You know what I love about Mississippi? I’m convinced it’s the quirkiest place you’ll find. A big, odd place that consists of a lot of little odd places. I was born here and keep finding interesting little facts, traditions, people, and ties to the state. This oddity, of course, makes it so very endearing. Like that relative that the whole family shakes their head about but really can’t get enough of.
Mississippians are gifted storytellers – some truthful, some not, but pretty much guaranteed to be entertaining.
One of those Mississippi stories has stood the test of time, evolved into history, and helped one quaint Mississippi Delta town set itself apart. That’s the story of a softhearted leader of the free world, a skilled Mississippi bear hunter, and a furry little (a debatable detail) black bear.
As the “real” story goes, President Roosevelt traveled to Smedes Plantation in Southern Sharkey County in 1902 for what would prove to be a monumental, albeit unsuccessful black bear hunt. Holt Collier (pictured above with Roosevelt), the notorious and skilled bear hunter, was to be his guide.
On the first morning of the hunt, hunting dogs sniffed out a bear and history was officially in the making. Collier instructed President Roosevelt to wait in a specific spot for a bear to come out of the cane brake. So he waited. He could tell that the dogs were going in a different direction and like one does when they wait, he got hungry. He decided to return to camp for lunch (good Southern grub, surely). Not long after Roosevelt set off for camp, the bear turned again and came out of the woods almost exactly where Collier had said it would, but the president was not in position to get his shot.
The dogs cornered the bear. As most wild animals would be likely to do, the bear became enraged and grabbed Colliers’s favorite hunting dog, Jocko. Collier jumped to the rescue and clubbed the bear with the stock of his gun, stunning the 250-pound black bear. He tied the bear up and sent word for the president to come shoot the bear.
When Roosevelt arrived, he was saddened to see the bear helpless. Despite encouragement from the crowd of hunters, Roosevelt refused to shoot the injured bear in the name of sportsmanship.
The press went wild with this story of the President, Holt Collier, and the bear, and it soon traveled across the country in news stories and cartoons. New York toy shop owner Morris Mitchom’s wife had sewn two stuffed bears for the shop’s windows. Mitchom had a novel idea to name the bears “Teddy’s Bears.” With the permission of the president, he did just that. The popularity of Teddy’s Bears spread like Mississippi kudzu and history was made, again. This proves my point that all good things have roots in Mississippi soil. Who doesn’t love a teddy bear?
Now, the little town of Rolling Fork honors that heritage with bears found scattered throughout the town. Carved by chainsaw (!) artists, these bears are serious works of art.
A larger than life Teddy Roosevelt and his bear cub downtown. A bear scaling a light pole outside the power company. A litter of cubs in a local lady’s front yard. Each year a new carving is unveiled at The Great Delta Bear Affair in Rolling Fork.
Keep up the quirk, Mississippi, it’s why I love you so. Long live the quirk, forever and ever, amen.
What are your favorite Mississippi quirks? I’m always looking for new ones and am never disappointed that they’re always right around the corner.