Hill Country Column Sparks Walk Down Memory Lane
To the Editor:
Certain recollections are sometimes triggered in unlikely ways, and they evoke memories that have lain dormant for years, and, with this an awakening, comes with a need to share them.
The Hill Country Living Article by Coulter Fussell in the July 30, 2020, edition of the Herald with the mentioning of the name Wagner, along with old Water Valley facts, became the defining moment for me.
My father, Alfred E. McKie, shopped at the Wagner store on Main Street for a number of years purchasing clothing items for my siblings and me. Although he was so much older “born in 1866” than my mother, he took his responsibility as a father seriously. He had credit with the Wagner Store and the People Wholesale Store that delivered our staples in bulk quantities as well as other items monthly.
My oldest sister Eliza began her teaching career at the Water Valley Colored School in the fall of 1933. This was also a significant year for the McKie family. My father previously had been employed by the Illinois Central Railroad Company as a Blacksmith helper, and after 43 years of service his employment ended when the shop moved from Water Valley. My father and mother as partners started their Hot Tamale business that was located in Grenada.
Eliza’s income as a teacher was very inadequate, and she was unable to contribute to the household expenses. Because of my father’s relationship with Mr. Wagner as a customer, she sought employment with the Wagners. She was hired to work part-time after school hours. With the extra income, she was able to buy fabric for my mother to make dresses for my older sister and me. She also bought stylish dresses from Wagner’s store and gently used dresses from his two daughters. I was so proud of my sister’s new look of sophistication and bragged to my friends.
The photograph that comes with this letter of the Wagner’s grandson was given to my sister in the mid-1930s. I felt the time had come to share it. From left to right is an employee named Rheana supporting the toddler, and on the right is my sister Eliza holding his arm. In the following years my sister moved to Chicago, Illinois. This photograph (below)was a part of her portrait collection until her death in 1956, and it was then added to the McKie portrait collection.
Ms. Fussell’s list of old Water Valley facts was also the incentive for sharing other memories of Water Valley. My older teenaged brother, Lincoln, worked after school for the Evans family, and Dr. Leo and Mrs. Louise Brown. The Evans were tenants of Dr. Brown, and Lincoln sometimes spoke of Dr. Brown’s dry wit, imitating his Canadian accent.
Dr. Brown’s residence was located on the upper elevation of Wood Street. This impressive red brick, two-story house trimmed in white stood apart from all the other residences with a distinction of its own. My mother related to me as a child that my maternal grandfather, Syrus Morgan, was a master carpenter and one of the carpenters who helped to build this house.
Wood Street holds many memories for me as a short cut to visit friends and my grandfather, who lived beyond the hills in various neighborhoods. I also used Calhoun and Simmons Street, which intersected with Wood Street, as a shortcut to downtown Main Street to go to afternoon matinees at Tyson Theater.
Mr. Tyson later retired in the early 1940s, and the theater was sold to Leon Roundtree. Several years later, the theater was destroyed by a fire, and it was not rebuilt.
My brother Alfred worked after school for the Knox family on Wood Street. Mrs. Knox taught Alfred how to make white chocolate fudge candy and spoon bread. Alfred used his culinary skills to make these treats for the family. My memories of the Knox Drug Store are quite different. Mr. Knox usually could be found at the drug store with friends.
This store was different from the other drug stores that were more modern. Knox Drug Store was like taking a step back in time; yet, it was my favorite place to buy ice cream cones. It had an old-fashioned, dark-colored counter where I stood at the end next to a spittoon adding to its quaintness of belonging to another era.
The Evans family moved from Water Valley but left a beautiful memory. Mr. Evans drove a large Packard Roadster car and sometimes slowly drove through the neighborhoods with his large tan and white Collie dog standing on the broad running board on the passenger side with his front paws on the fender. It was a majestic sight but also one of awe. Mr. Evans seemed to have been just as delighted watching the reaction of the people.
There were many changes in Water Valley post World War II, with soldiers returning home. Dr. Ben Evans, son of Mr. and Mrs. Evans, came home and set up his medical practice. I became a patient of Dr. Evans. He had many patients, and, a few years later, established a hospital on Panola Street in a large, white, two-story house that had formerly belonged to Mrs. Wagner, now widowed. My oldest daughter Marianne was born in this hospital. Dr. Evans later closed the hospital, leaving many memories behind.
My second daughter, Jean, was born over Lowe’s drug store in Dr. John Wright’s clinic on Main Street. Needless to say, she was called the “Rexall baby.”
The memories I have shared are intimate and uniquely small-town America, where lives are often linked together from one generation to another directly or indirectly. This continuity often is lacking in the more urban areas with larger neighborhoods, which are largely transient and where relationships are shorter. That is why small towns add so much to the greatness of this country. Growing up in Water Valley with family and friends also the extended memories of my parents and are the roots of my foundation. They are precious, and I treasure them.
Ruby McKie Turner