The Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., has a pretty good slogan on its website that reads, in part, “We all know about the mansion called Graceland. We all know how it ended. This is how it began.” As an Elvis fan, long-ago part-time employee at Graceland and full-time Memphis resident, I know about the story of the king of rock ‘n’ roll. I traveled an hour and a half south of Memphis to Tupelo to learn more about how the story began.
I’ve seen the Elvis Presley birthplace before. Back in the summer of 2001 I was in Tupelo for the wedding of a college friend and we drove by the little white house in East Tupelo on our way out of town. But this time, as we spent a full weekend exploring Tupelo, we had more time to explore the Elvis Presley Birthplace.
So much has changed in recent years. Tupelo is really on to something with celebrating the early years of Elvis. He’s obviously associated with Memphis with that being his home. The Bluff City really has the life, career and death of Elvis covered.
But Tupelo? The Northeast Mississippi city rightfully owns and celebrates the legacy of the boy Elvis.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace Park was established in 1957 when the city of Tupelo purchased the home and surrounding land thanks to Elvis donating the proceeds of a concert that year at the Tupelo Fairgrounds, his first return to his hometown since leaving for Memphis as a 13-year-old in 1948.
The home is modest; Elvis is a true rags to riches story. The little two-room house was built by Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley, in 1934. The next year, on Jan. 8, Elvis was born a few minutes after his stillborn identical twin, Jessie, in the front room of the house.
I’ve often wondered what the interest is in visiting Tupelo to see the birthplace and early home of Elvis Aaron Presley. But that’s silly; Graceland is the second most visited house in the United States, in large part thanks to the thousands of European and Japanese visitors who make music pilgrimages to the Memphis area. And it only makes sense those visitors would continue south 100 miles to the birthplace.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace attracts some 100,000 annual visitors.
Tupelo is an underrated destination itself. In fact, we spent parts of three days there and only spent about an hour and a half at the Elvis Birthplace. The downtown is a lot of fun with shops, restaurants and bars, and of course the Tupelo Hardware Co. where Elvis got his first guitar.
But the Elvis Presley Birthplace has its own magic, and it’s quite extraordinary for anyone who hasn’t experienced rural southern poverty on any scale.
My grandparents weren’t poor, but they were hard-working farmers in the Great Depression. The house my grandfather built is a larger version of the Elvis birthplace. Elvis’ house has a front room and a back room, and that’s it. Walking through this tiny house where Elvis Presley actually was born is really amazing.
Around the house is what’s called the Walk of Life, a scored concrete circle with dated granite blocks denoting each year of Elvis’ life with the first 13 commemorated by engraved facts about his life in Tupelo.
The actual Assembly of God church where Elvis and his family attended services now stands on the grounds, being moved from its original location nearby.
The church features a multimedia presentation that gives a glimpse into what it was like to attend one of the hours-long services that clearly had a big influence on Elvis’ music. The church and the pulpit are originals; all other fixtures inside are replicas.
Other features include the Elvis at 13 statue, special historic markers, the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel that was envisioned by Elvis before his death, a Story Wall of portrayals of Elvis told by close childhood friends, a gift shop, event center and the Elvis Presley Museum.
The museum is small but really well done. It started in 1992 as a display of the massive personal collection of tupelo resident and close Elvis friend Janelle McComb. It was renovated in 2006 and has even more artifacts today. No photography allowed, so you’ll just have to trust me that it’s well done.
We spent about an hour and a half on the grounds, but I probably could have spent another hour if I didn’t have a bored child. The Elvis Presley Birthplace is really well put together and something fans who can find their way to Tupelo will really enjoy. I understand that a bicycle/pedestrian lane is under construction that will connect downtown to the park about two miles east, so there are exciting things on the horizon.
I wrote more about the details of what touring the Elvis Presley Birthplace entails for About.com here. And in the coming months I’ll be sharing all the fun in Tupelo for regional publications in the South. Stay tuned!