Location & Hours



A Closer Look - November 2020 - July 2021

A Closer Look at Memphis Bridges - June/July 2021

Introduction to Bridges - June 2, 2021

Bridges Over the Mississippi River, Part I  - June 18, 2021

Bridges Over the Mississippi River, Part 2 - July 12, 2021

Other Memphis Bridges - July 16, 2021

Other Memphis Bridges - July 16, 2021

While the Mississippi River bridges are the largest bridges in Memphis, they are far from the only ones. Bridges are commonplace components of our built environment. Memphis is full of road, railroad, and pedestrian bridges. There is even a taxiway bridge at the Memphis International Airport.

Road Bridges

Road bridges carry automobile traffic over railroad yards, bodies of water, culverts, and other roads. There are hundreds of these bridges in Shelby County. One is the steel truss bridge south of I-55 on South Third Street. The Virginia Bridge and Iron Company built it in 1930. It originally carried two lanes in each direction of US 61, the highway that Third Street carries through the south of Memphis. Today, it carries three southbound lanes of traffic in one direction. The northbound lanes have their own bridge over Nonconnah Creek and the railroad.

Two of Memphis’s road bridges are considered historically significant. In 1903, city engineer J.A. Omberg designed the Morgan Bridge on East Dudley Street at the entrance to Elmwood Cemetery. The arch span bridge carries a single lane of traffic and pedestrians across four railroad tracks. It also provides visitors to Elmwood Cemetery a sweeping panoramic view as they enter the grounds. The Morgan Bridge is still in service and the National Park service listed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) considers one other Shelby County Bridge eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Iroquois Road bridge spans Cypress Creek in the Chickasaw Gardens subdivision located directly behind the MoSH Pink Palace campus. The three-post concrete arch bridge crosses the manmade canal that spans the subdivision. The bridge was designed to be aesthetically appealing and blend into the subdivision’s park-like setting. It is built of brown exposed aggregate concrete with three ogee-shaped (S-shaped) spandrel arches. The ogee motif is repeated on the railing.

Bridges must be regularly inspected to ensure their safety. Recently, TDOT implemented MemFix4, a $54 million rehabilitation project to repair four Memphis  bridges. They are located on East and West Poplar Avenue, Norfolk Southern Railroad, and Park Avenue over I-240 in East Memphis. These bridges were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s and had structural deterioration and deficiencies. TDOT used Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) to fix the bridges. Through weekend bridge and interstate closures, workers removed and rebuilt the bridges in 56-hour periods over 12 weekend closures. The Norfolk Southern Railroad bridge had an additional challenge. The railroad required continuous operation of the tracks, allowing only two 12-hour interruptions to a single track at a time. Workers constructed a shoofly, or temporary, bridge next to the existing bridge. Trains traveled on the shoofly structure while workers demolished the old bridge and built the substructures of the new bridge. The two 2.2 million pound superstructure sections were built to slide into place one at a time during two weekend interstate closures.

Pedestrian Bridges

Memphis’s pedestrian bridges are designed for walkers and cyclists.  In August 2019, the University of Memphis opened a pedestrian bridge that takes foot-traffic over the dangerous crossing of Southern Avenue, Norfolk Southern Railroad, and Walker Avenue. It is named the Hunter Harrison Memorial Bridge in honor of Hunter Harrison, a university alumnus who became the chief executive of four major railroads. Haizlip Studio designed a 200-foot long cable-stayed bridge. Cable-stayed bridges rely on cables running from the bridge decking to a single tower. The tower absorbs and disperses compressional forces. The university’s bridge has a 104-foot tall tower that anchors ten of the sleeved cables. Four additional cables are angled down toward the south side of the bridge.

The Memphis Urban Arts Commission funded an innovative light installation on another University of Memphis project, the Court Avenue Pedestrian Bridge, which connects the University’s Downtown law school with Memphis Park. The bridge gives pedestrians a unique perspective on the Mississippi River and a novel experience with its light design, a motion-activated, interactive sequence of light and color.

Pedestrian bridges can also be skybridges, covered overhead walkways that connect two buildings. The FedEx Memphis Hub has 290-foot high skybridge that connects the employee parking lot and the employee screening facility and carries employees over Democrat Avenue. Tri-State Ironworks assembled the 600,000-pound bridge on-site and then Barnhart Crane lifted the structure into place. The bridge opened in 2012 and has a 220-foot span as well as cantilevered ends beyond the support piers.

Not all pedestrian bridges go over roads. The Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge connects Shelby Farm’s trail system with the Wolf River Greenway through the Lucius Birch State Natural Area. The 200-foot long bridge has a steel-truss span and wood decking. Contractors assembled the trusses off site and then used cranes to lift the structure into place. The cranes held the structure while workers and spliced the trusses together over the river. A splice is a structural connection, and it was a challenge for the engineers to design a splice in the middle of the bridge that could withstand large forces while also having a connection that could be easily installed with the cranes supported the bridge halves. The splice has four plates that slide inside adjacent members. The bridge’s superstructure is made of weathering steel material that corrodes to protect itself without needing to be painted.

Airport Bridges

Cars, people, and railroads are not the only entities that use bridges. Airplanes can also use bridges as taxiways, the routes along which an aircraft can taxi when moving to or from a runway. The taxiway bridge at the Memphis International Airport allows planes to taxi over Winchester Road over a reinforced concrete bridge. The airport recently received a large federal grant to reimburse the Airport Authority for the Taxiway Y bridge construction.

Bridges Over the Mississippi, Part 2 - July 12, 2021

Memphis-Arkansas Bridge

By the late 1930s, automobile traffic had grown exponentially, and the cantilevered highway lanes on the sides of the Harahan Bridge were not adequate to handle the number of cars crossing the river.

Later that year Congress approved funding for the project. However, the United States’ involvement in World War II caused material shortages that delayed planning the new bridge until the war ended.

In 1944, the Tennessee and Arkansas Departments of Highways and the Public Roads Administration hired the engineering firm Modjeski and Masters to design the new highway bridge. Ralph Modjeski hired Frank M. Masters as an inspector, draftsman, and later an engineer. Masters oversaw the fabrication of the materials for the Harahan Bridge. Modjeski entered a partnership with Masters in 1923. Modjeski died in 1940, but the firm survived him. The Army Corps of Engineers required that the bridge piers be in line with the piers on Frisco and Harahan Bridges to make river navigation easier. Engineers designed a cantilevered truss bridge, using Warren trusses with verticals.

A Warren truss is also called an equilateral truss because it uses equilateral triangles. Loads on the diagonals alternate between compression and tension. As the triangles get larger, the horizontal spans become less stable, which causes deflection, the movement of a structural member from its original position because of the forces or loads applied to it. Adding a vertical support within the triangle stabilizes the top horizontal structural support to prevent it from deflecting.

Construction began on August 24, 1945, approximately 150 feet downriver from the Frisco Bridge. The underwater workers who dug the foundations for the piers were known as “sandhogs.”

Sandhogs made $17.50 a day (about $250 today) for working two 40-minute shifts followed by an hour in a decompression chamber. A shift started in a compression chamber to prepare for the descent. Within five minutes, the men were put under 34 pounds of air pressure. They then took an elevator down until they were 15 feet above the chamber where they worked and descended a ladder the rest of the way down. They used pressurized shovels to pry mud off of the riverbank and then regular shovels to fill up buckets to send to the surface through air-tight chutes.

The substructure construction was completed in 1948, and work on the superstructure began in August of that year with assembly of the truss spans. Each of the five Warren trusses is 790 feet long. Combined with the approach segments, the bridge’s total length is 5,222 feet. It is 52 feet wide, accommodating 4 lanes of traffic and 2 sidewalks, and it sits 112 feet above the water. The bridge was constructed before the introduction of the Interstate Highway System. As a result, the it was not built to Interstate Highway standards, lacking a concrete barrier between the traffic lanes and sidewalks on either side of the roadway. In the 1970s, workers added a concrete barrier to prevent head-on collisions. The highway that ran across the bridge later became part of I-55.

When it opened on December 17, 1949, the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge was the first bridge on the Mississippi River designed to exclusively carry automobile traffic. Despite the official name, locals frequently refer to the bridge as the “Old Bridge.” In 2001, the National Parks service added the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge to the National Register of Historic Places because of its significance as “the best example of a continuous truss, Warren truss with verticals, through truss, bridge designed exclusively for vehicular traffic in the area.” The sidewalk and bridge are also listed as part of the Mississippi River Trail, a designated bicycle and pedestrian trail that extends from the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the mouth of the river in Venice, Louisiana. However, pedestrian and bike travel is not recommended on the sidewalk and is prohibited on the vehicle traffic lanes. Big River Crossing provided a safer alternative with the pedestrian/bicycle path on the Harahan Bridge, and eliminated the need for pedestrian crossing on the I-55 bridge.


Hernando de Soto Bridge

The Hernando de Soto Bridge is the newest bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis. Completed in 1973, this bridge is still known to many Memphians as the “New Bridge” despite being 47 years old. Thanks to the bridge’s iconic arches, it is often called the “M Bridge.” This bridge carries I-40 across the river. Today, an estimated 60,000 cars cross the bridge each day.

The Arkansas and Tennessee Highway Departments hired Hazelet & Erdal, an engineering firm based in Louisville, Kentucky, as the project’s consulting engineers. Charles R. Wolff was the project’s chief engineer. Unlike the other three Mississippi River bridges, which feature cantilevered truss designs, the Hernando de Soto bridge is a two-span tied-arch truss bridge.

A tied-arch bridge, or a bowstring bridge, is composed of a top arch, hangers, tie beams, and deck system. The hangers suspend the deck system from the arch. The load carried by the hangers causes thrust in the arch. This thrust is resisted by the tension in the tie beams preventing deflection in the arch. There are two 900’ steel arch spans and five steel box girder spans.

Bethlehem Steel Corporation fabricated and erected more than 21,000 tons of steel for the bridge. They shop-assembled the 392-foot long box girders, which they moved to Memphis by lowering them onto a pair of barges that carried them 1,200 miles down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. There was one fatality during construction, when a carpenter fell 50 feet from a bridge pier and struck his head on a beam.

The bridge is 3.3 miles long with 164 spans, 160 piers, and 10 abutments. Construction began in May 1967. The bridge opened on August 17, 1973, with a mid-bridge ceremony attended by the Tennessee and Arkansas governors. The Shaeffer family paid $1,600, which was donated to charity, to be the first to drive across the bridge. In 1986, the bridge was lit with 200 sodium vapor lights, and an estimated 200,000 people watched the first illumination. A boat parade, air show, Memphis Symphony Orchestra concert, and a black-tie gala at Mud Island also marked the occasion. In 2018, the Mighty Lights debuted on the Hernando de Soto Bridge. There are nearly 10,000 individually controllable LED light points that can create static displays or animated color shows, which occur nightly between sundown and 10:30PM. The US Coast Guard occasionally turns off the bridge lights to give barges passing underneath the bridge maximum visibility.  

The bridge is at the southeastern edge of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which means that it could need to survive an earthquake. In 1992, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department made seismic evaluation and retrofit of the bridge and its approaches a priority. Since this bridge is considered a vital defense and commercial link, it needs to remain operational following a magnitude 7.7 earthquake. It must be functional immediately after an earthquake for emergency vehicles and operational for the public after being closed for inspection. Construction on the retrofit began in the early 2000s.

Bridges Over the Mississippi, Part 1 - June 18, 2021

There are four bridges that cross the Mississippi River at Memphis. They are essential pieces of infrastructure that allow trains, automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians to cross between Arkansas and Tennessee. Before these bridges, the only way across the river at Memphis was by ferry.  

Frisco Bridge 

The first bridge on the lower Mississippi River south of St. Louis opened in Memphis on May 12, 1892. Originally named The Great Bridge at Memphis, the name was later shortened to the Memphis Bridge. It became the Frisco Bridge in 1903 when it was purchased by the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway.  

The Kansas City and Memphis Railway and Bridge Company (KCFS&M) hired George S. Morison to be the project’s chief engineer. Originally trained as a lawyer, Morison switched to civil engineering in 1867. He designed a cantilevered truss bridge to span the river. A cantilever is a structural member that is supported on only one end. Truss bridges are an assembly of braces, struts, and ties that create a rigid structure that extends above the bridge deck, which is the usable surface of the bridge. Below the deck there are beams, stringers, and more bracing. A cantilevered bridge uses piers, solid supports that rest on the river bottom or foundations built below the river bottom, to support bridge sections that form an anchor arm and a cantilever arm that support a suspended span in the middle of the bridge. This design is mirrored so that both sides of the bridge are identical. The Frisco Bridge’s design features a 790-foot main span along with two additional 600-foot spans, spanning 4,887 feet overall. The bridge sits 65 feet above water (109 feet at its tallest point) and is 30 feet wide. Memphis officials insisted that the bridge carry pedestrian and buggy traffic as well as trains so Morison made provisions for highway traffic in his design. Buggies were allowed on the bridge as long as there was no train using the bridge.  

Construction began on November 7, 1888, with the timber framing for the first caisson, a large, watertight chamber used by workers for underwater construction. Water is pumped out to keep the interior dry so that workers can build piers to support the bridge. For the Frisco Bridge, workers used pneumatic pumps installed on the steamships John Beatram and John F. Lincoln to pump the water out.  Before installing the caissons, workers placed woven mats at the pier sites to protect the sites from scour, the abrasive effect of swift flowing water. For Pier II, the first constructed, two barges wove mats that were 240 feet long and 400 feet wide. Workers weighted the mats with rocks to sink them to the riverbed. They used barges to maneuver the caisson into place, sunk and anchored it, and then excavated using sand pumps and clay hoists until the cutting edge of the caisson was deep enough in the riverbed. After sealing the work chamber, which was 130 feet below water level, workers spent 28 days digging out and laying the foundation of the first pier, which eventually sank into 18 feet of clay. Workers could only stay in the work chamber for 45 minutes to avoid getting decompression sickness, also known as the bends, which killed four workers. On February 10, 1891, the steamer Port Eads struck the unfinished, submerged pier and sank, killing five people aboard. Similar processes were used to create the other parts of the bridge’s substructure. 

Workers constructed the superstructure out of open-hearth steel, a technological advancement at the time. At the time of construction, the bridge cost $3 million, roughly $88 million in today’s dollars. Upon completion, it was one of the longest railroad bridges in the world, and at 65 feet above the water, it had the highest clearance of any bridge from its era.  

When the bridge opened, thousands of people turned out for a day of celebration with cannon fire as the first train crossed the bridge and fireworks. The Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, predecessor to The Commercial Appeal, declared the bridge a “world wonder” and stated that its opening “was the most auspicious to the people of Memphis in the history of the city.” Similarly, the Railroad Gazette called the bridge “one of the greatest bridges of the world, one that is remarkable not only for the length of the span, but for the depth of the foundations, the originality of the methods used in erecting them, and for the simplicity and skill in its design. No bridge anywhere near as remarkable has ever been so quietly built.” 

The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Frisco Bridge (then called Morison’s Memphis Bridge) a Historical Civil Engineering Landmark, recognizing the creativity and innovation of the design and the challenging conditions of the bridge’s construction. It is currently owned and operated by BNSF Railroad. 

Harahan Bridge 

Within 20 years of the Frisco Bridge opening, Memphis needed another bridge to accommodate increased rail traffic. Construction on a new bridge began in 1913. The bridge was originally called Rock Island Bridge, but before the bridge was finished, Rock Island Railroad president J.T Harahan died after his automobile was struck by a train. As a result, officials renamed the bridge in his honor. 

Ralph Modjeski, one of the most celebrated bridge engineers on the 20th century, designed the Harahan Bridge. Modjeski was born in Bochinia, Poland, and immigrated to America in 1876. He was a senior intern to George Morison for the Frisco Bridge project. For the Harahan Bridge, Modjeski designed a cantilevered through truss bridge that carries two rail lines 108 feet above the water. The bridge is 4,973 feet in total length with a main structure of roughly 2,548 feet. Of that, 2,201 feet is a through truss design above the bridge deck. Starting from the Memphis side, there are five spans that are roughly 186, 790, 621, 604, and 347 feet, respectively. The remaining 2,424 feet on the west end is a steel lower trestle. The cantilevered roadways on each side of the bridge allowed for vehicular traffic. Highway traffic used the Harahan Bridge from 1917 to 1949, the year the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge opened. 

Workers used caissons to create the foundations and piers for the bridge. Shortages caused by World War I led to a delay in steel fabrication for the bridge superstructure, but work resumed in 1915. Construction was dangerous, and 23 workers died in accidents. The Harahan Bridge opened to railroad traffic on July 14, 1916, but there were no public celebrations out of respect for the ongoing war. On September 17, 1928, sparks from a locomotive started a fire on the wood decking of the bridge. By the time the firefighters arrived, the fire was blazing. It took six fire companies several hours to fight the fire. Both vehicular and rail travel were severely impacted. 

