THE HISTORIAN Macey Baird
The Historian Benjy Nelken is saving Greenville’s storied past one artifact at a time.
benjy Nelken lounges behind a desk strewn with loose papers and 19th-century Shakespeare volumes. He leans back, grips a pipe between his teeth and lights a match.
“I’m sure I’ll get it back in spades,” he drawls about his work, humor lurking behind a voice as thick as molasses. BY MACEY BAIRD
Nelken is Greenville’s unofficial historian. He’s a big, barrel-chested man with a penchant for tobacco, a man of irreverent humor who has preserved the city’s tumultuous past by creating five small museums.
In a city that needs an economic engine in the worst way, proposals pop up every now and then to build a big museum in hopes of attracting tourists. There is talk of an African-American museum. There’s been talk of a Delta cultural museum near the levee. But none has gone anywhere. Meanwhile, people from the darnedest places drop by Nelken’s mini-museums to ogle his curious collections.
“Have you talked to Benjy?” people say when asked about local history. “You need to talk to Benjy.”
Benjy Nelken has his own museum, a tribute to Greenville’s rich history that he has put together with his own hands. What started as decorations for his real estate office at 409 Washington Ave. has turned into an intriguing portal to the past. After foraging finds from his family’s attic and bidding on eBay, he has assembled a two-room contribution to Greenville’s storied yesteryear.
And he hasn’t stopped. He has been the driving force behind the development of the Flood of 1927 Museum, the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum, the Greenville Air Force Base Museum and an exhibit located in the River Road Queen Welcome Center. Most are city projects in partnership with the Greenville and Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which Nelken chairs. But the Greenville History Museum is his personal project. He’s invested thousands in it with no outside funding.
On a gloomy Delta day, Nelken rises from his chair and lumbers to the front of the roomy storefront he converted into the history museum more than 20 years ago.
“It’s been a work in progress since its beginning. I just observed the fact that there was no real history being saved here except the public library,” Nelken says. “I thought we had an interesting history that needed to be studied and celebrated.”
CAIN MADDEN Benjy Nelken started collecting Greenville artifacts because, as he puts it, “I thought we had an interesting history that need to be studied and celebrated.”
Every inch of the tobacco-scented room is jammed with artifacts, ranging from old-fashioned country-club slot machines to a 1940s “Memphis Belle” B-17 replica.
“You ever seen a 78 rpm before? Hey, this girl doesn’t know what a 78 is,” he snorts, standing beside a 1946 jukebox. “Too young.”
“Nelken strolls the exhibits, jingling change in his pocket and directing a pipe back and forth from his chalky beard. He motions to a Delta Democrat-Times printing plate, the aluminum tablet used to announce the death of editor Hodding Carter Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winner. He points to his favorite, a 1930s motion picture projector from an old downtown theater. Beside a patriotic Mickey Mouse motif, he stops. Four sketchbooks, each nearly 3 feet long and 150 years old, rest exposed on two podiums.
He carefully peels back a flaky, faded maroon cover.
“These are worth tens of thousands,” Nelken says as tiny shards of paper shed from each fragile page. “Roberts’ Sketches in the Holy Land, Vol. I” by David Roberts and “Les Loges e Raphael” by A. Lacrosse are manuscripts donated from Greenville High School.
Now he’s at a small display of the 1927 flood that inundated the city. He reverently touches an enlarged blackand-white aerial shot of Greenville’s streets encased underwater. “That’s where the store was,” he says, pointing to a large clothing shop in the heart of downtown that had been in his family for generations.
Nelken was born in Greenville in 1945 and left only to play football at Ole Miss and live briefly in New York City. He came back to run The Fair, a few storefronts from where he now stands. Before he shut it down in 1986, it belonged to four generations of Nelkens. His grandfather bought out The Fair and Greenville Dry Goods, retail and wholesale stores respectively, from another family member in the 1930s.
“I’m not in love with the history per se. This is where I was born and raised,” he says. “I have an interest in the area, emotionally and economically. I’ve been
AMBER HELSEL In Nelken’s Greenville museum, no artifact is too small. In fact, it is the collection of so many items, both big and little, that make it so interesting.
in business here since I got out of college, basically.”
