I shared our appreciation for the Sky Lake trust in a recent podcast episode Off the Beaten Path report. But here is some more detail and photos about this marvelous place I discovered while taking a family trip in our Roadtrek up through the Mississippi Delta on the highway immortalized by Bob Dylan in a song and album title: Highway 61.
We had left Vicksburg heading north and got off U.S. Route 61 and on to Mississippi Highway 49 west in search of a tree we’d heard about via word of mouth. This tree visit outside Belzoni, we thought, would be a throwaway for the kids, a roadside dinosaur, not an archeological and forensic biology field trip, not time inside the temple of creation – but it was indeed those things and more.
The site is just off Simmons road, a few miles north of Belzoni. The Simmons family owned this property, over 775 acres, alongside an oxbow off the Mississippi called Sky Lake for many, many years. For most of that time it was a largely inaccessible swamp between cultivated fields and the lake. The fields on the other side of this flood buffer were worked in 40-acre plots by sharecroppers and that land, I believe, was also owned by the Simmons family. It was a rump plantation by the mid 20th century., being sold off over time as the entire labor and technology structure changed and, of course, as the family rumbled over the furrows of generational change.
Some of that I know as fact, some is speculation, but the story is a very familiar one in the delta region.
At any rate, in 1989 Mr. Simmons and his daughter were on horseback in the swamp as there had been a three-year dry period and the area was more accessible than usual. They came across a big tree.
Then some more big trees. Really BIG cypress trees. Some over 1,000 years old. Mr. Simmons called the state Forestry commission and they sent someone out to look at them. The forester immediately told them that one of these trees was easily the largest in Mississippi. From there a series of agencies got involved – the Levee Board, the DWFP (Dept. of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks)… after a good deal of effort the Simmons family was able to donate the land in trust and the state built a boardwalk and set of very well done interpretive signs.
Notes one of the signs: “Cypress timber has been prized for centuries because of its resistance to decay. Cypress was logged to make posts, flooring, paneling, shingles and other products. Some large cypress forests in the Mississippi Delta were cleared and burned to make room for growing crops such as cotton and soybeans. Cypress trees can grow up to 120 feet tall. One large cypress tree can yield nearly 100,000 board feet of lumber, enough to build six or eight medium-sized houses.”
There is a nice parking area, and amphitheater for groups, a restroom facility = all very like what you would find on the Natchez Trace Parkway but way off in the deep delta. We were as a group, and to a one, entranced.
After a very leisurely time with these Mississippi giants we came back, hushed and awed, to the Roadtrek.
There waiting for us was a woman who was attending to something in restroom storage area – Mrs. Simmons herself! And what a treat she is! Almost 80, she said, and still very interested and involved in the Sky Lake site. We talked about how it came to be, about how the boardwalk itself was built, about groups that come. She pointed to a large open field and a line of trees on the other side of it.
“There were a hundred homes here” she said, “sharecroppers. Sometimes I think of that as the good old days.”
This was carefully phrased and maybe risky talk but we were comfortable with each other. She was referring to the enormous changes in labor and agriculture over a hundred years or so, and the ambiguous legacy of integration.
I say “ambiguous” because poverty did not disappear with integration, did not disappear with the cropper cabins, as a quick ride through downtown Belzoni, seven miles away, clearly shows.
Mrs. Simmons still tends the cemetery created by the now-vanished cropper settlement and the descendants of those that lived in those hundred houses send what they can, when they can, for the upkeep. The ancient trees look on.
There is much to see and do in the Mississippi delta region – you can route yourself past the infamous Parchman Prison near Ruleville on your way up to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion just south of Memphis on U.S. Highway 51. You can visit authentic blues juke joints such as the Blue Front Café in Bentonia or upscale clubs like Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues club in Clarksdale.
Take your time. Soak in the history. Eat some catfish.