The characters and cuisine of Clay County
Story & Photographs Birney Imes
On the Friday afternoon before Labor Day Amanda Knighton leaned on the cash register and smiled.
Amanda is a cashier at Mike’s Kountry Kwik, a country store about six miles west of West Point on Highway 50.
“Here comes Goat Man.”
A burly fellow with a beard and loose-fitting overalls opens one of the double glass doors and walks in.
“Cajun turkey?” Knighton says. The question is mere formality; Knighton, or “Little Bit” as she is known here, knows the preferences of her regulars. She disappears behind a wall of tobacco products into a makeshift kitchen.
“Mustard and mayo,” Goat Man says, his voice booming. “And put a little sugar on it.”
Goat Man, who also goes by Kevin Clark, is being flirtatious.
In no time, Knighton shaves slices from a turkey breast and spreads mustard and mayo on two pieces of Wonder Bread. She returns and hands Clark his sandwich.
Clark lives in Montpelier and stops by Mike’s “might near every morning” on the way to work in West Point.
While Knighton tends to a stream of customers at the register, Clark stands nearby and consumes his sandwich and a bottle of green tea while engaging in the roving conversation between the cashier and passing customers. The scene is relaxed, genial; everyone seems to know one another.
For years I’ve been hearing stories about this part of Clay County from a friend who owns a farm in the area. Over time, he has become a devotee of these rural way stations and their idiosyncrasies: the verbal jousting between customers, the hand-lettered signs (“Do not enter with your pants down and talking trash … show some respect.”) and the seemingly incongruous jumble of merchandise.
When I asked my friend for guidance with this story, he responded with a map.
Mike’s Kountry Kwik is a creation of the rural community it serves. It is part gas station, grocery store, hardware store, farm supply store and delicatessen. And, as evidenced by the bulletin board by the front door with its notices for gospel singings, charity horse shows and even a missing person alert, it is a community center, as well.
Mike is Mike Atkinson, who owns and runs Cal-City Grocery in Caledonia. He has wisely left the Kountry Kwik in the capable hands of Darlene Wright, an irrepressibly cheerful woman with a raspy voice and easy-to-see affection for her customers.
Those customers are mostly working people, hands from nearby cattle farms and tradesmen and factory workers, who, like Goat Man, live in the area but work in town. Most are regulars and are greeted by name when they enter.
While not more than 10 minutes from West Point, a town bustling with the promise of a new tire plant about to open, this rural community with its gently rolling land and small farms is of another time and place.
Along with the usual convenience store fare, you can find at Mike’s horse and dog food, triple-cleaned corn, nuts and bolts, rope (eight choices), horse collars, tractor hydraulic fluid, heater hose, crickets and minnows and even a used Western saddle for $125.
If you’re hungry, Darlene or Amanda will make you a sandwich from a broad selection of deli meats and cheeses. Getting a sandwich at Mike’s is a bit like buying a car. For instance, you can get the standard model with no extras, a piece of meat between two slices of white bread (Darlene: “We don’t do wheat bread.”) with mayo or mustard, for $1.99. Indulge in a couple of add-ons — cheese, thick-sliced meat, double meat — and your main entree could run upwards of $3.50.
Among today’s diners are Jake Pollard and Jerry Johnson, two cowboys whose dirt-stained jeans suggest an active morning. The two have spent the first half of their workday trying to round up 40 wayward heifers — they’ve found half of them and are confident the afternoon will yield the balance.
“I’ve eaten here every day of my life,” says Jake, a weekend rodeo rider. “Somedays, that’s all three meals.”
That’s a lot of bologna, even for a 25-year-old.
“When you’re out here in the heat you don’t want too much — best thing is to grab a sandwich,” says Jerry. He’s having an orange sports drink and an order of French fries with his ham loaf sandwich.
The two men work for Jake’s father, Les Pollard, who runs an 800-head cattle operation up the highway.
While the hospitality at Mike’s might be nonpareil, accommodation for eat-in diners is not. It’s strictly a fend-for-yourself proposition. They sit on a bench in front of the store, in their trucks parked under the oaks and sweetgum across the road or at the two tables with chairs (when the tables aren’t stacked with inventory) at the back of the store.
No one seems to mind.
Certainly not cattleman Randy Simmons, who is having a ham and hoop cheese sandwich while lounging on what looks to be an agreeable arrangement of 50-pound bags of horse and dog food. Styrofoam minnow buckets and Day-Glo T-shirts dangle from a clothesline overhead, and a wooden display filled with live crickets is an arm’s reach away. Simmons couldn’t be more at home if he were sitting in a recliner in his own living room.
“It ain’t as good as turnip greens and cornbread,” he says.
I’m not sure I believe him.
After Mike’s I meander north on State Road 47. The two-lane blacktop wends past small ranch-style houses with gravel driveways, scattered brown cattle grazing in the shade of post oaks, country cemeteries with homemade tombstones, wide spots in the road with unlikely names: Siloam, Palo Alto, Abbott.
A hand-lettered sign at the mouth of a gravel road proclaims, “Big Mama’s.” I turn in and at the end of the road find a warren of empty trailers. The one with the folding chairs and empty beer boxes on the porch seems most likely. I knock on the door.
“She gone to the store,” a voice rumbles from another trailer.
With a sign marking the Chickasaw County line in sight, I come to Food Basket, a store, on the face of it, not much different from Mike’s.
On duty are Colby Huffman, Debbie Poss and 26-year-old Quita Davidson, a slender girl with a radiant smile.
The tone here is playful, bordering on boisterous. Customers enjoy the hijinks. When I joked about his frisky staff with owner Dwayne Vaughan, he said, “I bet they entertained you.”
Food Basket sells groceries, sandwiches, cooked-to-order food and beer — lots of beer.
“We sell more beer than anything else,” says Vaughan. “We’re next to a dry county.”
The prepared-food offerings here are not much different from Mike’s — sandwiches, frozen pizza, pulled pork, chicken strips.
When I ask directions to my final stop, Colby directs me back the way I came, to Brand-Una Road.
If it can be said Una has a downtown, then Knox Grocery is at the center of it. Here you will find a more sumptuous selection of groceries. There are toys, tools, and, like at earlier stops, made-to-order sandwiches. And, of course, plenty of friendly banter.
“Where’s you mama,” cashier Traci Ferguson asks a male customer in a bright green Ninja Turtles T-shirt.
“She’s in the car.”
“Be sure and tell her ‘hey.’”
On multiple visits I saw Traci slicing and wrapping pork chops in the meat department, stocking shelves, mopping the floor and cashiering.
The Cedar Bluff native says she bream fishes every chance she gets. She’s been working here since December.
“I shopped up here a lot and Barry (owner Barry Smitherman) said, ‘Hey, you want a job’ and I said, ‘Sure, I love it up here.’”
Judging from all I’d seen that afternoon, I thought I understood why. Even so, I asked; what does she like so much about the area?
“It’s awesome,” she said. “It’s the country.”