He may claim not to be enamored with Greenville’s story, but he can’t fool his friends.
Nelken sits on the board of Main Street Greenville, whose main focus is revitalizing downtown, and is involved with the Delta Economic Development Center. When the city tried to tear down a water tower built in 1940, he said no. He won.
“I just screamed and hollered,” he laughs. “Squeaky wheels get the grease.”
This dry repartee screams from every corner of his office. It’s there in the “Shalom Y’all” coffee cup resting behind his head. It’s in the framed “Wanted: dead or alive” poster hanging on the wall with his 30-year-old face and buried among a sea of newspaper clippings about his son, a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Sitting on top of his grandfather’s old bookcase are cutout caricatures of mini-Benjy. His oft-used phrases such as “Christian him down!” and “I told you so!” bubble from a silver beard. A friend made them for his 50th birthday party.
Some people appreciate Nelken’s jesting. Some people don’t. He smiles as he says he’s alienated everyone in the town at one time or another.
Susan Weisiger Painter, a spunky waitress at Jim’s Café across the street, says her distant cousin has done a lot for the city. She throws a plate of buttermilk pancakes on the table, slides down the booth and runs a hand through her cropped hair.
“Take away the personality that has rubbed some people the wrong way,” says Painter, shaking her head. “And he gives, gives, gives to this community.”
On a sunny Friday, the buzzer rings and Nelken glances at a monitor in his office. He goes to greet three middle-aged ladies from North Carolina in town for a funeral.
“We don’t have any change,” one says, gesturing to the wooden admission box.
“That’s all right,” Nelken says. “You give what you can.”
He tells some jokes, makes them laugh, then leaves them to themselves. Nelken doesn’t usually give tours. But if you indulge his sense of humor, he’ll take you up to the second floor and show you the old WJPR radio station and the closet brimming with boxes of old records. Or he’ll pull out binders from the conference room, crammed with laminated clippings and photos more than 100 years old.
“Did you know Stein Mart started here?” he asks. He launches into a history of how his pal Jay Stein turned it into a chain of clothing stores scattered across the South.
“Now he’s worth millions and I’m still here doing these silly museums,” Nelken snorts.
But behind this witty cynicism is a discernible pleasure he gets from his treasures.
Visitors from around the world have stopped by to peer into the past of a city once deemed “the Queen City of the Delta.” Visitor logs from the nearby Convention and Visitors Bureau contain names and notes scrawled by citizens from England, Germany, France, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Greece. The guest book of Nelken’s history museum is an equally impressive register, but this isn’t a one-stop shop for those interested in the past.
The four other museums under his guidance house memories of the city’s trials, tribulations and victories, from its 1927 devastation to its rising-star status to its economic fizzle.
Greenville once was a bustling probusiness community, home to several manufacturing plants, an airbase and a thriving towboat industry, assets that separated it from its strictly agriculturedependent neighbors. But by the 1990s, many downtown storefronts were vacant and only the ghosts of the city’s industrial giants remained. Nelken blames Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo and the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement for the city’s decline.
“Tourism is what we have to latch onto the best we can,” Nelken says. “It’s a coming thing and Greenville is behind on the curve.”
If blues and Mississippi River museums can become tourist attractions in the likes of Indianola, Clarksdale and Tunica, why not in Greenville? Maybe Nelken’s museums could be a catalyst, a step toward the kind of cultural tourism that could give Greenville a leg up.
Betty Lynn Cameron, director of Main Street Greenville, believes Nelken’s museums are an opportunity.
“There are over 10 museums in Washington County,” Cameron says. “I think it’s a major draw. Tourism is also an industry.”
But Nelken’s five museums are scattered. Three are downtown, one is near the Mississippi-Arkansas border and one is out at the airport. The museums overlap each another. The Greenville History Museum and the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum — a tribute to Greenville’s Jewish past — both feature artifacts from the 1927 flood and items from the Air Force Base Museum.
Nelken says the possibility of combining the museums has never been raised.
“There’s no money,” he says. “We’d have to buy a building. We’d have to redesign, we’d have to lay it out …” He goes down the daunting list of dollars required.
