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Mike Epperly is in the process of restoring the detailed buildings of the miniature Graceland his father first built in 1987.
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Statue of Elvis
Mike Epperly and his mom, Kim, pose with a life-size bronze statue of Elvis that sits near their Mini-Graceland buildings. Two decades ago, Kim inspired husband Don to create the intricate tribute that brought busloads of tourists to their door.
People had been talking for years about the decline of Miniature Graceland in Southeast Roanoke, but it wasn’t until a newspaper reporter wrote a story in 2005 that Mike Epperly finally had enough.
One of the story’s memorable lines was, “Roanoke’s miniature replica of Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion is fading away.” Details followed, and Epperly, who had been quoted throughout the piece, and whose parents created the attraction, was furious.
He called the reporter and complained.
“She ticked me off,” he said. Though the story was accurate, he felt it reflected badly on his parents, who are disabled.
“It looked so bad,” he said as he pointed out the improvements to the landmark one Saturday morning last fall. “A tree fell on it and it laid there for I’d say three years.”
So, with zero carpentry skills and only a few tools, he set about reviving his parents’ masterwork. He scavenged for wood and other materials, learned as he went and financed the improvements with part of his earnings from his job driving a Pet Dairy truck.
Now, three years later, the little version of The King’s estate has been largely restored. Epperly has done what Elvis, a noted mother’s boy, would have done: He has made his mama proud.
Mini-Graceland has occupied the side yard of Kim and Don Epperly’s home on Riverland Road for more than 20 years. The neighborhood is working class. The road is busy with traffic. And people again have taken to honking their horns as they drive by, stopping to see the roadside curiosity and making the occasional financial contribution.
In the exhibit’s 1980s heyday, the Epperlys turned down $10,000 for it. More recently, Mike, 46, declined a $25,000 certificate of deposit for upkeep from a 96-year-old woman. Accepting it didn’t seem right.
Mike, the oldest of the Epperlys’ eight children, had worked with his dad on the front porch of the family’s frame house to create Miniature Graceland. They finished its earliest buildings in 1987, just in time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The King’s death on Aug. 16, 1977.
For the anniversary, Kim Epperly skipped events in Memphis to preside over her own Graceland, so Roanokers would have a place to mourn. She talked with visitors and showed them her Elvis Room, with its prodigious collection of Elvis-related dolls, magazines, records, videos, books and other collectibles.
That evening, she held a candlelight memorial service that drew more than 50 people.
She played recordings of The King’s inspirational songs, said “The Lord’s Prayer” and observed a moment of silence. Afterwards, she quietly expressed irritation that Elvis had left the building for good, leaving mega-fans like her in the lurch. He was only 42 when he passed.
“We miss him so,” she told a reporter then. “If love could have kept him alive, he would have lived forever.”
Publicity about the tribute led to local, national and international recognition in supermarket tabloids, newspapers and books about roadside oddities. As time went on, tour buses bound for the real Graceland in Memphis stopped and discharged their passengers so they could wander past the pint-sized mansion; the kidney-shaped pool; the car collection; the replica Roanoke Civic Center where Elvis had performed; Elvis’s ancestral home in Tupelo, Mississippi; and little Elvis himself, who, thanks to Kim, changed positions, activities and handmade costumes every day.
Kim greeted the fans, asked them to sign the guestbook and made friends from all over the world. She received a letter from a fan in Budapest, and corresponded with another fan in Sri Lanka.
A Vision Born of Fanaticism
The original vision for the tiny estate came from Kim.
“I was in my Elvis Room one night and it just came in my head – ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to build one here? Maybe for people who’ll never get to Memphis,’” she said to a reporter for a Raleigh newspaper.
“She told her husband, who promptly let the idea drop,” the reporter drolly observed.
“I really asked him in ’84,” Kim said recently, “but he didn’t get started until ’87.” Don Epperly always has said he likes Elvis’s music, but his enthusiasm falls well short of his wife’s.
Over the years, Kim wrote a fan club newsletter, visited Graceland in Memphis 14 times and held Elvis gatherings at her home, where she and her friends traded Elvis gossip, watched Elvis movies and compared their latest Elvis treasures. One gathering drew 300 people, she said.
She was and is genuinely fanatical about him, but, unlike some fans, she never believed he faked his death, fled to Argentina or was working in a fast-food restaurant.
Now in her late 60s and with less-than-perfect health, Kim still adores the man who made headlines with his wildly gyrating legs and turned polite teenage girls, and their mothers, into screaming, swooning masses.
“He loved his mom,” she said. “He was very mannerly – ‘No, sir, yes, ma’am.’ He had been taught that.”
A Devoted Couple Can’t Keep Up
For many years, Kim and her husband have been unable to give Mini-Graceland the care it requires.
In 1988, while finishing work on the small civic center, Don noticed an unusual weariness. As time passed, he experienced trouble with his balance and became clumsy. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he began using crutches and eventually a wheelchair.
Recently, when asked how long he has used the chair, he said, “It feels like forever.”
Unable to operate his pest control business, he went on disability. For treatment, he makes frequent visits to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, driving a car equipped with hand controls. “I don’t feel all that bad,” he said. But the disease frustrates him, because “you can’t make your body do what your mind wants it to.”
