Monthly Archives: December 2012

A Bimbo Story

“Bimbo” Griffin is the teacher of my adult Sunday school class at First Baptist Church of Baldwyn.  His real name is Paul Ansel Griffin, and since his dad was Paul, I guess his options were ‘Ansel’ or something else.  Perhaps predictably, he chose something else.

Bimbo is a five-and-a-half-foot, fifty-something ball of energy with a penchant for loud, flowery shirts and the quick joke.  In fact, we are not totally convinced that the acronym corresponding to the name he gave our class – Alternative Sunday School – is coincidental.  Bimbo may best be described as full of … well, life.

Before you get the wrong idea, he’s one of my favorite people in the world – a staunch Christian, a good husband, father and grandfather.  And yet, here’s a typical “Bimbo moment.”

First Baptist Church is holding prayer meeting one Wednesday night early in November, and the pastor Bro. Stanley Huddleston, in his usual fashion, asks if anyone has any “praises” they want to share.  Bimbo, of course, is sitting on ready and with utmost sincerity states “I want to say that I’m so very thankful for 10 good years my wife Darlene and I just celebrated together this week.”  He pauses for effect, and then delivers the payoff, “It was our 25th anniversary.”  Typical.

When it comes to Bimbo, I’ve heard many, many tales – a story that combines green body paint with an adult diaper and a calf bottle (I refer to that one as “The Incredible Baby”), the saga of a lengthy, comical dispute over mustard with a surly ballpark hot dog vendor (“Hey buddy, you ain’t doing me no favors selling me this $10 hot dog!”), and even a tale that revealed just what a deer rifle could do to a water tank (one of the low water marks of Bimbo’s career – literally).  Yet just when you think you’ve heard them all, somehow he reaches back in the distant past, and drags forth a new one.  Two months ago, he told me what I now consider the best “Bimbo story.”

It was 1976, and Bimbo had served in the National Guard for 6 years, reaching the rank of Specialist 4.  On this particular June day, he and Company A of the 155th Armored Brigade from Baldwyn traveled to Columbus Air Force Base and checked in to fly 206 miles to Camp Shelby on a C130 transport plane.  As the group prepared to board, it occurred to Bimbo that it might make for great entertainment to express to the more nervous members of the 155th a fabricated “premonition” that this flight was, in fact, doomed.  And he did so, causing considerable consternation and hand wringing among the faint of heart.

Enjoying the turmoil, Bimbo bounced on board for the 45 minute flight, all the while continuing his dire warnings.  As soon as he was seated, he saw, lying on the floor just across the aisle, a jump harness.  The day’s next move immediately congealed in Bimbo’s mind.  Renewing his indication of the plane’s impending demise, he expanded the scope of his performance into a full blown comedy shtick.  He quickly slipped the jump harness on and hooked himself onto the steel cable that ran in the ceiling the full length of the plane’s fuselage.  At 5’-6, however, there was one problem.  Bimbo’s feet did not reach the floor.

So there he hung, like a Christmas ornament, spinning round and round still fomenting panic among many of his fellow soldiers with his predictions of disaster.  On the other hand, the more astute among them, his buddies, were greatly entertained by their diminutive comrade, which, as has always been the case, provided the fuel for his fire.

When a hydraulic line spewed a shot of fluid at take-off, Bimbo disgorged a new stream of gloomy prognostication, and through maniacal laughter, he doubled-down, “I told you, boys.  We ain’t gonna make it!“  He laughed and laughed and laughed.

The din finally trickled to a chuckle as the plane began its ascent.  Now Bimbo, who had hung with his mates near the front of the plane, moved.  He slid, at first, just a little bit, and then, all of the sudden, he began a slow but accelerating slide to the rear of the C130.  What luck!  This coup de grace to his comedy routine immediately brought loud howls from Bimbo and his troop.

Abruptly, the uproar came to a stark and complete halt at the precise moment that Bimbo finally came to rest near the rear of the plane.  He hung there, suspended in the tail of the C130, slowly revolving, face to face once each turn with his guard division’s commanding general.

“Who are you, soldier?” the general asked.

The bobbing Bimbo responded, “Paul Griffin, SPC4, sir!”

“Not anymore,” the general countered, demoting Bimbo two ranks as he dangled from the cable, his toes stretching now, reaching for the floor in the futile hope of a quick retreat.  “Awkward pause” does not really do justice to the moment.  Bimbo’s retreat eventually, mercifully, did come as the plane leveled out and began to descend to Camp Shelby.  He retraced his slide to infamy back along the cable to the front of the plane where his now-subdued buddies unhitched him.

The end of the flight was eerily quieter than its beginning.  And so ends, the best “Bimbo story” I’ve heard … so far.

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Filed under Goings On In Baldwyn, Mississippi, Just For Fun

The CAT’s BIG DAY: a tale of friendship, JUCO football and reckless abandon

When I joined the football team at Northeast Mississippi Junior College in 1984, I was reunited with a great high school friend and teammate who had already played a season in Booneville for the Tigers. He shall remain nameless. The reason for this non-disclosure will become evident shortly.  My friend, who I will hereafter refer to as “the Cat,” was not a starter, but he did participate as a backup and on special teams. And he had the well-justified reputation of being a hard worker and a good teammate. But as is the case with many a college sophomore – or freshman, or junior, or senior – the Cat had, in his months of separation from his parents’ watchful care, shall we say, broadened his horizons. The Cat no longer saw sleep or sobriety as essential to the college experience.

Now I was married by this time, and, looking back, that was likely the only factor that kept me from joining the Cat’s nightly prowls. I may have made a block or two with the big feline and his cronies upon our return from some distant road game on occasion, when my lovely bride would have stayed home with her folks, but those memories are somewhat … murky.  I must admit that I may have subconsciously  blocked past events of that nature from my mind, at this point in life, to achieve plausible deniability.  Nonetheless, I do remember enjoying the Cat’s daily regaling of his exploits.  He purred tales of debauchery that warmed the hearts of those of us who were less bold, or constrained, or just bystanders, waiting to see when his inevitable train wreck would occur.  It did occur, of course, and that’s the tale of interest.