In 2016, a major infrastructure project converted the north vehicular deck into a pedestrian walkway named the Big River Crossing. It is the longest public pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi. At nearly a mile in length, it is also one of the country’s longest active bicycle bridges. It is part of the 10-mile, multi-modal corridor that links Memphis, West Memphis, and the Delta region. It also features over 100,000 LED lights that can produce hundreds of configurations and are programmed to commemorate special events, holidays, and civic causes. The railroad can dim the lights if needed for visibility. In 2017, the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design in combination with The European Centre for Architecture, Art, Design and Urban Studies awarded the Big River Crossing its prestigious American Architecture Award. 

For further reading: 

The Memphis Bridge by George Shattuck Morison, 1894. 

Introduction to Bridges - June 2, 2021

Bridges are everywhere in Memphis. We rely on them to cross physical obstacles, such as bodies of water, roads, and valleys. Bridges also connect us, providing essential links between people, places, and resources. There are the four large, iconic bridges that cross the Mississippi River. There are also pedestrian bridges, including those at the University of Memphis, the Wolf River Greenway, and Riverside Drive. There are bridges that allow roads to cross I-40, railroad bridges, bridges over creeks and smaller rivers, and a taxiway bridge at the airport.  State and local governments maintain a total of 1,097 bridges in Shelby County. This month we will explore bridges, a critical element of our city’s built environment. Without them, Memphis could not be a major distribution center.


Bridges, defined as structures that horizontally span between supports, have large areas, called spans, with no supports underneath to push back against the forces created by live loads, dead loads, and gravity. These forces are constantly pushing against the spans in multiple directions. The longer a bridge, the more vulnerable it is to damage from the forces acting on it. Some of the forces that work on a bridge are compression, tension, torsion, and shear stress. Compression squeezes or pushes inward, while tension is the opposite, a force that stretches or pulls outwards. These forces can be spread out along a wider area using devices such as long beams called girders or trusses, which are assemblies of beams that create a rigid structure. Compression and tension can also be transferred to other structures such as abutments, the end supports on a bridge. Torsion is a twisting force, and shear stress is the force that occurs when two adjacent parts of the structure are forced in opposite directions.

Bridge Design

Bridges work by balancing and transferring all of these forces throughout the entire structure. Civil and structural engineers design bridges to ensure the safety of the public. They need to understand the complete problem the bridge is going to solve before beginning the design. These include the intended function of the bridge, the natural phenomena the structure needs to withstand, and what materials should be used. Next, they consider the types of loads the bridge will carry. These include live loads such as trains, bikes, people, and cars. Engineers also take the dead load of the bridge into account. Dead loads are created by the weight of the bridge and any permanent objects affixed to it, such as toll booths, signs, and road surfaces. They also consider environmental loads like tornadoes or earthquakes that could act on the bridge because of weather or other environmental influences. Next, they combine these loads to determine what combination provides the highest potential force on the bridge. Then, they use mathematical equations to decide the type and amount of material needed to support the loads in their designs. Finally, engineers consider different design ideas that accommodate the anticipated loading and the type and amount of material they need. Bridge supports need to be strong enough to hold up the structure. The span, the distance between two supports on a structure, are often made as short as possible. Finally, they split the design into smaller parts to create the design criteria for all of the bridge components.

Bridge Types

Different types of bridges handle these physical stresses in various ways. There are six main types of bridges that incorporate the key structural components of beams, arches, trusses, and suspensions. One of the simplest types is a beam bridge, also known as a girder bridge. A beam bridge consists of a horizontal structure, or beam, stretched between two supports. They often have additional piers between the abutments to provide additional support. 

Truss bridges use beams assembled into triangular sections to absorb compression and tension and disperse the force over a larger area. This function allows the bridge to span longer distances and carry heavier loads. Arch bridges use semicircular structures to spread compression throughout the entire structure and divert weight onto the abutments. Suspension bridges suspend the bridge decking from cables running from towers. Compression pushes down on the deck before being transferred up to the cables and transferred to the towers. The towers then disperse the compression force into the earth. A suspension bridge’s supporting cables are grounded in anchorages, usually solid rock or concrete blocks, that extend beyond the sides of the bridge. Tension passes through the supporting cables into the anchorages and into the ground.

Cable-stayed bridges rely on cables running from the bridge decking to a single tower rather than anchorages. The tower absorbs and disperses compressional forces. Cantilever bridges are constructed using cantilevers, horizontal structures that are only supported on one end, similar to a diving board. The cantilever arms are connected by a suspended span with no support directly underneath.


Engineers specify what material will be used to construct their bridge design. For much of history, humans constructed bridges out of stone, especially in arch bridges. Stone occurs naturally and does not require much maintenance. It has also become expensive, which is why it is seldom used in modern bridges. Wood is another material that is rarely used for long bridges. While wood is tough and naturally occurring, it is highly flammable, susceptible to rot and disease, and subject to insect infestation.

Modern bridges are often constructed using concrete as a primary material. Concrete is made of water, an aggregate such as rock, sand, or gravel, and portland cement, which is manufactured from limestone and clay. The portland cement creates a paste with the water that binds with the aggregate and hardens as it dries. Concrete is strong in compression, but weak in tension. It is effective as a vertical column or supporting post, but when it is used horizontally in a slab or beam, it begins to crack after short distances unless it is made thicker or reinforced by adding metal reinforcing bars, or rebar. Making the concrete thicker increases the weight. Engineers have to balance the thickness of concrete and rebar use in a beam or slab so that it can span greater distances. Concrete can span even further when it is prestressed using compression. Prestressed concrete is commonly used in modern bridge construction.

Steel is also used in modern bridge construction. Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, with iron being the major component. Iron on its own is soft, but the addition of small amounts of carbon strengthens the resulting alloy. As a construction material, steel is strong, durable, and has a high level of quality control.

For further reading:

Awesome Engineering: Engineering Bridges by Sally Spray

A Closer Look at The History of Cotton - April/May 2021

Science of Cotton - April 8, 2021

Growing Cotton - April 20, 2021

Growing Cotton - April 20,2021

From the antebellum period until World War II, cotton production was a labor-intensive process. Initially, enslaved workers on the lower Mississippi River Valley’s cotton plantations tilled, planted, weeded, irrigated, harvested, cleaned, and packed the cotton. After the Civil War, the labor model shifted to sharecropping and tenant farming. By the 1940s, the model changed again towards mechanization, which lessened the number of workers needed.


The climate of the southern United States was well suited for growing short staple cotton. The cotton gin, which Eli Whitney patented in 1794, made processing short staple cotton less labor intensive, and large plantations became more economically profitable. Rather than reducing the need for enslaved labor, the cotton gin actually increased the demand for enslaved workers to farm more acres and create a larger profit. In 1807, the U.S. Congress passed the Slave Trade Act, which banned the transatlantic slave trade, meaning Africans could no longer legally be transported from Africa to the United States as enslaved people. To meet the labor demands, slave owners in Eastern states sold at least 500,000 enslaved people to Southern entrepreneurs to clear forests and swamps in the Mississippi Delta, the Memphis region, Kentucky, and Missouri and to work on plantations. Enslaved field laborers on cotton plantations typically worked long days, from before dawn until after sunset, with monotonous tasks that varied depending on the season. Most large plantations relied on gang labor, which required enslaved people to do repetitive tasks in time with others under the scrutiny of an overseer. In 1854, Fredrick Law Olmstead, a respected journalist who wrote about slavery for the New York Daily Times (now The New York Times), observed:

[Enslaved people] are constantly and steadily driven up to their work, and the stupid, plodding, machine-like manner in which they labor, is painful to witness. This was especially the case with the hoe-gangs. One of them numbered nearly two hundred hands (for the force of two plantations was working together), moving across the field in parallel lines, with a considerable degree of precision. I repeatedly rode through the lines at a canter, without producing the smallest change or interruption in the dogged action of the laborers, or causing one of them, so far as I could see, to lift an eye from the ground... I think it told a more painful story than any I had ever heard, of the cruelty of slavery.

Enslaved field hands planted cotton in March and April in rows three to five feet apart. As plants sprouted, they weeded the rows and cared for the young plants. Next, they thinned the plants, removing all but one plant per foot. In the fall, workers began picking cotton, a process which could last for months as the plants produced bolls throughout the fall and early winter. Enslaved pickers had to work quickly, thoroughly, and cleanly, meaning that they were not to get dirt or blood in the cotton fibers. A field could be picked from three to seven times as long as the plants produced more bolls. Next, they dried the cotton on scaffolds before running the fibers through cotton gins to remove seeds. They separated the ginned cotton into piles of similar quality and then packed the cotton into bales weighing around 400 pounds for shipment to cotton markets in cities including Memphis and New Orleans.

This work was done under the constant threat of violence. Overseers often used whips to enforce authority. Additionally, marriages between enslaved people had no legal standing, nor did children belong to their parents. Children born to enslaved women were born enslaved regardless of who their father was. Families could be broken apart through sales at any time. This system of forced labor compelled by violence continued until after the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery on December 6, 1865.

Crop-lien System, Tenant Farming, and Sharecropping

After the Civil War, Southern landowners retained their land but lacked the laborers needed to plant, raise, and harvest cotton crops. Tenant farming and sharecropping existed before the end of slavery, but these systems grew exponentially after abolition. The bad post-war economy forced some white farmers off their land, and formerly enslaved people did not have money to purchase farmland, equipment, or seeds. At the same time, former plantation owners were heavily in debt and could not afford to hire workers. They needed people to work for them and wait to be paid until after they harvested crops.

Tenant farmers paid landowners rent to use farmland and live in a house. They owned the crops they planted, made decisions about them, sold the harvest, and received income that they used to pay the landowner’s rent. In contrast, sharecroppers often did not own anything. Instead, they borrowed land and a house, animals, tools, equipment, and seeds. The landowner decided what the sharecropper would plant and how it would be sold. Both white and black families lived as sharecroppers.

Most tenant farmers and sharecroppers were short on cash and needed to rely on credit to buy food, clothing, medicine, and other supplies. The crop lien system was a major source of credit for farmers. Lien laws allowed farmers to use planted crops as collateral for supplies. They could borrow against the crops that they had in the ground. Many merchants, who were also often the landowners, gave farmers a yearly credit statement, divided into equal monthly portion. This system allowed the merchant to keep track of how much credit he was extending to an individual. Through this system, merchants frequently acted as semi-bankers to their customers. Tenant farmers brought in their crops to sell, repaid their crop lien and seldom had much money left. If there was any, they frequently took a credit at the store instead of a cash payout.

The crop-lien system, tenant farming, and sharecropping locked agricultural workers into debt cycles. Landowners and merchants often had high interest rates, and it was impossible to know how a harvest would turn out at the beginning of the growing season when the farmers were taking out loans. Whenever cotton prices dropped, as they did in the 1870s, farmers’ credit shrank and their debts rolled forward. In many places, laws prevented them from leaving if they were indebted to their landlord.

Falling Cotton Prices

Many landowners insisted that their sharecroppers exclusively plant cotton, which resulted in monocropping, planting the same crop each year. The focus on cotton left farmers vulnerable to price changes. When cotton prices dropped, sharecroppers and tenant farmers became further indebted to their landlords. Monocropping also depleted the soil. A combination of natural factors further exacerbated the precarious situation of cotton farmers in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1927 Mississippi River flood, the national drought in 1930, and the ongoing effects of boll weevil infestations made farming increasingly difficult.

Compounding these issues, there was a worldwide oversupply of cotton in the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression. The price of cotton quickly dropped from 20.2 cents per pound in 1927 to 5.7 cents a pound in 1931. Farmers planted more cotton to try to make up for the lower prices, which drove prices even further down.

In May 1933, the federal government created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) as part of the New Deal. The AAA created a subsidy system, which paid farmers to limit the amount of cotton they planed each year and set “parity” prices, which fixed cotton prices to give farmers more purchasing power. Since the 1933 crop was already in the ground, participating farmers had to plow up a portion of their already planted fields. This program benefited landowners and hurt tenant farmers and sharecroppers. The AAA only made contracts with legal landowners and gave subsidy payments directly to them, which excluded laborers from the payment scheme. While the AAA did stipulate that landowners were legally required to disperse subsidy funds to their affected tenants, tenants and sharecroppers seldom received a fair share of the money. Landowners also needed fewer laborers to work the fields and evicted thousands of farmers.

The Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) formed in 1934 in Tyronza, Arkansas, to advocate for farmers and fight for their share of federal relief funds and against their evictions. The STFU was an integrated organization, which made it incredibly unusual in the Jim Crow South. Most of the organizing took place in Arkansas, but the union was headquartered in Memphis. STFU had a few victories, but evictions continued.


Cotton farming also began to mechanize in the 1930s. Tractors were the first major mechanization to affect cotton laborers in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Traditionally, farmers used mules to plow land for planting, but as the 1930s and 1940s progressed, large-scale farms began to change to tractors. While this development was important, it was small in comparison to the technological revolution brought by machine cotton pickers. International Harvester, which opened a manufacturing plant in Memphis, began mass-producing machines in 1948. Over a thirty year period, the labor of cotton picking shifted from humans to machines. In 1950, machines harvested 5% of the cotton crop. That number jumped to 50% in 1960 and again to 90% in the 1970s. Landowners stopped hiring day-laborers to pick cotton and renters began to leave voluntarily and through evictions, causing a large out-migration from rural areas to cities. Today, cotton farming in the lower Mississippi River Valley is a highly mechanized process and takes place on large-scale farms with over 500-acres.


For Further Reading:

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Walter Johnson, 2013.

“The Decline and Fall of a Cotton Empire: Economic and Land-Use Change in the Lower Mississippi River “Delta” South, 1930-1970,” Patrick David Hagge, 2013.

Science of Cotton - April 8, 2021

For over a century, cotton was king in the Mid-South. But what does that mean? What impacts did it have on the people who grew the plant’s fibers? How did it shape the region and the city? In this series, we will examine the natural history of cotton and how it has historically affected the people of our region.


There are an estimated fifty species of cotton that all belong to the genus Gossypium. These species are spread globally throughout semi-tropical and tropical semi-arid and arid regions. During the Miocene epoch, 10-15 million years ago, Gossypium branched off from other members of the Malvaceae family (mallows), which also includes okra and cacao. From this origin, Gossypium evolved into multiple species. Speciation is an evolutionary event that happens when a lineage-splitting event produces two or more species.


Wild cotton plants are perennials that widely range in their morphology, the way they look. People have been domesticating cotton for thousands of years. Domestication is the process of selectively breeding plants and animals, prioritizing some of their genetic traits to make them more useful to people. Humans domesticated four Gossypium species for their fibers. This occurred independently in the Indus Valley, Arabia and Syria, Mexico, and Peru. The two New World cotton species are G. hirsutum, upland cotton, and G. barbadense, also known as Pima, Egyptian, and Sea Island cotton. Pre-Mayan cultures on the Yucatan peninsula began domesticating upland cotton between 3400 and 2300 BCE. It is the most common species grown today. In Peru, Andean civilizations started domesticating Pima cotton around 2500 BCE. From these origins, cotton production spread throughout the Americas.

Cultivars are cultivated varieties that growers produce through selective breeding. This artificial selection occurs over multiple generations. Growers decide which characteristics they want to select then choose parents that present those traits. They then select the best offspring from that generation to produce the next set of plants. Breeders continue this process to create the cultivar they desire.

Dr. Rush Nutt used G. barbadense to created one of the most widely grown cultivars in the Mississippi River Valley in the 1830s. He crossbred Tennessee green seed and Mexican cotton to develop the cultivar hybrid Petit Gulf, which was hardy and adaptable to a variety of soil and climate conditions. Petit Gulf plants resisted rot and had significantly higher yields. The plants were long-limbed and easier to harvest. Planters used this cultivar widely from its creation through the remainder of the 19th century. By the 1910s, the seed stock was mixed with so many other cultivars that it was no longer a distinct group. The superiority of Petit Gulf cotton helped make cotton the dominant Southern agricultural crop prior to the Civil War, a theme which will be explored in depth in an additional post.

Today, cotton cultivars can be genetically modified to have specific traits. Unlike conventional plant breeding, which uses traits expressed within a species, genetic engineering can introduce genes from a different species to bring in a desired trait. The main genetically modified trait in GMO cotton causes cotton plants to produce a toxin that kills bollworms. The plants are engineered with a gene from the Bacillus thurengiesis (Bt) bacteria that causes the plant to produce endotoxin crystals that dissolve the gut lining of the organism that eats it.


