By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – The past can be a fragile thing that’s easily torn or lost.
“People inherit photographs and they don’t know anything about them,” Bill Lyle said, “so they throw them away.”
“People were dying and these pictures were getting discarded,” Dick Hill said. “That bothered us.”
Lyle and Hill are part of a six-person team dedicated to preserving old photographs. For years, people were invited to bring black-and-white shots of Tupelo’s past to the Lee County Library, where the photos were scanned into computers.
“It’s close to 4,000 now,” Hill said.
When a publishing company called looking for help with a book, the team was ready.
“They contacted us,” Hill said.
“They wanted somebody local,” Lyle said.
The pair, along with David Baker, Mem Leake, Julian Riley and Boyd Yarbrough, got busy trimming 4,000 photographs down to a little more than 200 to fit in “Tupelo,” a 128-page book from Arcadia Publishing. It sells for $21.99 at Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore, Barnes & Noble, the Oren Dunn Museum and other Tupelo locations.
“It’s been about a year ago since we started on the book, so it was about this time of year,” Yarbrough said.
“We had to have it done by Christmas,” Hill said. “We were pushing it.”
The book is divided into three parts: The Village, The Town and The City. It opens with a picture of a swamp from when wetlands dominated this area.
The oldest picture, they believe, shows a view from Tupelo in 1862, when the town had two hotels, two saloons and two stores.
Here’s a sampling:
• The Savery family is pictured with their horse and buggy.
• Men stand in front of Guy Mitchell Sr.’s law office.
• A group of ladies sit in a car decorated for a parade.
• People gather around a train at the old depot.
• President Franklin Roosevelt visits the city.
• A woman rests after giving birth to twins after the Tupelo tornado.
• A football team practices.
• Young Elvis Presley sits on a curb.
Collecting photographs was only part of the work. The real job was writing captions for each shot. The authors range in age from 60 to 91, and their collective memory filled in the blanks.
“The ones who brought us photos, a lot of them didn’t know what they were looking at,” said David Baker, the elder statesman of the group.
Many photos had no names or dates written on the back. Writing captions turned into detective work. The men gathered together and swapped stories, and sometimes went off topic.
“It tends to happen,” Hill said. “The six of us getting together and not being able to focus on what we were there to focus on.”
“One image would create a bunch of questions and we’d go from there,” Riley said.
“We got into a lot of … not arguments, but discussions,” Hill said.
All of the authors except Hill were born in Tupelo, and Hill’s been a Tupelo resident for several decades. They each provided pieces to the puzzle, but the group came to rely on one memory above the others.
“(Baker) has a fantastic memory, so he’s been our big asset,” Hill said. “When he goes, it goes with him, if he doesn’t tell us about it or write it down.”
He remembered people, places and things that others had forgotten.
“They don’t even known there was a spring on Spring Street,” he said. “Where do they think the name came from?”
The group talked about “The Levee,” the road from Tupelo to east Tupelo that used to flood.
“Obviously, ‘The Levee’ didn’t do a very good job,” Riley said. “Everybody here can remember water being over Main Street.”
When recognizable landmarks weren’t available, they used other clues to pin down dates.
“For a lot of the pictures,” Hill said, “we had to detect dates by cars in the background and the clothes they wore.”
The book is limited to Tupelo, but the 4,000 pictures include images from Saltillo, Shannon, Sherman, Verona, Baldwyn and other Lee County locations.
The goal is to digitize all those photos and provide descriptions, then make them available to the Oren Dunn Museum, the Lee County Library and other locations.
“They’ve been collected so they can be preserved and the public can view them, and the museum can use them in displays,” said Yarbrough, a museum volunteer.
Anyone with images to add to the collection can call the museum at (662) 841-6438. Photographs are returned to their owners after the scanning process.
Whatever the six authors make off the sale of “Tupelo” will be donated to the museum.
“We’re not making a penny off this,” Hill said.
One of their motivations is fellowship, the chance to get together every so often to swap stories, as well as insults.
“We tease each other a lot,” Hill said. “That’s part of it.”
They’re also driven by a shared love for Tupelo history.
“It’s like a family Bible. You hope the person who inherits it appreciates it,” Lyle said. “When I was younger, I didn’t care, but as you get older, it becomes more important to you. We want to do what we can while we can.”