Beale Street may be the most famous street in Memphis history but Poplar Avenue has also done much to shape the destiny of the Bluff City by providing a transportation corridor connecting Memphis to rural Shelby County and beyond.
When Memphis was first developed in 1819, Poplar was one of 20 streets laid out for the new town. The street connected to an already existing road that crossed the Bayou Gayoso and continued for many miles into rural Shelby County. Wagons filled with cotton travelled regularly down Poplar, contributing to Memphis becoming an important cotton market.
In 1855 Poplar contained several businesses including a boilermaker, cotton gin manufacturer, stove and tin makers and a wagon builder. Also, the street was home to a diverse set of Memphians. At Poplar near the city line sat the home of R. C. Brinkley, president of the Bank of Memphis while machinist J. W. Leeds resided at 55 Poplar and carpenter J. H. Phillips lived at 97 Poplar.
Near where North Pauline Street crosses Poplar stood a toll gate operated by James Monaghan from 1875 to 1883. Once the toll was paid, travelers passed many small farms including the Silver Fox fur farm, which operated where the Oak Court Mall is now, and a cotton gin located where the Emmons Building and Dan West Garden Center are today.
Until the 1880s the Memphis section of Poplar was a dirt road maintained by convicts from the Shelby County Jail. However, beginning in 1882 the city paved the street with cedar blocks that muffled the sounds of horses, mules and wagons. However, they soon rotted and were replaced with gravel. By the mid-1890s Poplar extended to Bailey Station on the outskirts of Collierville and was used by mule-driven wagon trains carrying goods to the prosperous farming community.
One of the mule drivers was Ed. E. Strong who frequently made the trip down Poplar to Collierville. The journey normally took two days with the wagons stopping at Eleven Mile Woods to spend the night. Located where Memorial Park Cemetery is today, Eleven Mile Woods was a perfect camping spot for the mules and men bound for Collierville.
“We had some mighty good times in camp, smoking, telling yarns and eating good grub cooked over hot coals of wood fire,” remembered Strong.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, property owners in Memphis formed the Poplar Boulevard Improvement Association, which successfully lobbied local government to widen the street to 100 feet and pave the thoroughfare with asphalt. Meanwhile the Memphis Street Railway Company laid tracks on Poplar to operate its trolleys, which enhanced the street’s importance to local transportation. However, they could be dangerous. On January 10, 1907, V. Fazio was crossing Poplar when he was struck by a streetcar. Thrown to the ground, he suffered bruises on his head and shoulder.
In 1930, the Memphis City Commission proposed renaming Poplar in honor of the nation’s 28th president -- “only one of the finest streets in the city is worthy to bear his name,” stated Mayor Watkins Overton. Many citizens did not agree and the decision was quickly rescinded. The following year Poplar’s entire length was paved with asphalt, solidifying the avenue’s importance in linking Memphis and Shelby County together.
The names of those who built and maintained this important thoroughfare may be lost to history, but their dedication and hard work has not. Because of them Poplar Avenue remains a significant economic and transportation corridor that provides easy access to homes and businesses throughout our community.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.