Cotton is usually grown as an annual crop, which only survives one growing season and must be replanted each year. It is an angiosperm, a flowering plant that produces seeds inside an ovary. On cotton plants, the ovary is called a boll. Bolls contain two types of fiber that protect the seeds. The short fibers are the fuzz, and the long fibers, which are the ones used in making textiles, are the lint. When bolls are mature, they split open to reveal the lint and seeds. Cotton lint fiber is mainly made of cellulose that elongates during development.

Cellulose is a complex carbohydrate composed of several thousand glucose molecules linked end to end. The links between the glucose molecules are what give each cellulose molecule a flat structure, which allows other molecules to band to it laterally. Each cotton boll contains nearly 250,000 individual fibers, which are also known as staples. Short staple cotton species produce fibers measuring 1/8”, and long staple cotton has 1¼” long fibers. Through the spinning and weaving process, longer staple lengths form a smoother surface with less exposed fiber ends than short staples.


Cotton requires large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to grow. Over time, cotton degrades soil quality as it pulls these nutrients out of the soil. Farmers need to add nutrients back to the soil through chemical fertilizers and animal manure. Runoff occurs when the chemicals are not fully utilized by the plants and the excess is washed away from fields. From there, runoff can enter watersheds and rivers where it creates dead zones devoid of fish or harmful algal blooms. Similarly, pesticides used to control the multitude of cotton pests, including boll weevils and army worms, can also runoff. Pesticides and fertilizers can leach into groundwater, contaminating aquifers at recharge points. In some parts of the world, farmers rely on irrigation to water cotton crops, which can lead to diminished river flows and drop groundwater levers. However, in the American South, there is usually enough rainfall to grow crops without extensive irrigation.

Climate change will have an impact cotton production. Cotton grows best up to 90°F, and yields decline sharply as temperatures rise. Changing temperature patterns as a result of climate change will impact where cotton can be successfully farmed. As temperatures rise, plants will need more water to stay cool and decreased water supply could harm plants. Scientists are currently working on creating drought-tolerant cotton cultivars. Increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air could cause cotton to grow larger leaves, but also cause weeds to grow more aggressively and choke out cotton. Finally, pests can generally adapt to new temperatures more quickly than plants, which could be detrimental to cotton production.


In the 1800s, long-staple cotton, which was easier to clean, could not be grown in the lower Mississippi River Valley, an area comprised of portions of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana that stretches for 954 river miles south from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers near Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico. The short-staple cotton that could be grown here contained numerous seeds that had to be removed by hand, making the cleaning a time and labor-intensive process. 

In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (short for engine), a device with wire teeth mounted on a rotating cylinder that pulled cotton fibers through small grates to separate seeds, while a rotating brush removed lint from the spikes. This invention opened the lower Mississippi River Valley to labor-intensive cotton growing, which had the effect of deepening the region’s reliance on slavery, the topic of next week's post.


Images courtesy of WikiCommons, Science Direct, USDA

A Closer Look at Dinosaurs - March 2021

A Closer Look at Dinosaurs - Introduction - March 1, 2021

Dinosaurs at MoSH - March 18, 2021

Dinosaurs at MoSH - March 18, 2021

There are many dinosaurs at the Museum of Science and History (MoSH) this spring, from the moving metal dinosaur sculptures to the fossils and casts of real dinosaurs. We are going to take a closer look at the dinosaur species you might encounter when you visit MoSH.

Hadrosaurs are commonly known as duck-billed dinosaurs for their flattened, duck-like snouts.  Enormous herds of these plant-eating dinosaurs roamed North America during the Cretaceous period, grazing on low-growing vegetation. You can spot two distinct species of Hadrosaurids at MoSH this spring. Downstairs, in the permanent geology exhibit, you will find a fossilized femur and a skull cast of an Edmontosaurus

“Dinosaurs in Motion” features a Parasaurolophus, another type of Hadrosaur notable for the extravagant crest atop its head. Paleontologists have speculated that the crest functioned to amplify the dinosaur’s call or as a visual display. Although its crest has made Parasaurolophus an iconic dinosaur, our knowledge of these animals has been based on only a few, incomplete, finds. However, in January 2021, the first new skull found in nearly a century was reported in the journal PeerJ. Discovered in 2017 by a team for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the remarkably well-preserved skull has confirmed that the crest did function as an enormous nasal passage that would have worked as a sound resonator.

Our knowledge of dinosaurs’ parenting behavior was greatly enlarged by the 1978 discovery of a huge nesting site of a relative of the Edmontosaurus and Parasaurolophus. Paleontologists found remains of an adult Maiasaura close by a nest of juvenile dinosaurs, as well as smaller hatchlings, and nests with clutches of eggs and broken eggshells, suggesting they nested and cared for the young. Other finds confirm that Maiasaura were social animals that moved and nested in large groups. Studies of bone structure show that it took about seven or eight years for a Maiasaurus to reach its full adult size, about 26 feet.

Ouranosaurus was a 23 foot long, one to two ton dinosaur in the same family as Iguanodons. It lived about 110 MYA, during the early Cretaceous Period in what is now Niger in Africa. It had a tall, narrow crest along its back, which may have functioned to radiate excess body heat during the heat of the day and absorbed heat when the sun was low. It lived in forests of tree ferns and primitive conifers.

Triceratops was the three-horned dinosaur that roamed North America about 67-65 million years ago, alongside the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex. At about 30 feet long and 11,000 pounds, Triceratops was the size of an African elephant, and it was equipped with a massive bony frill around its head as well as horns. Triceratops was an herbivore, a plant-eater, so the horns were likely used in combat between rival males, and perhaps for defense from the predatory T. rex. In fact, some healed bite marks found on Triceratops frills might indicate a successful encounter with the large predator. Both dinosaurs lived during the late Cretaceous. 

Ankylosaurus, which means “fused lizard” is a genus of armored dinosaur. Ankylosaurs lived in North America during the late Cretaceous. Only a handful of specimens have been discovered, none of them complete. Ankylosaurus is estimated to have been between 20 and 26 feet long and weighed between five to eight tons. The front part of the jaws was covered in a beak, with rows of small, leaf-shaped teeth farther behind it. It was covered in armor plates, or osteoderms, with bony half-rings covering the neck, and had a large club on the end of its tail. Bones in the skull and other parts of the body were fused, increasing their strength, and this feature is the source of the genus name.

Most paleontologists believe that Ankylosaurus was slow-moving, though it could move quickly when necessary. It had a broad , beaked muzzle, best suited to browsing. Its heavily armored body and clubbed tail were used for defense from predators, and also, perhaps, in combat with other Ankylosaurs.  Ankylosaurus also lived alongside dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Edmontosaurus.

Ornithomimus, a genus of theropod dinosaurs, lived in North America about 125-66 MYA, during the late Cretaceous period. They were bipedal, looked something like an ostrich, and were covered in feathers. Their long, strong hind legs indicate that they were fast runners. They had very long limbs, hollow bones, and large brains and eyes. Ornithomimus have shorter torsos and longer arms than other ornithomimids, such as Struthiomimus. Ornithomimus, like many dinosaurs, was long thought to have been scaly. Paleontologists found specimens with evidence of preserved feathers in 1995, 2008, and 2009. 

Struthiomimus, which means "ostrich mimic," was an ornithomimid dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous of North America. Ornithomimids were long-legged, bipedal, ostrich-like dinosaurs with toothless beaks. There has been much discussion about the feeding habits of Struthiomimus. Because of its straight-edged beak, Struthiomimus may have been an omnivore. Struthiomimus had long, powerful legs, much like an ostrich, and speed was its main defense from predators.

Tyranosaurus rex, the “king of the tyrant lizards,” was a carnivorous theropod of the Late Cretaceous Period in North America. T. rex was a member of the Tyrannosauroidea family of huge predatory dinosaurs with small arms and two-fingered hands, which also included  Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Tarbosaurus, and others.  

The largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found, nicknamed Sue, after its discoverer, paleontologist Sue Hendrickson, is on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. T. rex was one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs to ever live, with Sue measuring 13 feet tall at the hips and 40 feet long. Sue may have weighed as much as nine tons. T. rex had strong thighs and a powerful tail, which allowed it to move quickly. A 2011 study estimated it could run 10 to 25 miles per hour despite its enormous bulk. Its forearms were tiny, but its head and teeth were massive and powerful. A recent study comparing Tyrannosaur skeletons suggests that  T. rex might have been an invasive species from Asia, arriving, much like our human ancestors, over a bridge across the Bering Strait. 

Deinonychus flourished in western North America during the Early Cretaceous Period, 145 to 100 MYA. These small predators belonged to the dromaeosaur group, a type of theropod. Its name means “terrible claw” and refers to a wicked-looking, sickle-shaped talon on the second toe of each foot. It was John Ostrom’s in-depth study of deinonychus in the late 1960s and early 1970s that led to the revolution in the current understanding of dinosaurs as the ancestors of modern birds. We now believe that these small dinosaurs were fast-moving, warm-blooded, and feathered, and that they hunted in packs.


The permanent geology exhibit a femur and a vertebra from an Apatosaurus, a plant-eating sauropod that lived in North America during the Late Jurassic period. Apatosaurus was about 69–75 feet long and weighed around 20 tons. A few specimens reached much greater length and weight. Until the middle of the 20th century, paleontologists thought that sauropods like Apatosaurus were too heavy to support their own weight on dry land, and that they lived in swamps where the water could help support their weight. It is now clear that they lived on dry land. Preserved tracks, like the cast of a sauropod’s track’s in the permanent geology exhibit, show that they may have traveled as far as 25 miles in a day.

Apatosaurus, which means “deceptive lizard,” is a surprisingly appropriate name for a dinosaur that was once known and loved as Brontosaurus, “thunder lizard.” The history of its discovery and naming is complex and confusing, and is not yet finished.

Paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh named the first of the Brontosaurus genus in 1879, but in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs found that Brontosaurus appeared to be the same genus as Apatosaurus, which Marsh had first described in 1877. Since the oldest name always has priority in scientific naming conventions, Brontosaurus became Apatosaurus.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, a paleontologist with the American Museum of Natural History, disagreed with Riggs. He mounted an Apatosaurus skeleton with the head of another sauropod, a Camarasaurus, and labeled it as a Brontosaurus. The museum's popularity meant that Brontosaurus became one of the best known dinosaurs, even though it was invalid during most of the 20th century. However, the name Apatosaurus finally came to be widely used by the public as well as scientists.

But now, it seems that Brontosaurus is back! A team of scientists from Portugal and the UK reported in 2015 that they had found clear evidence that Brontosaurus was, in fact, a genus distinct from Apatosaurus. The scientists analyzed 477 different physical features of 81 sauropod specimens, spending five years of research on specimens in museum collections in Europe and the U.S. It is only with numerous new findings of dinosaurs similar to Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus in recent years that it has become possible to undertake a detailed reinvestigation of how different they actually were. The research continues.

Diplodocus was a genus of sauropod dinosaurs that lived in North America at the end of the Jurassic period, between about 154 and 152 million years ago. Its remains are found in deposits that also include other enormous sauropod dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus, Barosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Brontosaurus, and Camarasaurus. The fierce predators Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus have also been found in these strata with the giant sauropods, which may have depended on their size as defense.

Diplodocus is among the most easily identifiable dinosaurs, with its typical sauropod shape, long neck and tail, and four sturdy legs. For many years, it was the longest dinosaur known.

In 1990, paleontologists unearthed diplodocus skin impressions, which showed that some species had narrow, pointed  spines, much like those on an iguana, on their tails, and possibly along the back and neck as well. The spines have been incorporated into many recent reconstructions of Diplodocus. Diplodocus is a member of the family Diplodocidae, a group that was more slender than other sauropods.

Pachycephalosaurus lived in North America during the Late Cretaceous Period. For many years it was known only from a single skull and a few extremely thick skull roofs, but more complete fossils have been found recently. Pachycephalosaurus was one of the last non-avian dinosaurs before the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous.

It was a bipedal herbivore with long back legs, short arms, and an extremely thick skull roof. Many paleontologists think that pachycephalosaurs used their skulls in combat, with males ramming each other in the manner of animals like bighorn sheep. However, some paleontologists think that the pachycephalosaurs could not have used their domes in this way, because the skull roof could not have sustained the impact. They suggest that they butted each other’s flanks instead. Whichever hypothesis is true, some specimens do show damage to the dome of the skull.

Dinosaur Egg

MoSH displays a fossilized dinosaur egg, which was most likely laid by a Hypselosaurus, a sauropod that lived during the late Cretaceous Period around 70 million years ago, in the Walk Through Time exhibit. It is difficult to know what species of dinosaur laid an egg unless the egg is found with fossilized bones. Hypselosaurus fossils are common in Provence, in southern France, as are fossilized eggs like this one. Because the eggs were found close to the dinosaur bones, paleontologists assume that most of these eggs are Hypelosaurus. All dinosaurs laid eggs, and they usually produced clutches of many eggs at a time. Since many of the eggs were likely to be eaten by predators, this helped to ensure the survival of a few. It is rare for paleontologists to find whole fossilized dinosaur eggs, though they often find fragments of eggshells, indicating that either the eggs hatched or that predators got to the eggs.


Gastornis, a large flightless bird that lived about 56 to 41 MYA is an avian dinosaur. It was known as Diatryma due to a naming mistake. The switch to the earlier but little known specimen type caused almost as much confusion as the switch from Brontosaurus to Apatosaurus. To further confuse matters, Diatryma/Gastornis was long assumed to be a hunter and often depicted devouring the tiny, early horse Hyracotherium, but recent chemical analysis of its bones indicate that it was actually a plant eater. Its huge skull was designed for tough vegetation, not flesh.

“Dinosaurs in Motion” features two more avian dinosaurs, these from our own time: a crane and a crow. There are other avian dinosaurs throughout the museum, from taxidermy owls and hawks to the skeleton of a hummingbird.

Orthosuchus was not a dinosaur at all, but a primitive crocodilian that lived during the Early Jurassic, 200 to 196 MYA. Its body proportions were similar to lizards, with a two to three foot long body and a flattened skull.

Plesiosaurus was not a dinosaur either, but a swimming reptile of the Late Cretaceous Oceans. These archosaurs, or “ruling reptiles” lived during the age of dinosaurs, but were only distantly related to them.


Introduction to Dinosaurs - March 1, 2021

The exhibit “Dinosaurs in Motion” brings amazing metal dinosaur sculptures to life at the Museum of Science and History: Pink Palace. Created from recycled steel, these sculptures are mechanized, interactive and based on the fossil record, a brilliant blend of science and art. In addition to the dinosaur sculptures in this temporary exhibit, MoSH is home to several other dinosaurs. They range from the fossilized bones of real dinosaurs to an animatronic T. rex nicknamed Tyra. This series will take a closer look not only at the dinosaurs at MoSH, and also explore our changing understanding of these animals, the world they lived in, and their evolution, from their beginnings until today!

Changing Perspectives

Almost everyone loves dinosaurs, but most of us don’t really know as much about them as we think we do. From the time that large dinosaur bone fossils were discovered in England in the 19th century, dinosaurs captured the imaginations of the public and of scientists. Their name comes from the Greek words meaning “terrible lizard.” However, scientific understanding of these creatures has changed significantly in the last 50 years. Although paleontologists, the scientists who study dinosaurs, have been finding and studying dinosaur fossils for almost 200 years, they make new discoveries every day. For instance, in 2020, paleontologists found the first evidence of soft-shelled dinosaur eggs dating from 200 million-year-ago. The fossilized remains of a 98 million-year-old Titanosaur found in Argentina in 2021 may be the largest land animal ever found. New discoveries appear in the news every month.

Discoveries in the past few decades have totally changed our understanding of what dinosaurs were like. Through the first half of the 20th century, most scientists believed that dinosaurs were slow moving, cold-blooded animals. Starting in the 1970s, however, research has established that most dinosaurs, at least by the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, were active animals with complex social interactions. 

They were probably warm blooded. Scientists also  found first evidence of dinosaur feathers and proto-feathers, and realized that dinosaurs are related to modern birds. We now know that dinosaurs are not even extinct! It is true that most dinosaurs died at the end of the Cretaceous Period, about 66 million years ago, but it is now clear that one lineage evolved into birds. A mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous wiped out most life on earth at that time, but the ancestors of modern birds survived. Why? Scientists think that it was because of their small size and their ability to fly and eat many kinds of food. Today’s 11,000 species of birds descended from these dinosaur survivors.

It’s not just that birds are related to dinosaurs; in the scientific sense, they are dinosaurs. In fact, dinosaurs are now divided into avian dinosaurs, or birds, and non-avian dinosaurs, all the other, extinct, species of dinosaurs. Let’s go back and take a look at how dinosaurs evolved and the world they lived in.