We were to visit Northwest Mississippi Junior College in Senatobia for an early afternoon game one October Saturday. Our coaches had scheduled our departure at 7:30 A.M. from the athletic dormitory. From there, we would launch our 2-hour journey by bus to the fringe of the Mississippi Delta for what was certain to be a memorable pre-game meal in the Northwest cafeteria followed by a titanic gridiron contest, matching the nationally-ranked Rangers with our winless Tiger team. The excitement was palpable. As I mentioned, I was married, and my wife Rothann and I lived in an off-campus apartment so I had to drive over to the dorm to catch the bus. I was surprised, when I took a left into the dorm parking lot at about 7:10, to find the Cat’s small white Chevy pickup wheeling into the lot just behind me.

The Cat was a 6’-1, 240 pound offensive lineman with thick glasses, a thick middle, and, we later mutually agreed, a thick head. Remember, the Cat was not just my friend from college. He was also my long-time high school running buddy. The encounter that was set to unfold was not our first rodeo together. I owed him. He owed me. More than that, we just liked each other. So when he poured out of the driver side of his still idling pickup bright and early that fateful Saturday morning with “Let’s go kick some Ranger tail!” (Of course, he did not say “tail.”) I felt an obligation to protect him from the wrath that would, rightly, fall on any college athlete in his apparent condition.

“Where have you been?”

“I was at Lake Mohawk for a while and then me and [a boy whose name has been omitted on the grounds that it would most certainly incriminate him] went to [a known bootlegger]’s. After that, I was just riding around, enjoying life, but the last couple hours, I been at [a girl who would most certainly send an assassin after me should her name appear in this story]’s apartment.”

“You ain’t been in all night?”

“Heck, no!” (The Cat did not say “Heck.”)

“Get your butt to your room and get cleaned up. We’re leaving in 10 minutes.” (Oh, I didn’t say “butt” either.)

“You’re a good friend. You know that?”

“Yeah, you are too. Now go get your stuff. Hurry! And brush your teeth!”

Eight minutes passed. Players had begun to fill the bus. A few of those in the know regarding the Cat’s condition eyed me as they boarded. I saw a touch of panic in the wide eyes of the Cat’s other friends, at least concern, but they boarded the bus Cat-less anyway. And, I saw a blazing, disturbing gleam in the eyes of those special few you find on any sports team, the ones who just like to see things blow up. You know the ones, the ones who intentionally throw hair spray cans into a bonfire, the ones who pay five bucks to beat on an old car with a sledge hammer at the carnival, those guys. They could already see the Cat’s fur afire; their only question was would it be ignited here, in route, or there. They were almost giddy.

For those who might not understand the dynamic at play here, let me explain. A missed workout by an athlete in collegiate athletics results in an excessive quantity of physical pain and punishment. College coaches are not bound by “the punishment must fit the crime” rule. They operate under a modified version, which is “the punishment must be so severe that the athlete nor his children or his grandchildren would ever consider committing the infraction in question, or any infraction, ever again.” And that’s for missing a workout. Should a college athlete fail to make the bus for a game … a mushroom cloud is all that comes to mind to describe the consequences.

I raced up the dormitory hallway to the Cat’s room. Thank goodness he was on the ground floor. I threw open his door to find him asleep on his bunk, still fully clothed just as he had stepped from his truck eight minutes earlier. I doubt he had brushed his teeth either, but now there was no time. I jerked him up and slapped some water in his face.

“We are going to the bus now. You will sit by me on the window side. You will not make eye contact with any coach. You will not speak. Do you understand?”

I could see that the situation we found ourselves in had begun to register, dimly, with the Cat. He mumbled agreement, and I put a cap on his head. We walked on the bus like a bride and her father, and, yeah, that wasn’t suspicious at all. We plopped into a seat on the right-hand side about two-thirds of the way back. The firebugs and future felons were already upset that the Cat had avoided detection this long. Thankfully, he slept all the way to Senatobia.

The Cat would have to negotiate three critical events upon arrival at Northwest to skirt justice, as I had it figured. He would have to get off the bus, find his equipment and get it into the locker room. That was one. He would then have to go through the cafeteria line and eat his pre-game meal. That was two. And finally he would have to go through pre-game warm-ups, and this would have to be done, unavoidably, in close proximity to the coaching staff. Of course, we were now hours removed from the cause of the difficulty, and the Cat’s condition, with my assistance, had avoided detection until now. So far, so good.

The first step was not so bad. The general turmoil and noise of a team full of JUCO football players exiting a bus and rambling through equipment bags provided sufficient cover for the Cat and me to locate our gear and make haste to the locker room. And he was better now that he had had a couple hours sleep. He didn’t seem likely to stumble. When I looked in his face, he seemed to be there, sort of.

Step two, however, chinked the armor. I heard the call to the cafeteria, and after the Cat and I had unpacked our equipment into a couple of lockers on the far end of the visitors’ dressing room, we joined the line to go eat.  I guided us into formation, not at the front (that would draw too much attention), and not at the back (equally conspicuous), but in the middle of the pack (invisible).  The line to get our meal of fried chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes snaked its way along a handrail that separated the serving counters from the dining tables.  About halfway up the handrail on the table side stood defensive coordinator James Williams, arms crossed, eyeing each Tiger as they took their trays.  I’m sure he was there to keep the noise level down, to keep a bunch of 19 year-olds from getting rowdy and stupid in someone else’s dining hall, but his presence presented the first real danger to the Cat, who would have to pass within three feet of the shadow of death.

For the first time, my mind calculated my own exit strategy.  Sure, the Cat was my friend, my best friend, and I would take a bullet for him.  A .22 caliber, OK … but not a mortar shell.  I was an aid-er and an abet-er, but I was not involved in the crime.  What I would do was make small talk with Coach Williams while the Cat casually passed us by.

“How’s it going, Coach Williams?” I said.  “Good” was his response.

“We are going to get after it today,” I continued.

