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Elvis’ Humble Hometown Draws Crowds

August 15, 2002

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TUPELO, Miss. (AP) _ The wallpaper is a cheap flower print, and a single, bare light bulb hangs from the ceiling in each of the two small rooms.

``I knew he had humble beginnings,″ said Mark Moody, a tourist from Dundee, Scotland, on a visit to Elvis Presley’s birthplace. ``But it’s a lot more humble than I thought it would be.″

The house lacked even those small niceties on the morning of Presley’s birth _ Jan. 8, 1935.

One of thousands of shotgun shanties that were scattered across the rural South, it’s now a tourist attraction drawing up to 100,000 visitors a year. And it’s the pride of Tupelo, a town of about 34,000 people two hours south of Memphis, Tenn., where Presley began his rock ‘n’ roll career.

Tupelo expects a record number of tourists this year, the 25th anniversary of Elvis’ death, on Aug. 16, 1977, at Graceland, his Memphis residence. Graceland draws more than 600,000 visitors a year, and many take side trips to Tupelo, practically a straight shot down U.S. Highway 78.

For some, such as Moody and his family, it’s part of a larger tour of historic blues and rock ‘n’ roll sites scattered throughout the Mississippi River Delta.

Presley’s father, Vernon, built the 15-by-30-foot house on a dairy farm where he worked, borrowing $180 to buy the materials. The family lived there until 1938, when Vernon went to prison for about a year for altering a $4 check. Unable to keep up payments on the house loan, Elvis’ mother, Gladys, took him to live with relatives.

The Presleys later lived in several homes in Tupelo before moving to Memphis when Elvis was 13.

The birthplace house can handle only a few visitors at a time. Tour guide Nina Holcomb explains to three Japanese tourists that the sparse furnishings were not original to the house but were common for a farm laborer’s residence in the 1930s.

The wallpaper also is representative of the period. ``But I understand the Presleys had newspapers on the walls,″ Holcomb says.

The farm is now gone, and the house sits in a 15-acre park with a museum, gift shop and chapel. A walk through the house costs $2. Admission to the museum, made up mostly of mementos collected by longtime family friend Janelle McComb, is $5.

The city bought the house and land with money that Elvis provided from a coming-home concert in Tupelo in 1957. The singer wanted a park for neighborhood children, museum director Lisa Buse said.

``When he grew up here this was considered the wrong side of town, and he knew the children needed something to do,″ Buse said.

A statue of Elvis as a boy, wearing coveralls and carrying a guitar, was added to the park in January.

``That’s what he looked like when he left Tupelo,″ Buse said. ``What we try to focus on is Elvis up to the age of 13 _ because that’s ours.″

Concrete markers with copper plaques mark the two schools Elvis attended, the site of a grocery store where people gathered to play music and socialize, a drive-in restaurant he liked and, of course, the hardware store where he got his first guitar.

The store has an old-timey feel, with worn wood floors, tight aisles and shelves packed with kerosene lanterns, screen-door latches and the like.

It’s not much different from many other small-town hardware stores, except, that is, for one glass-topped counter near the front door.

That’s where the famous guitar purchase went down on Presley’s 11th birthday.

``We try to keep this end of the counter clear,″ office manager Helen Logan said. ``We have people coming in all the time looking for it. Sometimes tour buses stop by.″

On the counter is a framed letter written by Forrest Bobo, the former store owner who made the sale. The guitar, the letter says, cost $7.75 plus 2 percent sales tax. Elvis wanted a .22-caliber rifle, Bobo writes, though other accounts say he wanted a bicycle, before his mother talked him into accepting the guitar.

``I am proud to have a little part in Elvis’ life,″ Bobo wrote.

``We all wished him a great success, and he sure made a great life for himself and the rest of the world.″

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On the Net:

Elvis Presley Birthplace: www.ci.tupelo.ms.us/attractions.html

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