The Mesozoic Era: The Age of Dinosaurs

Triassic Period (252-201 MYA)

The Triassic, the first period of the Mesozoic Era, began after the most devastating extinction event Earth has ever known. The extinction event took place roughly 252 million years ago and wiped out almost all life on our planet. It took millions of years for new life-forms to evolve and populate the world.

Earth was tremendously hot during the Triassic and almost all its landmass was concentrated in the supercontinent Pangea. During the early Triassic, most living things were in the oceans. As more creatures evolved to survive on the land, they concentrated near the edges of the landmass, away from the vast deserts of the interior.

Dinosaurs first evolved some time in the middle Triassic. Although their origins are still somewhat murky, the earliest dinosaurs were most likely small, bipedal animals such as the late-Triassic carnivore Procompsognathus.

Jurassic Period (201-145 MYA)

The Jurassic, the second period of the Mesozoic Era, lasted 57 million years. This was the period when dinosaurs grew to gigantic proportions. Most of the sauropods, the group of large, long-necked herbivores that includes Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Brachiosaurus, lived during the  Jurassic period, as did the giant meat-eating Allosaurus.

The Jurassic Period came to an end with a mass extinction event. We do not know the cause, but many large land animals were killed off, giving smaller dinosaurs the chance to grow in numbers and evolve into different species to fill a variety of niches. The supercontinent Pangea divided into two main landmasses, Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south. Land routes remained open in the early Jurassic but by the end of the period, large seas separated the supercontinents. Though high carbon dioxide levels kept the climate warmer than today, the opening of the seas between the land masses helped bring temperatures from the highs of the Triassic period, and plants such as ferns and conifer trees covered much of the land.

Cretaceous Period(146-66 MYA)

The last period of the Mesozoic Era lasted 79 million years, from the minor extinction event that closed the Jurassic Period about 146 million years ago to the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event dated at about 66 million years ago.

Almost all of the dinosaurs disappeared in the K-Pg event, when a massive meteor struck Earth in the Yucatan Peninsula, creating immense destruction and throwing up a huge cloud of steam and dust that sent the entire planet into years-long dark winter. Only small, feathered theropods survived to evolved into all the myriad species of birds we know today.

What is a dinosaur?

All dinosaurs are the descendants of an animal that evolved in the Middle Triassic Period, roughly 245 million years ago, that carried their legs underneath their bodies, not out to the side like lizards or crocodiles. The first dinosaurs were probably small animals like the chicken sized Procompsognathus. Soon they evolved into larger animals ,including the plant eating Iguanodon and meat-eating Megalosaurus. All later dinosaurs evolved from them. The two major branches of the dinosaur family tree first emerged in the Late Triassic. The saurischian, or lizard-hipped, dinosaurs include the giant, plant-eating, long-necked sauropods, like Diplodocus, and the carnivorous theropods, like Tyrannosaurus Rex. The ornithischians, or bird-hipped dinosaurs, were all plant-eating and included the duck-billed Hadrosaurs. It can seem baffling that the lizard-hipped theropods evolved into birds, while the bird-hipped dinosaurs all died out! This is because these branches were named long ago, before scientists realized that some dinosaurs had evolved into modern birds, because the shape of their pelvic bones bore some resemblance to some modern lizards and birds, not because of any actual kinship to those animals.

Not all of the giant reptiles that lived during the Age of Dinosaurs were dinosaurs. Although they lived alongside dinosaurs, animals like the flying Pterodactyls, swimming Plesiosaurs and Mosasaurs were not dinosaurs. Like dinosaurs, they are classed as Archosaurs, which means ruling reptiles, but they are from different branches of that group.

Warm or cold blooded?

This is a question that paleontologists have long sought to answer. Some early scientists posited that they were warm blooded, but for many years, the prevailing idea was that they were cold blooded, as most reptiles are today. Since the climate was far warmer during the time of the dinosaurs, they would have been able to remain active year-round. However, warm blooded animals have a far higher metabolic rate than cold blooded ones do, and there was evidence that at least some dinosaurs hunted in ways that suggested they were very active. Scientist have used a variety of tools, including computer modeling, studying growth rings of bones, and migration pattern to try to determine the metabolic rates of dinosaurs. One indication of high metabolic rate is rapid growth, and growth rings show that even the enormous sauropods and hadrosaurs grew very quickly while young.

Dinosaur Eggs

All dinosaurs laid eggs, and many of them built nests. The first documented dinosaur egg fossils were discovered in France in 1859, though they were mistaken for the eggs of giant birds. In 1923, a crew from the American Museum of Natural History discovered a nest of eggs in Mongolia with the fossil bones of a small theropod perched atop what they assumed to be a clutch of Protoceratops eggs. This led to a misunderstanding that has persisted to this day, despite later evidence to the contrary. They assumed the theropod, which they named Oviraptor, or “egg thief,” had preyed on the eggs of the Protoceratops. It was not until many years later that paleontologists uncovered a feathered theropod that closely related to Oviraptor, sitting atop its own eggs that the mistake was cleared up. Oviraptors still figure in popular culture as egg-stealing sneaks. Since then, many new nesting sites have been found all over the world, and scientists developed a system of classification based on the structure of eggshell. Until recently, scientists thought that all dinosaurs laid hard-shelled eggs, though a find from just last year suggests that some early dinosaurs laid soft shelled, leathery eggs, like modern lizards.

Dinosaur Feathers

The first dinosaurs with a fluffy covering, something like feathers, evolved during the Middle Jurassic period around 200 MYA. Some primitive Coelurosaurs, a group of turkey-sized predators which includes Compsognathus and Scipionyx, were among the first to develop these protofeathers. These animals were not built for flight, and the feathery structures probably evolved as way of keeping warm and of displaying color. The Coleosaurs were ancestors of therapod dinosaurs, which, over time, evolved into a host of advanced species, including the enormous carnivores like T. rex, the small raptors that hunted in packs to bring down large prey, like Deinonychus, and the small, plant-eating Oviraptors.

Starting with the discovery of a Compsognathus with feather-like fuzz in China in 1996, paleontologists began finding fossil theropods with what they began to call protofeathers. While protofeathers aren’t good for flying, they would provide insulation, which is very useful to warm-blooded animals. Some of the theropods, including the raptors and their ancestor Dienonychus, developed true feathers, and eventually, some of these species developed the ability to fly.

In our next Closer Look, we will talk about the dinosaurs species represented in the temporary “Dinosaurs in Motion” exhibit and in “A Walk Through Time,” the permanent geology exhibit at MoSH.

A Closer Look at The Mississippi Embayment - February 2021

Mississippi Embayment - One of North America’s largest geographical features - February 1, 2021

The Earth Moved: Creation of the Embayment - February 9, 2021

Huge Flying Reptiles and Apex Predators Ruled the Mississippi Embayment - February 22, 2021

Huge Flying Reptiles and Apex Predators Ruled the Mississippi Embayment - February 22, 2021

During the end of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era (around 70 million years ago), hundreds of feet of seawater covered most of the Mississippi Embayment. You might expect most of the Cretaceous fossils within this region to be marine fossils of fish, turtles, and shellfish, but there are also several surprising remains of terrestrial dinosaurs, huge flying reptiles, and the apex predators of the Cretaceous sea, the mosasaur.

The Small

With the exception of the larger dinosaurs and flying reptiles discussed below, the fossils of the marine environment of the Mississippi Embayment were, as you might expect, marine animals. Some of the most important fossil sites in the Mississippi Embayment are found within 100 miles of Memphis, Tennessee, in the Coon Creek, Owl Creek, and Demopolis Formations. Formations are layers of rock that are identifiable as different from adjacent layers and represent a specific time period. All three of these formations date to the late Cretaceous and run from Missouri through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. They all are extremely good places to find fossils.

The majority of marine fossils are tiny foraminifera, single cell animals that make up the base of the food chain. The presence or absence of various species of foraminifera mark the start and end of geological time tables. The mud that the fossils sit in is itself made of these tiny fossils and parts of other animals, all still in their original form. Other fossil animals found in the Mississippi Embayment’s ancient sea include sharks, boney fish, crocodiles, turtles, lobsters, crabs, bivalves, snails, and ammonites. The top of the food chain consisted of ancient marine animals including mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, and whales. The fossils found at Coon Creek in McNairy County, Tennessee, and in the Demopolis Formation in Frankstown, Mississippi, are from shoals and shallows near the eastern terminus of the Cretaceous sea. There, numerous rivers washed mud into the sea, which covered the shells and bones that drifted to the bottom. The clay in the mud covered the animals with an anaerobic (oxygen free) sludge that preserved the delicate features of the shells before they could be worn away. Small creatures ate away the soft tissue, leaving behind the shells and bones. These unaltered remains are composed of their original biological structures. The fossils are often very delicate when removed from the mud and must be dried carefully or they disintegrate. The environment at Coon Creek was semitropical, much like southern Florida is today. The effects of tropical storms, currents, and the movement of animals that lived in the mud stirred the shallow waters.

The Large

The strangely elongated vertebra of a huge pterosaur, Arambourgiania philadelphia, was discovered in a Coon Creek formation outcropping just south of Selmer, Tennessee, in McNairy County. Like most of the Coon Creek beds, this one contains crabs, fish spines, shark teeth, and other marine fossils. The recognition of this fossil as unusual and its subsequent excavations are amazing stories of luck and skill. The vertebra is in the collection of the Museum of Science and History: Pink Palace. After careful examination, paleontologists identified it as the first North American discovery of Arambourgiana philadelphiae, one of the largest flying reptiles that ever lived. At 20 feet, it was taller than T. rex, had a wing span of over 30 feet, and weighed nearly 2000 pounds. Before being found in Tennessee, scientists discovered a few A. philadelphiae fossils in the Middle East.

A single tooth, washed out of the Mississippi Embayment’s Owl Creek formation, changed the story of ceratopsid dinosaurs in North America. Ceratopsids, which had large frills and horns on the nose and above the eyes, include the beloved triceratops. Ceratopsid fossils are mostly found in western North America. These animals were cut off from eastern North America more than 100 million years ago when an arm of the prehistoric Arctic Sea extended southward, eventually meeting with the Mississippi Embayment and the southern seas. Scientists made the unusual discovery of a ceratopsid dinosaur tooth from the late Cretaceous in the Owl Formation in Union County, Mississippi. The tooth washed out of a fossil bed composed of marine fossils. As the Western Inland Sea began retreating to the north, dry land appeared between it and the Mississippi Embayment. During the several million years before the extinction event that ended the Cretaceous, ceratopsids migrated to the east, with at least one making it to the shores of the Mississippi Embayment.

Another dinosaur find came from geologists from the Tennessee Division of Geology, who surveyed West Tennessee in the 1940s and collected some vertebrate specimens. They labeled the specimens, “Tennessee Division of Geology, Cretaceous West Tennessee.” In the 1990s, the division transferred the specimens to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville for further study. Geologists have identified the fossil as a hadrosaur, one of a group of duck–billed, plant-eating dinosaurs. Hadrosaurs were ubiquitous herd grazers. Until this rediscovery, there were no known dinosaur fossils from Tennessee, especially from West Tennessee, which had been inundated by a northern arm of the Gulf of Mexico, part of the Mississippi Embayment.

The evidence of hadrosaurs in the Mississippi Embayment suggests that some type of theropod carnivores also may have been present, hunting the hadrosaurs. In 1982, theropod remains were discovered at the eastern edge of the Mississippi Embayment in Montgomery County, Alabama. First identified generally as a tyrannosaurid, the fossil was eventually shown to be a new species, Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, a new tyrannosaur. 

Scientists recovered all three of these fossils from marine sediments. This means that the animals lived and died near rivers or on the shore of the Cretaceous sea. Storms or wave action washed their bodies  out to sea. Paleontologists refer to this kind of body as a “bloat and float,” meaning that the bodies were bloated enough to float out to sea. Marine scavengers picked at the remains until they sank to the sea floor where the rain of sediment covered them, allowing paleontologists to find them millions of years later.

The largest animals in North America’s Cretaceous sea were a number of species of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs. Both have been found at the Coon Creek site. Staff of the Museum of Science and History: Pink Palace excavated and preserved a Prognathodon species from Coon Creek, which is now in the museum’s collections. Prognathodon was a type of mosasaur and an apex predator. Plesiosaurs, another large swimming reptile of the Cretaceous sea, are also found in the Coon Creek formation.

The Cretaceous came to a dramatic end approximately 66 million years ago during an event scientists call the K-Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) extinction. A large comet or asteroid (scientists aren’t sure which) smashed into the earth near the Yucatan peninsula. The tremendous blast threw millions of tons of rock into the air. The force of the explosion sped towards the north, killing everything in its path and setting forests on fire. Smoke and ash from the fire and debris circled the earth for many years, killing creatures at the bottom of the food chain and eventually killing 80% of all animal life on earth. The dinosaurs and reptilian sea and air creatures disappeared from the fossil record, as did ammonites and many of the invertebrates found in the Mississippi Embayment. Although the large reptiles were gone, the rock layers after the K-Pg extinction show that life did survive the extinction. The Cretaceous sea within the Mississippi Embayment lasted for some time into the Paleocene Era, but with a very different ecosystem than before the extinction event.

The Earth Moved: Creation of the Embayment - February 9, 2021

The Mississippi Embayment is one of the largest geographical features in eastern North America. Over an area of 100,000 square miles through seven states, the Mississippi Embayment dips to the south and ranges from southern Illinois to northern Louisiana. It forms a low-lying trough filled with marine sediments nearly 1000 feet deep. The Mississippi Embayment generally parallels the flood plain of the today’s Mississippi River. 

The Mississippi Embayment has a basement. It is composed of the lowest strata of rocks that can be detected. These are not necessarily the first rocks that were ever in the region. Earth is dynamic, with its superheated interior containing flowing vortices of melted rock that sink and rise forming thermal currents within the mantle. The continents sit on a layer of solidified crust, which is in constant motion, as the weight of the continent and the heat of the magma makes the layer between the crust and mantle fluid, moving with the currents of Earth itself. For its first half-billion years (4.5-4 billion years ago), Earth was a fiery ball of magma in constant movement with little or no permanent solid land. Geologists named this time the Hadean Era, for Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. Volcanoes constantly spewed magma which fell to the hot molten surface. Asteroids and meteors from the earliest days of our solar system were common, crashing into Earth, adding volume, heat, and, eventually, water. No rocks on Earth can be dated to this time because the land was constantly changing and moving. There were only minute amounts of oxygen in the still-forming atmosphere.

As Earth cooled over billions of years, rocks solidified, forming the bedrock of the continents. Under the Mississippi Embayment, the oldest detected rock ranges in age from 1.8 to 1 billion-years-old. In Southeast Missouri, 240 miles from Memphis, some of this basement rock is exposed. Formed during the Proterozoic Era, 2.5 billion-543 million years ago, they are the oldest exposed rocks in the central United States. These rocks formed strange outcroppings resembling a train of boulders. You can touch them at Elephant Rocks State Park and nearby Johnson's Shut-In State park in Missouri.   

During the Paleozoic Era (543 -245 million years ago), the continents began their constant movement across the globe powered by magma currents beneath them. This process is known as plate tectonics, the movement of continental and seafloor plates and their collisions and destructions. The crust cooled differently in different places, sometimes forming large continental plates and sometimes creating smaller islands and microcontinents. Geologists can tell which parts of today's continents were part of or affected by continents from the geological past. They do this by matching rock formations and parallel fossil beds. There have been continents, rivers, and oceans that do not exist today that geologists have detected and named.

At first, the area that would become North America was surrounded by oceans. The continents came together in a series of powerful collisions 300 million years ago and formed the supercontinent geologists named Pangaea. Northern Africa collided with North America off what would become the East Coast. South America collided with North America across what would become the Gulf Coast. When continents collide, the force melds the landmasses together. Where continuing pressure between the landmasses occurs, mountains may be raised. This is what happened along the east coast of North America where the collision raised the Appalachian Mountains and along the Gulf Coast where the forces raised the Ouachita Mountains. Although formed from two different collisions striking different types of existing rock, the Ouachita-Appalachian Mountains formed a continuous mountain chain that met in what is now Alabama and crossed the future Mississippi Embayment in Mississippi several hundred miles south of the current position of Memphis. These mountains may have been as tall as the Rockies. There was no Mississippi River draining the interior of the continent. The mountains blocked its path. These same collisions caused deep fissures and cracks known as faults to form. Faults break up solid chunks of rock and allow the various pieces to move in relation to each other.

The inexorable force of Earth's internal currents continued to move the continents. These forces tore apart Pangaea 230 million years ago, separating where it had been welded 70 million years earlier. The Ouachita-Appalachian arc remained at the margins of the continent, which began to take the more recognizable shape of North America.