“Hope so.”

“Did you eat yet?”  I was running out of material.

“Not yet.”

James Williams had black hair and a mustache, a dark complexion, dark eyes.  He was quick and sarcastic, not the compassionate type.  My decision to engage in chit-chat was a bad move from the get-go.  I now saw interest rising in his widening eyes, eyes that peered deeper, pierced deeper, with each meaningless comment I offered.

“Bail! Bail!”  My inner fog horn blared.  I cut my losses and closed my mouth.  I glanced over my right shoulder at the Cat who, smiling oddly, had patiently waited for the close encounter I had hoped to prevent.

“Let’s kick some Ranger tail, Coach Williams!” (Again, the Cat did not say “tail.”)  There it was.  I faced front, the hair on the back of my neck perpendicular to my spine.

“Heh, heh. Yeah, that’s right,” Coach Williams responded with a laugh.  The Cat and I stepped forward and took our trays.  I could feel Coach Williams’ gaze trailing us to our seats.

“Don’t say anything else to the coaches, you idiot,” I whispered.

“It’s all right. I’m good. I got it together.  We gonna kick some Ranger tail today!” (You know.)

“Stop saying that.”

“We gonna kick –“

“Stop.”

I feared the Cat had initiated suspicion, but at least we finished our meal, perhaps the last supper for my likely-condemned, still moderately inebriated compatriot, and made our way to the dressing room with operation number two now complete.

The third step, pre-game warm-ups, did not arouse suspicion.  No, it went far, far beyond that.  I mentioned that the Cat was not a starter.  Furthermore, while he was a great teammate, he also was not what you would have considered the vocal team leader type.  Yet, this day, in Senatobia, Mississippi, beginning at about 12:45 in the afternoon, he reeled off scream after scream of inspiring commentary as we stretched and sweated in the still hot, autumn afternoon sun.  The Cat worked from his baseline imperative of “We gonna kick some Ranger tail!” to phrases that must have been floating around his subconscious since childhood.

“We chopping down the beanstalk today!  Giants going down!”

“Don’t want to be a lone Ranger today!”

“Another one bites the dust!”  I may have mentioned we were winless, and Northwest was ranked, I think, 6th in the country.

With that, I was out.  The Cat now walked the alley alone.  Clearly uninhibited, he was boldly stating facts to our team, our coaches, and the world of which we were previously unaware.  The Cat’s proclamations also implied that he was different on this Saturday.  He was not the back-up Cat, the bench Cat, the back-seat Cat.  He was Top Cat, a roaring lion, king of the beasts!  We won the toss, and he pounced onto the field for the opening kickoff, taking his kick-off return team position, the far right end of the front row, within a few yards of our sideline.  As the Ranger kicker approached the ball, the game-starting cheer began to rise, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh …”  The Ranger players’ and fans’ voices joined in the swell.

Most of the Tiger players, and our coaches for that matter, knew we were doomed.  Northwest was 6-0, and we were 0-6.  What were our chances?  Slim to none.  But a voice cried in the wilderness this day in Senatobia, or roared.  As the Ranger kicker put cleat to leather and the pigskin began its end-over-end flight to our return man, a high-pitched yell, more terrifying than any that Nathan Forrest’s rebels ever cried, burst from the Cat, octaves above the Northwest din.

Our kick-off return scheme, common for the time, was to have the two outer lineman along the front line fall back with the kick, about ten yards or so, and then cross the field and kick out, or trap blind-side, a member of the opponents kick-off team, who would be racing straight-line down the field towards our ball carrier.  It rarely worked.  Most of the front line guys were lineman, not particularly agile in the open field, and when they reached the player they were supposed to block, the return team linemen typically were out-run or faked out in some other way by their more athletic kick-off team opponents.

All eyes were fixed on the Cat, who was emitting a noise much like a high speed fan with a bearing gone bad.  He retreated four or five steps, planted a drive foot and cut across the field, still screaming.  The stadium zeroed in on the Cat.  Twenty players completed the play in relative anonymity; only the Cat and his target were observed by the few thousand in attendance.  The Cat crossed about thirty yards and closed on the gazelle that would be his afternoon meal.  I don’t think the Ranger player ever even glanced at the Cat, who went airborne, horizontal, about five yards from his victim.  As far as I could see from the sideline, the Cat’s right shoulder pad collided with the Ranger’s left jaw.  The Cat’s torso slashed across the Northwest cover man, down his left side, and they slammed to the turf together, sliding together, Cat on top, to within a few feet of the Northwest sideline.  Our return man raced about thirty yard past guys from both teams, who stood in stunned silence, until finally he was pulled down at about the 45 yard line.  You could have heard a pin drop for about three seconds.  The Cat sprung to his feet, pushing the air out of his compressed prey, and pumped both fists in the air.  Crazed, out of body, wild-eyed, he sprinted home to our sideline, verbalizing his general frame of mind as he came.

“Let’s kick some Ranger tail!” (He said “ass.”)

The greatest single play of the Cat’s football career was followed by another, and another, and another, throughout the first half. His lunatic screams, and the disassociated content of what he was saying, seemed to unnerve the Northwest team.  And, well, we were college athletes; we began to smell blood in the water.  We began to believe we might, we just might, kick some Ranger tail today.

Before the first half was done, the Cat’s wild and aggressive play even got him inserted into several of our offensive series as a guard.  You may not remember, but Northwest was famous in those days for taking a defensive lineman/criminal who had been ousted from some SEC school for a minor lapse of judgment – beating up a dean, robbing a liquor store, something trivial – and “rehabilitating” said individual through participation in physical education with the Rangers.  On a play or two in the second quarter, the Cat actually lined up against just such a person.  Now, while uninhibited and, therefore, at least temporarily playing to the maximum of his abilities, the Cat was not Superman.  The laws of physics were not suspended simply because the Cat was on fire.  When Crusher Nagurski hit Cat in the face with a forearm shiver that carried the force of jackhammer, he went down.  But, and this was the difference in this day and all the others, he sprang right back up.  He came off the turf like a paddle ball and would, at the very least, entangle his body in Crusher’s legs thereby preventing the death and dismemberment of our ball carriers.