Cameron says the museums shouldn’t be integrated because each is unique. She points to the Flood of 1927 Museum, 100 yards behind Main Street Greenville’s building.
The Weatherbee property, the oldest site downtown, dating to 1873, houses the flood exhibit in an old carriage house. The building was restored with $100,000 from a Mississippi Landmark Properties Grant. It’s been open only since 2009, but the visitor archives reveal an impressive pedigree.
A couple from Grapevine, Texas, walk around the one-room plantation carriage
Left, an old football schedule. Right, a seemingly limitless supply of slides bring old Greenville to life.
house on a balmy March morning. They linger at a decayed wooden canoe used during the flood. A PBS documentary based loosely on John M. Barry’s book “Rising Tide” plays in the background. One slides on residue from a display of sandbags used to combat the river. They say they didn’t come to the Delta for the blues, just for the history.
When the Flood of 1927 Museum was stuck in a yearly queue by the city a few years ago, Nelken decided to step in.
“Just give me the damn key, I’ll get it open,” he says he told those in charge.
With the help of the city, the Mississippi Levee Board and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Nelken got it done in five months. It seems to be a pattern in his relationship with these museums: a takecharge attitude because no one else does the job. The Jewish museum came to fruition in similar fashion, a labor of love for Nelken, whose family has been active in the temple for more than a century.
The Delta once had the largest Jewish community in Mississippi, with more than 2,300 Jews in 1937. There were about 200 Jewish families in Greenville around 1950, Nelken says.
Now the entire Delta has fewer than 300 Jews, but they are determined to hold onto memories of what was. Nelken was at a board meeting at the Hebrew Union Temple when the idea of a museum honoring Greenville’s Jewish cultural heritage arose.
“I just said let me do it,” he says.
He started going through the temple attic, pulling files and framing handiworks dating back 75 years.
It started out small. People started contributing pictures and articles, and the one-room Jewish museum grew to five.
A collage of photographs, framing the lives of Jewish people in Greenville since the 19th century, leads down a hallway to the museum. It displays items such as the 1880 advertisement seeking a new rabbi. There is a section honoring members of the Hebrew Union congregation who fought in wars, from Col. Edward Storm in the Civil War to Albert Kossman in Vietnam.
At the height of Greenville’s affluence, it had more than 45,000 residents. At one time, 2,000 of its residents were military personnel from the Air Force base.
John “Puddin” Moore, a Greenville native who has been transforming iron into artifacts and architectural ornaments for 50 years, said the city used to be crawling with military men.
“I used to sell papers right there when I was little,” he says, pointing in his downtown shop to a door with peeling paint. “But I got more money selling my sisters’ phone numbers to those men.”
“Got me in lots of trouble,” he chuckles. “But then they ended up marrying two airmen.”
The base left an indelible imprint on Greenville’s citizens. The airmen married their women, shopped at their stores and raised kids in their schools. But when the base left, it took more than 3,000 jobs with it — a terribly swift blow to the local economy.
Located 10 minutes from downtown on the mezzanine level of the airport, the Air Force museum is full of photographs that preserve memories of the base that trained airmen and women to protect their country.
The museum is a direct result of Nelken’s resolve and a $110,000 grant from the Mississippi Delta Empowerment Zone. He says this museum was the toughest for him because of a series of setbacks and a bum display jet that was a headache to replace.
A jet from Arizona arrived in Greenville too banged-up to be reassembled. When Nelken finally found a suitable replacement that had been rotting 50 years in Shreveport, he hauled it back and combined its parts with the original purchase. Now a T-33 jet trainer model sits at the base of a water tower outside the museum.
What started as a pet project has culminated in a string of museums that have protected the proud past of a city once known as the most enlightened in Mississippi, a cultural and literary mecca that churned out world-class writers. But Nelken plays down any praise for his work.
“As Greenville goes, so go I,” he says. “Things haven’t been going so well here lately.”
So what does he think Greenville needs to do to restore its prosperity?
“I thought these museums would help,” he shrugs, blowing a ring of Pall Mall smoke at the ceiling.