During the late Cretaceous period, 95 million years ago, the land in what is now Louisiana, north to Missouri and stretching from the area that would be the Tennessee River, west to Little Rock began to rise in a huge arch, nearly 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) above the land around it. The process took nearly 10 million years. This imposing arch, rising nearly 10,000 feet, dominated the landscape of the south-central continent. When land is exposed at heights like this, erosion works against its continued existence. The raised land was worn away over tens of millions of years to about the same level as neighboring land that had not been raised. Nearly 10,000 feet of rock was carried away by water and wind.

Beginning around 85 million years ago, the raised arch, now eroded, sank back into its original position minus the 3 kilometers of rock which had been eroded. This resulted in a trough up to 3 kilometers in depth. The trough was filled with seawater, an extension of the Gulf of Mexico. Over millions of years, several kilometers of marine sediment filled the trough. The rise and fall of the land caused the Ouachita and Appalachian chain to separate on the surface although they are still interconnected below the ground in Alabama and Mississippi. The area known as the Mississippi Embayment had been formed.

What force could have raised the land to towering mountain heights and then caused it to sink back to its previous position? This was not the type of collision event that formed the Ouachita-Appalachian arc, as it occurred in the center of a continent. Geologists Roy Van Arsdale and Randel Cox from the University of Memphis have studied this remarkable event. In studying the literature, they found several hypotheses. Most intriguing, and best fitting the evidence, was the possibility that pressure from a plume of magma raised the land. One clue was that sediments from earlier marine flooding of the land are mysteriously missing from the Mississippi Embayment region. Several kilometers of sediment just weren’t where it was supposed to be. One explanation was that a hot plume of magma somehow pushed this sediment into the air where the forces of erosion worked upon it. After the hot magma subsided, the land cooled and shrank. The original sediment had been worn away.

Van Arsdale and Cox examined the evidence and concluded that magma had indeed lifted the land. This did not occur in one giant volcanic blast but over the millions of years it took for the North American continent to move northwestward across a magma hotspot. The hotspot existed in a line from Kansas, across the lower Mississippi Embayment, to the east coast of North America, and out to sea near today’s Charleston, South Carolina. Today the hotspot lies off the island of Bermuda and is named the Bermuda Hotspot. 

In various places on Earth, the mantle and the crust remain connected, allowing magma to rise to the surface or just below the crust. A magma plume remains in a single spot relative to Earth, but the continents and ocean plates move over it. Look at the Hawaiian Islands on a map of the world. The islands are larger beginning with Hawai’i in the southeast and get smaller towards Kaua’i to the northwest. Volcanoes are extremely active on Hawai’I, but increasingly less so as you move towards Kaua’i. The reason is an active magma plume or hotspot that is currently directly under Hawai’i. The entire Pacific Plate is moving to the northwest. Because the hotspot remains in the same spot on Earth, the islands have all been directly over the hotspot at various times, beginning with Kaua’i. As the plate drifted to the northwest, the hotspot created new islands as the plate moved over them. When the island is no longer over the hotspot, the cooling of the land causes it to shrink and erosion takes over.

This is what Van Arsdale and Cox believe happened in the Mississippi Embayment area. Dating of rocks found in the Embayment region closely fit their hypothesis. One problem that other geologists pointed out was that today's Bermuda hotspot is not strong enough to have raised the mid-continent to the heights that Van Arsdale and Cox suggest. Also, why would this plume first show itself around modern Kansas and not further in the northwesterly direction of the movement of the North American Plate?

Geologists have found several places and times in which huge plumes of magma rose from the core, lifting the crust above them, and spreading magma throughout the world, essentially powering up already existing hotspots. One such superplume event occurred in the Pacific between 120-80 million years ago. At the time, the Bermuda hotspot was approximately under what is today Kansas; the North American Plate drifted over the supercharged hotspot between115-65 million years ago, coinciding with the Pacific superplume event.

The deep rocks of the Mississippi Embayment area were severely faulted during the early continental plate collisions mentioned above. The deeply faulted area provided a conduit for the magma to reach the crust and lift the surface to the heights needed to form the Mississippi Embayment. As the continent drifted northwest, the magma slowly drained and cooled, causing the raised land to subside. The millions of years of erosion caused the subsidence to leave a roughly 1-3 kilometer trench that filled with seawater from the Gulf of Mexico.

During the Cretaceous period, sea depth at the current site of Memphis was between 200 and 600 feet. The Mississippi Embayment joined with other low-lying areas to form the Western Inland Sea. The sea teemed with life, and their bodies became the debris that filled the Mississippi Embayment.

Mississippi Embayment - One of North America’s largest geographical features - February 1, 2021

The Mississippi Embayment is one of the largest geographical features in eastern North America. Over an area of 100,000 square miles, through seven states, the Mississippi Embayment dips from southern Illinois to northern Louisiana. It forms a low-lying trough filled with marine sediments to a depth of more than 600 feet. The Mississippi Embayment generally parallels the flood plain of the Mississippi River, and the river, its flood plain and its valley are the Embayment’s most obvious features. Within the Embayment lies a variety of ecological zones including swamps, hardwood forests, meadows, and alluvial plains. Until just over 200 years ago, the largest hardwood forests in eastern North America covered the land from Illinois through Mississippi. A complex indigenous culture, the Mississippian, developed in the Embayment region. The strongest earthquake in historic times was centered in the northern Embayment. The geography and culture of the Mid-South region is deeply entwined with the history of the Mississippi Embayment. The geological history of the Embayment itself begins 115 million years ago (MYA) in the mid-Cretaceous period, but important features of the region have origins reaching back to the Paleozoic Era (300 MYA), which will be discussed in detail in additional posts.

The Mississippi Embayment is a part of a larger physiographic province known as the North American Coastal Plain, which is composed of every area that has been a shore or inundated area of the inland sea throughout geological time. The Coastal Plain covers the Atlantic coastal region all the way to Texas. During the Cretaceous period (145.5 MYA to 65.5 MYA) the seas reached as far north as southern Illinois. In 2016, Conservation International named the North American Coastal Plain a world ecological hotspot due to dangers in loss of biodiversity. 

The modern Embayment region lies within three major ecoregions within the Coastal Plain: the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, the Mississippi Loess Plain, and the South Central Plain. Ecoregions are areas where ecosystems, the interrelation between living creatures, soils, minerals, climate and land use, are generally similar and differ from other defined ecoregions.  

The Mississippi Alluvial Plain 

Alluvial refers to sediments that are waterborne before being deposited. The Mississippi Alluvial Plain begins south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and continues southwestward, hugging the east bank of the Mississippi River and spreading several hundred miles to the west, nearly to Little Rock, Arkansas. Around Memphis, the region expands 90 to 100 miles to the east, continuing southward until just north of Jackson, Mississippi. It borders the river on its east bank and continues southwest to Monroe, Louisiana, and on to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River has meandered through the alluvial plain for 40 million years. As a result, the soils are composed of rich, river-borne sediments densely laid in an area that has been scoured flat by the river. In some areas, the meander belt is up to 300 miles wide. Within this region, oxbow lakes are formed when meander loops bend back to the river, breaking through the neck of the meander and cutting it off from the river. If the oxbow is near a groundwater source, it will remain a lake. If not, the lake slowly dries up, becoming a swamp that is eventually filled in by wind- or waterborne soil. In an aerial view of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, the meander scars are easily identifiable. 

Scientists believe there were 24 million acres of floodplains, which supported forests, swamps, and other wetlands as well as the diverse plant and animal life that lived in these environments before humans entered the area. The forests and wetlands were natural flood control structures that held water and protected soils from erosion. Before European colonization, the Mississippi Alluvial Plain was the largest forest and wetland ecosystem in North America. Soils were rich and deep, regularly recharged with alluvial soils from the tributaries of the Mississippi River which drains 2/3 of the contiguous United States during seasonal floods. Indigenous people recognized the rich soils and began to use the Mississippi River Valley for corn agriculture that supported the Mississippian culture. Centuries later, the massive clearing of woodlands and swamps by enslaved people for tobacco and cotton farming destroyed the valley’s natural soils and ecology. Over 75% of the native forests and wetlands were removed, leaving the Mississippi Valley one of the most endangered areas in the United States.

Ninety miles west of Memphis, the alluvial plain is broken by Crowley’s Ridge, which runs north and south for 150 miles in east-central Arkansas. It formed when ancestral versions of the Mississippi River and Ohio River ran parallel to each other and eroded the existing plain. This erosional remnant gathered millennia of aeolian (wind-blown) sediments, raising the ridge 100-250 feet above the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. Crowley’s Ridge is composed of loess, unconsolidated aeolian accretions made of Pleistocene sediments blown by prevailing westerly winds. The bluffs of Memphis are composed of similarly deposited loess.  

The Mississippi Valley Loess Plain

A second ecoregion within the Mississippi Embayment is the Mississippi Valley Loess Plain. This region begins at the Ohio River near the southern tip of Illinois, generally following the east bank of the Mississippi River through western Kentucky, western Tennessee, through Memphis into western Mississippi. It continues through Jackson, Mississippi, south to Louisiana through Baton Rouge, ending just northwest of Lake Maurepas in Louisiana. The Chickasaw Bluffs, beginning in Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and continuing south to Memphis are part of the Mississippi Valley Loess Plain. The Loess Plain lies outside of the Mississippi River’s flood plain. The landscape is composed of small rolling hills and flat plains. The distinguishing characteristic of this region is its deep loess deposits composed of soils transported by rivers to the west of the current channel of the Mississippi River. These rivers carried glacial runoff from the Illinoisan (191,000 - 131,000 years ago) and Wisconsinan (15,000-12,000 years ago) periods of the Ice Ages. This sediment was deposited up to 300 miles west of the current Mississippi River. Over millennia, strong westerly winds carried finer particles and deposited them on Crowley’s Ridge and on rises to the east of the Mississippi River, including the Chickasaw Bluffs. Before colonization, the Loess Plain was home to mixed hardwood forests interspersed with open plain. Today’s Mississippi Loess Plain is primarily agricultural land originally cleared to grow cotton and tobacco. While cotton is still a major crop in the region, soybeans and corn are also grown here. 

The South Central Plains 

The South Central Plains ecoregion is located in the farthest southwestern section of the Mississippi Embayment and covers parts of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. All of these areas were under water during the Cretaceous period. After the final retreat of the Cretaceous inland sea, this area developed hickory and pine forests. After permanent European and then American settlements were established in the region, settlers used the forests for lumber. Most of the original forests have disappeared and been replaced by loblolly and short leaf pine. Less than 20% of the region is used as cropland. This area is known as the “pineywoods” region. It receives the most rainfall of any area in Texas and in some parts of Oklahoma. The soils are sandy and would suffer severe erosion without the tree cover and woodland management.

Aquifers of the Mississippi Embayment

Perhaps the most valuable asset of the Mississippi Embayment lies beneath the surface, as the water supply known as the Mississippi Embayment Aquifer system. Aquifers are areas of sand and rock which hold water. The Mississippi Embayment Aquifer system covers an area of 160,000 square miles of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee and provides water for drinking and agricultural use.

In 1886, drillers for the Bohlen-Huse Machine and Lake Ice Company discovered the aquifer in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time, drinking water came from the Wolf River and other streams in the area. The first aquifer tapped was around 200 feet deep, today known as the upper Claiborne aquifer. There are six aquifers in the Embayment, separated by confining units of clay and depth from the surface. Most of the sediments that comprise the aquifers were deposited during the Paleocene (66-56 MYA) and Eocene (56-33 MYA) epochs. The Embayment was still going through a series of inundations during those times, and the sediments within the aquifers reflect the changing landscapes.

The oldest five of the six aquifers are composed of sands deposited by rivers (fluvial) or from marine deposits when the land was covered by the sea.

In order of depth from surface these aquifers are: 1. the upper Claiborne, 2. the middle Claiborne, 3. the lower Claiborne-upper Wilcox, 4. the middle Wilcox, and 5. The lower Wilcox. The deepest parts of the Embayment aquifer system are 6,000 feet deep. Overlying these five is the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer, which lies in sediments from the Quaternary Period (2.5 MYA to the present). The majority of water for the Memphis area is drawn from the Memphis Sand aquifer, which lies within the middle Claiborne aquifer.

The middle Claiborne aquifer is thickest in the Memphis area, and it holds an astounding 50 trillion gallons at any given time. The age of the water pumped from this aquifer is generally 2,000-3,000 years old. 

The middle Claiborne aquifer is capped with a clay layer deposited by an inundation of the sea, keeping the water pristine and filtered through the sand and rocks. However, many wells, building projects, and natural collapses have punched holes through the clay, allowing water from shallower aquifers and even shallow groundwater to penetrate. These waters are often contaminated with industrial and agricultural runoff that must be closely monitored. In one area in Shelby County, a landfill is slowly leaking toward some of the wells. If the chemicals from these sources of pollution make it to a well, costly filtration will have to be added to what is otherwise one of the cleanest water supplies in the United States.  

Wetlands & Waterways - January 2021

Part I:  Threats to Wetlands and Waterways - January 4, 2021

Part II:  Conserving Wetlands and Waterways - January 15, 2021

Part II: Conserving Wetlands and Waterways - January 15, 2021

With so many threats, conserving and rehabilitating a wetland ecosystem can seem like a daunting task, but there are agencies and organizations, like the Wolf River Conservancy, that are tackling the problem. To do so effectively, there are several steps they must take. 

Every one of the threats that wetlands face can be hard to control. However, every small act helps toward the larger goal of restoring an ecosystem. Communities need to be educated on why threats like invasive species and pollution harm the environment and how they can help combat these problems.  For instance, invasive Asian carp species, especially the black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus), which can grow to be as long as five feet, is a target of specialized programs. In addition to encouraging fishing for the carp, the United States Geological Survey is developing new experimental models of how to curb the spread of these invasive fish. One potential solution involves playing high frequency noises underwater, which the carp avoid while native species do not seem bothered. This could be used as a “sound wall” that could keep carp from swimming into new areas, while the movement of native species would not be restricted. Other more traditional barriers such as a dam or lock would restrict both carp and native species.  

Regardless of what approach is being taken to restore an ecosystem, a restoration plan is needed to create and establish a functioning and healthy ecosystem in the area of concern. One of the first steps is to establish what goals are reasonable and possible for the project site. The person in charge of the project should not be the only one making these decisions. Local citizens also need to take part in the planning process because they will ultimately be the ones paying for the project or living with its results. Once the initial planning is done, site analysis needs to be performed on the land chosen for the project. The person analyzing the site will assess what sort of damage has been done and apply a risk management process to the restoration project. A risk assessment outlines potential future problems to plan for these possibilities from the beginning. Restoration is a complicated process and requires experts in a number of fields. If the planning process is properly implemented, experts will be able to arrive at the common goal by working on the many factors that determine the functioning of the ecosystem. 

The most critical factor in restoring a forest wetland habitat is hydrology, the movement, distribution, and management of waterThe timing of water delivery, the depth of the water, and water quality all strongly influence the health of the ecosystem. Any changes to the watershed can affect the rest of the project, so it is very important to monitor the changes that are going to be made and plan for how those changes might play out long term and downstream. For any restoration project, watershed management is key to protect the health of the water and plants, minimize flooding, and help with irrigation. 

One example of how hydrology can be altered by humans is evident in the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Mississippi River. As the Mississippi gets close to the Gulf of Mexico, it is carrying enormous amounts of water and can be extremely destructive to human and natural environments when flooding is severe. To protect the communities along the river, the Army Corps has constructed an extensive network of dams, levees, and waterways along the river that are so large they can be seen from space. This gargantuan effort has changed the way the river behaves. While it at first appears to protect people, there are dire consequences. The river delta, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, has was formed by the very river from which the engineers sought to protect it. Over millions of years, the river and its tributaries have picked up soil all along the watershed and brought them down to the Gulf, building the “boot” of Louisiana out of relocated pieces of Tennessee, Illinois, Ohio, and other states stretching across the interior of the continent. The river could deposit this sediment because the natural meanders and marshes slowed it down, but human development like these levees has sped up the rate of the river’s flow, forcing the sediment straight out to sea. Louisiana is no longer getting those deposits of soil. This loss of sediment and increased erosion, combined with rising sea levels due to climate change, mean that Louisiana is disappearing. Like a sandcastle on the beach, the communities and ecosystems of the lower Mississippi Delta are swept away with each tide, and the state loses an area the size of a football field every hour and a half. 

An alternative to heavy construction like dams and levees is bioengineering. This method uses live and dead plants along with inorganic materials to produce functioning systems that prevent erosion, and control sediment and other pollutants. Using these natural fixes can help flood mitigation, water treatment, and can even enrich the soil by increasing nutrient content and availability. They can also be more cost-efficient than physical changes like canals and levees. 

