What’s in a Name?

From ABC Avenue to Zillah Circle, hundreds of streets weave through the city of Tupelo. Since its incorporation in the late 1800s, the city has grown exponentially in size, and with that has come the birth of new names. But older street and area names here reflect hundreds of years of history.

Written by Rachel A. Ishee | Illustrated by Kit Stafford

Tupelo’s downtown Main Street has helped the city win several local and national awards, and to be named a semi-finalist in the 2016 and 2018 Great American Main Street Awards. The street itself got its start during the Civil War, when the Tupelo area was a prime military location because its swamps and hills provided protection against enemy forces. 

What is now referred to as Main Street was once a road that allowed access to two different strong defensive positions for troops. If Union soldiers were to attack from either direction, the Confederate soldiers could simply withdraw to the opposite side using this road. 

After losing the battles of Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee, in the winter of 1864-1865, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood and his remaining men traveled back to the safer Tupelo area. Harsh weather conditions turned the road turned into deep, cold mush, making it nearly impossible for anyone to traverse, let alone a recently defeated army. 

Because the troops needed the ability to move quickly throughout the area in case trouble arose, Hood and his men laid planks on the road to make it easier for troops and supplies to travel. The road became known as Plank Street and kept its name for several years following the war, until retail shops and boutiques started popping up, and it was renamed Main Street. 

Another street with connections to the Civil War is Magazine Street. The name has nothing to do with publishing. Instead, gunpowder was stored there, since the location was far enough away from town to prevent a catastrophe in the event of an explosion.

“Magazine Street was named such because of a Civil War magazine at that location during the Battle of Tupelo,” said Boyd Yarbrough, vice president of the Tupelo Museum Association. “‘Magazine’ is the name for an item or place within which ammunition or other explosive material is stored.”

While some street names like Main and Magazine have stuck, other early street names have been changed as time has progressed.

“The first street in Tupelo was Front Street, right about where First Street is located now, and then there was Main Street,” Leesha Faulker, curator of the Oren Dunn City Museum said. “Before the Civil War it was mostly boarding houses and saloons. This was back in the day when Tupelo had an interesting reputation.”

With about 10,000 years of history packed into the 444-mile scenic drive, the Natchez Trace is the oldest road in Tupelo. The name “Natchez” comes from the Native American people who inhabited the Lower Mississippi Valley. Many historians believe that the trail was originally formed thousands of years ago by herds of bison traveling from the Mississippi River to salt licks near Nashville. 

The Trace, originally referred to as the Columbian Highway by President Thomas Jefferson, has several historic spots in the Tupelo area including a Chickasaw Village site and 13 gravesites of unknown Confederate Soldiers. 

“The idea of the parkway was conceived back in the 1930s by congressman Jeff Busby who wanted to follow the original Natchez Trace as closely as possible from Nashville to Natchez,” Faulkner said. “Construction on it began in 1937 and was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who made a trip here to Tupelo around that time. It wasn’t completed in its entirety until 2005.”

The Oren Dunn City Museum, located near Ballard Park, is a museum dedicated to telling Tupelo’s story. As the former site of Forest Lake Farms as well as a country club, this converted dairy barn first opened its doors in 1984. But if it weren’t for Oren Dunn himself, the city would probably not have a local museum.

“It got its name from its first curator,” Faulkner said. “He’s the primary reason why we have a city museum. He convinced the city to have a museum, and he said that he would curate it for a dollar a year, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Ballard Park is also part of the battlefield of the Battle of Tupelo during the Civil War. While it is unknown how this site with varied history originally got its name, Faulkner believes that the park was either named after a councilman or mayor.

Of course, everyone knows the origin of the name, Elvis Presley Drive, where the humble birthplace of the King of rock ’n’ roll still stands. Once known as Old Saltillo Road, it was renamed after Elvis rose to fame.

As the city continues to grow, new locations and roadways need christening. Director of Tupelo Public Works Chuck Williams said that most names are decided long before a street or facility is completed.

“Most developers have plans when they dedicate the subdivision to the city, and they have already named the streets for family or friends,” Williams said. “If the naming of streets is left up to city officials, usually those officials look to surrounding areas and name the streets. But most of the time, the streets are named already.”

As for Tupelo itself, the town was named after the Tupelo gum trees that were abundant in the area. But officials tried out some other possibilities first.

“At one point they were going to call it ‘Gumpond’ because of the gum trees that grew around a pond in the northern part of town,” Faulkner said. “Then it was going to be ‘Gumtree.’ Some people claim that (‘Tupelo’) is part of a Chickasaw word, but I haven’t found a source that really confirms that. The gum trees are what they found here when they were building the railroad back in the 1800s. The area just had a lot of cypress and Tupelo gum trees.”

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