From the Levee Board headquarters in Washington County, Mississippi, legendary storyteller and historian Hank Burdine tells about lifestyles and livings made “between the levees” of the nearby Mississippi River. Burdine’s story winds like the mighty river itself through the extremely lucrative moonshine and tugboat industries, flowing as smoothly as only he can tell it! Bottoms up!
Buckle Up & Hang On for the World Famous Storyteller
And you talk about colorful characters on the river, the river itself produces a lot of different types of people.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere in Greenville, Mississippi at the Levee Board Headquarter, joining me today is the world famous storyteller Hank Burdine, so buckle up, hang on folks. Hank, last time we met, it’s funny we should be here at the Levee Board Headquarters because last time we talked, we talked about the levee breaking in 1927.
Hank Burdine: That’s right. And your granddaddy was there during that 1927 flood.
Ramsey Russell: We pull up and one of the gentlemen here –
Hank Burdine: Peter Nimrod, chief engineer.
Ramsey Russell: Brought me some pictures of the flood and also that old Dodge car they had jacked up like that.
Hank Burdine: And that was one of the only cars that could get around. Your granddad his family had a Dodge dealership, right?
Ramsey Russell: They did.
Hank Burdine: And they jacked the front end of it up where the engine would be out of the water and that was one of the only original ATVs in Greenville, Mississippi during the 1927 flood when it had 6ft of water all through town.
Ramsey Russell: The Mississippi River and that flood and that event, that levee break because of them photos and a generation worth of stories that I sitting around a table like this, heard my granddaddy tell about it and about the Delta, this past weekend was open day of dove season and I don’t know what day in the year that I get is sentimental and I guess it’s going back to a hot dove field with my granddaddy and it just so happened with Chuck Cage this weekend in Arcola, Mississippi. I’m hunting in my home county right there where it all started and driving up here to be here today, just going through all the old countryside that all the old back roads, I drove my granddaddy back in the day.
Hank Burdine: Well, of course, it was your granddaddy that got you into the love of the outdoors hunting and fishing on Lake Ferguson right over here and hunting around about and the dove field that were a lot of now, if you hadn’t got a sun flower, you’re not going to have dove because we got so much corn that’s been harvested, I imagine 90% of the corn is out of the field already. So there’s a lot of food for them out there unless you can concentrate them on something like a sunflower field. And I often say, folks, man, how do you make a good dove field? I said, the best way to make a jam up good dove field is to have a neighbor that has one.
Ramsey Russell: You’re dang right, that’s why I call Chuck come dove season, I guarantee it is.
Hank Burdine: That’s a hard thing to do is come up with a good dove field. But now look talking about on the river, I remember lots of times we used to go down the American ball, we might not have, should have been down there. But they had those grass fields out there and you’re in August and September and the rivers down low, man, those places were loaded with doves because you had all that sand out there and the grass seeds and the water farm right there and if you find a good spot on the river, you can sure enough have a good dove hunt.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. The delta is an amazing place, the river that formed, it is an amazing place. And the stories I didn’t hear growing up were about a lot of the real colorful characters, the river rats. Yeah, I didn’t hear about that kind of stuff.
Hank Burdine: We use the term river rats, I’ve got a new friend named Macon Fry that has written a wonderful book called “They Call Us River Rats”. And he’s a guy that grew up on a river up in Virginia and grew up on the bank of one of those rivers up there and came down here to New Orleans teaching and found a place down there called The Batcher, which is the land between the levees and there’s a stretch down there that the oil companies hadn’t bought up that they would pull shanty boats up on there, they would go out and put logs and pick boards out of the river and build little shanties on there. And it’s a little section of land between the levee and the Mississippi River, there used to be 100 or so houses down there, now there’s only about 25 or 30 of those houses there, but for somehow or another, they are allowed to stay there and the government is not able to evict them. And he lives in one of those little houses down there and when you use the terminology river rats, which he calls himself a river, I remember growing up here in Greenville train cars over on the other side of the levee that families lived in, pullman cars type of things, sleeper cars that they lived in. I remember shanty boats that would be pulled up into Lake Ferguson that people lived in we just as the river went down, they’d push them back out in the lake and they’d be there and send the kids to school, kids would go to school, cross the levee, get the school bus and go over there. And then after a couple of years they’d be gone, shanty boat would be gone, they’d gone down the river somewhere else. But I had a lot of friends, I had several friends in particular that lived across the there. And the terminology river rat, you think about commercial fishermen that lived out there on the Shanty boats and that’s who we’re talking about when we use that terminology, that says nothing about their character, their morals or anything like that that’s just what they were called. And you talk about colorful characters on the river, the river itself produces a lot of different types of people. We had a friend here this past weekend, he’s from Chesapeake Bay and he’s on a sailboat coming down the river and he had a little young man with him from Scotland that sailed around from Cape Horn to the south of America, all these different, he’s just a wonderful young fellow. But this guy from the Chesapeake, he said it’s so different from where I grew up on the Chesapeake to where I am on the Mississippi River as far as the people are concerned. He says, oh, on the Chesapeake, if you want a raft up, tie your boat up, 5, 10, 6 other boats, something like that, he said, they’re going to do it. He said, here on the river, you may go one place, there may be 15, 20 boats tied up together. He said, the people up and down the river are so nice. He said anything they can do, they come out to you in the middle of the river and say is there something you need? Do you need to go over to the Walmart to get some supplies or anything? I can show you up in here, tie you up, spend the night, anything like this. It is a camaraderie around this Mississippi River that has been here for a long time and you help each other out and there is one interesting character if we’re talking about unique folks on the Mississippi River was a fellow named Perry Martin. Perry Martin, grew up on a rice farm in Arkansas, he farmed with his family there for a while, kind of didn’t like doing that too much and he became a preacher and then, he got into politics and didn’t like that too much and got out of that and got into the logging business on the river. Now, lots of times people could go up and down that river and collect logs that were floating off down downstream, some of those logs had broken loose from rafts of logs, that’s how they moved logs back then. They would cut them on the river islands and create big rafts, they tie up 200, 300 logs with a string of logs around the outside of them that were cabled off together and they would store those logs until they had a boat come by and bring them