Using herbicides to control invasive plants is another popular method for restoration, but herbicides must be used with caution because they can have both positive and negative impacts on the restoration site. Herbicides need to be studied in depth to figure out what plants should be targeted in applications. The goal of using herbicides is not to eradicate and clear an area of all invasive plants. It’s to minimize or stop the plants that are causing damage to the area, without harming other plants that play an important role in the ecosystem. It’s also important to be careful with herbicides in a wetland area because of the negative impacts the chemicals can have on the water. Water makes up most of the forest wetlands, and if it is contaminated, it can negatively affect the water, plants, soil, and animals in both immediate and distant areas.

Once restoration has started on the project site, it’s important to start thinking about what species of vegetation is best to plant in that area. Native vegetation should be planted because it is already well adapted to the environment and can be a food source for native wildlife. There are hundreds of species of plants that will thrive in a forest wetland ecosystem. However, even with native species, problems may occur when planting seedlings in forest wetlands, including high water levels and prolonged periods of saturated soil. Only a few species of plants can survive in these conditions for any length of time, so it’s important to find a solution for optimal plant growth. Careful planning is required in this step because it is the most expensive and important part of the project, as the plants’ growth rate and germination success will heavily determine the overall outcome of the restoration project. 

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the plan must be flexible. Unforeseen changes such as weather, budget, time, and scheduling must be considered. Having an adaptable project plan is the key to success. Monitoring the project both as it is being implemented (also known as adaptive monitoring) and after the project is complete is critical. This allows workers to adjust the project as it is implemented and, later on, figure out how it fits in with future projects.    

With all this in mind, we can begin to tackle the many ways that our wetlands and waterways are threatened. It is a long and complicated process that will require solutions ranging from community education to sonic carp barriers to carefully planned bioengineering. While the scope of this large-scale conservation is daunting, it’s a small price to pay for the health of the wetlands and waterways that give our human and natural ecosystems life. 



Further Reading


EPA. Principles of Wetland Restoration. 2018 Jun 14. 


Kentula M. Restoration, Creation, and Recovery of Wetlands Wetland Restoration and Creation. Wetland Restoration and Creation. 2002 Jan. 


Kolbert, Elizabeth, et al. “Louisiana's Disappearing Coast.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, Apr. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/01/louisianas-disappearing-coast.  


Langeland, K. A., J. A. Ferrell, B. Sellers, G. E. MacDonald, and R. K. Stocker. Integrated Management of Nonnative Plants in Natural Areas of Florida. 2011. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science. 


Palmintier C., Appleton BL. Restoration and Creation of Forested Wetlands: A Guide. 1996. 


Stanturf J.A., W.H. Conner, E.S. Gardiner, C.J. Schweitzer, A.W. Ezell. Recognizing and Overcoming Difficult Site Conditions for Afforestation of Bottomland Hardwoods. Ecological Restoration. 2004;22(3):183–193. doi:10.3368/er.22.3.183. 


Part I: Threats to Wetlands and Waterways - January 4, 2021

Memphis owes its existence to the waterways around it. As far back as the time of the Mississippian peoples, when the Mississippi River and its tributaries were the main trade routes between communities, people have lived near present-day Memphis and taken advantage of the waterways, including the Wolf, Loosahatchie, and Mississippi Rivers that converge here. The city’s location along the Chickasaw Bluffs puts Memphis in a position to benefit from the fertile Mississippi Delta soils, formed as nutrients are carried downstream by rivers, while still having a stable place to conduct trade. A delta is a wetland that forms when a river empties its water and sediment into another body of water. This river system, including all the deltas across the American Southeast, continues to shape the economy, geography, and environment of the region today.   

In addition to being a valuable route for trade and transit, Mississippi River Delta waterways and wetlands create many ecosystem services, which are naturally occurring functions of an environment that help stabilize and maintain human society. Wetlands are a crucial nursery for fish and shellfish, where breeding adults and newborn young can be safe from predators and the harsh environmental conditions of more powerful bodies of water like rivers and oceans. The wetland nursery not only helps these species maintain a robust population, it also ensures the security of food supply for human beings. The plants and invertebrates that live there also act as a living filter, removing pollutants and runoff from the water, which protects oceans from pollution and nutrients that are brought downstream by rivers. 

As the water slows and spreads out, it mitigates the power of the water’s current. This allows sediment to be deposited rather than flowing out to sea, reducing erosion and filling the region’s soil with fertile nutrients. Some of the water also sinks down into the ground, helping replenish aquifers like the Memphis Sands Aquifer, the source of Memphis’s pure drinking water. The water’s power is also absorbed by the wetlands from the other direction. When hurricanes and storm surges slam into the coast, deltas can act like padding against the storm, soaking up much of the force and helping weaken the winds and water before they move into more heavily populated inland areas. For these reasons and more, wetland ecosystems are absolutely vital to human survival, but their survival is also dependent on us.  

Many forested wetlands are heavily impacted by invasive species which may eventually out-compete native wildlife and plants in these areas. It is very difficult for native wetland plants to grow and thrive if they have to continually compete for resources with invasive species. Invasive species have become the second leading cause of species extinction and loss of biodiversity in aquatic and semi-aquatic environments worldwide. In the wetlands across the Southeastern United States, you can find invasive species of many different kinds. Some, like red-eared slider turtles, are native to our region but have become an invasive threat in other parts of the country. Others are from very far away. 

In the Mississippi Delta, an introduced species that is getting out of control are the Asian carp species (Cypriniformes). These fish were originally introduced to control algae growth, but since they have unstoppable appetites and eat a wide variety of food, their populations have skyrocketed. They consume much of the food native fish species rely on, and even worse, their digestive system is not very effective, so they excrete much of what they eat undigested. This waste settles to the bottom of waterways and causes changes in the chemical makeup of the substrate, threatening the ecosystem. 

In addition to several wildlife species that are highly invasive, there are also invasive plants in the wetlands, too. In 2017, a study showed that 96 percent of aquatic plants in Florida were non-native invasive species. This number astounded the public and many scientists (University of Florida 2017). In the Mississippi Delta, some of these invasive plant species include kudzu, wisteria, and privet, which can thrive both in swampy lowlands and drier forests. The climate and water temperature in southern wetlands are perfect for many plants, so invasive plant species can overtake the ecosystem. 

Introduced species are not the only threat wetlands face. Some threats, like overfishing, are clear. As people remove large numbers of aquatic animals from the water, populations plummet, creating a vacuum in the food web that can cause it to collapse. Another threat is pollution. If factories, cities, and farms dump waste into rivers, those chemicals enter the water supply. Some of the most common pollutants that make their way into our waterways are petrochemicals, municipal sewage, and agricultural chemicals like herbicides. This contaminated water can soak down into our aquifers, polluting drinking water. It can also enter the food chain, making animals and plants sick, beginning with producers at the bottom of the chain. As these producers become contaminated and consumers eat them, the pollutants remain in the food chain. Since it takes many of a lower level organism to sustain an upper level consumer, like an eagle or alligator, a larger portion of these pollutants are ingested by the top tiers of the food chain, making them even sicker. This principle, called biomagnification, means that the top levels of a food chain can be completely eliminated due to pollutants that first strike the organisms at the bottom. 

Other factors are more subtle. Humans have used rivers to irrigate agricultural areas for centuries, and it seemed at first that the excess nutrients running off into the water might be a good thing for environments downstream because it is one reason deltas became so fertile in the first place. However, with the creation of more potent fertilizers over the past century, the level of nutrients like nitrogen that enter rivers have skyrocketed. And while the small quantities entering the river near the headwaters of the Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers may not be enough to have an immediate impact, as they join together in the Mississippi River, these nutrients are all combined. The amount of chemicals that are present in the lower Mississippi River contribute to a process called eutrophication, where these nutrients fuel massive algae growth called algal blooms. These blooms can take away nutrients, sunlight, and other resources from other life forms and create dangerous dead zones in the Mississippi Delta and Gulf of Mexico, where very few organisms are able to survive

Wetland ecosystems are complex and so are the threats they face. In order to preserve and regulate these vital parts of our region, humans employ a diverse range of tactics, some of which we will discuss in our next Closer Look post. 

CELEBRATE: Memphis Holiday Traditions - December 2020

During the month of December, we'll continue our Celebrate theme with a closer look at classic Memphis holiday celebrations.

December 14, 2020 - Yuletide Revelers 

December 7 - Enchanted Forest Festival of Trees

Yuletide Revelers - December 14, 2020

From 1923 until the early 1950s, the ballrooms at the Hotel Gayoso transformed into a medieval English castle for one night each year. Revelers had the walls and ceiling covered in scarlet, green, russet, gold, brown, and crimson draperies. After dinner in “Trencher Hall,” the young men and women proceeded to “Reveler Hall,” a ballroom with a burning yule log in the faux-stone fireplace, decorated Christmas trees, and wrought iron lanterns with red glass panes suspended from the ceiling. The women wore flower corsages while the men sported ribbons on their lapels. The guests received a different favor each year. They danced until the early hours of Christmas morning before drifting back home.

The original Yuletide Revelers were group of 230 bachelors with a 20-member executive council who planned their elaborate Christmas Eve parties beginning in 1923. These white, wealthy young men were Memphis elites. They hosted the party in honor of the women from the Girls’ Cotillion and Girls’ Dinner Clubs. These women hosted social functions throughout the year, and the bachelors decided to flip their normal roles for one night. After the first Revelers party, the group planned to meet at the same time and place every year. The Revelers paid dues to cover the dinner and dance, and they donated any leftover funds to a different charity each year.

Membership was limited to bachelors, and the number was capped at 250 (300 by 1938). As soon as a member married, he forfeited his membership. Members could nominate a new fellow whenever there was a vacancy. The only females allowed at the party were members of the Girls’ Cotillion and Girls’ Dinner Club and their out of town house guests. Their invitations were delivered on scrolls with instructions on when to reply.

In 1925, an article in The Commercial Appeal society pages reminded attendees that they would not be admitted to the ballrooms without their initiations. The newspaper also published the list of invitees and dance chaperones. Over the years, members included Lee Saunders, Clarence Saunders’s son, and bachelors from the Mallory and Neely families. Members of the Yuletide Revelers took pride in their association. From the 1920s-2010s, announcements, engagements, and obituaries in The Commercial Appeal made note of individual’s membership in the club along with their other professional and social fraternal and service organizations.

The “Merrie England” Christmas Eve parties continued through the Great Depression, but the Yuletide Revelers disbanded for four years during World War II, since many of their members served in the armed forces. Festivities resumed in 1946 and kept the old English theme.

While maintaining their love of pageantry and old English descriptions, the Revelers changed the decorations in 1950 by adding a Santa Claus, wrapping the ballroom columns with streamers, and hanging balloons from the ceiling. They also kept the statues of a knight in armor and his lady. Over the next several years, the ball changed locations to places including the Panorama Room at the King Cotton, the Peabody Hotel, and the Hotel Claridge. In the 1960s, the party moved to the Summit Club.

In 1952, the Revelers incorporated and added monthly parties to their social roster, hosting the first at the Memphis Country Club. That year’s events included a cocktail party, South Seas dance, informal game night, and "kid party” where members and guests were instructed to shed 15 years and show up in little kid clothing. During the 1950s there were riverboat, Halloween, Cotton Carnival, and pool parties. By the late 1960s through the 1970s, the club hosted only a summer party and their December black-tie event.

By 1968, the Christmas celebration had grown substantially. That year’s party had 400 couples, four musical acts, and a midnight dinner. It lasted from 8PM-4AM at the Holiday-Inn Rivermont and honored the season’s debutantes. In the 1970s, the Revelers decided to embrace a Casino Royale theme, and the 1977 party had an estimated 1,000 college-aged adults and young professionals, many of whom were from out of town. They decided to scale back in 1979, limiting the guest list to 250 couples to make the annual ball “a smaller, more elegant party, as it was in years past.” A year later, they were back to the large scale, Las Vegas party with dancing and an elaborate midnight breakfast. That party was their last, and the group officially dissolved in 1987. Other holiday parties in the 1980s claimed to be descendants of the Yuletide Reveler’s annual extravaganza, but none established the same reputation or longevity. Certainly, none had the dramatic flair.


Enchanted Forest Festival of Trees

Generations of Memphians have grown up visiting the Enchanted Forest. For 56 years, beginning in 1962 at Goldsmith’s Downtown store and continuing today at the Museum of Science and History, versions of the display continue to be a holiday tradition. A lot has changed over the decades, but the focus of the display has always been capturing holiday magic for children.

George Hettinger, Goldsmith’s display director, created the first display in 1962. “Christmas-land” featured Santa on a throne in the "Circus Arena” at the end of the block-long Toyland on the store’s second floor. Behind Santa, children could enter the Secret Gift Shop where nothing was priced above $3, and their gifts would be wrapped for parents and friends before they left. The store started advertising the display as the “Enchanted Forest” in 1963. They moved the “twinkling stars, frosted trees, snowy hills and dales, animated people and animals, tinkling music and all the other enchantments of fairyland,” to the ground floor. Visitors entered through a door in the Men’s Furnishing Department and followed the trail to get to Santa. The following year, inspired by Disney’s “It’s a Small World” exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, Hettinger moved the Enchanted Forest back up to second floor. Guests entered through a castle door.

The display expanded significantly in 1965 with the second version of the Enchanted Forest. The forest relocated to the basement of the former Gayoso Hotel. Goldsmith’s had bought the building in 1948, and converted more and more of the hotel into store space, ultimately closing the hotel in 1962. In 1965, the Variety Club vacated the basement space, and store officials decided to move the Enchanted Forest to the southwest corner of the basement. The 4,000 square foot exhibit took four months and cost $20,000 to create. Staff used aluminum wire and plaster of Paris to construct the displays and added secondhand mechanical characters, twinkling lights strung through the low ceiling, and a bridge spanning a small pond. Visitors walked the 180 foot aisle through the displays to get to Santa. Goldsmith’s kept the forest installed year-round, but only opened the door during the holiday season. In 1965, the store employed five Santas in different cubicles to keep the line moving.

Hettinger changed and added to the display each year until his retirement. His brother Royal Hettinger built backgrounds and worked on the characters’ mechanics for twenty years. Olive Gamble, a Goldsmith’s seamstress, sewed new costumes for characters. Barry Hartzog, the store’s visual merchandising director, joined the team in the early 1970s and remembered crawling through the display to see it from a child’s perspective. Over the years, they added characters including Sesame Street muppets (1974), Rodney the Mischievous Angel and Patches, Santa’s helper (1976), and the Wizard of Oz cast (1978).

There was a Nutshell Disco in 1979, a train theme in 1981, and a Storybook Christmas featuring scenes from Robin Hood, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty in 1982. By 1983, the crowds were so large that The Commercial Appeal reported the entire stationary department had to be moved to accommodate the Enchanted Forest. The store introduced the characters Goldie Deer and Smitty Duck in 1984. Despite the additions and wardrobe changes, there were some parts of the Enchanted Forest that remained the same. The path to Santa always passed a pond that people could not resist throwing change into. (pictured) Goldsmith’s donated the money to local charities. The display was always free to visit, and classes of school kids came on field trips. Most years, around 100,000 people attended.

The Enchanted Forest was a bright spot on the Downtown department store’s annual calendar, but the store itself faced declining sales as people continued to move to eastern suburbs and shop in suburban malls and shopping centers. In 1990, new owners decided to close the Downtown store. Many Memphians wondered what would happen to the Enchanted Forest. The Oak Court Mall made a proposal to acquire the display, but the owners decided instead to donate it to the TWIGs (Together We Initiate Growth), a group dedicated to raising funds for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. At the time, the TWIGs ran a successful Festival of Trees fundraiser at the Agricenter and decided to add the Enchanted Forest to the festival. When George Hettinger heard about the plan, he remarked, “It’s going to be a big undertaking. I’m not sure they know what they’ve bitten off.” Only the mechanical characters and the concept moved to the Agricenter, leaving the scene design and walkways behind. Visitors to the new location were impressed by the more spacious arrangement, as opposed to the cave-like feeling of the Goldsmith’s basement, and the blue lighting and fake snow that made it seem like a nighttime forest. The number of visitors to the Festival of Trees doubled with the addition of the Enchanted Forest. For the first time, there was a fee to visit the exhibit, but since the money went to the hospital, surveyed visitors did not mind the change.

