The small town of Cleveland, Mississippi sits in the heart of the Mississippi Delta — perched on historic Highway 61 between Memphis, TN, and Vicksburg, MS. Named for President Grover Cleveland, the town was formed in 1869 because the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas railroads converged in its center and people were drawn from many regions of the country. The birthplace of many famous musicians and the blues genre itself, Cleveland brims with musical history and avenues to learn about it. Beyond the resounding strums of Delta blues, Bolivar County was also an integral arena of the civil rights movement. Civil rights pioneer Amzie Moore opened a grocery store, gas station and beauty shop in Cleveland … a business that also headquartered the area’s civil rights efforts.
The town’s unique Southern culture is the amalgamation of the blues, hand-spun Mississippi mud pottery, and mouthwatering delicacies like catfish and tamales. Life in Cleveland moves to a more upbeat tune than that of the Delta as a whole, in part because of its musical history, the young people coming to Delta State University, and the burgeoning dining and shopping scene. Here are six reasons to slide Cleveland, MS, to the top of your road trip bucket list.
6 Reasons To Visit Cleveland, MS
SING THE BLUES
B.B. King famously said, “You can say it all started right here.” Because the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues, it’s become a pilgrimage site for musicians and fans the world over. The Delta keeps the blues thriving through the Mississippi Blues Trail, and the Cleveland area is home to an important stop: Dockery Farms. Often referred to as the “Birthplace of the Blues,” Dockery Farms was a working farm known as a gathering place for famous bluesmen after a grueling work week. Artists like Charley Patton, Pops Staples and Henry Sloan lived on and around Dockery Farms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After a long week, they’d assemble at the farm to sing, play, and write the haunting songs that influenced music from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll. This new style they created went on to influence some of music’s biggest performers. Today, artists and producers like T Bone Burnett, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and Rosanne Cash serve on the foundation’s council to help preserve the land and education surrounding the music, agriculture and history of the Mississippi Delta. They also stop in to play shows every so often. Including Dockery, Cleveland and Bolivar County are home to 18 markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
COTTON HOUSE HOTEL
The perfect home base for your Delta weekend, and a destination in and of itself, Cotton House is situated in downtown Cleveland on the quaint-but-bustling Cotton Row. This 95-room, 6-suite boutique hotel boasts two fabulous dining destinations both helmed by Cleveland’s own James Beard Award semifinalist, Chef Cole Ellis (More on him to come!). Steps away from many can’t-miss Cleveland destinations, the location is unbeatable. Cotton House delivers chic, modern amenities while quirkily incorporating the Delta’s rich music history throughout the hotel. And there is no shortage of music flowing through the Delta and through this hotel. Turn up the tunes and take a step back in time when you put a record on the record players that pepper the property. Cotton House celebrates the spirit of this tight-knit community of the hardworking, hard-playing people and blends elements of the old and new South to create a one-of-a-kind hotel.
VISIT THE GRAMMY MUSEUM
Many might wonder, “Why Cleveland?” when they hear it’s home to the world’s only GRAMMY Museum aside from the original in Los Angeles. On a webpage titled the same question, the curators say, “For many would-be visitors, it’s surprising that a town as small and rural as Cleveland, Mississippi, is home to the second GRAMMY Museum in the world. Until they have explored our exhibits and our Mississippi Gallery, visitors don’t know that Mississippi, more notably the Mississippi Delta, has one of the richest musical histories and lasting legacies of any place on Earth.”
During your trip down this huge “red carpet” of a cultural gem, you can expect interesting educational films, cutting-edge exhibits and interactive experiences that span time and genre. The GRAMMY Museum celebrates the entire process of music-making, unveils the history of the awards show that we all know and love, and pays homage to many influential Mississippi musicians.
EXPLORE THE FOOD SCENE
Owner and chef of Delta Meat Market and a James Beard Award semifinalist, Chef Cole Ellis has worked to revive Cleveland’s food scene since moving back to his hometown in 2013. What began as just a humble grocery, the market jumped on its growing success and moved across the street to the lobby of Cotton House in 2019. Now, Delta Meat Market is both a boutique purveyor of specialty meat, cheese and artisan goods; and a casual, counter-style restaurant serving up creative dishes deeply rooted in the Southern culinary traditions of the Mississippi Delta.
A few floors up in Cotton House, Chef Cole also runs Bar Fontaine, a chic indoor-outdoor cocktail bar and restaurant serving up modern, European-inspired, locally driven small plates. You’ll find everything from Gulf Coast oysters to housemade pastas — all expertly paired with a robust list of craft cocktails, wine and an extensive bourbon collection.
Just down the road, you don’t want to miss Hey Joe’s, a funky, popular live music venue and eatery that serves three day-to-day constants: quality food, craft beer and original live music. Hey Joe’s has really championed the cultural upswing of the area by organizing festivals, trivia nights and more. Grab a burger and beer and learn from some locals! Soul food lovers can head to The Senator’s Place. Since Senator Willie Simmons and his wife opened up shop in 2003, they serve up family-style Southern delicacies in communal, banquet-style seating to locals and visitors alike. Stop in for a meat-n-three after a morning of exploring.
POTTERY, ANTIQUES, AND BOUTIQUES
Pottery enthusiasts flock to the Delta and its little town of Merigold to shop the famous McCarty’s Pottery. Aside from the wealth of treasured items made from unique Delta clay, this little town has charming houses and great dining. While you’re there, stroll through the lush McCarty gardens and snag a reservation at their serene hot-spot restaurant, The Gallery. Then head north on Highway 61 to another sought-after destination for handmade Mississippi pottery, Peter’s Pottery. We dive into this store and its story in this article.
Back in the center of Cleveland’s Crosstie historic district, you’ll find shoppers perusing the tidily packed gift stores, boutiques and art galleries that line a charming walking trail. Pop into Neysa’s Fireside Shop and The Cleveland Commons for unique home decor and gifts; Moonstruck Flea Market for antiques and treasures; and The Wishing Well for women’s clothing.
CATCH A SHOW
The Bologna Performing Arts Center (BPAC) sits on the campus of Delta State University. This state-of-the-art facility was built in 1994 to offer a rich tapestry of cultural and educational programs to serve the entire Mississippi Delta. The Bologna Center features a full working stage, orchestra lift and two performance venues: the 1,154-seat theater and a separate 145-seat recital hall. On the Main Stage, you can find celebrity concerts, national touring Broadway shows, dance companies, theater and more. Coming up next year, BPAC is bringing Allman Betts Band and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
Plan your road trip and prepare to be charmed by small-town Cleveland, MS, and the Mississippi Delta as a whole. There is truly something for everyone.
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