Mini-Graceland, Elvis City
Elvis Presley fan Don Epperly lived with his family in an older neighborhood at the base of Mill Mountain, nightly bathed in the eerie glow of the Mill Mountain Star. In the 1980s, he built a magical miniature hamlet of Elvis landmarks on the sloping property next to his home. Sometimes known as Elvis City, at other times called Mini Graceland, it has been a compulsory stop for those on the Memphis Pilgrimage Trail for many years.
At the height of the attraction's unofficial popularity, busloads of tourists came by. Wife Kim would dress a tiny Elvis Presley figure in a different outfit each morning. Don was designing a new building each year. The handcrafted structures included Graceland, the Tupelo birthplace of Elvis, and various performance halls, such as the Roanoke Civic Auditorium. He even created the Elvis Presley Car Museum in miniature.
Unfortunately, Don began to suffer from a debilitating illness that curtailed new construction. He could only work on a building if a family member moved it to the porch for him, and eventually had to cease work altogether. Through the 1990s, the site was reported to be well manicured, but more recent tips had us worried. In 1995, the site was vandalized, but locals pitched into to help repair the damage.
During the summer of 1999, we'd paid a visit to Elvis City. The Epperly family was busy in the backyard razing an old garage, as Don silently watched from a wheelchair, but they invited us to walk around Elvis City. A teenager warned it was the "worst it's ever looked..."
A bronze Elvis stood next to the front porch stairs, along with a white mail box for donations. A sign advised: "View at your own risk. Not responsible for accidents."
The miniature buildings were intact, but have been overgrown by weeds and foliage. A 1 1/2 story-tall cat prowled across the front of Mini-Graceland, though not long enough for us to use her for scale. The pool behind Graceland, actually a hospital bed pan-type thing, was filled with wet mulch.
The Barbie dolls in the Car Museum Cafe were slightly askew, and the Plexiglas windows into the main showroom were hard to see through. The attraction had obviously seen better days.
In the years following, the display had its ups and downs, with at least one season of restoration by the Salem Men's Garden club before they moved onto other project. Epperly's attraction hit its low point in 2005, when a winter storm felled a large tree across the property, blocking access.
In 2006, Don's son Mike Epperly assumed the Mini-Graceland mantle, working to restore his dad's buildings and grounds to their former glory. His occasional progress reports and photos sent to us indicated Mini-Graceland was back in order, but weather and weeds continue to take their toll
Don Epperly passed away on Feb. 17, 2012, age 72.