When I walk out the front door of my office, on the north side of Main Street, the block between 2nd and 3rd, I can look to my right and see the place, the very spot, where I entered this world. In September of 1964, through the Herculean efforts of Dr. Gene Caldwell and my mother, my initial entry into what would be my hometown – Baldwyn, Mississippi – occurred.I made my debut south of Main at the Caldwell Memorial Hospital, a medical facility created and operated by a family of local physicians including father R.B. and sons Gene and Mike. I weighed in at 10 pounds and 3 ounces and proceeded upwards from there. At this same Caldwell Hospital, a decade earlier in 1954, Dr. R.B. Caldwell removed the appendix of my very own great, great grandmother, Alice Rogers Gardner. “Granny” was 97 years old when the surgery was performed, making her the oldest woman ever to have had such a procedure, at least at that time. She lived another 10 years.
If I turn and look a little farther west, past the red light at the intersection of Highway 145 and Main Street, I can see the historic First Methodist Church, a survivor of multiple tornadoes over its century-plus existence, two deadly ones in a single day in 1942. In this church, I married the love of my life, the lovely and talented Rothann McGee. As my neighbor and First Methodist member John Haynes often reminds me, “I’m crazy about her.”If I walk out the back door of my office overlooking Clayton Street, I can almost see the Phillips 66 service station (now Mayor Michael James’ Southern Auto Sales) where I worked for my grandfather Mort Gardner and my great uncle Jack Hamblin, Jr., pumping gas and fixing flats, summers and Saturdays, for much of my boyhood. Past that, just out of sight, is the high school where I graduated, where I took chemistry under Fred Benjamin and math under Margaret Roberts and Red Shelton, and where I played basketball on a District Championship team in 1982 with old friends Roscoe Taylor, Sleepy Price, Skip Dobbs, Mike Ford and Patrick Calomese, among others.On a fall Friday night, I can look east out my back door, across the same railroad tracks that gave birth to our town in 1860, and I can see the glow of football lights above Latimer Park. Under those lights, I played four seasons of high school football, all for head coach Hubert Tucker and assistants Bud Reynolds, Willie Bender and Jimmy Dillinger. It was in Latimer Park that Willie Bender instructed me on the need to take immediate action, when opportunities arise, with this pearl of wisdom: “He who hesitates is lost.” In fact, he told me this so many times, I would have sworn it was in the Bible, and I’m still not certain that it’s not. On the other hand, defensive coordinator Bud Reynolds would occasionally offer his own commentary on my performance, critiques that, even then, I understood were probably not biblical quotations, at least not verbatim.
Along the streets here in downtown, the old storefronts bring to mind many things – seeing a movie at Wayne Stone’s Ritz Theater; browsing at a very young age through Forrest Grisham’s Golden Rule store with my mother; shopping with Rothann, newly married, for a washing machine at Tom Hassell’s; and eating some kind of chopped-walnut-in-syrup concoction over sundaes at Tom’s Drug Store after school (a possible reason for my weight proceeding upwards from that initial 10 lb., 3 oz. start).
I worship God in Baldwyn; I’m a member at First Baptist Church. My children – four sons, 9 to 22 – are being or have been raised in Baldwyn. All four of my children’s grandparents live in Baldwyn, within easy reach for dog- or kid-sitting duty. My engineering company, Quail Ridge Engineering, now approaching 17 years in business, where I spend my days, is located right here at 112 West Main Street in Baldwyn. In fact, historically, currently, consistently, the most important events of my life have occurred in a not-very-big circle around where I currently stand, on Main Street, with its crosswalks and handrails and street lights and ghosts of wonderful people gone on.
Recently, I was approached by the Main Street Chamber to assist in developing a “Historic Walk” for downtown Baldwyn. The task was to supply a history for the buildings within the Historic District and then to summarize that history to a plaque-sized paragraph that would, in a nutshell, supply a visitor from anywhere with the quintessential “story” of each building. As a person who loves history and writing, I jumped into this task with both feet (Chamber Director Lori Tucker might add the caveat, “after only a year of procrastination”). Quickly I discovered, or at least realized, that the real stories to be found in these buildings, the compelling ones, the most interesting ones, were not just the brick and mortar structural descriptions nor even the properties’ business-to-business timelines over decades of use. The essential tales to be told were the stories of the people who occupied the buildings and whose lives simultaneously shaped this community.
For example, the story of the building on the northeast corner of 3rd and Main, now Mary Jane Rackley & Co., was more than the simple sentence, “This building was once Jessie Archer’s Hat Shop in the early 1900s.” The story was and is that Jessie Archer, the person, was a talented writer who wrote a famous poem regarding a Chickasaw Indian legend called “Nemo-Akin” that is cited often as an important work of the period; that she never married but had a lifelong love, a travelling salesman from Tennessee, with whom she would dine upon his arrival by train at the “Our Home” Hotel on Water Street, that as a girl her father would not allow her and her sisters to read the comic pages in the Sunday papers until Monday, in strict and somber observance of the Sabbath.
Similarly, the story of the building on East Main newly occupied by Paden Stone’s The Barber Chair is not merely the basic statement “This building was once a general merchandise store owned by Ed Cochran.” More importantly, Ed Cochran’s son, Louis Wilder Cochran, wrote an only-slightly-fictionalized account of the Baldwyn he knew as a boy, just after the turn of the 20th century, called “Hallelujah, Mississippi.” And with this novel he became a New York Times best-selling author.
Baldwyn has had at least two Speakers of the House in the state legislature, one of whom was murdered on Front Street while he still served in the position; one U.S. congressman in Private John Allen; a governor who lived here in pre-Baldwyn Carrollville for at least a short while in the 1800’s; several men who were hung, some justified and some not; a founding member of the Medical Board of Mississippi, now buried in thick, almost unreachable woods near Brice’s Crossroads; and the first Miss Congeniality ever chosen in the Miss America contest. The stories go on and on.
The Historic Walk and the building plaques represent an important and exciting new endeavor in our community. It is a project I whole-heartedly endorse, and I will continue to work diligently to aid in its success. But as an addendum to that effort, each week in The Baldwyn News, a new column entitled “Talk of the Town” will appear. I will expand the story of the buildings in the Historic District and the people who have animated them, until the stories run out or I wear out.
I am hopeful that this effort would have pleased both my friend and inspiration Simon “Buddy” Spight and his mentor, local author and historian Claude Gentry. And I’m hopeful that you will enjoy “Talk of the Town.”