Few tragedies a family can face are more devastating than the loss of their home through foreclosure. We think of Graceland mansion as Elvis’s home, but he started out in far less luxurious surroundings, and his first family home was lost under circumstances as dire as those many people face today.
The little frame home in Tupelo, Mississippi where Elvis was born on January 8, 1935 was built by his father, Vernon Presley, his uncle, Vester Presley, and his grandfather, Jesse Presley. The house cost all of $180.00 to construct, money that Vernon borrowed from Orville Bean, the dairy farmer for whom he worked. (This loan would later prove his downfall.) The two-room house was built in shotgun style, meaning that you could stand in the front door and shoot straight through to the back without hitting anything. The house was raised on stilts as a precaution against the nearby creeks’ tendency to overflow in storms. Shortly after Elvis was born one such storm struck Tupelo in the form of a severe tornado, frightening Elvis’s young mother, Gladys, so that she still talked about it years later.
Gladys and Vernon Presley had eloped before finishing school and Vernon was only 18 and Gladys 22 when their son Elvis was born along with a twin brother, Jesse Garon, who was stillborn.
Worse tragedies than tornadoes and a stillborn child were soon to strike the Presley family. When Elvis was only three, his father was sent to prison for what would be known today as “check kiting.” Vernon and two other men changed the figures on a check Vernon received from his boss, Orville Bean. They altered the check from $3 to $8 and cashed it at a local bank. For that infraction, Vernon was sentenced to three years in Parchment Farms Penitentiary.
At that point, Mr. Bean called in the note on the loan he had made to Vernon to build the Tupelo house. Gladys was devastated at the loss of her home and was forced to move in with her in-laws. Fortunately, Vernon served only 8 months of his sentence, but upon his release he had difficulty finding work.
For the rest of Elvis’s young life, the family barely survived, living scarcely above the poverty level. The year Elvis was 13, Vernon Presley again lost his job. He packed his family into a 1939 Plymouth and left for Memphis. As Elvis later recalled, “We were so broke, we just left overnight.”
The Presleys moved into a one-room apartment in a rundown section of the town. The rent was $11 a week. A year later they moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a housing project, Lauderdale Courts. Not until Elvis began to achieve fame would the family live again in a house of their own.
If there is any bright note is that sad saga, it was that their difficulties served to forge a strong bond between Elvis and his mother. Until the day of Gladys’s death and beyond, he remained devoted to her.
A psychologist would (and many psychologists no doubt have) see a direct link between the trauma Elvis saw his mother endure and his determination when he became successful to build for her the mansion of her dreams. Although Gladys’s life was tragically short, (she died of hepatitis on August 14th, 1958 while Elvis was still in the Army), she lived her final years surrounded by the luxury of Graceland Mansion.
The difficult route Elvis and his family took to Graceland makes it all the more understandable why Elvis fans, such as the Elvis-4-Ever Fan Club whose story is told in my book, Graceland Express, treasure and esteem Graceland as a place where they can reconnect with the spirit of the poor boy from Tupelo who rose to astounding levels of fame and fortune.