by Thomas Givens
but also give us a glimpse into a rapidly fading era of Deep South history.
Readers will enjoy these four memoirs and will learn a thing or two.]
Back in the 50's when I was a student at Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi, Highway 61 was called the strip. Everything was out there -- package stores, drive-ins, and joints.
There were two main joints out there at the time, Leonard's and the HazeMarie. The HazeMarie was not patronized by my crew because we felt more welcome at Leonard's. Leonard Funderburk and his big tall wife Hazel were totally in charge of the premises, and we hung out there between classes ‘cause you couldn't get beer at the Delta State grill (called the Mill).
Leonard and Hazel appeciated our patronage and took care of us.
On the weekends though the place was different -- the country folks came in. Leonard and Hazel told us they would look out for us the best they could, but they said if a fight broke out and we got up, then, they said, “you in it.”
I'm sure anyone who has lived in Cleveland any length of time remembers the long freight trains that went through the middle of town. I worked at the Knox and Dobbins Texaco station on the corner, and I sat and counted way over 100 train cars many times.
Well, to bring you up to speed, go back to the spring of '59. A bunch of us had been at a Delta State dance in the gym, and after the dance we were headed out to our favorite after-hours joint, Leonard's.
We took off down Court Street, got to the railroad, and there was the train with many cars.
We pulled up in my 1956 Ford and stopped, but my buddy Wimp was impatient -- he jumped the train.
Now what follows is a true account of what happened. But before we get into that, let me tell you about Wilmer Nichols, known to one and all as Wimp, one of my dearest friends.
He is Doctor Wilmer Nichols, head of the physiolgy department at the University of Florida; however, he will always be known as Wimp, as he should be.
This is Wimp's verbatim account of his train experience as written (by him) in my annual. I want one and all to enjoy it.
"Well, this year has finally come to a screeching halt. I am sure glad too, because you are finishing, and maybe I can get a little peace now. You are the biggest damn pest that I have ever known.”
"If I may, I would like to carry you back to a night some weeks back. There was a dance at the gym, and of course there was a little drinking going on. After the dance some guys (us) were riding in a car to the fabulous night club down by the El Rancho.”
"Look there's a train! Stop the car! Let me out of this damn car, I want to catch that train and ride to Leonard’s." [Wimps’ words]
“After about 50 yards of hauling ass, subject overtook fast moving train and boarded."
[Tom’s note: As Wimp got out of the car, he advised one and all who cared to listen that he was going to play "Picnic," a 50's movie starring Kim Novak, William Holden and Cliff Robertson. Holden came into town on a freight train.]
To continue the story, we’ll let Wimp pick it up here:
"Not knowing where he was [the subject] got off too soon and continued journey on foot. About 15 minutes after disembarking from freight, subject was mistaken by a pack of hounds for a drunk.”
[Tom’s note: Actuallly they were pit bulls owned by Curley Hays, who ran the El Rancho and the Varsity, so it was fortunate that Wimp was human and not a pit bull. Anyway let's continue Wimp's journey.]
"The hounds began to chase subject in animalistic manner. Subject was too swift for hounds and escaped by scaling a 20 foot bob [sic] wire fence."
"The rest of the trip to Leornard's was rather rugged, but being such a good navigator, the subject made it without strain, minus shoes and with torn pants, and did the navy squat on the bar of said night club."
[Note from Tom: Sailors don’t sit or stand, they squat, with their arms on their knees leaning up against a wall or out in the open.]
Wimp beat us to Leonard's because he was probably disembarking as the caboose was going by our car at the crossing back in Cleveland. I’ve done some wild things, but don't think I would have done that.
I doubt if many young people in the State of Mississippi under the age of 40 realize that the prohibition of hard liquor was a legal fact until June 1966. The legislature then gave counties the local option to approve liquor by the drink or bottle.
Now this was significant in itself, because Tennessee had, for years, had package stores but no liquor by the drink--you had to "brown bag."
Mississippi jumped by Tennessee on this, but Tennessee eventually followed suit, amazingly not passing legislation allowing liquor by the drink until 1969.
Anyway, in Mississippi in the 50's of my youth, beer and wine were legal on a local option basis in the counties. All the River and Delta counties sold beer and wine. You could walk into Kroger’s in Cleveland and buy Budweiser and Mogen David right off the shelf.
Funny thing though, after legalization wine moved back to the liquor stores.