down, take them to the saw mill. I remember Chicago Mill and lumber company in Greenville and Lake Ferguson, you probably do also, when they had a chain trolley that would pull those logs up over the levee to the saw mill. Well, there would be time there would be 10,000 logs tied up in rafts, right there floating in the river and floating in Lake Ferguson. So Martin began logging on the river there and collecting log and would take him to the mill. And one time there were five guys came out and were going to steal his logs, well, a gun battle ensued and Mr. Martin shot and killed all 5 of the robbers turned himself in to the local sheriff and was never charged because he was protecting his own property. These folks came by with guns was going to kill him, steal his log and he pulled his pistol and killed all of them. Well, he got out of the logging business and he had been around Big Island, which is the confluence of the White River, the Arkansas River and all that goes into the Mississippi River. That area is about 130,000, 150,000 acres of wilderness area, it’s all in the islands down through there with trees growing all over it. And at one point in time, that was the largest moon shining area in America. And they had 150 something stills on those islands and there was one guy down there that said he could sit on his still, sit in front of his still and look out across and see 15 other stills in operation. You didn’t go down in that area, you didn’t go down there unless you were a commercial fisherman fishing around through there, you didn’t go recreate down there because those folk didn’t like anybody, they didn’t know. And if you were a federal revenue, you sure didn’t go down and that because you may not come back out. At one point in time, the government sent a gun boat down there and they arrested 150 something men for making moonshine, busted all the still up and all like that. Well, Perry Martin was around there during that time and he had been deputized by the sheriff of county as a deputy sheriff and he was the law on Big Island. And if an argument got started, somebody just got killed, that’s just what it was down through that. There’s another story told to me by Howard Brent, Captain George Reid was one of his top tow boat captains and we go back to the river situation, somebody gets in trouble on the river, somebody else going to go to hell. Well, one of the boats ran around on a sand bar across the river, a little upstream from Big Island, Captain George Reed, coming down on one of the Brent’s boats, he tied off all his boat to go up there, he had a big powerful boat go up there and help that other boat get off. Nowadays, you couldn’t do that with the insurance and the legalities and the other thing about it, you can’t do that. But back then, yeah, if a buddy is up there were in trouble, we’re going to tie our operation off and we’re going to go help him out. So he tied off all his barges and one of those barges, it belonged to the Federal barge line, which was a wholly totally owned subsidiary of the United States, they had their own barge line because the barge industry had gone to nothing because the railroad companies had bought out the steamboat lines. And after world war I, Congress realized that in the time of national emergency, you couldn’t move enough goods and services and all just on the train, so they started the federal barge line which is owned by the United States government. Where there was a federal barge line barge load of sugar in that string of barges that Captain George Reid tied up on the bank over that Big Island. Government sealed, United State government property seals on all the hatches on the barge and everything. Well, Captain George was gone for about a day helping get that up, when he got back, there was very little sugar left in that barge, all them moonshine has come off of that island with buckets and wheel barrels and hauled off all that government sugar. So, Perry Martin realized that he can make whiskey too, but he didn’t want to have to deal with all the people on the Big Island and all that stuff, so he came across the river to Rosedale, the 16th section of land over there behind the levies. Now, as we know 16th section land is all put aside for the school board and it was decided by the board of supervisors or whoever was going to get the lease, well, Mr. Martin, whether he had the lease on that 16th section or just took those woods over, they were known as Perry Martin’s woods and you didn’t go over in there because that was Mr. Martin’s woods over in there, but he had 5 or 6 still himself over there and he would make moonshine whiskey and he’d cook it low and slow and he made some of the best moonshine that has ever been made. And the reason, one reason it was so good is, he would buy white oak barrels from friend of mine, Jack Coleman’s granddaddy up in Rosedale, Mississippi had a lumber yard and he would buy all those barrels from him and that’s what he would store his whiskey in. Now, Kentucky Bourbon is all put into oak barrels that have been charred and burned on the inside and all this kind of stuff. Well, he would load his whiskey up in those barrels and he’d roll them down to the river banks edge and back in the slews and the little back channels of the river and as that whiskey would be in that barrel and the ebb and flow of the way they roll and turn those barrels over and that not only seasoned that whiskey, but it colored it, it gave it a tannin color, a little brown color in it. And Mr. Martin was not bothered by anybody, because the local sheriff, one sheriff, Mr. Charlie, who went on ended up being the head of appropriations and Jackson, he was the sheriff back then and I asked Mr. Charlie, I said, I called him Mr. Chairman, he was chairman of the appropriation committee. I said, Mr Chairman, when you were sheriff, did you ever know Perry Martin? That was back during prohibition. Prohibition went out when you and I went to school in 1966 was when we were the first state to vote prohibition and to the state of Mississippi and the last to repeal it. So, he says, Hank, I was a sheriff when Mr. Martin was over there across that making that whiskey said, I never met the man, he said, but every year, a little before Christmas time somebody drop off his jug, a gallon of the finest moonshine whiskey, you ever put your lips on. Now, there was a fine in Bolivar County for making whiskey, it was $100 fine if you were caught making whiskey. Well, January 1st, every year Perry Martin show up at the courthouse and pay his fine in advance, nobody bothered Mr. Martin because they said he was as good a man as he was a moonshiner. And if he told you something, he was going to do it. Now, his grandson Myron Martin, I interviewed him when I did a story on Mr. Perry Martin, he said, Hank my granddaddy was educated man, he was a preacher and he was as good as gold, he says, but if you crossed him, he’d kill you, that’s just the way it was. He killed another man for stealing some of his hogs and he told, the man says, you were wrong doing that and that man told him he says, Perry Martin, if I see you again, I’m going to kill you. Well, he never got that chance because Mr. Martin was up on the Arkansas River one time saw him cross the river over there and pull the rifle, shot him and killed him before he could kill him. Now, he did do a little time for that, but he got out of jail pretty quick. And then there was another time when he had a stepson in the boat coming across the Mississippi River and the stepson started jumping and rocking the boat trying to throw Mr. Martin out, he’s either trying to scare him or he’s trying to throw him out of the boat and get all the money, well, Mr. Martin pulled his pistol and shot him and killed him, self defense and their own stepson. So you didn’t mess with Mr. Martin. But if he told you something, take it to the bank because he’s going to do it.
