Noxubee County hamlet brimming with Southern hospitality
Story Birney Imes | Photographs Birney Imes & Luisa Porter
On a bright Monday afternoon at the cusp of summer, I’m sitting at a table in the back of a business described by its owner as a gift boutique. As a rule, I don’t spend a lot of time in places like this, nor, would I presume, does the gruff fellow at the next table, who is wearing work pants, T-shirt and truck-driver suspenders. Meet Gus Dinsmore, Macon’s premier heating/air-conditioning man.
We have both navigated a gauntlet of scented candles, designer scarves and wall plaques with cute sayings for the worthiest of causes: a home-cooked lunch.
I’m here on the recommendation of Judith Ewing, who runs the NAPA parts store in town and from whom I sought guidance on my explorations of her hometown, Macon.
Judith responded to my query with a raft of neatly stapled pages of printouts that included a hunting lodge, a guesthouse in a barn, a recent issue of The Beacon with a Page 1 story featuring Pop and Johnnie Mae Joiner’s “hole-in-the-wall” hamburger joint and six pages of Noxubee cemeteries.
For now, I’m focused on my Dorito chicken casserole, refried beans, corn and peach cream cheese pie and talking shop with Gus about the intricacies of central air conditioning units. Sherrie Eaves, the soft-spoken owner of the place, is running out to pick up her husband, Phillip, a logger whose truck is too large for the parking lot here at Sassy Designs.
If you take chain food off the table, lunch options in Macon are few. The Joiners’ Northside Café (331 Prairie St.) is only open on Fridays and Saturdays. There’s the Wagon Wheel out on the bypass, also known as Trailboss, where Terri and Mike Banks and crew serve plate lunches through the week, an ample Sunday buffet and a prime rib/fried catfish/steak dinner on Fridays. On Thursday through Saturday, a group from Tony’s Barbecue in West Point fires up the two grills in the parking lot of the Exxon station. A couple of gas stations serve plate lunches, and of course, there’s the Mennonite bakery up the road in Brooksville.
Sherrie returns with Phillip who takes Gus’ table. “Been logging for 25 years,” he says after settling in. “Been in the woods all my life.”
Eaves’ crews are clearing 60 acres of pines south of town. He asks if I’d like to come see what they are doing.
Ten minutes later I’m giving Phillip a ride to his truck. This is not before he shows me a smartphone video of him and two of his Kemper County nephews — Dylan Eaves, 19, and his brother, Eli, 11 — playing guitars at a potluck supper in Butler Community, south of Mashulaville. “Give me your number, and I’ll let you know next time we play,” says Eaves. “We’re about due for one now.”
A VARIETY OF SHOPPING EXPERIENCES
Later I’ll visit with Alan Senter, the third generation of his family to run the downtown hardware store that got its start in Brooksville in 1913. Senter’s is now three stores with three storefronts: hardware, furniture and gifts. Hancock’s Hardware, north of town, offers interesting grazing for the shopper in the market for hardware or camo clothing … or cement statuary, Carhartt baby onesies, day-glo dog collars. For gardeners, there’s the ever-friendly Busy Bee Nursery run by Karla and Fred Ensz.
One of the more unusual and charming shopping experiences I’ve had in recent memory was a visit to Flora’s Office Supply on the south end of the commercial district. Once a Phillips 66 gas station and grocery, the place offers a curious selection of office supplies and tools.
Minding the store is Frances Flora, still frisky at 84, who holds down the fort for her son, Tim, who also runs a pest control business out of the building.
At Flora’s one can purchase a single pad of Post-it notes, a cement trowel or a child’s inflatable swim ring, which looks like it hit the shelves sometime during the Eisenhower presidency.
Frances tells me about coming to Noxubee from Arkansas in 1940 when her dad, a millwright, was hired to cut wood on the Zach Brooks’ place out in the county. The job lasted three years.
In the meantime 14-year-old Frances wed 19-year-old Cecil Flora. The two had been married 63 years when Cecil died in 2009.
“I’ll be here as long as I am going,” Frances says. “I enjoy working, always have; I can’t sit and hold my hands.”
To visit Macon is to travel back in time. Here the pace is slower; people have time to talk.
Entering from the north on Jefferson Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, one encounters graceful homes with large, well-tended lawns; elegant, well-preserved churches and the always-busy Tem’s Food Market, where all of Noxubee County, it seems, comes to buy groceries and socialize.
The architectural centerpiece of this community of 2,800 is its stately Greek revival courthouse. On a day I visited, a couple from Shuqualak was selling watermelons from the back of a pickup parked in the shade of an old oak on the courthouse square. I felt like the subject of a FSA photograph from the 1930s when I leaned over the side of the truck and thumped a melon.
Two churches that piqued my interest were Corpus Christi Catholic Church, est. 1873, at the corner of Washington and Walnut streets and the Door of Hope on Martin Luther King Drive, the creation of self-styled evangelist Rev. R.C. Brown, who has been known to hold forth on the Gospel via an outdoor p.a. system.
The two churches couldn’t be more different. Corpus Christi is a white, wood frame building of elegant proportions fronted by a row of ancient cedars. By contrast, Rev. Brown’s modest white church (one of two) is covered with signs bearing Bible verses painted in bold red lettering.
On a Saturday afternoon I returned for mass at Corpus Christi. During a personal tour of the sanctuary the previous Monday, Buzzy McGuire, a parishioner and owner of a downtown jewelry store, invited me back for mass and the church’s monthly potluck afterward.
Earlier, I’d stopped by the Northside Café for one of their now-famous hamburgers. The restaurant was recently named as one of the 10 best “‘Hole in the Wall’ Restaurants In Mississippi That Will Blow Your Taste Buds Away” by the website onlyinyourstate.com.
“We’re glad you came down,” Pop Joiner, 75, said. He built the place in 1973 for $400. With the help of their six children, he and his wife, Johnnie Mae, 71, both of whom had day jobs, kept the café open seven days a week. The café is now open only on Friday and Saturday. Johnnie Mae says they plan to turn the business over to the children by year’s end.
“They grew up in the place,” she said.
As I finished the specialty of the house, retired Navy man John Jewell sidled up to the counter.
“Give me two cheeseburgers. Run ‘em through the garden,” Jewell said. “Yeah, this is an all-purpose burger joint, a good old-fashion café.”
And, like any hometown cafe, the Northside has on display framed photographs of local celebritiess, which in these parts are former players of the hugely successful Noxubee County High football Tigers. The Tigers have won four 4A state championships in the past eight years.
A patron of the café knew Rev. Brown and gave me his phone number and directions to his house. When I rang the front doorbell, his wife Myrtle walked out of the carport. The Reverend was in Chicago. We stood in the driveway talking; I had a few minutes before mass at Corpus Christi was to begin. Soul music from a family reunion at the next street over wafted our way. Myrtle, 72, told me about growing up in Chicago. I admired her yard. She nodded in the direction of the garden out back and asked if I’d like some cucumbers and tomatoes.
Later, at the potluck after a lovely mass, Milton Sundbeck, a parishioner, shared surplus tomatoes from his garden; Clare van Lent and Mary Horrell from the Dwelling Place had garlic for the taking.
On the ride home — the cab of my pickup reeking of garlic — I considered all I’d seen and done in this sleepy little town. At the outset, I worried if there would be enough to merit a story. Obviously, those concerns were misplaced.