It’s Country Time
Welcome to Oktoc, serving up heritage and hospitality
Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter
Faint drumbeats of drizzling rain were no match for the lively thrump of a stand-up bass. They certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of neighbors greeting neighbors and visitors at the 45th annual Oktoc Country Store and Day in the Country in late October 2015. Hellos circled the high-ceilinged meeting room of the Oktoc Community Club nine miles south of Starkville. The Cedar Creek Ramblers entertained on a raised stage at one end. It’s where preachers once delivered Sunday sermons, back when this mid-1800s sanctuary was home to the Vernon-Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
On this autumn day a century and a half later, people rest a spell on well-worn pews pushed to the back of the room. Some spoon from cups of the Country Store’s acclaimed Brunswick stew or savor a homemade dessert from the Country Store bake sale going on in the attached one-room schoolhouse. Community Club members transported it on mule-drawn logs in the mid-1930s and connected it to the church building.
Young and old stroll the room, toe-tapping to fiddle and banjo, paying for jams or jellies, bidding on auction items or picking up raffle tickets for the quilt made by Florence Box and Stanthia Oakley. A quilt has been raffled every year since the Country Store began in 1970, says Anna Marie Rasberry. She would know. In 1923, her grandmother helped start the Oktoc Garden Club. It partners with the Oktoc Community Club in putting on this event every fall. Rasberry’s grandparents were charter members of the Community Club when it formed in 1927 and adopted the old church as its meeting place.
“I can just see the men of the community sitting around back then saying, ‘We’ve got to do something with these buildings’,” Rasberry says. “You know, back then you didn’t waste anything.”
STIRRING THE POT
Outside, children scamper between the District Five Volunteer Fire Department’s red fire engine on display, a tent offering boiled peanuts and the Brunswick stew shed where men stir a 50-gallon vat and 10 or so other huge pots. Jason Honnoll chairs this team. The signature stew begins with 130 to 150 pounds of venison. Add 50 pounds of pork, 50 pounds of beef and 50 pounds of cooked chicken. Then come the vegetables. Hearty is an understatement, and fans come from miles around to stock up.
“I grind every piece of meat until it’s a coarse chili grind,” says Honnoll. He started out on the stirring crew a few years ago and accepted the torch — or gallon-sized ladle, in this case — when the time came. Honnoll grew up in Columbus and married into the Oktoc community when he took Courtney Kennard as his bride. They built a house on her family’s former dairy farm in this part of Oktibbeha County once known as “the dairy capital of the South.”
“I love living out here,” he says. “This event has been a mainstay for a long, long time, and it’s good to be a part of it.”
Like Honnell’s wife and Rasberry, many others attending this yearly event represent third, fourth, fifth and even sixth generations of Oktoc families. Most of them wouldn’t think of missing the Community Club’s monthly meetings, much less celebrations like the Day in the Country and Country Store, which welcome the public.
“The Oktoc Community Club has met continuously on the second Friday night of every month since 1927,” explains Hellen Polk, chair of the 2015 event. “Hail, sleet, snow, tornadoes, whatever — we meet!”
On those occasions, a covered dish supper is followed by a business meeting. Donations to the volunteer fire department and other organizations are voted on; building and grounds maintenance are discussed and prayer requests are made. A program always follows. In earlier times, pews were cleared to make room for square dancing. The details are all in the past minutes, carefully preserved. Those written records tell of an era when the rural Oktoc community was more isolated from the town center, before better roads and efficient cars closed the distance.
Community clubs were fairly common around the state in the 1920s and 1930s, says Rasberry. They began as conduits of information, where county agents and Extension Service speakers updated residents on agricultural news and developments, gardening and homemaking. There was plenty of socializing, too.
“It’s always been about meeting your neighbors, camaraderie and fellowship,” says Polk. “I like to say the club meetings and events are like stepping back in time to when this was the entertainment. You didn’t go home and turn on the TV or get on the Internet. People got together.”
They even had an official storyteller, Rasberry adds.
“Apparently my grandfather was charged with telling a funny story every month. And they always sang songs,” she says. “The meetings were often the social event of the month.”
Almost 90 years later, those meetings are still going on in Oktoc. Members still potluck and stitch quilts to raffle. They bake cakes, stir stew for hours and bring brooms, mops and hammers on cleaning days to care for the historic converted church and school house. Generations have come and gone, but the link between them remains strong here.
“It’s an appreciation of the history of our community,” says Polk. “It’s a desire to keep that connection for the present and for our future generations.”
This year’s Day in the Country and Oktoc Country Store will be Oct. 22, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Oktoc Community Club at the junction of Oktoc Road and Robinson Road, south of Starkville.
HELLEN POLK’S COUNTRY STORE PUMPKIN BREAD
1 cup canola oil
3 cups granulated sugar
1 15-ounce can pumpkin purée
⅔ cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
3½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
• Cream sugar and oil together in a mixing bowl. Beat in eggs, pumpkin purée, water and vanilla.
• In a separate bowl, whisk together all dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients slowly to the pumpkin mixture.
• Grease and flour four 1-pound metal coffee cans or two loaf pans. Fill half full and bake at 350°F for one hour. Let cool 10 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack.
CAROL MOBLEY’S REAL CHEESE STRAWS
8 ounces extra-sharp cheese, grated
¼ teaspoon red pepper (cayenne)
1½ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 stick butter
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
• Mix cheese, butter, red pepper and salt. Sift together flour and baking powder; add to the cheese mixture, mixing well.
• Using a star tube of a cookie press, squeeze long rows onto a cookie sheet, then cut into 3-inch strips.
• Bake at 350°F for 15 minutes.