In 1992, TWIGs changed the event’s name to the Enchanted Forest with Its Festival of Trees because the forest proved to be the biggest draw. That year they expanded the display again by adding a 15,000 square foot “Children’s Village” sponsored by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who were in Memphis for Cruise to film The Firm. Volunteers installed eight kid’s activity centers against a painted backdrop of a Victorian village. Among the activities were a 9-hole Frosty the Snowman mini-golf course, a kids shopping area, a bakery for cookie decorating, a ‘Kids Karnival” with games and face painting, a “Dial an Elf” area to make toy requests on cellular phones, a craft-making Fun Factory, an Art Studio, and a mock-up Le Bonheur hospital room with a child safety exhibit.

The Enchanted Forest moved again in 2002 to its current home at the Museum of Science and History’s Pink Palace campus. Museum staff transforms the mezzanine and temporary exhibit hall into the holiday wonderland that Memphians’ have come to expect.

The partnership between Le Bonheur and the museum enables the Enchanted Forest to remain a part of Memphians’ holiday traditions and also raise funds for the hospital.

CELEBRATE: Memphis Foodways - November 2020

This month, the Museum of Science and History - Pink Palace is focusing on the theme Celebrate. Humans worldwide celebrate by eating. Every culture and religion has foods associated with specific holidays, seasons, and special occasions, and food provides groups of people a common identity. Foodways are the intersection of food with culture and history. Social scientists who study foodways want to know why people eat what they do and what it means. Food culture is shaped by the surrounding environment, the influence of other cultures, religion, and socio-economic status. Choices about food show where people come from, their family traditions, and their experiences. These factors are important when a person migrates to another country, region, or city. Continuing to make dishes from home and adapting recipes to use local ingredients help people maintain a part of their native culture. In turn, these new foods and adaptations to existing recipes bring new foods to the cuisine of migrants’ new homes.

November 30, 2020 - Asian Cuisine 

November 23, 2020  - Middle Eastern, Jewish, & Indian Cuisines: How Religion Influences Food Traditions

November 16, 2020 - Latino & European Cuisines: Maintaining and Adapting Cooking Traditions 

November 9, 2020 - Cajun, Creole, African & Caribbean Cuisine: Adapting to their Environments & Outside Influences 

November 2, 2020 - The Intersection of Southern, Soul & BBQ Cuisine 


Asian Cuisine - November 30, 2020

Memphis’s oldest Asian community dates to the mid-1800s, when Chinese immigrants came to the South to fill the labor shortage that followed the abolition of slavery. Mostly from southern China, these men came in search of better economic opportunities. Memphis saw another wave of Chinese immigration after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, this time from northern China. At least 2,500 people of Chinese descent live in Memphis today. In the late 1970s, refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War created a sizable Southeast Asian community concentrated in Midtown Memphis. Today, the city’s Vietnamese community numbers around 2,100. Memphis is also home to small but significant Korean, Pakistani, and Filipino communities.           


Chinese dining etiquette, traditions, and cooking styles have influenced most Asian cuisines because of Chinese historic power on the continent. There are eight major cuisines within China. Each of these regional cooking styles and food preparation methods produce distinct flavors. 

In Jiangsu Province, cooks favor the braising and stewing cooking styles while Zhejiang Province chefs serve seasonal produce and seafood. In the United States, two of the most popular Chinese regional cuisines are Cantonese (also known as Guangdong) and Sichuan. They are the most widespread and are what most Americans think of when it comes to Chinese food. Dishes such as lo mein noodles and sweet and sour pork are Cantonese dishes found in almost every Chinese restaurant in Memphis. Some popular Sichuan dishes are kung pao chicken and hot and sour noodles. These dishes display the cooking styles of both the Guangdong and Sichuan provinces. Cantonese cooks utilize steaming, braising, and stir frying. Sichuan dishes are known for their spiciness. Sing Lay, Mulan Asian Bistro, and Asian Palace are three places to try Chinese cuisines in Memphis.


Japanese cooking is another popular East Asian cuisine. Traditional Japanese meals consist of white rice served with a main dish and several side dishes such as pickled vegetables. The meal might also include a clear soup or miso soup. Alternately, a meal might consist of noodles as a stand-alone dish without side dishes. Udon and soba noodles are the main traditional noodles with ramen, a modern import, becoming increasingly popular. Hot noodles are steeped in broth of various meats and vegetables and with an array of toppings. Cold noodles are served unseasoned with a variety of sauces. Due to Japan’s island geography, seafood is common. It is prepared through many different methods such as grilled and tempura (fried) style, or served raw as sashimi and sushi. Japanese cooks also adapted foreign dishes to local tastes. For example, Japanese cooks adapted Chinese dishes such as ramen and dumpling dishes as well as dishes such as spaghetti, curry, and burgers. If you’re looking to try some sashimi and sushi, you can visit Sakura and Red Koi Memphis.


Korea, which has been divided into the nations of North Korea and South Korea since the Korean War in the late 1950s, is located on the Korean Peninsula, which extends into the Yellow Sea east of the Chinese mainland. Similar to many Asian cuisines, Korean meals consist of rice served with side dishes that can include meats, seafood, and vegetables. Kimchi, which is fermented, spicy cabbage, is also served with many meals. Kimbab combines vegetables and meat in a seaweed and rice roll. They make convenient snacks. Another dish that combines these ingredients is Korean barbeque. Samgyeopsal, pork belly grilled with vegetables, and served with ramen, other side dishes, and rice is a popular dish. With its location in the Yellow sea, seafood plays an important role in Korean cuisine.  Meals are traditionally served family-style. Dining is a social event, with rules of etiquette that must be followed, including greeting and thanking the host for the meal. You can try Korean cuisine at DJW Korean BBQ and Kwik Chek.


The Republic of the Philippines is an archipelago of over 7,000 islands containing more than 100 different ethno-linguistic groups. The Philippines endured centuries of Spanish and American colonization, and did not receive full independence from the United States until 1946. The nation’s cuisine reflects culinary influences drawn from Austronesian, Malaysian, Chinese, and Spanish foodways. Pancit is a popular dish consisting of rice noodles with a soy sauce base and stir fried vegetables with meat or seafood. Lumpia is a spring roll made from thin pastry and filled with savory or sweet fillings and served either fresh or deep fried. Dishes are typically served with rice. Traditionally, Filipinos ate with their hands, a practice known in Tagalog as kamayan, which translates to “with your hands.” Today, both kamayan and utensils are used. You can try Filipino cuisine at New Manila Filipino Restaurant in Millington.


Vietnam lies in Southeast Asia on the Indochinese Peninsula, and shares borders with China, Laos, and Cambodia. China occupied the country for most of its his recorded history, until the French colonized the Indochina Peninsula in the mid-1800s. Vietnam finally gained independence from France in 1945. Vietnamese cuisine reflects both Chinese and French influences. Rice, wheat noodles, wontons, soy sauce, and stir-fried dishes served with rice are common to both. The French introduced new ingredients, like asparagus, potatoes, shallots, and coffee. French bread, or baguettes, is ubiquitous in Vietnam and is the essential ingredient of bánh mì, a popular Vietnamese sandwich.

Vietnamese cuisine features a combination of five fundamental tastes (spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet), and every meal features a dish that appeals to each taste. Common ingredients include shrimp paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, rice, vegetables, and fruits. Herbs and spices include lemongrass, ginger, mint, chilis, and Thai basil. There is also the concept of ying yang that is taken into consideration when plating a dish. One of the principal concerns is the “heating” and “cooling” aspect of certain ingredients and foods. Because of this aspect, certain dishes are only served during their respective season to contrast with the weather of that season. For instance, duck meat is considered a “cool” ingredient and is typically served during the hot summer months with ginger fish sauce that is considered a “warm” ingredient.  If you would like to experience the aromas, visuals, and foods, please be sure to check out, Pho Saigon, and Phuong Long, Pho Bihn, Pho Saigon, and Phuong Long.

Middle Eastern, Jewish, & Indian Cuisines: How Religion Influences Food Traditions - November 23, 2020

Just as climate and economics impact foodways, religion also affects regional and cultural cuisines. Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism have dietary laws that determine what and how their adherents eat.

Middle Eastern Cuisine

Middle Eastern cuisine is an umbrella term for the foodways of seventeen countries including Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. The major religion in this region is Islam, which has dietary laws concerning foods that are permissible to eat. Eating only halal meat is the main component of a Muslim diet. Halal means “lawful” in Arabic and refers to food that follows the dietary guidelines denoted in the Koran. To classify a meat as halal, the animal must have been healthy at the time of death, and it must not have suffered. The animal must be killed by being sliced through its jugular so that all of the blood can drain out. Halal meat is incorporated into many dishes, including shawarma, which is thinly sliced meats like lamb or chicken that are roasted on a spit, and Iranian stews called khoresh, which can be layered with flavorful herbs and spices.

By the 1960s, Memphis had a small congregation of the Nation of Islam followers. In 1975, another congregation established Masjid Mu’minun. It is the oldest mosque in the city and home to the nation’s only halal food pantry. Today there are at least 10 mosques for different denominations and two Islamic schools. In 2003, the Mayor’s Office of Multicultural and Religious Affairs dedicated March as “Muslim Month.” There are approximately 5,000 Muslims in Memphis, and there are several restaurants that serve halal meat throughout the city. Some of these include Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant, the Indian restaurant Hyderabad Biryani, Cedars Restaurant, which serves Lebanese cuisine, and two Mediterranean favorites, Casablanca Restaurant and ZamZamz Mediterranean Grill.  

Jewish Cuisine

A major component of Orthodox Judaism is following kosher dietary laws. In Hebrew, kosher means “fit” or “appropriate.” A major practice of maintaining a kosher diet is to never mix dairy products and meat. In kosher law, the essence of the dairy or meat lingers in the tools and vessels used to prepare a dish. Therefore, many kosher kitchens require that utensils, bowls, pots, cutting boards, and sinks used in preparing and serving meats are never to be used for preparing and serving dairy dishes, and vice versa.  Kosher kitchens also have separate tools and vessels for foods that are pareve, or foods such as vegetables that are neither meat or dairy products.

Kosher meats come from animals that are killed in a humane way. The animal needs to be killed with a quick slash to the throat so that the blood drains from the animal. It’s important not to consume the blood. Both shellfish or pork are considered non-kosher. However, even with these restrictions, Jewish cuisine is flavorful and an essential part of Jewish culture. Some important dishes include cholent, a stew of beans, meat, barley, potatoes, and onions cooked low and slow all day, rugelach pastries filled with cream cheese, brown sugar, and fruit, and the famous matzo ball soup.

In 1847, Joseph Andrews founded the first Jewish cemetery in Memphis, and in 1858, the Congregation of B’nai Israel built the first synagogue at Main and Exchange Streets. The founder of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Wise, dedicated the building. B’nai Israel’s congregation remains active as Temple Israel. Today, Memphis has seven synagogues, the largest being Temple Israel. Baron Hirsch synagogue has one of the largest Orthodox congregations in the United States. Around 8,000 Memphians identify as Jewish.             

Located in East Memphis, the Memphis Jewish Community Center (MJCC) provides many helpful and enriching programs for patrons including sports and fitness classes for both children and adults, senior outreach and hot meal programs, art classes, youth camps, and even a preschool. They also have a pick-up area for the Holy Cow Café & Deli located on the Aaron Brenner side of the MJCC which features a fully Kosher menu. Ricki’s Cookie Corner in East Memphis is a fully kosher bakery. 

Indian Cuisine

India has made lasting, significant contributions to the culinary world. Indian chefs’ unique understanding of spices and flavors have inspired chefs and home-cooks from many cultures. Indian cuisine integrates numerous cooking practices, some based in religious ideology. Over 1.3 billion people live on the subcontinent, and many of those people are religious. While Hinduism is the most practiced religion in India, there are also Muslims, Buddhists, and adherents of other religions. This mix of ideologies and traditions has created the Indian cuisine known today. 

Many Indian dishes are vegetarian, reflecting the dietary preferences of the country’s Hindu and Buddhist communities. While neither religion forbids the consumption of meat, both hold vegetarianism in high regard. Hindus do avoid eating beef, because cows are a sacred animal.  The country’s Muslim population consumes halal meat. Indian cuisine is popular for its satisfying vegetarian dishes for the body and soul. Very often these vegetarian dishes, along with most other types of Indian dishes, are flavored with spices like turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and coriander. These spices are extremely important to Indian households and most have round tins to keep their spice collection together. Family lore and tradition maintain the secrets of the spice tins. Indian cuisine is famous for its deep understanding of spices because it treats the spices as an evolving flavor. Many dishes call for these spices to be bloomed, or heated in a dry pan, to release their full flavors as the first step in a recipe. Then more ingredients are added at certain moments to create well-rounded, complexly flavorful dishes.  

Milk products like yogurt and ghee, clarified butter, are vital to Indian cuisine. The yogurt provides a cooling element to the spiced dishes while ghee acts as a fat. Many Indian meals also incorporate flatbreads like puri or chapati. Puri are flat, round breads that are deep-fried in ghee or oil. Chapati are unleavened flatbreads that are toasted on a skillet. Some of the most well-known Indian main dishes are murg makhani (butter chicken) served with lentils, chicken tikka masala served with rice and a creamy, spiced gravy, and many variations of curry.

In 1894, Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, stopped in Memphis on his tour to spread awareness about Hinduism. However, it was the Indian immigrants who began arriving in Memphis during the 1960s who established Hindu worship here. In 2005, The India Cultural Center and Temple opened in Eads to serve the needs of growing the Hindu community in the Greater Memphis Area. If you want to sample these flavorful tastes of India in Memphis, you can visit Golden India, Mayuri Indian Cuisine, and India Palace. The India Association of Memphis also hosts an annual IndiaFest, which invites the Memphis community to try authentic dishes and explore Indian traditions.

Latino & European Cuisines: Maintaining and Adapting Cooking Traditions - November 16. 2020

When European colonists realized the potential profit to be made in Central and South America, they began reshaping these lands and peoples through religious conversions, slavery, and food traditions. Latin America refers Mexico, the countries of South and Central America, and Caribbean nations and territories. The term Latino refers to anyone with origins in Latin America. Latinos have been the fastest growing ethnic group in Memphis since the 1990s. They comprise 7% of Memphis’s population and are the city’s third largest ethnic group. Spanish is the second most common language spoken in Memphis today. Most Latinos in Memphis trace their heritage to Mexico and Central America.

Mexican Cuisine 

Mexican cuisine has influences from several cultures that date as far back as the Mayans, who resided in the Yucatan Peninsula from roughly 1500 BCE to 900 CE. The Mayans and the later Aztecs (1326 CE to 1521 CE) both made substantial contributions to Mexican cuisine through the domestication of maize (corn), beans, squash, chili peppers, and many other staple ingredients. After the Spanish conquests of the early 1500s, Europeans introduced domesticated animals, which introduced beef, pork, chicken, and dairy products into natives’ diet. This period also introduced African influences through the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Asian influences through Spanish trading voyages that linked “New Spain” to the Philippines. 

The ingredients introduced through trade and the Spanish Conquest are coupled with indigenous crops to create Mexican dishes. One popular dish is a deep-fried tortilla called a tostada. Tostadas can be kept flat or shaped like a bowl to hold meats, vegetables, sauces, and other toppings. Carne asada is another popular dish of seasoned grilled beef. It is usually served with rice and various vegetables grilled alongside the beef. You can try these dishes at the Taqueria El Güero food truck, Maciel’s on Main Street, and La Guadalupana and Los Comales restaurants, both located on Summer Avenue. 

South American Cuisine 

Like African cuisine, South American foodways reflect the environmental differences in each region. Argentina, Chile, and Peru are in the Andes mountain range with its cool weather and high altitudes, and their cuisines are influenced by indigenous cooking styles. Conversely, Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Venezuela sit in the tropics of South America. This region is divided into three sections: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Amazon, and each has their own particular cuisines. However, a common bond between these three regions is the abundance of seafood and tropical fruits found in many of their dishes. 

One of the more accessible cuisines here in the United States, particularly in the southeastern states, is Columbian cuisine. Spanish colonization, the introduction of enslaved Africans into the country, and Columbia’s tropical environment have all shaped the country's cuisine. An example of these three influences on Columbian cuisine is evident in sancocho, which is a soup that has fish (or chicken), vegetables, yuca, and maize. Sancocho is also typically served with banana slices. Columbians also incorporate rice with various meats to make dishes like arroz con pollo, chicken and rice. Due to the country’s warm climate, Columbians are able to grow tropical fruits that are used in pastries such as roscon, which is a sweet cake filled with guava jam. If you’re looking to explore Colombian foods in Memphis, be sure to check out Arepas Deliciosas and El Sabor Latino.

