By David Waters, The Commercial Appeal
Happy birthday, Memphis. We’re looking pretty good for 199. Of course, we always look good this time of year.
Memphis in May is like April in Paris, except we have a bigger river, better weather and cooler music. We’re also thousands of years younger, at least officially.
Indigenous peoples had lived here on the banks of the Mississippi for centuries before three guys from Nashville (of course) bought it in 1818 and turned it into real estate lots.
On May 22, 1819, Andrew Jackson and his Nashville partners, Overton and Winchester, conveyed Lot 53 to Benjamin Fooy, an early pioneer who had been inhabiting that spot since 1795.
Where is Lot 53?
That’s what Don Hassell has been trying to determine for several years. Hassell, a member of the West Tennessee Historical Society, is on a mission to get Memphis to recognize its Founders Day.
He’s spent countless hours poring over old maps, deeds and other documents. He couldn’t find Lot 53 on a map. He did find records suggesting it was on or near the southeast corner of Winchester and Front.
As he perused property records, he found the address 0 Winchester. That seemed like a logical location for the city’s first address. But that turned out to be the address for an MLGW substation at the southeast corner of Jackson and Front, a block north of Winchester.
Street names in Memphis have changed over time. They can even change as you’re driving on them, as the great Jimmy Ogle likes to point out. For example, Sharpe becomes Elliston, then New Willow, then plain Willow, then White Station, then McCrory, then Macon.
On old downtown maps, Jackson and Winchester sort of converge as they move east. “There was reason to believe that present-day Jackson Avenue was originally Winchester Street,” Hassell concluded.
Believing isn’t knowing. With help from historian Jon Fox and Derrick Mink at the county register’s office, Hassell kept digging.
In his research on Fooy, Fox concluded that Lot 53 was a bit farther south.
Mink found the original, hand-written Deed of Trust for Lot 53, signed by Jackson, Overton and Winchester in 1823. The deed placed Lot 53 at “the intersection of Winchester Street and Mississippi Row (Front Street), on the South side of said Street.”
The south side of which street — old Winchester or current Jackson? Hassell kept digging. He found an 1829 document that noted the width of Jackson as 66 feet and the width of Winchester as 82-1/2 feet.
Winchesterâ€™s width shrank when I-40 was built right along and above it. But Jackson Avenue’s width at Front still measures 66 feet. “Jackson Avenue has always been Jackson Avenue,” Hassell concluded.
Which means Winchester has always been Winchester. And Lot 53 — conveyed to Benjamin Fooy “in consideration of valuable improvements” — is the southeast corner of Winchester and Front.
Lot 53 is now the northwest corner of Memphis Cook Convention Center. Good work, Mr. Fooy.
The convention center is only 44 years old, but its due for a $175 million makeover. The city announced plans last week to rebid the project. According to designs, the renovated center will no longer stand with its back to the Mighty Mississippi.
Hassell hopes it won’t continue to ignore its providential northwest corner either, especially when we celebrate the city’s bicentennial a year from now.
“A dedication ceremony at Lot 53 would be appropriate,” said Hassell, a member of the West Tennessee Historical Society.
Appropriate in more ways than one.
The Deed of Trust for Lot 53 measures its dimensions in degrees and minutes. Hassell did the math and concluded that it was a rectangle 74-1/4 feet by double that –148-1/2 feet.
Round 74-1/2 feet up to just over 75 and you get 901 inches.
Lot 53 is the original spot for 901.