A Good Guy…A Good Moonshiner
Al Capone considered Perry Martin moonshine the best there was.
Ramsey Russell: Did you ever hear any more stories about the good side? Like why he was such as good a guy as he was a good moonshiner?
Hank Burdine: William Alexander Percy defined what we call, what we talked about a little while ago, a river rat but Perry Martin did not fit that local vernacular of a river rat. William Alexander Percy said, a river rat of illiterate, suspicious, mean clan blonde and usually ugly. However, Perry Martin was well educated, honest, he was proud, generous, self-confident, self-made and independent. He may have spurned genteel society yet he demanded its respect. He has been recorded in history as the most famous moonshiner in Mississippi and very possibly of all times. Al Capone considered Perry Martin moonshine the best there was. He would send specially designed box cars with armed guard down from Chicago to Rosedale, Mississippi to load those box cars up with whiskey. I’ve got a picture of my uncle Lewis in Las Vegas Nevada on the way to World War II, he was heading to California wherever they sent him from there and he and two or three of his buddies and this little speakeasy and Las Vegas Nevada holding up a bottle of PM special, which is Perry Martin special. So that whiskey went everywhere. My cousin Bard from Tunica remembers his daddy telling him and I’ll read this from that article I wrote, Judge Bard from Hollywood recalls his father telling him, each month you could set your watch by the arrival of a long slick twin 6 Packard limousine with District of Columbia Plates heading south on old highway 61, later that evening, it would make its return trip to Washington DC through Hollywood loaded with its rear offenders low to the ground, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president back then. And well, every 4 years back then when they had to have a governor’s inauguration in Jackson, Mississippi, there would be two highway patrol cars come in from Jackson, go across that levee and after about an hour or 2 one of them would come over the levee with his lights on, there would be a huge farm truck being driven by Myron Martin, Perry Martin’s grandson and behind it was another highway patrol car and it was loaded to the gills with Perry Martin moonshine. And I’ve got one more quick little story, I’ll talk about. My uncle Kelly Mitcham was a colonel in the United States Air Force, he’d been shot down during World War II, escaped, made it back over here and he became an instructor with the air force in Texas, South Texas, wherever that air base was that he was operating out of. And this is back in the mid-60s before 1966 for sure. My daddy had already died in 1961 and we went to road building business and dad did a lot of work out at the air base and mama had a little thing on the back of her car and you could put a yellow and white checkered flag on and that would allow the car to go out on the runways and everything because we were building road, we were building air strip back there runways and all and we’d go out there as kids like the time playing the sand stuff. Well, mom got a telephone call and I was out of school that day for whatever reason it was Uncle Kelly and he said he was flying to Greenville Air Force Base and love to see everybody and said, by the way, if you could send Paige, who was my dad’s major bartender, his boat captain, his head concrete finisher and could do and would do anything. And so she dispatched Paige to Rosedale pick up a case of Perry Martin moonshine and on the way back, stop by those eat place and get a case of hot tamales. So he did and then he came, picked up my mom and me and we go out to the air base and here comes this big B52 bomber, whatever it was and lumbering in and it landed and put taxi right up to where we were with that flag on the back of mama’s car and first one to walk out when they dropped the gang plank was my uncle Kelly Mitchell. We had a big time and all like that and there were 4 or 5 guys on the bomber with him that were students. So Paige at that point in time, he said, we got to get on back here, so Paige went and loaded the case of moonshine whiskey in the back of that bomber and then he told that boxer hot tamales up in there and my uncle Kelly said, boy you want to see what it look like on the inside of one of these bomber airplanes? I said, yes, Uncle Kelly. So I go up in there with him, I’m 13 years old, 14 years old at the time I get up in there and these 3 or 4 guys up in there with the flight suits on and they learning, Uncle Kelly sits down in the back seat and straps himself in and he breaks out a bottle of that Perry Martin moonshine and cracks the top on it and he opens up a can of those old hot tamales. You know what a can of hot tamales smells like when you open it up and it wafted through that bomber and he pulled out three of them hot tamales and cut them loose and went to sucking on two of them and then he took a big slug of that Perry Martin moonshine and he looked at them 4, 5 boys and that he was instructing and he said, now boys, I got you all to Greenville, Mississippi, it’s your job to get me home. So, characters, we talk about folks up and down the river and the Mississippi River just hold something within its waters. I’ve put up a lot of people, my friend Sid, any time somebody come down the river there’s a thing called river angels which is a nondescript organization of people that they’re not written down, it’s just word of mouth. Somebody sees somebody paddling down the river, they pass word down the river, we got so and so coming down here, if you can do anything for them, do. Lots of time, we’ll take them out, boy, we will put them up down the door, feed them and put them in a little room down there and keep them anything they need we just take care of them and it’s something that you do, it’s an aura that is on that river. And like this guy from Chesapeake Bay, he said, it’s nothing where else, he said right here on this Mississippi River it is. He said, I know Hank after spending the night with you in your house there and having done around the table and all that, he says, if I run into trouble, 50, 60, 80 miles down this river, he said, I know who to call and he said, I know that you’ll take care of whatever my needs are and that’s the way it is.
