This city has a heritage that has strong roots in its music, but it has some elsewhere, too. While it is true that more songs and lyrics mention Memphis than any other city in the world, you can hardly look up in the air, or downtown in most any city, large or small, without seeing something that has its original roots in Memphis. In the air, you look up and see a Fedex jet, downtown you look around and see a Holiday Inn. The heritage of the Bluff City is hard to miss!
All these things were happening in the 20th Century. In the fifties, a local home builder got nickel and dimed on a vacation with his family. He came home and started Holiday Inns. 20 years after that, a young business student whose daddy had already started a bus line, wrote a paper that got him a B+. The topic of his paper: Federal Express, a company which has made a major change in shipping, introducing air transport into that mix in a major way.
Hard times make for strong people and innovative ideas. Getting drinking water from the Mississippi River became a large and deadly problem-6 times- as Yellow Fever ravaged the city and reduced its population to a taxing district, back in the late 1800’s. The solution that helped end it was to dig deep into the ground to the Memphis Aquifer, and get drinking water that wasn’t deadly. With a few hundred trillion gallons, the aquifer fed the young, small taxing district. It now attracts the steel industry to the now-large city. The solutions and cure found here for Yellow Fever came in handy later on, in Panama as the canal was being dug there, in very early 1900’s. Workers on the canal were dying in large numbers from a host of diseases in the hot sun of Central America.
So, medical research was another large contribution to come from Memphis, but it went beyond a cure for Yellow Fever. In the late 50’s an entertainer down on his luck made a vow that if he could get his career going again, he would make a shrine to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. He told the local medical examiner what he wanted to do, which was to establish a children’s hospital. The doctor told him not simply to build a hospital, but to make research into the disease a strong part of the solution. Don’t just treat it, fix it! Nowadays, if you are driving east into the city on I-40, look to the left and you will see the campus of buildings that is St. Jude Research Hospital. Starting off with a single building with multiple arms in 1962, each with a different area of research, it is now a complex of research and treatment- all expense borne by the hospital. Even the hotel stays for the family, food and all, are paid for by its fund-raising arm, ALSAC.
Medical research extends from there, into manufacturing of body parts by companies large and small. Some companies focus on knees, arms, and legs, while others center their work on small parts, like the meniscus, a part of the knee structure.
Memphis International Airport is a place where you can enter and leave the country, going to an airport overseas. But its present position as the busiest airport in the world overnight is because of the multitude of transport jets that fly in about midnight. They fly in, unload, load and take off again, all in 5 hours’ time. This is the home of Federal Express. In the early days, all the flights came in, and left from this one hub. But, as the system has grown in the last 45 years, flights go out to several sub-hubs, where flights radiate from to their destinations. On a windy night, if the wind is headed northeast, in my bedroom, I can hear this roar of planes, constant for 3 hours as the loaded cargo jets take off. One might rightly suspect a tornado, because they sound like this. But when the roar stays the same volume, and doesn’t stop for three hours, you know you are downwind from the airport! It’s a Memphis thang! Also, at about midnight, downtown, on a clear night, you can look north and see an unending string of lights headed in to the airport-That’s Fedex! And it started in Memphis!
Kemmons Wilson was a father of five and had a heart of ambition to feed and raise these kids, but when he took them and their mom on a vacation, the hotels were a la carte in their service manners. They would charge an additional fee per child to do ANYthing, it seemed! This made him mad, so he went home and did something about it. He dreamed up a chain of hotels where a family could stay, eat, swim and enjoy themselves without drowning in red ink. His sketch artist had watched Bing Crosby in a movie one night and named this new idea Holiday Inns. Nowadays the filmmaker would have been coming in for a cut of profits for using their name, but this was the early 1950’s, and they were delighted to get the publicity for the movie. So, Kemmons started out, said it would have 400 inns or more eventually. He so re-set the industry, with economical rates and extras thrown in, that it was a hit with postwar America and its gaggle of Baby Boomers, all looking for a place to stay on their vacation. Mind you, this gaggle of kids was 78 million strong, the largest group of newborns in any country, at any time. A cheap stay, with cheap food, and a place to play made for a whole new hotel industry, with other names joining in. Names like Ramada, Hilton, and Sheraton all copied, and cashed in, on this idea. This was a piece of the money pie for all of them that virtually re-built the overnight stay concept. And the re-birth started in Memphis!
In the early sixties, Sun Studio founder Sam Philips called on the Holiday Inn founder to discuss something else new. He wanted to set up a radio station that would be all women managed and staffed, called WHER. Kemmons obliged with some space in a Holiday Inn lobby. The station later moved to space in the lobby of a building Kemmons had built. Kemmons imagined a station tuned into by truckers on the road, wanting to hear a feminine voice to travel with.
Broadcasting in Memphis also gave the world something it didn’t have- a radio station aimed specifically at the African-American market, selling time to advertisers trying to reach them with products made for them. WDIA was started in the early 1950’s, and still airs a signal, designed to its target, the first of its kind, really, aimed at a specific demographic.
When his son cut himself in a wooden baby playpen, millionaire entrepreneur John Tigrett made one using plastic mesh, and patented it. Untold millions have been made and sold all over the world, first coming from Memphis!
From plastic playpens to planes hauling packages, from women going on air to stations aimed at specific groups, from hotels with family-friendly offerings to medical research and technology that changes the world every day, Memphis has given the world a wide range of creativity, ingenuity and art to last a lifetime, and then some!