I want to say it was a thing of beauty, but that’s going too far.  There was, however, one offensive play that should be extracted from the Cat’s first half repertoire deserving further illumination.  We were playing the Rangers neck and neck.  They would score, and we would score.  And the more this occurred, the tighter the Rangers got, the more tentatively they played, trying not to make a mistake, all except a certain Inmate #65898324, who was lined up at inside linebacker across from the Cat on what would be our final series of the first half.  The Auburn transfer/parolee, perhaps a cousin of Nagurski, was playing like a tornado with arms and legs, and an angry one at that, leaving a path of destruction wherever he went. In fact, his obliteration of Tiger right guard number one played a role in the Cat’s lining up on offense in the first place.  With 44 seconds left to go in the first half and the game tied at 28-28, we were driving again and had made it into Ranger territory at the 38 yard line.  We lined up to run a reverse play that called for the right guard to step left in the direction of the dive back, who would be faked the football between left guard and left tackle. The right guard, the Cat, would then pivot and pull out to the right as the lead blocker for the left slot back who would take the football from the quarterback and carry it around right end.  It was a simple misdirection play, and looking back, one that did not seem likely to accomplish much with under a minute to play in the half.

At the snap, the Cat took a hard step with his left foot toward our center, me, who was engaged with the nose tackle.  Inmate #65898324 attempted a shot into the center-guard gap and viciously struck the Cat in the right ear hole, knocking him to his knees with the blow.  As I was engaged with the nose tackle and could not see what happened next as the rest of the play unfolded that day in Senatobia, I can only report it as it was captured on the game film that we watched the next afternoon.  The linebacker saw that the dive was a fake and opened up to his left, our right.  He skated around the offensive tackle/defensive tackle pile-up that clogged the line of scrimmage, attempting to prevent our true ball carrier, the left slot back, from getting to the outside and doing real damage.  And now, of course, our back would be without his lead blocker, the Cat, who had been knocked to his knees virtually at the snap the ball.

What I saw on film that Sunday afternoon should have had background music like the old Laurel & Hardy or Little Rascal shorts.  In black and white, the Cat, down on all fours with his head pointing in the wrong direction, executed a half turn, crawling on the ground.  He then, still on all fours, continued his crawl at high speed around our tackle, somehow staying ahead of an upright, full speed back, to emerge at the intersection point with the freight train that was Inmate #65898324.  Just prior to impact, the Cat sprang to his feet, actually off his feet.  From a crawl, he exploded from the turf, elevated for the face-to-face encounter with the Ranger linebacker, both arms pushing forward to stop the freight train, paws open, claws exposed.  I feel certain there was a loud hiss just before the collision.  The sound that followed was “thump-thump.”  The first “thump” was the crash itself, the second, the back of the Cat’s helmet exploding on the ground.  The laws of physics had not been suspended.  We said that.  A cat can’t stop a freight train.  But in the split second it took for Inmate #65898324 to separate the Cat from consciousness, our slot back was around end and gone for the go-head touchdown.  We led the nation’s #6 junior college football team 35-28 at the half.

The Cat did not repeat his first half performance in the third and fourth quarters.  In fact, like a match blazing hot and then slowly burning through the stick until it is finally extinguished, the Cat began to sit quietly as the game hurtled on.  Nevertheless, his momentum, his aggression, his defiance had been already transferred to the rest of us.  We carried the torch, and battled to the end.  We lost the game 56-49, still clawing at the horn, driving for the potential tying touchdown as time expired.  It was a moral victory, sure, the kind we unfortunately most often accomplished.

We left Senatobia that day knowing we almost had them, almost beat the Rangers, knowing we played better than we were capable.  Shortly after boarding the bus for home, the Cat’s head rocked back on his seat, eyes closed, mouth open, asleep.  Not only had he escaped justice, but this lunatic had thrown caution to the wind and pushed himself out as a leader and a target and a real, sure-enough football player.  He had caused the rest of us to play crazy-good, crazy-good for us, one time, one Saturday at Northwest Junior College in Senatobia.  Crazy-good.

The Cat had not escaped justice.  Apparently, going from a mild-mannered second-string lineman to an unleashed, screaming jungle predator does not go unnoticed by even the most unobservant coaching staff.  The Cat was placed on double secret probation immediately after our film session on Sunday afternoon, and his parents were informed of his extracurricular activities.  He straightened up, short- and long-term, and finished the season, his last in collegiate football.  He never returned to the level of notoriety he achieved on than Saturday at Northwest, but the Cat did turn out to be quite an upstanding citizen, a great father and husband.

Setting aside the inauspicious origins of the Cat’s day, which could never be recommended no matter what the result, the rest of us did use his example of casting off inhibition as, surprisingly, the proper and correct way to play the game, at least I did.  I carried that little tidbit, the rare glimpse of what true reckless abandon really looked like, with me for the three years I had left in college football, and when I occasionally found myself knocked to the turf, I sprang cat-like, Cat-like, back to my feet.

I still talk to the Cat now and then.  I don’t know how many lives he’s down to now, but clearly, he doesn’t have more than eight. Inmate #65898324 claimed one of his nine on a memorable sunny Saturday in Senatobia twenty-five years ago.  And, yeah, we lost, but we did kick some Ranger ass.

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Filed under College Football, Just For Fun, Sports

William Arthur Davis, Visionary Businessman

Where there is no vision, the people perish – Proverbs 29:18

Wm. Arthur Davis and Florence Anna Arnold, c. 1892

Wm. Arthur Davis and 1st wife Florence Anna Arnold, c. 1892

In 1914, William Arthur Davis came down from Lebanon Mountain and bought a city block in Baldwyn. W.A. Davis had made a name, a home and a fortune for himself and his first seven children with a grist mill, a tanning operation and a lumber mill in the Geeville community, but like prominent members of neighboring McElroy and Nelson families before him, Davis saw turn-of-the-century Baldwyn as the land of milk and honey in this modern age of automobiles, and electricity, and running water.

