From the 1830s through the Post Civil War days, Mississippi boasted one of the best known innkeepers in the young United States. Thomas Cherry McMackin, born about 1800, came to Mississippi like so many others of his day from South Carolina. Beginning around 1834, he operated a shack of a tavern in the wilderness of what is today Yalobusha County. A year later, he relocated to Pontotoc where thousands of speculators had gathered around the federal land office there where six million acres recently acquired from the Chickasaws in 1832 was being sold at bargain prices. McMackin went to work serving the public of Pontotoc even before he had a building, on one occasion feeding some 1100 persons in the open air with “an abundance of delicacies, and a plentiful supply of champagne,” though “the sparkling beverage [had to be consumed] from tin cups!” Davy Crockett may well have been in that crowd – he sold horses in Pontotoc for a few months that year before leaving for his Alamo fate. So esteemed was McMackin as a landlord that his clientele dubbed him General.
The General built in Pontotoc “an immense establishment, including comfortable hewed-log white-washed cabins, with brick chimneys, around a great square” for sleeping quarters for 300 men and “a vast dining room and tables, [in]which for months” would be fed 700 to 1000 persons per day. He printed no bill of fare; rather, he shouted out his menu, always working in his signature phrase “with or without onions.” When asked why did not list his offerings in writing, he would explain that many of his customers were members of the state legislature and could not read.
The General sold his Pontotoc place and moved on to serve taverns, inns, and hotels in Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi, before settling in Vicksburg. A correspondent for the Nashville Union wrote of seeing McMackin presiding at the Prentiss House in the latter city in 1871. Despite the hostilities of Reconstruction, Confederate veterans, Blue-coated soldiers, carpetbaggers and scalawags sat and dined together. The General’s voice could be heard loud and clear
above the din of steel and crockery, the popping of bottles and clatter of glasses. “Oyster soup, soup without oysters and oysters without soup; fried fish, boiled fish, Mississippi trout, fish from the rivers and fish form the sea; roast beef, boiled beef, toast mutton, boiled mutton, mutton with caper sa uce; beef and mutton, with and without onions; . . . potatoes baked and potatoes fried upon one side, and potatoes fried upon the other side , with celery, peas, cabbage, turnips and vegetables and sauces of all sorts. Gentlemen and ladies, help yourselves. I hope you are well supplied. Oh it does my soul good to see you happy! Waiters, hurry up the dessert. Cranberry tarts, apple pie and pies of all kinds, plum pudding, and cold potato pudding for those that are in love! Fruits and nuts from all countries, and wines from all countries, and wines from Italy, Germany and France; wines from the Rhine and wines from the Po; wines from Portugal, and wines from Ohio Gentleman and ladies, we are an immense people, in spite of war.”
General Thomas C. McMackin died in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1875 and is believed to be buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Jackson, Mississippi. As an innkeeper, one contemporary insisted, “No one has ever rivaled him, and we shall never see his like again.” With or without onions.
copyright 2017 James T. McCafferty