Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Day Trip: Biloxi

By Jeff Burns

Biloxi Mississippi was founded in 1699 by the French when Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville established Fort Maurepas in what is now Ocean Springs.  It was the capital of French Louisiana for a couple of decades before the capital was moved to New Orleans.  In the late 1800s it became a beach resort town with cottages, mansions and hotels facing the Gulf of Mexico and frequented by the rich and famous. At the same time, it became the center of a huge seafood production industry, supplying the world with fish, shrimp, and oysters. Today, it’s a relatively low-key city of less than 50,000 situated on a beautiful 26 mile long stretch of man-made beach, and its downtown is dominated by casinos. For a history lover, there are a few things that might draw you off the beach – or out of the casino -  temporarily.

The area was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and you can still see the effects and the rebuilding.  There are several exhibits focusing on the storm and its aftermath, which most of us were little aware of at the time, because all of the media attention was focused on New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast was largely ignored.  As you drive along the beach, you can see empty lots, and, along US Highway 90, be sure to look for the tree stumps and trunks that have been carved into beautiful birds and animals by the artist Marlin Miller.

Start your visit at the Biloxi Visitors Center. The staffers are very friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful. The exhibits are informative, and you can step out from there directly to the pier, lighthouse, and beach.

A few miles down the road is Beauvoir, the last home of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  Built in the 1850s as a summer home for another planter, Davis and his family became the owners in 1879. Now it is operated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. You can tour the house and see it as it was when the Davises lived there.  There is also a museum and a Confederate cemetery on the property.  The property and collections suffered greatly during Hurricane Katrina, and rehabilitation work is still being done. The museum has a small but interesting collection.  Be sure to watch the Jefferson Davis Documentary. The segment that is shown is very informative, focusing on his post-war life.  You really get an understanding of how complex the man and his role in American history were and are.  Visiting Beauvoir has definitely stoked an interest  in myself to learn more.

Next stop is the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum, an architecturally stunning campus designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, a native of the region, to celebrate the ceramic and pottery art of George Ohr, the self-described “mad potter of Biloxi”, who worked in the late 1800s.  His genius was unrecognized during his life, despite his attempts at self-promotion.  He was just too far ahead of his time.  Fortunately, his family preserved and packed away his work, and a New York art dealer discovered it and introduced it to the world.

At the museum, you can see his work and interesting temporary exhibits as well.  It is a great place.  The docents are incredibly friendly, enthusiastic, and informative.  Katrina also had a major impact here, and they have mounted a special exhibit to document it. You can get a glimpse of the work here.

I must admit that I was reluctant to visit the last museum of the day, the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, but I’m glad I did.  True, the boats and artifacts didn’t hold much interest for me, but I was fascinated by the videos and stories of the people of Biloxi telling their stories of working in the seafood industry.  Lewis Hine, a Progressive photographer, documented the child labor in the early 20th century, and you can watch videos of the people themselves recounting their lives.  Can you imagine, as a child, reporting to work at a seafood factory at 4 AM, peeing shrimp or shucking oysters until school time, going to school, and then going back to work after school until 6 or 7 PM?  And being paid a nickel for each 15 pounds or so of shrimp or oysters?  Stories like these really make me think that there are few in America today who have a right to complain about anything.

You can see all of these things and still make it to the beach. Have a great day in Biloxi!