Davis was born on the mountain in 1871 to William Jackson Davis and Mary Elizabeth Blassingame, but by 1877 young Arthur had lost both parents. First, his father Jackson died of a stroke in 1875, while his mother was still pregnant with little brother Jack. When Mary died herself two years later, likely from yellow fever or tuberculosis, the two boys were orphaned completely and moved in with their grandparents.

Arthur’s grandfather, his namesake, another William Arthur Davis, was a tanner there on the slopes of Lebanon between Geeville and Dry Creek, having reached that area in the 1840’s, the very earliest days of permanent settlement in north Mississippi.

W.A. absorbed nine years of frontier business education from his grandfather before the elder Davis died in 1886, essentially leaving the 14 year-old and his brother Jack, then 10, orphans a second time. But at some point between his boyhood, that saw more death and loss than any child should have to suffer, and his 1891 marriage to a lovely 17 year-old farmer’s daughter named Florence Anna Arnold, William Arthur Davis had found within himself an insatiable drive – a desire to build, to create, to accomplish. It was an obsession that never left him.

He first expanded his grandfather’s tannery. He built a grist mill and a lumber mill, his pride and joy, which all together moved his financial standing to opulent levels, at least relative to his hill country neighbors. He tapped an artesian spring near his expanding home place there on Dry Creek Road and gave his family the first taste of running water and useful indoor plumbing to be found in his community and well beyond.

He and Florence began their family with son Leonard in 1892, and the Davis clan grew steadily until Florence’s untimely death in 1910. Only 39 years old, William Arthur Davis again suffered the loss of an immediate family member. This time, however, seven children suffered with him – Leonard, the oldest at 18, Victor, Jack, Mary Katherine, Lessie, Milton and Harvey, only a year old.

Many men, perhaps most, would have idled through the balance of life after yet another devastating personal tragedy. But W. A. Davis was of a different sort.

William Arthur Davis family, c. 1936

William Arthur Davis family, c. 1936: Seated – Alan Caldwell, Mary Ellen Caldwell, Irma Jean Davis, Irva Davis, Billy Davis, Ollie Graham Davis, Irma Davis, Lessie White Davis, James Davis; Standing – Edith Davis, Eugene Davis, Anna Lee Davis, Abner Wilburn Caldwell, Katherine Davis Caldwell, Jack Arnold Davis, Clarice White Davis, William Leonard Davis, William Arthur Davis, Victor Hugo Davis, William Murray White, Bonds Caldwell.

In 1912, Arthur married a neighbor, Ollie Graham, and within two years, he packed up his family, including an eighth child Eugene, and his business savvy and bought the Baldwyn city block northeast of Clayton and 2nd Streets. He had a plan. He would provide Baldwyn with every product and service that he could produce, having refined his wide array of goods and talents in the two decades previous at Lebanon. He built a home facing west on 2nd Street on the northwest corner of his block, where he and Ollie added two more children to their brood – James and Edith. He built a grocery store, a café, and most importantly, he built Davis Lumber Company. The block, his block, his empire along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, operated just as he had envisioned, and both Arthur Davis and the community prospered.

W. A. Davis, the visionary businessman who came down from Lebanon Mountain with a second wife and eight children in 1914, beat the odds that were stacked against a six year-old orphan in rural Mississippi four decades earlier. Davis had a vision for what Baldwyn could be for him and what he could be for Baldwyn. He dreamed big, he executed to a plan, and before his death in 1947 at the age of 76, he built a small fortune and a large legacy, one which his descendents have carried with them for generations.

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Filed under Genealogical research, Goings On In Baldwyn, Mississippi, Mississippi History

The Naming of Carrollville

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Charles Carroll of Carrollton (Maryland) was the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1860, the Mississippi town of Baldwyn emerged on a hill southeast of Carrollville, one of the original settlements of old Tishomingo County. Baldwyn’s birth was the direct result of the construction of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, its tracks running 2 miles east of Carrollville. All commerce soon vacated the early pioneer village for the advantages offered by the new railroad depot in Baldwyn, a city named for the founder of the railroad itself – Marshall J.D. Baldwyn of Mobile.

Baldwyn, the man, acted as paymaster during the construction of the railroad and, in 1861, drove in the ceremonial spike that was the final connection between the southern and northern sections of the road at Corinth. Clearly, the city of Baldwyn, Mississippi, was named for the visionary railroad prospector Marshall J.D. Baldwyn.

But what about “Carrollville?” What was the origin of the name for that first settlement?

Let’s look at what we know, or think we know. Carrollville was important. The little burg produced governors, congressmen, and war heroes. Its original inhabitants were descended from famous frontier families – Seviers, Taylors, Crocketts, Weirs and others. Though his home was actually in the Blair community, even Chickasaw Chief Tishomingo, who served in military campaigns against the British and the Creek Indians with Andrew Jackson, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, was counted by his contemporaries as a citizen of Carrollville.

Carrollville was “established” in 1834, less than two years after the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832) ceded Chickasaw lands to the U.S. government and the State of Mississippi. We find this establishment date given among other information provided by former Baldwyn mayor T.G. Stocks (1846-1920) in an interview with the Mississippi Historical Society in 1902. In the information Stocks provided, he says that his mother, Susan Taylor Stocks (1817-1902), moved to Carrollville in 1838, the year following final Chickasaw removal after the Treaty of Doaksville (1837) settled the tribe’s land claims in Oklahoma.

Was Carrollville among the earliest Mississippi settlements? Yes. Was Carrollville historically important? Yes. But why “Carrollville?” Where did this name come from?

Fellow history seekers Cynthia Mink and Betty Massengill have provided me with an abundance of information on Carrollville and the families who lived there. We all agree that a first guess as to the origin of the name would be that it was chosen to honor an early settler or a “first family.” Booneville was named for Rueben Holman Boone, for instance. However, in our investigations of census records, we have only found one reasonable candidate in old Tishomingo County – a man named Derosy Carroll. We know very little about Carroll other than he was born about 1813 and that he was recorded living in Tishomingo County in 1840 and 1843. Derosy Carroll may very well be the source for the name Carrollville. Certainly he was in the area at the right time. But when Carrollville was organized, this particular Carroll would only have been 21 years old, an unlikely age to have a city named for you. Still, it is at least within the realm of possibility.