Prohibition never had a big effect in Mississippi when it came to the Delta, the River Counties, and the Gulf Coast. Just ‘cause liquor was illegal, wasn’t much hindrance to the drinking of those good citizens.
The largest wholesale liquor warehouse in the southeast was located in Ruleville, Mississippi. Head and Jones was the name of this venture, and they also had a package store there.
In Cleveland, Mississippi, you could drive down the strip (Highway 61) and see the wares sitting on the shelves of package stores. No attempt to hide them. The one I remember was called the "Do Drop Inn." There was a "dog leg" fence you could drive around and behind, pull up to a window behind the building, ring a bell, and be waited on. That “dog leg” fence was called the "Deacon's Fence” . . . for obvious reasons. You could drive up there any hour of the night, whatever age, and get any kind of alcohol you wanted. A guy slept on the premises.
What was so strange about the whole thing was this: During this time of Prohibition from the 30's to the 60's, Mississippi was collecting a "Black Market" tax on liquor. The State Government taxed illegal liquor. Don’t ask me how they justified that.
As I said before, just about all the Delta and River counties allowed liquor sales. You could walk into any of those establishments, and there tacked on the wall would be their black market tax receipt.
Now, get this, they had a "State Tax Collector." His only job was to collect the black market tax, and his compensation was a percentage of the collection. In the 50's, Life magazine did a profile on him as the highest paid public servant in the United States. That was none other than the most Honorable William Winter. To Winter’s credit, he lobbied the legislature to do away with the position, which they finally did.
Even though liquor consumption was wide open in the Delta and River counties, sales were still basically a local option thing under the supervision of the sheriffs. It’s been said most of the Delta sheriffs could have retired for life after two terms, and I have no doubt about that.
But I would like to say this, and I’m addressing integrity. I lived and practiced law in Clarksdale, Mississippi. If Coahoma County folks wanted to buy booze or have a drink, they had to drive down to "Brown's Package Store" on the Coahoma-Bolivar county line. The Sheriff was a very good friend of mine . . . and he wasn't interested in early retirement.
I’ve been doing some thinking . . . which is dangerous. I think I may (in some of my musings in the past) have mentioned cotton pens, which is where tenant farmers stored cotton until they had a "bale," at which time they would notify the "boss" who would send down a trailer to transfer the cotton from the cotton pen and on to a gin for further processing.
Well, in addition to cotton pens most folks had chicken houses. Ours was fairly large, but was customized for the chickens. Picture yourself walking into our chicken house. To the right was the roost, slatted and slanted to the roof. There was a hole at the top where the chickens could jump or fly out. Actually, they didn't really fly, just flopped their wings to soften the landing.
I had an aunt who gave me some banty hens and a rooster who set up residence in our chicken house. They’d come out of that hole at the top and fly to the front yard. I was totally amazed, never saw a chicken fly until then.
Well, back in the chicken house: the nests were to the left, and that is where the hens earned their feed. They were there to lay eggs, which most of them did. But to encourage the reluctant ones, you placed fake eggs in the nest. How this worked, I don't have a clue.
My job was to clean out the chicken house. Of course, the output from the chickens was excellent fertilizer. Our vegetable garden was right next to the chicken house, so I just spread the stuff around.
As luck would have it, I got Histoplasmosis, proved by a positive skin test, but the good news is that if you get Histoplasmosis and make a spontaneous recovery, then you’re immune. Which I did and which I am.
In the 1950's at Christmastime, we would get these big boxes of cherry bombs and roam the countryside throwing them here and yonder.
We’d light up a big cigar and use it to to fire off the cherry bombs. Mostly we threw the rascals at random, but God forbid a home that was close to the road. Most of the homes back then were up on blocks, and it was considered a point of honor if you could lay a fat cherry bomb under the house.
Of course the fun did not go without its risks. Sometimes the cherry bomb would fall back into the car. When this happened, deafness resulted for a while and the upholstery in the car suffered.
Cherry bombs, along with M-80s, were powerful. Cherry bombs got their name correctly because they looked like a cherry with a fuse sticking out. M-80s were fire crackers with fuses in the middle.
I used to wrap cherry bombs in mud, light the fuse and drop them in the bayou. They’d go off underwater, creating quite a show.
Didn't take much to entertain “chilrens” back than.
Here are more of the judge’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH.COM:
Front Porches, Dirt Roads, and Wild Dogs
Ahhh, Rufus, How We Loved You!
The Fine Art of Grabbling and Frog Gigging
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