Mississippi: Hop on the magical Oprah tour

By Kevin Pilley

The tiny town where Oprah Winfrey was born has developed a tiny trail marking her early milestones, writes Kevin Pilley.

Oprah Winfrey. Photo / Supplied
Oprah Winfrey. Photo / Supplied

That should do it. There ain't no one about to move that now. Not without rupturing themselves anyhow. Or hiring a digger," said Jimmy Cockroft, as he checked out the nuts and made sure the bolts were screwed down as tight as they could go.

He gave the sign a final yank and wiggled the top to check the footing. He gave a self-satisfied smile. This was a piece of mayor's work well done.

"Pure aluminium. Totally vandal and theft-resistant. No one's going to run off with this one. She's here to stay. No one's going to run off with our Oprah again."

A one-woman crime wave has hit the small town of Kosciusko in northeast Mississippi. But local police are not baffled. They know who is responsible. It is Oprah Winfrey who was born in the part of Mississippi, locally known as "The Beehive of the Hills", slogan: "Come for The History. Stay for the Charm".

Oprah-mania "has been responsible for a spate of smash and grab raids which have bemused our 7000-strong community .

They just want keepsakes. Oprah Winfrey road signs are collectors' items," said Mayor Cockroft, who runs a shoe store in town.

"We've lost count how many have been dug up and stolen. The wooden ones were easy pickings. They didn't last very long. There are a lot of serial Oprah souvenir hunters about."

The Mayor of Kosicusko had rolled up in his 4WD to gladhand me himself and offer an official welcome to the Oprah Winfrey heritage trail. He introduced me to my official Oprah escort and guide. Her name was Willa and she was "very thrilled indeed by my presence". And touched that I had come to see her town and its unique Oprah Winfrey sightseeing route. All 450m of it.

"You've come a long way to pay your respects to Oprah," she said as we stood at the corner of Highway 15 and Oprah Winfrey Rd, formerly Buffalo Rd.

Mississippi has many claims to fame. It is the birthplace of writers John Grisham, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and musicians like Bo Diddley, BB King, Muddy Waters, Tammy Wynettee, Conway Twitty and, of course, Elvis Presley, who was born in Tupelo in the north of the state.

Some of the great battles of the Civil War like Champion's Hill were also fought in Mississippi.

Mississippi proudly boasts that it's the state in which Coca Cola was first bottled and where the Bowie knife and the Stetson hat were invented. In 1899 it staged the last bareknuckle fistfight which the legendary John Sullivan won after 74 rounds. The state's promotional bumf also claims that it was the first to sell boxed pairs of matched shoes.

But, all that aside, the most momentous event in the state's history happened down a dirt path at Marker 160 on January 29, 1954 when the greatest heroine of the US ratings war was born.

To commemorate an event which changed the course of afternoon TV, if not the world, the tiny town of Kosciusko, an hour north of Jackson, has dedicated a tourist trail in honour of its favourite daughter, chat show zillionairess and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah has even received the ultimate accolade of having a cul-de-sac named after her.

Mississippi's main tourist attraction is now the Oprah Winfrey nativity site. Coachloads of fans come to Kosciusko from as far away as Canada and Chicago, where the globally syndicated television show is recorded, to take the official Oprah Loop tour.

They come to film their heroine's roots and take snapshots of the road where the young Oprah walked barefoot to school. A trip down Oprah's memory lane to the humble origins of America's richest woman is free. "It's a shrine to the American Dream," whispered Willa as we approached Oprah's birthplace. It is no more than a concrete slab on a raised piece of scrubland backed by woods and a tangle of briar roses. You would not know you were standing on a hallowed spot but for the large sign carrying a crosshatched sketch of Oprah's first home because the house was long ago turned into firewood.

Oprah Gail Winfrey spent the first six years of her life in the town of Kosciusko, which is named after a Polish crony of George Washington. Her name is a misspelling of "Orpah", the sister-in-law of the biblical Ruth. Born to unmarried parents, she was brought up by her grandmother, Vernita Lee, who is buried in the graveyard 90m down the road from their home.

Oprah later moved to Milwaukee to join her mother who had gone there to find work and attended high school in Nashville before working on radio and finding fame and fortune on television. She opened Harpo Studios in 1985 and Harpo Productions in 1988. Oprah's Book Club has sold about 12 million books. Her estate is now estimated to be more than US$500 million.

"We beautified the road to honour her achievements. She is a great role model," said Mayor Cockcroft, standing outside the whitewashed clapboard community centre.

"It is important we preserve our heritage. Attala County celebrates Oprah's birthday every year."

The community centre was a church when Oprah was a child and a commemorative plaque has been erected outside which reads, "Oprah Winfrey Faced Her First Audience Here".

Willa introduced Bessell Redmond who told me she remembered Oprah reciting the story of the Resurrection.

"She was wearing a dress made out of paper. She was a bit of a childhood prodigy. A very confident child and obviously something special."

Students from the local Voc-Tech college cleared the road and built the signs as part of a youth leadership and community awareness programme.

There are also plans to open an Oprah Winfrey museum although genuine Oprah artefacts are few and far between.

Said Randell Kelly, of Friends for Oprah, who produced the official Oprah Loop sightseeing map and information booklet: "Oprah opened the road herself. She doesn't come back very often but she does mention us occasionally on her show.

"We truly are proud to call her our own. It is nice to live in a place with such historical significance."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to both Los Angeles and San Francisco from where there are connecting flights to Memphis International Airport. Kosciusko is 225km by road from Memphis.

Further information: You can get a little information about Kosciusko from roadsideamerica.com.

- NZ Herald

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