I thought of a different possibility, and while it remains speculative at this point (Cynthia, Betty and I will continue to investigate), it does seem to have credence. Without a clear family known to be on-site in early Carrollville, I postulated that perhaps the person or persons for whom Carrollton and Carroll County, Mississippi, were named might also be responsible for our Carrollville.

So I followed that lead. What I found I now believe to be the best explanation for the naming of Carrollville. It seems both Carrollton and Carroll County were named, not for a local founder, but for a national figure – the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

Charles Carroll’s home was called Carrollton Manor and was located near Annapolis, Maryland, where he was an important political figure. He was the only Catholic to have signed the Declaration, and he was Maryland’s first U.S. senator. Charles Carroll, a larger-than-life figure fictionally portrayed in the 2004 movie National Treasure and even mentioned by name in the 1939 classic Gone With The Wind, lived to the ripe old age of 95. Here’s the key fact: Charles Carroll died in 1832 – the same year the Treaty of Pontotoc was signed and northern Mississippi was opened for settlement. Carrollville was officially established in 1834 by the descendents of revolutionary patriots who would have viewed Carroll as a national hero. Certainly, we know he was well known in Mississippi, as the delta city of Carrollton and Carroll County where it is located can attest.

We can’t yet be sure that Charles Carroll was definitely the person for whom Carrollville, Mississippi, was named, but as Cynthia Mink and I discussed recently, “It just fits.”

From the diary of Carroll E. W. Milton, an early settler who lived near the Geeville community from 1849 until his death in 1860, we find the following:

“July 1849 – Wednesday 4th. ‘The glorious fourth’ Barbeque at Carrollville – prayers, Declaration of Independence read – Oration delivered – Instrumental music.”

“July 1851. Friday the 4th, went to Carrollville, great barbeque, great crowd, great day!!! Declaration of Independence read by Troupe [Belsher].”

“July 1853 – Monday 4th. 5th barbeque in the grove … J.T. Hicks read the order of the day. J.W. Yates prayed like a hungry man. Sam’l Yates read the Declaration of Independence, and spoke a few thoughts from some other great man’s head besides his own … W.H.H. Tison give us a history in the shape of an oration, of our glorious country from a long time ago to the present.”

Obviously, when Carrollville was in its hey-day, the Declaration of Independence was a vital and celebrated part of American history in our frontier town. And I think it is very reasonable to suspect that Carrollville may have taken its name from one of the original signers of that document that created America.

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The November Board Meeting

A member of my Sunday school class – Sherri Buse – sent me a message the other day asking if I would attend a Baldwyn School Board meeting where she would be speaking. Typically, I am quite cynical when it comes to meetings involving government officials, especially those of the local variety. I don’t expect much to get done. And I expect that what does get done gets done in a way that I wouldn’t agree with it getting done. I expressed as much to Sherri. Surely my presence couldn’t be beneficial to her cause in any way, I argued, but she persisted. So I went.

In her pitch, Sherri said that she had some questions for the board regarding her children transferring from Tupelo schools to Baldwyn, questions that I would find “informative.” In my way of thinking, that‘s clear code for “It‘s going to hit the fan,” and reality television, occurring live just 50 yards from my office across Main Street is not something I want to take part in, especially when I have no dog in the hunt. Anyway, that’s what I told myself and Sherri, and still the gravitational pull of obligation to a friend sucked me in, that second Thursday in November, for a board meeting of the Baldwyn Separate School District.

Not wanting to attend alone, I coerced my co-worker Stuart Cockrell to come along with me. Knowing my primal need to interject my opinion into any situation, I gave Stuart very specific instructions. Should I so much as take a deep breath that even hinted I might say something, he was to punch me in the face and drag me from the room, claiming that I had had a seizure. He was agreeable to that – in fact, overly agreeable – but that’s a story for another day.

As the meeting opened, board president Johnny Agnew, owner of a local funeral home, called on Sherri to come forward. Now as an engineer by profession, I am accustomed to meetings involving mostly men. I find that males, when addressing a group, may offer a joke to kick things off, but for the most part they quickly get to the heart of the matter. “You, sir, are a liar, and here are nine indisputable proofs of it” is a statement that might find its way into the first couple of paragraphs of a man’s address to a school or town board.

Sherri, being a female, took a completely different approach, one quite foreign to analytical types like Stuart and me. She pulled a chair up cozily close to the board room table where sat the four present members and Superintendent Ronnie Hill and opened with “What’s your passion? Your passion to be a part of this school board? Mr. Agnew?”

Stuart, also an engineer, fidgeted and cut me a plaintive, “what-am-I-doing-here” look. I countered with a nervous smile and suppressed a fidget of my own as Sherri proceeded around the table asking each board member, in turn, a series of warm and fuzzy questions to which she received more than a few “We’re doing it all for the children” responses.

I did find some humor in the board’s answers to one of Sherri’s early questions regarding their qualifications for being on the board. Most, if not all, cited as a primary qualification that they were “citizens.” Citizens? Now any way you look at it, that’s not a very high bar. But at least we can take some solace, I guess, in the fact that we don’t have illegal immigrants serving on our school board.

And so, the questions continued round and round.

Not to mislead, Sherri was clear in her purpose: to have the board answer why she should move her children from Tupelo to Baldwyn in light of the fact that the Baldwyn Separate School District is currently on “academic watch” based on the latest state test scores. She said her circle of friends, Baldwyn people all, had unanimously advised her to keep her kids in Tupelo whenever she would bring up the subject of transfer. That was the root cause of her concern: why Baldwyn people would tell other Baldwyn people not to put native-born Baldwyn kids into Baldwyn Schools.