A Healthy Respect for the Mississippi River
I’m born and raised right here on this river and it’s something that gets in your blood, muddy water in your blood, you got it in you, I got it in me.
Ramsey Russell: That river is a dangerous place, it’s easy to run into trouble out there.
Hank Burdine: You can. I often say that we have a lot of – the greatest thing I have about that Mississippi River is respect. And we have a lot of fun on the river, but you don’t play on the river because one mistake you’re done. So you’ve got to respect it, you’ve got to be ever aware and vigilant on that river. Now, you can enjoy it then no more, the worst time I ever have on the river and if I choke up saying it right now, it’s true because the worst time I ever have on the river is when I got to turn around and come home. Because being on that river is just a part of who I am. I’m born and raised right here on this river and it’s something that gets in your blood, muddy water in your blood, you got it in you, I got it in me. You grew up on it fishing.
Ramsey Russell: I did. I was up in Minnesota one time, when I think about the Mississippi River growing up here in Greenville, I mean, I’d say it’s a mile across to the other shore, at least a lot of places I just think of looking across that river, I was up in Minnesota one time traveling, we were bicycling and we stopped in the afternoon to kind of go swimming down this little old creek, couldn’t be no water till this table and bath it off of the bar soap and whatnot and got back up was getting ready to saddle back up on her bicycle and keep going. And the sign of that little branch said Mississippi River and I got to looking at a map and we weren’t too far 10 miles maybe from Lake Itasca.
Hank Burdine: The headwaters.
Ramsey Russell: I had to go see it. And the guy said, well, I said, oh, we got to go, I got to go see the headwaters of Mississippi River. And at that point, you could literally step across it was like a clear little creek, gravel bottom, you step right across and it was unbelievable. How that thing transformed and cut from right there all the way down to New Orleans is just amazing.
Hank Burdine: You talk about the blues as an old blues friend of mine named Bigfoot Slim. He’d always sing a verse to one of his songs, he said that Mississippi River is big and wide, it keeps my baby on the other side. But you’re talking about the headwaters at Lake Itasca, my son Matt has made the solo trip in a canoe from the headwaters all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. And there’s a big portage that you have to do, once you get started on it, it goes into a marsh type area and you have to basically portage and drag your canoe and all stuff through there. And the second or third day he was on his journey, he saw these two canoes out there and there were some Ojibwe Native American Indians out there and they were harvesting wild rice. So what they would do, they would lean the canoe over on the side and they would take these cane sticks and whip the wild rice into the canoe and that’s how they would collect it and he stayed on camp with him for two nights helping collect a wild rice farm. And then from there, it gets into some mountainous rocky areas and the river is not that big and it opens up into lakes and all like that, then you get into all the locks and dams and you go through all that and then you get into the lower part of what we call the upper Miss, the upper Mississippi, which is above Saint Louis. Of course, Saint Louis is where the Missouri comes in, now you got to understand 41% of the continental United States drains into the Mississippi River that is its watershed. The 80% of the water volume comes out of the Ohio river which comes in at Cairo, but the sediment load, 80%, 90% of the sediment load comes out of the Missouri river which brings all the dirt and everything down in there, the Ohio cuts through rocks and all like that. So you get the majority of the water out of the Ohio basin, majority of the sediment out of the Missouri river. Now, when they were naming the river, had they called the Missouri River part of the Mississippi, then it’d be the longest river in the world as it is, we’re the third largest river system in the world. And also another thing and we look at the economic driver that Mississippi River is right in the middle of America, we say there are 4 coasts of America, you got the east coast, you got the gulf coast, you got the west coast and you got the Mississippi River running right through the middle of America that is the 4th coast of America. And it’s something out there and the fact that now with the Mississippi Rivers and tributes project that was put together after the Flood Control Act in 1928 after 1927 flood, that system, that project, it’s only about 85% complete, we still got some more work to do on it, but it ties in your navigation, your flood control, your levee systems, your reservoir systems and all like that and into tributaries, improvements and ports and harbors all up and down there. It is a major project that has right now bringing about a 75 to 80 to 1 return on its investment, it’s the only investment that it produces that amount of money in the history of the United States. And in 2011, we had the largest flood of our recorded history, carried 26% more water than the 1927 flood. But because of that system, that is in place now, we didn’t lose one life nor did we lose one acre of ground of water that wasn’t supposed to get wet. Now, they had opened up all the stops, it has gone away from a levies only policy which caused the 1927 flood to the MR&T project which opens up flood ways, we dynamite the bird point levee up at around New Madrid which allows a flood way to open up to save Cairo, Illinois, it opens up the Bonny Spillway down at New Orleans to protect New Orleans that opened up the Morganza Spillway which protected Baton Rouge. So people say, well, we control the river, I said, well, now, wait a minute, I like to say as a Levee Board commissioner that we can’t really tell the river to do this to do that, we work with the river and when the river gets to a stage where it wants to flex its muscles and go where it used to go, where it wants to go, you got to let it do that but you do it in a controlled manner. And we got one another area down there, old river control structure which is right south of Natchez which after 1953 we realized that the Atchafalaya River was fixing to capture the Mississippi River. And there was so much water going down that Atchafalaya basin that they had to do something, so then they put in the low cell structure and a lock and dam which allowed 30% of the water to go down to Atchafalaya and 70% to stay in the Mississippi River, that’s what it was doing in the 50s and that’s what it’s done today. Now, during the 1973 flood, that was a major flood, we had a major problem with that low sail structure and we lost a wing wall, the southernmost wing wall on the down river wing on it and they hadn’t found it yet, they don’t know where it is, it’s a huge piece of concrete, but it’s gone somewhere. And then they built the auxiliary structure and put in a hydroelectric dam right there close to it also to maintain that flow of 30% down to Atchafalaya and 70% down to Mississippi because if the Atchafalaya ever captures it, which it would have done by now, the river always moves, New Orleans and Baton Rouge would have dried up, you would have salt water come all the way up through there, the fresh water systems wouldn’t have worked, river navigation, the ports and harbors would not function because it would silt up. So we got to keep the river going down where it’s going right now, but in order to do that, we work with the river.
