By Alexe van Beuren
Jack Gurner Sr. grew up in a Water Valley I can’t begin to imagine.
“There were forty-something kids living on Panola Street,” he tells me as we sit behind the curator’s desk in the Casey Jones Museum. “We could get out in the street and play a nine-inning game without ever having to move for a car.”
Gurner tells me that he’s not the story-teller in the family (he left that to Bruce, his elder brother), but as the afternoon winds on, Gurner paints a picture of a slower-paced Water Valley. “The high school was one mile from downtown,” he tells me. “We walked a mile to school, and then we had an hour for lunch, so we’d walk home for that.”
“That’s four miles a day,” I say, adding up the legs of the journey in my head.
“You didn’t see a lot of fat kids,” Gurner says, and smiles.
When Gurner was twelve years old, he became a Boy Scout. After a brief time in the service (“it didn’t amount to a hill of beans,” Gurner says, “since the War was almost over), he returned to Water Valley in 1946. A few months after returning, Gurner became the local scoutmaster at the tender age of twenty.
He spent the next eighteen years trying to help the youth of his hometown experience a childhood as fun-filled as his own.
Gurner tells me that right after the War, he and Troop Fourteen would walk to their camping spots; “no one would put a bunch of boys in a decent car,” he says. “They’d have torn it up.”
The troop, which generally included around thirty boys, spent time camping in places from Pine Hill off Wagner Street to O’Tuckalofa Creek. They found arrowheads from old Native American campgrounds, practiced skills such as tracking, cooking, and camping to qualify for merit badges, and “had a lot of fun.”
“I didn’t push the boys too hard on advancements,” Gurner says. “I was more interested in getting them in the troop.” Gurner recalls that not all parents agreed that a good time was enough; “I had a couple fathers who informed me that they expected their boys to become Eagle Scouts.” Gurner shakes his head. “Those never were the boys that became Eagle Scouts either.”
Eagle Scout, the highest rank possible in the Boy Scouts program, is an achievement that only a third to a fourth of boys ever attain. “We’ve got quite a few Eagle Scouts still around.” Gurner casts his mind back; “Tommy White, for one. The ones that wanted to learn something; you knew they would be the Eagle Scouts.”
Though he retired as scoutmaster in the mid-1960s, Gurner continued to serve on Boy Scout committees for the next decade. “There was a good bit of change while I was there,” Gurner says. “And a whole lot of change since I left.”
One of those changes is that Water Valley no longer has a Boy Scout troop. “The sad part is there are no young parents with young boys who are willing.”
While we’re talking, three young boys enter the museum where we’re sitting. “They come in here all the time,” Gurner tells me as the boys scamper out to view the railroad boxcars adjacent to the building.
“Who’s that?” one asks on his way out the door, pointing at a painting.
“That’s the man that wrote a song about Casey Jones,” Gurner says, and the boy nods.
Gurner is reluctant to take any credit for the Casey Jones Museum (“my brother was the historian,” he says), but you’ll find Gurner manning the desk and giving tours during the museum’s open hours (Thursday through Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment).
The museum bears witness to the history of Water Valley and the I.C. Railroad — and the famous engineer, Casey Jones, who lived in Water Valley before dying in the infamous crash near Vaughan, Mississippi.
“My brother went through old records from the torn-down Depot,” Gurner tells me as we stand in the museum, looking at a picture of the engineer himself. “He found Casey Jones.”
Between Bruce Gurner’s railroading collection and the younger Jack Gurner’s photographic skills, the museum boasts an impressive collection of both railroading history and a portrait of old-time Water Valley. As we look at a picture of Main Street filled with wagons and bales of cotton, Gurner explains to me that the railroad made a big difference to farmers; they could get cash money for their crop right in town, rather than spending weeks on the road to Greenwood or Memphis.
I ask about building after building that I don’t recognize, and Gurner can tell me about them all. “That was one of the prettiest buildings in Water Valley,” he says, pointing at the beautiful old Blackmur Hotel, which was destroyed by a fire.
In his lifetime, Water Valley has changed around Gurner. Its streets are full of cars, boys are on skateboards instead of in scouting uniforms, and the railroad no longer runs through town. “It’s a different world,” Gurner says matter-of-factly.