Europeans in Memphis

People of Irish, Scottish, British and German heritage settled in Memphis during the 1800s. Some were recent immigrants while others had been in the country for generations. During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1892, the Irish were the largest immigrant group in Memphis, followed by Germans. During the late 19th century, many Italians and Eastern Europeans arrived. Memphis lost a large segment of the German and Italian communities during the yellow fever epidemics. As neighborhoods and schools integrated in the 1960s, many white Memphians moved out of the city core in a phenomenon referred to as white flight. As a result, Memphis became a majority black city by 1990. Today, white Memphians make up about 30% of the population.

Italian Cuisine

Memphians with Italian heritage have been a vibrant component of the Memphis community since the mid-19th century. The first wave of Italian immigrants into Memphis arrived in the 1840s and 1850s. Many of the first Italian businesses here focused on food, wine, and liquor. The second wave of Italian immigrants into Memphis arrived around the late 19th century. These immigrants were mostly farmers and brought their farming skills to Memphis. By the 1880s, around 50 Italian immigrants from the town of Alessandria in Italy’s Piedmont region immigrated to Frayser in north Memphis. In the early 1900s, they called their settlement “La Colonia Alessandrina di Memphis” in honor of their hometown. They were truck farmers who transported their crops by truck to markets in the city.

During the 1910s and 1920s, Italians, African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants were treated as second class citizens around the United States, and Memphis was not immune to these sentiments. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan ideology and the majority of blue-collar, Protestant Memphians all contributed to the mistreatment of these groups in Memphis. However, the Italian Memphians maintained tight cultural ties within their group and dominated important areas of Memphis life. During the 1910s-1940s, grocers, wholesalers, and restaurants were mostly owned and operated by Italian families. In fact, the oldest restaurant continually operated by the same family in Memphis is Coletta’s (pictured), which opened in 1923. With a strong history of Italian immigrants settling in Memphis and becoming interwoven into vital enterprises, it’s no wonder that Memphis still has a thriving Italian community today or that that food and culture are still important aspects to that community. Every year, Memphis is home to the Memphis Italian Festival which provides tasty food, music, and family fun.

Simplicity is key in Italian cuisine, which highlights the bounty of the land and sea coming together to harmonize as a delicious meal. Although each region of Italy is known for different dishes and methods of cooking, some of the key ingredients that are common to all of Italian cuisine include onions, garlic, and olives, which are often pressed into olive oil. In Memphis, Italian cuisine thrived not only because the Italian immigrants kept the traditions alive, but also because Memphis is a port city. This allowed the frequent import of produce including tomatoes and seafood from the Gulf of Mexico to travel up the Mississippi River into Memphis. This combination of Italian traditions and Memphis culture also created dishes that are unique to Memphis including BBQ pizza, which was first served at the Coletta’s restaurant, and BBQ spaghetti, available at Interstate Barbeque and the Bar-B-Q Shop

Greek Cuisine

Greek immigrants arrived in Memphis during the late 19th and early 20th century, with many settling in the Pinch District. Other immigrant groups that called Pinch home included Irish, Italian, Russian, and Jewish families. In 1919, Greek immigrant Speros Zepatos established the Arcade Restaurant, the city’s oldest continually open restaurant.

Greek immigrants brought their faith, sometimes referred to as the Greek Orthodox Church, with them. Memphis’s first Orthodox priest came from Greece in 1907, and by 1916, his parish had enough members to purchase land down on 3rd Street and Poplar Avenue. In 1955, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church moved to its current location on N Highland Street. It has hosted the annual Memphis Greek Festival  for more than 60 years. Every year, Memphians visit the Memphis Greek Festival to appreciate Greek culture and sample Greek cuisine.  

Some of the most famous Greek dishes include baklava, spanakopita, and gyros. Both baklava and spanakopita are made with a thin, flaky pastry called phyllo dough. Baklava is a sweet dessert that has nuts, honey, and syrup layered inside the phyllo dough, giving the dessert a crunchy texture. Spanakopita is a savory snack that has spinach stuffed inside the phyllo. Gyros are similar to wraps. Meats like chicken, lamb, pork, or beef are stuffed into the pocket of pita bread along with onions, tomatoes, and tzatziki sauce. Tzatziki is a yogurt-based sauce or dip with garlic, cucumbers, olive oil, and herbs like dill or mint. If you want to sample some of these Mediterranean dishes year round you can visit Grecian Gourmet Taverna, Taziki’s, and Happy Greek Cafe

Irish Cuisine

In the 1840s, a large wave of Irish immigrants arrived in the United States because a devastating potato famine had destroyed the main source of food for much of the population of their home country. Irish immigrants, particularly unmarried women, arrived in large numbers from the 1850s on through the early 1900s. By the 1860s, the Irish immigrants were the largest immigrant group in Memphis, with a population that represented around 20-25% of the entire city.

The Irish imprint on the city of Memphis is still visible. Today, we have a number of Catholics and Catholic churches in the city, thanks in part to the Irish Catholics who arrived in Memphis. We also have a thriving pub tradition in Memphis, including convivial establishments like Silky O’Sullivan’s, Celtic Crossing, and The Brass Door. Memphis also hosts annually the Silky O’Sullivan’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Beale Street, which draws fans of Ireland and beer lovers alike. When discussing Irish cuisine, the most common ingredients and dishes are hearty and include many root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and onions. Stews with lamb and beef also play an important role in Irish cuisine.


Cajun, Creole, African & Caribbean Cuisine: Adapting to their Environments & Outside Influences - November 9, 2020

On first inspection, Cajun, Creole, African, and Caribbean cuisines may all seem very different. Each culture group and its cuisine has its own traditions and practices, which lends itself to a wide array of dishes. However, there are commonalities that link these groups.  People from each culture use their environments to grow the best possible ingredients and to adapt when their environment changes. Historically, these groups maintained their identities when faced with colonialism or forced migration. This post will take a look at these two common traits found in these cultures and how they made their mark on the culinary world and on Memphis. 

Cajun Cuisine

Cajun cuisine is a mix of many different food traditions. The name “Cajun” is an evolution of the word “Acadian,” the  people who began this style of cooking. The Acadians were a group of French immigrants who migrated to Northeastern Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1755, the Acadians refused to submit to the British Crown, and the British deported them to Louisiana. After relocating, the Acadians adapted their culinary traditions to their new environment. Cajun cuisine relies heavily on seafood such as crawfish. The Native Americans, Creoles, Spaniards, Germans, and Italians who also lived in Louisiana influenced Acadians’ cooking. During this time, Cajun cuisine was considered the food of peasants and many dishes were one-pot meals, meaning the vegetables, meats, and seafood were all cooked together. 

Celery, onions, and bell peppers are three of the most important vegetables used in Cajun cooking. They are called “The Holy Trinity,” and can be found in almost every Cajun meal. Crawfish is also a staple of Cajun cuisine. Crawfish boils provide delicious flavor and serve as a way to unite the community.  Because Memphis is a port city, this appreciation and love of Cajun food traveled to the Bluff City up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Memphis even has an annual Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival on Riverside Drive.

Creole Cuisine 

What makes Creole cuisine distinct from Cajun cuisine is the people who did the cooking. When discussing Cajun cuisine, we are referring to the food of the usually poor French immigrants who settled in rural Louisiana. Creole cuisine is a bit harder to pin down because its definition has changed over the years. Generally, Creole cuisine is thought to be food made in New Orleans or Louisiana that is cooked by someone with ancestors who were French, African, Spanish, Caribbean, or other immigrant groups. The European settlers who came to New Orleans tended to be aristocrats and used more spices and “exotic” ingredients, like tomatoes.

A dish that perfectly reflects the mash-up of cultural influences on Creole cuisine is gumbo. Gumbo is a dark, flavorful soup that is sometimes served with rice. To start the gumbo, Creole recipes call for a French roux of butter and flour to thicken the soup. Cajun recipes use an oil and flour roux. Creole gumbos also have the Holy Trinity as well as African okra, Spanish peppers, seafood including crawfish, oysters, and crabs from the Gulf, tomatoes, and many flavorful herbs and spices like saffron. To sample the enticing Louisiana flavors in Memphis, visit restaurants like The Half Shell, Restaurant Iris, and The Bayou Bar & Grill.

African Cuisine

Africa is a vast and diverse continent with a history that is reflected in its regional foodways. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the race to the “New World,” outside nations influenced African cuisines through the introduction of spices, foodstuffs, and cooking styles from other parts of the world. The continent’s varied landscapes and climates also influenced cuisines, determining the types of ingredients used by its peoples. As discussed previously, enslaved Africans brought their culinary traditions to the Americas, which is reflected in Southern and Soul food traditions. More recent African immigrants and refugees also bring their regional cuisine with them to Memphis.

West Africa

West African cooking encompasses a diverse range of dishes from 16 different countries including Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria. These dishes are typically made from livestock and vegetables such as rice, cassava, leafy greens, and starch vegetables that a family would raise and grow. Many dishes have a base of tomatoes, onions and chili peppers which are sautéed for a slightly tangy flavor. This base could be considered the African “Holy Trinity,” similar to the Holy Trinity found in Cajun and Creole cuisines. Other common ingredients are black-eyed peas, sesame, and okra, which are often used to thicken soups like draw soups. Draw soup is a term given to thick soups made from okra, ogbono seeds and ewedu leaves. Soups and stews like draw soups are typically served with rice or fufu, a bread made from cassava. Furthermore, West Africans also consume a number of meats and fish from the coastal region including dried and smoked fishes cooked in various combinations of sauces, stews, and other dishes. Bala Tounkara, owner of Bala’s Bistro in Whitehaven, was raised in West Africa and serves dishes that reflect his Malian, Mauritanian, and Sengalese heritage.

East Africa

East Africa includes countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan. With about 20 different countries making up this region, the cuisine changes from area to area because of environmental and cultural influences. For example, in the inland Savannah people eat meat products often, because their herds are seen as currency. Conversely, most traditional East Africans use the milk and blood of their cattle, rather than the meat. Locals also grow various grains and vegetables that are often consumed in stews. 

One of the most well-known cuisines from East Africa is Ethiopian cuisine. Ethiopian dishes are typically characterized by injera, a large sourdough flatbread, that is accompanied by a spicy stew. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims avoid eating pork and shellfish for religious reasons. These religious groups also uphold strict fasting practices and have found substitutes for animal fats, which are forbidden during fasting periods. If you would like to sample the taste of Ethiopia here in Memphis, you can eat at Derae Restaurant on S. Highland Street or Abyssinia Restaurant on Poplar Avenue. 

North Africa

North Africa rests along the Mediterranean Sea and includes countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan. The early empires that ruled Northern Africa were large, and traders, occupiers, and travelers introduced many foodstuffs. For example, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians introduced sausages, wheat, and semolina, a wheat by-product that Berbers later incorporated into couscous. Romans introduced olives and olive oil, and Arabians introduced a number of spices, including nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Later, the Ottomans followed with sweet pastries and other bakery goods along with potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini and chili peppers.

One of the most well-known cuisines from North Africa is Moroccan cuisine. These dishes are a mixture of influences from Berber, Arabian, Andalusian, and Mediterranean cuisines. The common ingredients used in their dishes are fruits and vegetables that are grown in the Mediterranean as well as wheat used in bread and couscous. Beef, goat, mutton, lamb, chicken, and seafood are included in their diets. Spices are used extensively with these meats and dishes. They are combined to make a spice mixture called ras el hanout. Casbah Restaurant in Cordova serves Moroccan food. For Sudanese food, you can visit the food stall of Chef Ibti Salih, a political refugee, at Global Café in the Crosstown Concourse.

South Africa

South Africa includes the five countries at the southernmost part of the continent. The cuisine of this region is very diverse, reflecting the region’s long history of colonialism. Typically, the cuisine is meat-heavy. At this time, there are no restaurants in Memphis specializing in South African cuisine.  

Caribbean Cuisine 

Like the different regions of Africa, the Caribbean has a wide range of countries including Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica. Each of these countries’ cuisines have been influenced by African, Cajun, Creole, Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Some commonalities are that dishes are often served with rice, and are prepared with ingredients like beans, bell peppers, and tomatoes and include proteins such as beef, pork, chicken, or fish. 

Jamaican cuisine is particularly popular and is heavily influenced by these other cultures. For instance, Jamaican food contains ingredients produced by crops that were introduced from Southeast Asia. This influence is evident in dishes like curries and roti. During the slave trade, Africans introduced rice, peas, and seasoning methods used to make jerk spice, a cooking style that is particular to Jamaica. It consists of dry rubbing or marinating with the jerk spice mixture. The smoky flavor can be achieved through wood burning ovens. The Spanish introduced escovitch fish and other salt fishes, a staple in Jamaican cuisine that is often served as a main dish. For Caribbean flavors in Memphis, try restaurants like Curry N JerkEvelyn & Olive, and Havana’s Pilon.

Images courtesy of Memphis CVBTrip Advisor

The Intersection of Southern, Soul & BBQ Cuisine - November 2, 2020

Memphis is a hub for cultural diversity. The majority of the population is composed of minority groups, which provides a rich and varied cultural environment. The stretch of Summer Avenue between White Station Road and Highland Road  was dubbed “Nation’s Highway” in 2019, and many Memphians hope that the area will be considered the first international district in Memphis, with more than 30 countries represented in this neighborhood alone. This month, we celebrate Memphis’s cultural diversity through the foodways found in our city, starting with Southern food, Soul food, and barbeque.

Southern Food & Soul Food

Southern and Soul foods are two important cuisines in the Memphis area. The two are sometimes referred to interchangeably, but they are distinct cuisines that have an interrelated history. Southern food refers to the dishes developed throughout the Southern United States that use ingredients that are readily available in warmer climates. Southern food is rooted in local ingredients and fresh produce. Soul food developed within the traditional cooking techniques and ingredients of Southern cuisine with an emphasis on not wasting food. Fried chicken, okra, biscuits and gravy, cornbread, pork, and greens are common dishes and ingredients used in both Southern and Soul food. There is an ongoing debate about what constitutes the difference between Southern and Soul food.

Soul food has its roots with the enslaved African peoples who were brought to America via the trans-Atlantic slave trade and got its name during the Black Pride movement of the 1960s. Image 2 When enslaved people were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, the slave traders loaded their ships with foods indigenous to Africa: okra, black eyed peas, peanuts, watermelon, and yams. Enslaved Africans also brought their knowledge of rice cultivation to the Carolinas, where their expertise transformed the region’s economy.

Once enslaved people arrived in the Americas, owners gave them small quantities of low quality rations which enslaved people supplemented by planting gardens with foods from their homes. They also ate the leftover animal parts such as pig ears, hog intestines, and tripe that their owners did not want. Enslaved people also drank potlikker, the broth left behind after boiling greens or beans. Owners typically discarded potlikker, but the broth contained vitamins A, B, and C as well as potassium, which enslaved people needed to supplement their diet. Enslaved people adapted their own food traditions and techniques to give their rations more flavor and increase its nutritional value. These techniques and the necessity of not wasting ingredients continued in Black cooking after emancipation. During the Great Migration, Black migrants took these food traditions with them to Northern cities. 

The Four Way, Southern Hands, Alcenia’s, The Cupboard, and Soul Fish Caféare just four places to try these cuisines in Memphis.


It’s hard to talk about Memphis without mentioning the cuisine we’re most famous for: barbecue. Barbecue, barbeque, or BBQ, depending on who you talk to, is Memphis’s most important contribution to the culinary world, but barbecue cooking did not begin in Memphis. Its roots are grounded in Caribbean tradition that Spanish conquistadors imported into the New World. On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic today), Indigenous peoples cooked meat over indirect flames with green wood so that the wood and food would not burn. When the Spanish encountered this, they called the technique barbacoa, which is where we get the name barbecue.

Different regions in the United States are known for their distinct tasting barbecue. All types of barbeque involve cooking the meat very slowly over low, indirect heat. Flavor profiles vary, depending on the region. The main hubs for barbecue cooking are North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Memphis, and Kansas City. Memphis’ distinct barbeque focuses on using pork as the protein and a sweet, tomato-based sauce. Pork became the staple of different barbecue styles, including Memphis’s, because pigs require little maintenance. Cattle need enclosed spaces and large amounts of food, while pigs can roam wildly. Also, pork is typically lean, making it a prime candidate for low and slow barbecue cooking which tenderizes the meat. Cooks developed Memphis’s unique, sweet sauce because of the easy access to goods on the Mississippi River. As a port town, goods like molasses and tomatoes passed frequently into Memphis, and over time, secret sauces were born Memphis chefs have added our signature barbeque to pizza, spaghetti, and nachos. If you want to check out some tasty Memphis barbecue, try The Bar-B-Q Shop, Rendezvous, Leonard's Pit Barbecue, and Central BBQ among many others.

For further reading:

The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge


Images courtesy of Center for Southern Studies Ole MissSlave VoyagesSean Davis

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