Ramsey Russell: Growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, what little boy didn’t want to be a towboat captain because that Mississippi River is so important, not only to the Mississippi and national economy, but to Greenville, Mississippi economy and all the “rich folks” I knew growing up were towboat pilots.
Hank Burdine: All of that began after the 1927 flood that we were just talking about. Part of the MR&T projects was channelization on that Mississippi River and taking out a lot of the bends, what caused the flood was the constriction of water at Mound Landing which is above Greenville as the river came into a series of bends, which when they took those bends out and straightened that river out, it took out about 37 miles of the Mississippi River right here around Greenville. Now, part of that was the Greenville harbor Dyke which took out a bend of the Mississippi River and created Lake Ferguson that opens up at the bottom of the lake into the river. But that harbor Dyke kept the Mississippi River from recapturing that part of its stream that created what we call a slack water harbor. People then could have boats, they could have big boats tied up on that because you didn’t have the horrendous current hallway that you have on the Mississippi River and you could have an industry, you could put a port down there, you could haul grain out and all that. And I talked a little bit earlier about this federal barge line totally owned by the United States, well, part of the MR&T project was the Corps of Engineers had to maintain traffic on the Mississippi River navigational and all like this. Well, as the Corps was out there doing that, so there were no private towing companies on the road, the Federal Line was the towing company. There were three guys working on Corps boats, a couple of dredges out of Vicksburg, it was Percy LeMay from Greenville, Gilda McCool who lived on Lake Washington, whose dad had a little farm down there on Lake Washington and a young man named Jesse Brent from Redwood, Mississippi. Now, they were working on Corps Engineers boats and they were probably making $10 a day on those boats. They got to thinking and maybe we ought to think about doing a little thing on our own, starting up our own little old towing company out here. Well, all the big people with big money, man, that’s the worst thing in the world you could do because the railroad company’s going to run you out of business. Well, they got to talking to Gilda McCool’s daddy at Lake Washington and he loaned those 3 boys $3000 and he was a big cotton farmer, loaned those 3 boys $3000 and they formed what is called Greenville Towing Company. And I had a dear friend of mine, he was an old black gentleman about 80 something years old and he was actually the best man in my wedding, he told a story about the time that he was out there at the old Greenville country club and big shots out there, they were shooting trap, but the traps back then were hand thrown, some of them were thrown by a machine, but they were glass balls filled with feathers and you’d throw those balls up there and you’d shoot them and a big burst of feathers if you hit the glass ball and all like that and they were out there doing that and he was out there one Sunday afternoon and this young gentleman came up there and asked for Mr. Brent and his name was Mr. Brent and who he asked for was Mr. George Taylor, Mr. George Taylor owned the Goya Grocery Company here in Greenville, which supplied all the needs and everything to the plantations all around out here. Well, John Johnson told him, he said, well, Mr. Taylor, he’s out there playing golf, says, well, I need to talk to him, said he may not be back in here for a couple hours, he says, well, I’ll wait and that was young Jesse Brent from Redwood, Mississippi. He worked a deal out with Mr. George Taylor that if they came up with a boat would, could they haul oil and gas and petroleum products out of Texas up the coastal through the coast to the Mississippi and up here to supply the Goya company with oil and gas and they cut a deal. Goya Supply, furnished the barge and Greenville Towing Company had a wooden boat, they called the Guild and that’s what they started hauling oil and gas out of Galveston, Texas. And I was talking to Lee Brent, Jesse Brent’s oldest son and he said that was the hottest, toughest little boat you have ever seen, I said, well, where did you sleep? He said, they had one bunk in there and it was back in the engine room and it was so hot and loud, he said, we just pitched tents out on the barge, we slept on the barge. And so that was the beginning of the towing industry in Greenville, Mississippi. And they were able to begin building these boats at Greenville machine works right across the levee, they would build these boats and they would drag them up the levee and slide them down the levee and push them into Lake Ferguson and they started building these boats like that. Well, there were nobody else building towboats at that time, this is back in the 30s and 40s and so Brent decided to split off from Greenville towing company, they built a couple more boats and then they decided to split off between – you had Bilbo Williamson also came in now on that much because he would supply the engines. So you had the three original one Percy LeMay, Gilda McCool and Jesse Brent and then they split off and Jesse Brent started up, Brent Towing Company and as the river industry grew and in the way you were just talking about, I mean, we at one point in time had 37 to industries in Greenville, it was known as the million dollar mile up and down Lake Ferguson and in Washington DC, Greenville, Mississippi was called the towboat capital of the world because they had so much business here, so much operations down here, built so many boats and had so many boats that were operating out of here. You had 150 something boats operating out of Greenville, Mississippi. And when Jesse Brent passed away, remember he started out with the Corps of Engineer making $10 a day, when he passed away, he had 27 tow boats and over 150 something chemical barges because he hauled fertilizer and oil and gas and such as that and that was a major. And I remember a –
Ramsey Russell: A little more than $10 a day, I imagine.
