The Mint Julep: Take a frosted sip of a sweet taste of the South

Written by Gordon Cotton

It ranks right up there with moonlight and magnolias in making
the South Southern.
~
It’s the mint julep.

It might be served in a tall, thin glass with frost on the outside and droplets of cold water running down, chilling the tips of the sipper’s fingers. But the mint julep doesn’t have to be in a tall glass. Some serve it in tumblers or goblets, and if one really wants to put on the dog, there’s the silver cup.

No matter how you serve it, whatever the container, there’s always a sprig of mint included with the whiskey.

Legend has it that the mint julep’s beginnings were in Vicksburg, probably before the Vicks came, when the settlement was still called The Walnut Hills. Men steering and guiding the flatboats with oars and poles would pull into the shore and tie up at the stream that flowed into the Mississippi River just below the old Spanish fort, Nogales. The cool, pure water from the stream was mixed with their whiskey. Somebody had the idea of adding mint leaves from the herb that grew wild along the banks of the stream. The crushed leaves gave a sweet, pungent smell and taste.

Thus was the birth of the mint julep. And, thus emerged a name for the stream — Mint Springs Bayou.

The headwaters are back in the hills somewhere to the east. It never goes dry—it is spring-fed—though after a good rain the stream that meanders through the woods, its banks shaded with a variety of native flora, flows fuller and swifter until it reaches a bluff where its waters fall and splash into a shallow pool, before flowing on to the river.

The waters weren’t just for the relaxation of the men plying the river. Later in the century the waters were a place where men at war, some in gray and others in blue, came to quench their thirst during the heat and humidity of the Siege of Vicksburg. Portions of an old path winding down the steep hills to the spring can still be seen today, a route the Southern soldiers took to the cool waters. There on the other side was the enemy. The men who fought for the North, too, were thirsty, and all men drank in peace, unconcerned about fighting over rights to the water.

In later days, when the land was set aside to be a national park, Mint Springs gained fame by being listed in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” Where the waters fell over the bluff a bridge was constructed but the water ran over, not under, it! It was claimed to be the only one in the world. That was fine until there was a heavy rain, so in later years the bridge was replaced with a more conventional span.

The water also once flowed as a fountain in the Officers’ Circle of the National Cemetery. A series of pipes upstream fed the water into a catch basin where gravity forced it out of an upright cannon barrel in the middle of the circle. The fountain is no longer in operation, though the cannon barrel remains.

In the l920s a group of stockholders headed by Lindsey McGee began the Mint Springs Amusement Park. They built a concrete dam, made a long, arrow-shaped lake, installed bathhouses, diving boards, bateaus, refreshment stands and a manager’s lodge. The lake included areas for swimmers and fishers, and there was music for dancing.

A trolley line that ran from the city up the old Valley Road provided transportation to the amusement park.

There was one thing you couldn’t get there—or not legally, anyway—and that was a mint julep. It was the era of Prohibition when alcoholic drinks were illegal. Crushed mint added a nice flavor to iced tea—but it wasn’t a julep.

By the mid-1920s the park had closed, and the late V. Blaine Russell, journalist and historian who wrote the daily newspaper column “Vicksburgesque,” wrote about 1940 that, “Mint Springs Park is but a shadow of its former self.”

Remnants of some of the buildings remained along with poles where electric light lines once were strung, but the lake was filled in, and the stream had narrowed so that Russell could jump across it. He noted,

“There is little remaining to tell of the happy crowds which gathered there in the 1923s and l924s.”

That was so long ago. Boats no longer stop at the mouth of Mint Springs Bayou, the path used by Confederate soldiers is almost obliterated, the pipes that supplied the water to Officers’ Circle are a twisted mass upstream, the resort is gone and water no longer flows over the bridge.

Only the bayou—and the mint julep—still exist.

You’re not likely to find mint along the banks today, and the drink is a far cry in appearance from its inception two centuries ago. Unlike the men on the frontier who
simply mixed whiskey, water and mint, today’s julep is served with sugar (some granulated, some powdered), crushed ice, syrup and bourbon whiskey. To some it sounds more like a dessert than a drink.

Whether served in a silver cup or a tall glass—or even in a jar—the mint julep will soothe a dry throat and bring relaxation on a summer afternoon.

To find the waterfall at Mint Springs, park near the arch entrance to the National Cemetery on North Washington Street and walk east into the woods, then hike about a hundred yards. The best times to see the waterfall are in the fall and winter.

Don’t take a mint julep with you ~ the place is not designated as a picnic area by the National Park Service.

About the author

Gordon Cotton

Gordon, a Vicksburg resident, is a historian, an author, a storyteller and a former curator of the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. He earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi College. He has taught high school history and was a newspaper reporter and columnist for many years. Gordon has written and published numerous books on local history and culture.

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