Generally, guests are offered 3 to 5 minutes when addressing the school board. Sherri and the board chit-chatted for about 25 minutes.

What was the result, you ask? I’m not real sure, but frankly, I heard some very positive statements about responsibility and doing what was necessary to correct test scores from three of the four board members and from Superintendent Hill. The superintendent said that it was he who was ultimately responsible for the performance of the district and that he was actively taking steps to turn around the problem areas. No matter where you are, that’s the kind of thing you want to hear from your school superintendent.

Board member Johnny Davis said it was the board’s job, too, to get things corrected and expressed an optimistic assessment for the possibility of a quick turnaround. Bryan Hogue and Johnny Agnew also offered insight into their personal commitment to see the school improve.

Only Mary Catherine Smith stood out, surprisingly, with pessimistic, almost antagonistic responses to Sherri’s questions. “If you don’t hear anything but bad, you should keep your kids in Tupelo,” she bluntly told Sherri at one point.

Nonetheless, three board members and a superintendent did say the right things, and they said, more importantly, they were going to do the right things to move Baldwyn back into the “desirable” school district category.

You might argue that Sherri did not ask the “Perry Mason” questions – the “traps” about how money was being spent, about superfluous administrative positions, about a lack of text books, or other confrontational lines of inquiry – that I would have probably veered into, or Stuart, or maybe most men. But that approach would have likely degraded the exchange into unproductive, defensive posturing.

Fortunately, Stuart and I weren’t doing the talking – thank goodness – and three board members and a superintendent got a chance to say something positive – about why they were serving, and where our schools are going, and why you should put your kids in school here. So they did. And even a self-aware cynic like me left the meeting more optimistic about Baldwyn Schools than when I went in.

Sherri was right. I did learn something. I learned that there might be a chance to get our school back on the right course, that is, if someone will occasionally pull up a chair at the table in the board room for a little chat.

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Elijah Pierce

Elijah Pierce Monument

A bronze statue of Elijah Pierce was erected at Columbus State Community College in the fall of 2000 on the corner of Long and Washington Streets.

One reason I write this column is so that I may occasionally shed light on the boundless possibilities that exist for us here in Baldwyn as individuals and as a community. Throughout our history, significant men and women have emerged from this little town, people with talent, people who have made an impact in the world around us.

Examples rising from humble beginnings in Baldwyn’s past are numerous – war heroes, captains of industry, Christian missionaries, self-less teachers, political leaders, renowned artists. One such example is Elijah Pierce.

If you happen to be in Columbus, Ohio, this winter, take the time to visit the Columbus Museum of Art. There you will find a special exhibition featuring the work of renowned folk artist, Elijah Pierce. The Essential Elijah Pierce, an in-depth look at the museum’s extensive Pierce collection, will be on display until February 16. Pierce’s wood carvings and sculptures, with subject matter taken from the Bible, folktales, and contemporary events, are considered some of the most individual, personal, whimsical, and spiritual ever produced by an American folk artist.

Elijah Pierce, the youngest son of former slave Richard Pierce, was born in Baldwyn, Mississippi, on March 5, 1892.

By the age of seven, Elijah would use a pocket knife his father had given him to carve animals from the wooden scraps he found along the creek banks near the farm where he lived. He would usually give away his creations, to children at school or others who appreciated the carvings, a practice he continued throughout his life. Pierce’s uncle, Lewis Wallis, was a particular inspiration to the young Elijah, giving him valuable instruction on which types of wood worked best for carving and simply how to enjoy the art.

In his teens, Elijah decided that farming was not for him, choosing barbering instead, since it was a skill that could stick with a person wherever he ended up. He learned the trade in Baldwyn, hanging around his neighborhood barber shop in the early 1900’s.

In 1914, Elijah married Zetta Palm, but his first marriage sadly ended in tragedy. Zetta died after only a year, shortly following the birth of their son Willie in 1915. As a result, Pierce began to live a hobo-like existence, working as an itinerant laborer for the railroad. Still, he would visit his mother Nellie in Baldwyn, who consistently encouraged Elijah to follow the religious calling she knew he had experienced.

Heeding his mother’s advice, Elijah Pierce received his preacher’s license from his home church – Baldwyn’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church – in 1920.

Soon, however, Elijah joined the steady migration of young African-Americans to the northern cities. He met and fell in love with his second wife Cornelia Houeston, and they were married in Columbus, Ohio, her home town, where Elijah found work as a barber and lay minister.

In Columbus, Pierce began to carve wood seriously, making a zoo-full of animals for Cornelia and others in the community. In 1932, Pierce completed the Book of Wood which he considered his best work. The book, a bas-relief series originally carved as individual scenes, tells the story of Jesus. Cornelia and Elijah would hold “sacred art demonstrations” to deliver the book’s tale of sacrifice and salvation to those who needed to hear. But again tragedy would strike Elijah when he lost Cornelia to cancer in 1948.

A new chapter in Elijah’s life would begin in 1951 when he opened his own barbershop at 483 E. Long Street in Columbus. His shop was a hospitable gathering place where customers would come to discuss the life of the local community and the nation. There on Long Street, Elijah displayed not only his religious carvings but also works that revealed his love of baseball, boxing, comics and the movies and an appreciation for legendary heroes who had fought for justice and liberty. Through his carvings, Pierce also told his own life story and chronicled the African-American experience. However, he seldom distinguished the race of his figures; he thought of them as “everyman.”

In the early 1970’s, Pierce’s art finally became known outside the local Columbus community. Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and graduate student at Ohio State, discovered Elijah’s work and organized several important exhibitions for him. Soon, Pierce became known both nationally and internationally in the world of folk art, receiving many honors and awards. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts presented Elijah Pierce with a National Heritage Fellowship as one of 15 master traditional artists. After Elijah’s death in 1984, the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex recognized his lifetime body of work by naming the Elijah Pierce Gallery in his honor. The Columbus Museum of Art now owns the vast majority of Pierce’s carvings – over 300 pieces.