New Mississippi Entrepreneurs
Hank Burdine: A little more than $10 a day. And I remember an article in Time or Newsweek magazine talking about the brash new entrepreneurs, they talked about Andrew Young, I believe it was the black gentleman that was the mayor of Atlanta and help him do all of that and one more and then Jesse Brent was the other one that they interviewed. And at the end of that interview, it was a young reporter sent in here to interview Captain Jesse Brent, which is the way he still went by the name Captain, he was still towboat captain, went by Captain Jesse Brent and at the end of the interview, he said, now Mr. Brent, just how much money do you have? Captain Jesse Brant looked at him, he says, son, I got enough money to keep me in good whiskey and steaks for the rest of my life. So when you talk about characters on the river, that’s one right on to you. And Jesse Brent was the waterways journal, which is the publication of the towing industry in America named him the river man of the century. Now, for that to come out about Mr. Jesse Brent, this bridge right here in Greenville Jesse Brent bridge, right on, he wielded so much power if you may say that within the river industry and he was such an integral part of its beginnings of how it grew because there was nothing for them to have a friend say, I man, I’d really like to get in this business here, he told them how to build a boat, tell him what to do, show him how to do this, that and the other and it brings to mind my dear good friend Steve Golden down in Vicksburg, you grew up with Steve, you remember Steve. His family was from here, Golden acres north of Greenville, they went into business with Mr Jesse Brent when they had an ocean going boat down in South America and they would haul whatever goods and produce down out of South America and they’d bring back frozen beef back up here. And so that was in partnership with Mr. Golden. Well, then he came up here and Mr. Jesse said, well, shoot man, Vicksburg got a little port down there, so he goes down to Vicksburg starts building boats, comes up with Old Man River Towing Company and major influence on the Mississippi River as this industry grew and his son, Steve came up in that business and when the Jimmy Carter put the grain embargo on President Carter telling the Russian, we’re not going to sell you any more grain, we bad dogs over here. Russia said, okay, you all taught them how to grow soybean down, we just go buy them down there, well, that basically destroyed the towing industry. You had a lot of investor barges back then with the investment tax credit, law we had out there, you could put up $10,000 in the bank and loan you $100,000 and you build a barge, an open barge, where a lot of these little old widow ladies had 4, 5, 10 barges and they were making good money leasing them out to the towing companies. Well, the first thing happened when the grain barge go in the towing company just tied up those barges, they were leasing that, I’m going to keep my barges busy. And the Brent’s were able to tie up all their boats because they had a big place on Lake Ferguson and most of their boats were paid for, so they weathered that storm. But as it grew back then the Brent’s were able to sell out to what’s called Dixie Carriers, which is now Kirby Marine and Steve Golden, dear friend to the Brent’s was able to put a deal together to sell Old Man River towing company to Kirby Marine and within that deal he had in any business deal, you got a non-compete clause, you got agree not to go back into business for 5, 6 years, however long, Steve Golden was able to keep in touch with all his people, put in money in government bond and sit there and the day after his non-compete ran out, boom, he back into towing business, now he got 27 something towboat down in Pittsburgh. But when you look at the Golden Barge operation, they’re not your big three engine boats even though they got one or two of those now, they’re the small, sleek, economical, powerful, smaller boats and they’re strictly in the petrochemical business and they’re a massive force back on the Mississippi River right now. And it just makes me so proud when I’m on that river and I see a golden barge line boat coming down, man, I took my whistle, get on the radio, hey, how are you? And it’s a family deal is what that whole thing is. Steve tells me every Sunday, he called every towboat cabin he has, it’s out on that river knowing that they’re not in charge, that they’re on that boat working, he said, I just call them and talk to him and he said, it’s such a personal thing and then it’s that kind of relationship in these family owned operations that’s on that river that we’ve talked about. It’s something about that river, they know about the kids, they ask them how their kids are, they ask them how Steve kids are and Austin Golden is coming up in that business right now and doing super well with it and John Reid runs Chicago Plantation, which is a big hunting preserve they have between Vicksburg and Natchez, so it’s family stuff and it’s all on the river.
Ramsey Russell: Did you tell me you all are building or working on a museum up around Rosedale?
