Theories on Beale Street’s name hit a dead end
Posted: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 8:01 pm
By MICHAEL LOLLAR
MEMPHIS (AP) — The Pantaze Drug Store was an anchor on one corner of Beale Street. With its soda counter, it gave a family atmosphere to a place also known for saloons, gambling dens, pawn shops, theaters and houses of prostitution.
With a name made famous by W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” in 1916, the spot attracted Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald to town and was a regular gig for the likes of Riley “Blues Boy” King and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Their names would become household names, and Beale Street would become the best-known street in Memphis and one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state. But its beginnings are as murky as the business and politics of early Memphis.
While other early streets were named for presidents, politicians and heroes, no one is sure how Beale got its name.
It’s a name that first showed up on a city map in 1841 as “Beal,” without the eventual “e” at the end, says Wayne Dowdy, manager of the history department at the Memphis Public Library. The man credited with naming the street was wealthy developer and entrepreneur Robert Topp, but the person he named it for has eluded historians ever since.
“It’s wild. It’s kind of crazy,” says Beale Street developer John Elkington, who spent six months researching the street for his 2008 book, “Beale Street: Resurrecting The Home Of The Blues.” “There was a rumor that it was named by Andrew Jackson for a lieutenant, a sharpshooter, in the Battle of New Orleans.”
That 1815 battle was the final battle of the War of 1812 and would have meant a long memory — 26 years — for anyone choosing him as a namesake for a Memphis street that didn’t show up on a map until 1841.
Charles Crawford, a history professor at the University of Memphis, says the name remained on maps and on the tongues of Memphians until the street was among the most famous in the nation, along with Bourbon and Basin streets in New Orleans, State Street in Chicago and Broadway in New York.
“By the time people got around to asking obvious questions about the name, the records were gone,” he said.
Crawford has directed dozens of student theses involving Memphis history.
“I’ve always said, ’If you hear anything about the origins of the name Beale Street let me know.’ No one ever has,” he said.
While various theories have come and gone, Shelby County historian and former county commissioner Ed Williams has his own. McCall was on the 1841 map as the street immediately north of Beale. (It is now Peabody Place.) It was named for a staff member of Edmund Pendleton Gaines, commander of the southwest United States (including Memphis) before the Civil War, says Williams.
“McCall was a major on Gaines’ staff, and I think Beale was probably also named for a staff member (of Gaines),” he said, although there is no specific person whose name has surfaced to prove the theory.
Williams dismisses other popular theories. One held that Beale was named for a Gen. Edward Beale, who became famous in 1848 or early 1849 for bringing back samples to the East from the first gold nuggets discovered at Sutter’s Mill, Calif., that helped set off the California gold rush. A San Francisco street was named for him, but, by then, “Beal Street” already was on the map in Memphis.
Williams used the same historical reasoning to dismiss a popular myth about another well-known Memphis street. The theory held that Union Avenue was named to signify the “union” of incorporated South Memphis with Memphis in 1850, but Union Avenue was on city maps as early as 1827. It also is on the 1841 map, and Williams says the name Union simply “was a popular word in the American vocabulary at the time.” It followed the naming of other streets for U.S. presidents.
“There had only been five presidents and they ran out of names, so they named the next street Union,” he said.
Former Streetscapes reporter Ann Meeks, who wrote the column in The Commercial Appeal for 14 years, researched all of the theories about the Beale name in a frustrating effort to solve the mystery.
“I would love to know the answer, and I just knew I’d be able to determine it,” she said.
Instead, Beale became the single exception to her sleuthing.
“I can’t think of another one” that led to a complete dead end, she said.
Williams suggests the spelling of the name, either Beal or Beale, may not be significant, saying, “Historians frequently find variations of spellings because a mapmaker makes a mistake.”
Bill Day, heir to the historic Hunt-Phelan Home at 555 Beale, contributes another theory. His relatives, the Phelan family, were related to the Beale family of the documentary film “Grey Gardens.” Charles Beale, born in Chattanooga, later became an Alabama Supreme Court justice. In 1917, he married Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ aunt, Edith Ewing Bouvier. After a divorce, she was given the couple’s 28-room summer home, Grey Gardens, in East Hampton, N.Y.
Day’s uncle, Stephen Phelan, told him the Beale family connection led to the naming of the street, although the early maps, mistakenly or not, were spelled differently.
Another longtime Beale tenant, Elliott Schwab, owner of the legendary general merchandise store A. Schwab that was listed for sale last week, says he has always heard that Beale “was named for a general. I don’t think he was even tied to Memphis.”
Either way, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane says Beale, though shrouded in a certain mystery, is “world famous.”
“It is what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans, and it is synonymous with the city’s entertainment and culture,” he said, adding that state tourism figures indicate the street draws up to 4.2 million people a year. He says that translates to about 2 million visitors (not counting locals) a year. “It generates about $50 to $60 million a year in revenue.”
It is the mystery of the street that attracts historian John Harkins, president of the West Tennessee Historical Society: “As a species, we’re too focused on knowing the answers to everything. We have a precision that takes some of the grace out of life.”
Published in The Messenger 3.9.11