wal-Mart, they offer things that the giant retailer doesn’t usually carry. They find a niche that they can operate in, such as charge accounts. Wal-Mart doesn’t offer personal charge accounts.”

Williams says that the increased traffic that Wal-Mart brings in from other Delta counties, may also increase sales for local businesses. “These people may pop into their stores and spend some money.”

Williams also says the downtown area recently had a call center open that does collection work for the Department of Human Services collecting child support payments, which will bring in more jobs.

“The operation will probably have close to 80 jobs associated with it, so that’s nice to have downtown and helps support that area. Our downtown restaurants and merchants are all a part of that support, as well as our main location of the bank, which is downtown also. And we’re happy to report that in about a month or so, Bank of Yazoo will be tearing down and rebuilding one of our branches, so we’re excited about that rebirth and growth there.”

As far as tourism, Williams believes Yazoo County has a lot to offer the Blues enthusiast, with the many festivals and events that are held each year in the area.

“In fact, earlier this year, Yazoo citizens were excited to learn that Billy Corgan, lead singer and guitarist for Smashing Pumpkins, was here in town and did a YouTube video that’s out there. He went to the downtown area, and nobody even knew he was in town, the video just showed up on YouTube. He found us on a tour through the Mississippi Delta and stopped in for a visit. So, music is a big part of Yazoo, and becoming more so  every day. We have more and more international visitors every year.”

Growth and successful expansion is something very important to Yazoo City’s mayor, Diane Delaware. She says that the realization of Wal-Mart into their community is one such important step.

“Over a span of many years, Yazoo City worked very diligently to get a Wal-Mart, so we’re very proud that it’s here. And we feel that it’s the beginning of a new era for us. And we built the Willie Morris Parkway expressly for the purpose of improving our economy, and we’ve done a zoning overlay to assure that the structures, the buildings, are forward-thinking and moving toward the future. We’re making every effort with businesses and with the Chamber; just reaching out to everyone and seeking to improve our city. And the Willie Morris Parkway is near and dear to our hearts because Willie Morris grew up in Yazoo City and was a great author. With efforts on our part, we hope that it will become a kind of growth engine for Yazoo.”

The monument at the Willie Morris Parkway seemed a natural evolution for the Parkway and adding “My Dog Skip” to it was something that the mayor and the aldermen thought would be exactly the right thing to do.

“Having a monument that would express the meaning of the Parkway to us was just a natural thing to do, because it was the first time we had built a roadway of this type. I was simply sitting one day and my mind thought of “My Dog Skip” and I asked myself why don’t we put him on the monument? So, the aldermen and myself thought it would be the perfect thing to do.”

The festivals are something else that the mayor believes strongly in, and sees important economic growth happening through them.

“The “Yaz Summer Blast” is in its third year and gets larger each and every year. We think it will become the cornerstone of our festivals, along with “Jerry Clower” and our “Antique Days.” We see these three festivals as part of our growth as well. They’re fun and citizens engage with one another, as well as people coming from out of town.”

Delaware says the area welcomes visitors from everywhere and hopes they will consider Yazoo as their destination choice for many things.

“Yazoo City’s downtown area is growing; it’s a beautiful place and a beautiful destination. We have the Main Street Hotel; our Yazoo Market, and I believe anyone who comes and visits with us will completely enjoy themselves. We want visitors to see that Yazoo City is reaching out to be a destination for anyone from anywhere. We offer ourselves as the place for people to come and enjoy themselves and see the Gateway to the Delta.”