Hank Burdine: More than a museum. That’s a friend of mine, Jack Coleman and his wife Elizabeth Coleman got a bunch of buildings around and they have been in Jack’s granddad has sold the barrels to Perry Martin to put his whiskey in. So, Jack was able to work a deal out with the Perry Martin family and get the rights to the Martin moonshine and the recipe and we’re opening up a whiskey distiller in Rosedale along with museums and tasting rooms and restaurants and curio shops and all this other stuff. So, yeah, we’re fixing to start and I’m going to help them with the construction of the distilleries and all like that. So I’m learning a whole lot about whiskey myself. So that’s real exciting. And another thing that is happening, Terrene Landing right below Victoria Bend and has always been there as just a boat landing and the Corp of Engineers was able to use it when they were working on locks and dams up the Arkansas river and the Bolivar county has come in, floated some bonds redone that landing, built the road going up to it, put in restroom facilities, got a pavilion up there, redone the launch area going into the river and now you’ve got all of these river steamboat companies, the American Queen, Delta Queen, all these types of river excursion boats are landing there now. So, it’s an economic driver in a big way and folks get off the boats there and those buses meet them, they take them to the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, they take them to downtown Cleveland, they can run them out to Dockery plantation, which is the home of the Blues out there on highway 8 between Cleveland and Ruleville. They run them down to Indianola where the BB King Blues Museum is. And once we get this distillery going with all of the little attributes we going to have there, that’s the first stop off that boat come through Perry Martin, moonshine whiskey distillery.
Ramsey Russell: How long do you think Perry Martin was in business? Like what’s the end of his story? When did he go out of business?
Hank Burdine: Perry Martin made his last batch of whiskey when he was 90 years old and it was in the 60s when he did that, he had just built a brand new still and his grandson Melvin Martin was with him when he did that helped him build that still and he had just run off his first batch when he was raided by the federal government. And I’m going to quote Melvin Martin, he said, I helped him make his last batch of whiskey, it was a beautiful still and when they chopped it up, well, it just broke his heart, he told the revenuers that he would never build another still and would never make any more whiskey and they took him for his word because they knew who Mr. Martin was and I don’t even think they may have fined him, they didn’t send him to jail, he’s 90 years old, he never made another still and never made another batch of whiskey. So, and he started making it in the 30s, so he had a pretty good run.
Ramsey Russell: He sure did 40 years.
Hank Burdine: And there’s a lot of – well, I’m not going to say a lot of people, but there’s some people that still have bottles of Perry Martin and they’ll pull it out at special occasions.
Ramsey Russell: I sure would like to have a sip.
In the Whiskey
He’d sit you down in the kitchen and he’d give you a half a mason jar of that moonshine and have you drink it right there, so you will know how good it is.
Hank Burdine: I know two people that got bottles of it, but they won’t even let me have a sip of it. I said, well, just let me smell it. And there’s another thing about Perry Martin, that when he talks about when he was busted and then another thing when you would go down, Martin lived on an old houseboat and it was a quite elaborate, old shanty boat type thing and it had electricity but it did not have air conditioned, didn’t have anything like that, plumbing, I don’t know, I’m sure he had water down there, he hauled river water up in there. But if you came over that levee and want to buy some whiskey from Mr. Perry Martin, he said, all right son, come on in here. Now, this is told to me by a friend of mine that Will Gurley, people like that that live in Rosedale and used to buy Perry Martin whiskey, back then they were young, but he’d sell it to them. He’d sit you down in the kitchen and he’d give you a half a mason jar of that moonshine and have you drink it right there, so you will know how good it is. They said, as hot as it was in the summer time, said lots of time you couldn’t even make it half way back up that levee from drinking. And Melvin Martin went on to say, and I quote again, that whiskey granddaddy made was so good, if not even better than Crown Royal, it would go down real smooth and then there would be a real good fire. He said, and according to William Solomon who wrote a book about all of that, he said, people who weren’t even whiskey drinkers drank Perry Martin whenever they could. And there was another story that everybody in the Rosedale area were in the whiskey, they were either drinking it or they were making it or they were hauling it and they didn’t bother anybody. And the town council, the sheriff, the chief of police, they didn’t bother him because he was as good a man as he was a moonshiner. And there’s another story that he talked about when he got busted one time and they broke up his still and another little story about that moonshine whiskey says one fellow that drank it recalled Perry Martin as so smooth but so strong, it would make a little rabbit walk right up and spit in a bulldog’s face. And Perry Martin, he’s been remembered and I’ll read another little because this tell so much about him and the river type of people that we talked about. Perry Martin had been remembered as a good man, often giving his money away freely to those in need. He raised a little girl who had been abandoned on a shanty boat and he ended up sending her to college. He read another young man outside of his family that continues to live in Rosedale. He entertained visitors, customers and politicians alike often telling humorous stories. One such to was about a revenue that destroyed his still with an ax and he poured the broken bottles of moonshine over his slick bald head as he claimed, it helped his hair grow and Perry Martin knew better, claiming he just wanted the chance to drink the whiskey that dripped off his pointed nose and on his long outstretched tongue. So the Mississippi River creates characters has always and once the Lake Ferguson was created by the Mississippi River and Tributary Act and you could have boats and a slack water harbour, my daddy in the road building business was able to come up with – put a nice boat, it was a 48ft twins crew Matthews wooden hold boat came from up river and there were also two or three other boats, the Verden family, they had a big boat. Joe Borderline had a still hull boat called the Gulf Pride, he was in the Gulf oil business and you had Charlie P. Williams who was a big shot Delta and all around here and he had a boat that was called a Mr. Charlie. Well, these folks, they were into goose hunting and they would go out on the river and they would tie their boats up and they would stay on those boats and run their little boat to little skiff out and all and they would goose hunt and they would dig pits in the sand bars and go out there and goose hunt. Now, they would duck hunt for sport in the afternoons, they’d find the pockets that the ducks were going into and they’d go over and shoot up ducks and do all that, but they were mainly those original folks back in the 30s and once they, I think they got the Lake Ferguson built about 1937 or 1938 and also at that time that created Lake Whittington when they took off cotton. So, that was not as open or protected harbor as Lake Ferguson was, so you never had any industry get on that lake up there because it was just a narrow neck that often times silt it in, you couldn’t hardly get in and out at low water, which you can on Lake Ferguson. So that was the beginning of the era on the Mississippi River as far as goose hunting. Then you had other folks that came up Herman J. that you know stories are all about him hunting out on that river. And you had the yacht club and the yacht club was a big old quarter boat that they had tied up there and they had wharfs off of the quarter boat where you could tie your big boats up and all like that.
