Where in Mississippi is ... Guntown? This quiet community is riddled with real-life mysteries stranger than the ones that play on its drive-in movie screen.
Even the precise origin of the town's name is a much-debated puzzle. Some assert that Guntown was named for Rhoda Gunn, a beautiful local woman with a royal Chickasaw lineage. Gunn's maternal grandfather, Chickasaw chief William Colbert, reportedly relinquished a parcel of land on the condition that the town be named for his granddaughter, called "belle of the Chickasaws and the fairest rose that bloomed in the wilderness" by a town history document.
Others claim the name honors an early local gunsmith who was known for his excellent weapon repair work. The gunsmith, whose name was either Louis McDaniel or Tom McDonnall depending on what old newspaper article one prefers to believe, set up a shop inside a hotel on what is now Bryson Street. Both the hotel and shop moved to Main Street in the late 1850s to be near the new railroad depot, and the gunsmith's reputation grew so steadily in north Mississippi that he was recruited to make and repair guns for Confederate soldiers, according to a 1993 Lee County Courier article.
Letters and other historical documents still exist to support both arguments, but no matter which is true, it is certain that the name of Guntown was a well-known one during the War between the States. The town's location on a major road just north of Tupelo made it an important strategic location, and troops from both sides often rode through the local streets. "Much damage was done by expeditions of Federal cavalry," noted an early town history. The Battle of Brice's Crossroads, in which Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's men defeated a much larger Union cavalry and captured some 1,500 prisoners, was fought just six miles away. A private home in Guntown was converted into a wartime hospital for both Rebels and Yankees, noted a 1995 Lee County Courier article.
After the war ended and wounded soldiers left Guntown, another injured man with a much more sinister past may have moved in. John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg leaping from a box in Ford's Theatre after firing the shot that killed President Abraham Lincoln, supposedly perished in a Virginia barn fire only 12 days after the assassination. But many local residents still believe today that the body found in those ashes belonged to another man and that Booth actually fled south to spend the remaining years of his life living quietly among their ancestors.
As the legend goes, Guntown resident Dr. John Fletcher Booth hosted a mysterious family visitor in his home in the years after Lincoln's assassination. Emily Epting Pressey, Dr. Booth's granddaughter, told local newspapers in the 1970s and '80s that she had some possible evidence that the houseguest was her grandfather's cousin, John Wilkes Booth.
"Numerous crumbling letters talk about a mysterious uncle who lived in Dr. J.F. Booth's home and almost never left his upstairs lair," reported a 1977 Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal article. "'They apparently had been admonished not to talk about 'Unky' outside the family when my mother was a child,' relates Miss Em. '... She was the only one of the children who was allowed to take meals upstairs or to visit with him.'" The secretive man was said to have walked with a limp and to have been well-educated and familiar with many plays; Pressey noted that the assassin had been a successful stage actor.
Further backing up the Guntown story, Booth's presumed death in Virginia has been disputed by a faction of historians who say federal officials may have acted to cover up the truth--that they lost track of the country's most wanted man. And for good measure, here's another plot-thickener: Booth may have had another tie to Mississippi in the form of a wealthy Pontotoc County plantation owner who might have met the murderer in Canada and was "at least knowledgeable of, if not involved in, the plot against Lincoln," according to a 1985 Daily Journal article.
The presence of an unmarked grave in the local Booth family cemetery, now part of a privately owned pasture, has only fueled the flame of this legend. In 1990, an anonymous person added a marker to the site that reads "John Wilkes Booth, Born 1838, Died Unknown, Rest in Peace."
"Doubts will always linger," Pressey once wrote after studying her mother's old letters. "No one will know the truth but our God."
But John Wilkes Booth may not have been the only well-known criminal to spend time in Guntown. Another local legend, recorded in the 1983 book Guntown Hot Times by Claude Gentry, claims that outlaw Jesse James stayed at the Guntown hotel in December 1874. He checked out, the story goes, just before the Tishomingo Savings Bank in Corinth was robbed of $5,000 in cash and a bag full of diamonds and gold watches. The bandits were never caught, and no proof exists that James and his almost equally notorious brother Frank were responsible for the theft, but many historians still list the Corinth incident on a long roster of crimes probably committed by the Jameses.
A third possible famous Guntown visitor was Thomas Edison, who may have traveled here as part of a tour promoting his new and improved telegraph equipment, according to a 2005 Daily Journal article. This visit, too, is disputed; some sources record that Edison was "in another part of the country at the time of his supposed visit."
While they weren't hosting travelers both famous and infamous, the people of Guntown were shifting their focus from wartime matters to agriculture and industry during the late 1800s. By the turn of the century, the town was reportedly one of the largest cotton markets in the southeastern United States. According to one newspaper, by 1923, as many as 6,000 bales of cotton were ginned, sold, and shipped from here each year. In honor of the crop, the town still holds an annual Cotton Festival complete with live entertainment, arts and crafts booths, a car show, and a quilt show, according to city clerk Betty Moore. This year's event is set for September 23 at City Park.
Industry is still a big part of the makeup of this small town, ideally located in a part of the state known for furniture and building-material production. In 1995, Toronto-based Norbord Industries opened a 360,000-square-foot plant in Guntown to manufacture oriented strand board (OSB), an engineered structural wood panel used in home construction. Norbord, one of the world's largest producers of OSB, also makes hardwood plywood, particleboard, and other wood-based panels. Guntown officials and residents were so thrilled to welcome this large company, which now employs 125 people here, that they celebrated the mill's ground-breaking by flying Canadian flags on mailboxes and literally rolling out a red carpet for Norbord officials at the Tupelo airport, reported the Daily Journal.
Other big local businesses include PGI, a producer of reinforcing concrete fibers; Quail Ridge Engineering, which specializes in material-handling systems and equipment; and Robison & Grissom Tractor Company, a distributor of TAFE tractors, located just outside of town.
No doubt due at least in part to the plentiful industrial jobs available here, Guntown's population has more than tripled over the last 20 years, from 359 in 1980 to 1,311 as of 2005. But, as residents attest, there's more to life here than just work. The community boasts the distinction of having one of only three still-operating drive-in movie theaters in Mississippi. Guntown Drive-In Movie, located on County Road 773, shows first-run double features on one screen each Friday and Saturday night from spring until late fall. Movie buff John Sample Sr. and his wife Agnes opened the theater in 1994, starting from the ground up with an empty field.
The venture has proven so successful that the couple, along with their sons and daughter-in-laws who also help out, have expanded the concession stand three times and made other improvements to keep up with the growing demand. The theater holds around 200 cars and often draws a capacity crowd for special events and popular movies. "When we showed 'Twister,' they were parked all the way back to the ticket booth," Agnes says.
The audio for each film is broadcast from a low-power radio transmitter directly to each car's stereo system, so movie-goers no longer have to park beside fixed speakers as at older theaters. "They just pull in, get out their chairs and blankets and playpens, and kick back," Agnes says.
From modern big-screen adventures to bona fide mysteries from the past, this tiny town offers its audience--er, residents--a script filled with twists and turns and plenty of excitement. But unlike in the movies, Guntown residents are enjoying their happy endings every day.
IF YOU GO:
This year's Cotton Festival is set for September 23 at City Park. For more details, call 662/348-5353.
Guntown Drive-in Movie is located at 124 C.R. 773;662/348-5767.