This twice-widowed native of Baldwyn, Mississippi, the son of a former slave, did not simply survive 92 years. Elijah Pierce impacted the world around him with his art and with his kind, gentle, and humorous spirit. Baldwyn can take pride in the life and work of barber, minister and artist, Elijah Pierce.

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Baldwyn High School presents “The Deacon” – Part 2

Baldwyn High School 1925

In 1907, school plays in Baldwyn took place in the “Opera House,” which was at that time the open second floor area of the city’s first brick schoolhouse. The school building, located generally where Baldwyn’s U.S. Post Office now stands, is pictured above c. 1925. Photo courtesy of Annie Laurie Arnold.

The play “The Deacon” was presented in Baldwyn’s “Opera House” on December 20, 1907. The Opera House at that time was the second floor of a new brick school building, just completed in 1904. Local author Louis Cochran offered a description of the venue in his 1955 book “Hallelujah, Mississippi.”

“The second floor was one big room with a rostrum, or stage, and rows of wooden benches and cane-bottom chairs for the school exercises and church plays. The grown folks referred to it as the “Opera House,” and packed its walls to the gills for such affairs or when it was used for a week’s run [by] an occasional stock company from Memphis or New Orleans.”

It was quite a place, very worthy of the Horace C. Dale comedic-drama to be performed there by fourteen Baldwyn students that December Friday night in 1907.

Today, on the western wall of Agnew’s Restaurant in the Pratt community, just to the left of the cash register, a framed hand bill promoting this particular production of “The Deacon” still hangs, its theatrical run completed some 105 years ago. As Agnew’s owner Debbie Moore and I recently discussed this enigmatic, yellowing scrap of paper, Debbie rhetorically asked, “Who ARE these people?” Now that was a puzzle worth pursuing, I thought, to discover something more about these young men and women who walked Baldwyn’s Main Street over a century ago.

Last week we took a look at the first seven cast members. This week, we’ll look at the final seven. “Who are these people?”

Nick Latimer portrayed “an officer.” Nicholas Stubbs Latimer, born in 1894, was the 5th son of farmer Robert Latimer and Sarah Walker Latimer. Both his grandfathers were doctors – Dr. Benjamin Latimer in South Carolina and Dr. Sam Walker in Baldwyn – and his baby sister, by 5 years, was Mary Hortense, an educator in Baldwyn schools that many remember as “Miss Hortense.” Latimer Park and Latimer Street in Baldwyn are named for this family. Nick and wife Kathleen lived in Birmingham where he worked as an electrician.

Lottie Belle Lewellen portrayed Mrs. Thornton. Lottie Belle was born in 1892 to William and Sarah Mauldin Lewellen. Beginning in the 1930’s, her brother Will Ellis operated the Outlaw-Lewellen Gin on the east side of the railroad tracks in Baldwyn with Claude and Elbert Outlaw. Lottie Belle’s first cousin was Tom Mauldin, who began Tom’s Drug Store and operated it for decades. Lottie Belle never married. She died in 1977.

Lula Caldwell portrayed Helen Thornton. Lula Caldwell is the one cast member whose identification remains a mystery. There is clearly a “Lula Caldwell” listed in the 1907-1908 catalogue of Baldwyn High School students, but I have found no clear information elsewhere. “Lula” Caldwell may be Annie L. Caldwell, a niece of Ben Caldwell, who was the owner of Baldwyn’s first GM dealership, but that determination is too uncertain to make based on information I have.

Emma Smythe portrayed Daisy Dean. Emma’s grandfather was Dr. Anson Gorden Smythe, a doctor in old Carrollville and later in Baldwyn. He was a founding member of the Medical Board of Mississippi. Emma never married and lived on North 2nd Street her entire life. She worked as a cashier and salesperson on Main Street for H.L. Spivey in his Ben Franklin store. Emma died in 1973.

Kate Newman portrayed Mrs. Darrah. Katie Belle Newman was born in 1891, the daughter of local newspaper editor, Charley Newman, and the great granddaughter of original Carrollville settler Samuel Rowan. Sometime after 1910, Katie journeyed to Mokpo, Korea, where she married missionary doctor William Painter Gilmer at the American Consulate on June 3, 1924. Katie gave birth to their only child Kathryn Newman Gilmer on May 11, 1926. Tragically, Katie died eleven days after giving birth. Dr. Gilmer and the infant Kathryn returned to the U.S. to stay a year later in June of 1927. William had by that time married Katie’s younger sister Helen, the previous February, a practice not uncommon for a young widower with a newborn in that era.

Edith Sloan portrayed Nellie Darrah. Edith was the youngest cast member, only 11 years old in 1907. Her character Nellie Darrah was a child of the character played by Errett Moore in the show. Edith was the daughter of Baldwyn merchant George Sloan, the owner of George Sloan General Merchandise. His store was located on Main Street in the spot that later became Kirk Hardware. In 1914, Edith Sloan graduated high school with Frank Agnew, the original owner of the Pratt store where the playbill now hangs.

Mabel Milton portrayed Miss Amelia Faucett. Mabel, born in 1891, was a younger sister of Clarence Milton, who played the title role of Deacon Thornton. Mabel became a teacher, teaching in Baldwyn, Moorhead and Hattiesburg. At Moorhead, she worked for J. Sloan Vandiver, and boarded with Vandiver and his wife Blanche. J.S. Vandiver was himself a Baldwyn graduate. He started the very first junior college in the South, Sunflower Junior College, in Moorhead and later became State Superintendent of Education. Mabel eventually left teaching and worked as a stenographer for a law office in Clarksdale, where she lived with her sister Hazel. She died at only 53 years old in 1945.

Obviously, there’s still a lot we don’t know about this group. Surely, each of them had eventful lives that included their share of tragedy and triumph. What we do know for certain is that fourteen talented students lived and laughed and put on a show, upstairs in the new brick schoolhouse, just south of Main Street. All of them, eight boys and six girls, were real, flesh-and-blood Baldwyn kids, who could never have imagined, when they put on their costumes and peeked from behind the curtain just before Christmas break in 1907, that their performance would make news more than a century later.

But it did.

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