Ramsey Russell: I caught the first fish in my life off of that Yacht club.
Hank Burdine: Me too. I did too. And old gentleman named Willie that took care of all them boats, he probably teach you how to beat and carry on like that. And it’s a lot of good history down there and the Mississippi River, of course, is a magnet and what I think is the largest migratory area in North America, coming right straight down the Mississippi Flyway and those ducks have been coming down here for ever and ever. And before that time, your main duck areas not only on the Mississippi River on your grass flats, as your water would go down and the grasses would grow and then you get a rise in the river and your grass field, get a little water on them, you got grass feed and everywhere you had these natural Oxbow lakes, Beaver Dam outside of Tunica Mississippi, Lake Wapanocca over west of Memphis over in Arkansas, these were natural habitat areas that the ducks would migrate to and just flock to. So those were the original types of areas where the major duck hunting was done along with Swan Lake right here in Washington County across from Lake Washington. That Swan Lake Hunting Club started off about 1893 and it was a gentleman’s club to afford them relaxation from business and folks would come down there and had a clubhouse and they had the perpetual easement to 5000 acres of the Swan Lake bed, which was a sump for South Washington County. And you had still came out of it, you had Baker Bayou, Black Bayou all came in there and the water just summed out in that lake and it would slowly go down. And the lake bed itself, the 4000, 5000 acres did not have, but maybe two blinds in it. They didn’t believe in sitting on a duck line and hoping the duck going to come to you, they had trails cut through there and they had flat bottom cypress boats that a man would stand in the back with a pole and you would, the shooter would sit in the front of the boat and a slat back chair with the cane bottom and the legs cut off of it and you would be pulled through these trails and you jump shooting ducks. Now, back during those time, there were no game laws, there were no limits so to speak. But the Swan Lake Hunting Club imposed one of the first self-imposed limits on any of these hunting clubs down south and their limit was you could only take 100 shells into the swamp and it was however many ducks you could kill with 100 shells, that was your limit. And that’s a whole another story going in, now what has happened to Swan Lake, it’s just a terrible situation down there, but the government has it.
Ramsey Russell: And that might be a subject for another time. Hank, tell everybody about your book because I know the story, but we talked about Perry Martin, some of the quotes you were reading from an excerpt out of your book. Tell about that book real quick.
Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy
Hank Burdine: I lost my wife about 20 something years, 22 something years ago and living in Florida and Scott Coopwood and his wife Cindy, they came up with a magazine called Delta magazine. It’s all about the Delta and we got a hunting issue that comes out every fall and the first issue had Lee and Pup McCarthy on the front cover of the book, The Pottery People from Marigold, Mississippi. And I read that I said, man, this is a really cool book about one of the most interesting places in America, the Mississippi Delta. And I sent word to him and I’d like to write a final word, the last page in the magazine about why I can’t leave Mississippi even though I live in Florida at the time and they published it and they call me up and says, maybe you’d like to write an article. Would you write an article on such and such? I said, no, I really don’t want to write that, but I’ll write one on this and they said, okay, do it. And so after that first article I had published in there every time they’d call me back up what you got for us next month, so that was 25 years ago. And we came up with a book, a compiled book of 70 so of my articles that I’ve written for Delta magazine and the name of it is Dust in the Road “Recollections of a Delta Boy”. And it really is a good book because it breaks down into the history of the Delta, the blues in the delta, the literary, the arts in the delta places to eat in the Delta, all different types of things. And the fact that each one of those articles, about 1500, 1600 words, you can pick it up and read one article, let down, go to sleep and read another in the next night. So, the one thing I was thinking about this yesterday, when I had my granddaughter come in, I want to tell a little story and I tell him to sit down and just blew in my head, the first quote in my book is from a friend of mine named Duff from Ruleville, Mississippi, part of the Tangents, the Mississippi House Band from back in the days and his quote and it’s the first quote in my book and it says, quoted by Duff, it says, come in, sit down and close the door, let me tell you some of everything I know. So if you want to learn about the Delta, you want to learn about hunting, you want to learn about the arts, the literature, the culture, the people in the delta, the farming, all of this stuff, get that book Dust in the Road “Recollections of a Delta Boy”
Ramsey Russell: It’s just a bunch of good stories and I’m going to end this episode on this thing, we talked about all these river connections and delta connections, right here around Greenville, Mississippi. My youngest son finished the Marines after 4 years, he loved Okinawa, so he decided he’s over to Hawaii, going to continue on that lifestyle and going to college, but the other day and he just make her daddy proud, he knows you raised him, right? I get a text from him saying, could you send me a collard green recipe? And he said, I want sure enough, Greenville Mississippi collard green, I sent him one.
Hank Burdine: There you go, nothing better. But along with that recipe, you better send him a recipe on cornbread too and a black iron skillet.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, I did, that comes with in. And it comes like a surprise, he does have a cast iron skillet seasoned. Anyway, folks, you all been listening to Hank Burdine, my friend, great storyteller, check out his book, tell them the title one more time.
Hank Burdine: Dust in the Road “Recollection of a Delta Boy”.
Ramsey Russell: You all check it out. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.