He and Kim met on a blind date in Danville, Ill., during Don’s Air Force duty from 1958 to 1962.
A friend of Kim’s who dated one of Don’s buddies set it up. Despite her mother’s encouragement, Kim declined twice before finally agreeing to go. The double-daters ate dinner in a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. Kim had stipulated that the date had to occur in Danville, so she could walk home if Don got fresh.
She found him “really mannerly and really nice.” He was from Botetourt County. They married in 1962, and they have five boys and three girls, all grown.
Not long ago, the couple sat in the jumble of their living room, referring to each other with endearments. They spend every Saturday morning at Happy’s Flea Market on Williamson Road, and Kim invariably returns with a steal of some sort to add to the pile. Her devotion to Elvis remains undiminished.
“You would think my dad would be jealous,” Mike said, “but he really wasn’t.”
“I liked him,” Don said. “I liked his music and the good things he did.” But he was not one of the screamers who prompted Elvis to remark that his career would never last because no one could hear him sing.
“At one time I watched so much Elvis [in videos], I got sick of it,” Mike admitted. Now, he sometimes plays Elvis recordings for motivation as he works.
Roanoke’s Brushes with The King
At the beginning of his career, Elvis performed in a country music show at Roanoke’s American Legion Auditorium. Pandemonium ensued.
A couple of years later, he was aboard a train that stopped briefly in Roanoke while carrying him from Memphis to New York. He did not get off the train or appear in a window. Reporters were amused when they were told he wasn’t wearing any clothes.
Two days after his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1960, he again rode a steam train into Roanoke, this time bound for Memphis. He wore his sergeant’s uniform and spoke briefly to about 250 people.
He spent several years in Hollywood, putting out formula movies, before he resumed live concerts after a mesmerizing TV special in 1968. He played the Roanoke Civic Center in 1972, ’74 and ’76. Kim saw all three shows and held tickets for his concert in 1977.
But death came for The King before he came back to Roanoke.
Kim hasn’t been to Memphis in years. Money and health are the issues. But, Mike vows that, at some point, “I’m going and mama’s going with me.”
‘I Never Thought My Eyes Would See This Again’
Mike partly blames himself for Graceland’s deterioration. When he was younger and married with children, “I came over and mowed the grass occasionally,” he said. “I didn’t really have any interest in it, for some reason.”
Strangers tried to help, but the restoration was too mini-monumental even for the Salem Men’s Garden Club, which tidied up the grounds and did some of the repairs.
After the offending news story three years ago, Mike called his mother and said, “Maybe we ought to just throw it away.” She said, “Oh, God, we can’t do that.”
Well, then, he told her, he’d try to build it back.
“She started to cry,” he said. “She said, ‘I never thought my eyes would ever see this again’ – because it was buried – and she started to cry. She said, ‘Are you going to stay with it or are you going to give up?’ I said, ‘I will do what I can to make it back the way it used to be.’”
With his marriage long over and his children grown, Mike, who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 265 pounds, returned to his dad’s band saw on the front porch and set to work. He sought advice from friends and neighbors, bought a table saw and a chain saw at Happy’s, looked at photos of the Memphis Graceland and the Roanoke one, as well.
He wondered whether he could see the project through. The mansion was just a shell. The tiny pool was filled with leaves. The wiring had gone bad. But he set to work, he said, and “it just started taking off.”
He cleaned up the chapel, rebuilt the shotgun house from Tupelo, used his big hands to fashion teensy asphalt shingles for the roof of the main house and had the help of neighbor Jeff Broughman in fashioning forms for the concrete steps at its entrance. He restored the gates, put in shrubs, and yet more work remained.
“It was starting to become an obsession,” he said. “It was getting where I couldn’t relax.” Early in 2007, he began to feel “overworked and burnt out.” But memories of Mini-Graceland lit up for Christmas renewed his dedication.
“From August to December, I was on a mission.”
He recalled how early visitors to the site would look at the mansion and ask his father, “Are you going to build the rest of it?”
“The next thing you knew, my dad was on a mission,” he said.
The mission continues. Looking at the progress he has made, Epperly, astonishingly, says he thinks he could have done a better job.
Love It or Hate It
Like the Roanoke Star on Mill Mountain, Miniature Graceland always has drawn mixed reviews.
“People love it or they don’t,” Mike said.
One couple became engaged amid the little buildings. A married couple who had moved from Memphis to Roanoke used to stop by. “When we get homesick, we drive by it,” the woman told Kim.
A carload of folks from New York stopped a Roanoke police officer to ask where it was, and the cop used his cruiser to give them a police escort to it.
They say that former president Jimmy Carter once dropped in.
“It was a hot spot for a while,” Don said.
There will always be those who bleat insults as they drive by. Then again, there was the woman in a late-model SUV who stopped one day and pressed money into Mike’s hand. After she left, he realized she had given him five $100 bills.
Once you get to know the Epperlys, your appreciation for their landmark grows. You realize that they created it out of love, not for fortune and not for fame – and that Mike is keeping it going for love as well.