Across America, there are small groups of people gathering for coffee, breakfast, or lunch, in quaint cafes and country stores. Generally, the same people meet in the same places, morning after morning, day after day. Not surprising, many sit in the same chair at the same table each time they meet. It’s almost as if it’s an unwritten rule that this is “my” spot. Most of the time your “spot” is respected and not infringed upon. Isn’t it ironic how set we become in our routine? I recall meeting places like Mississippi Shooter’s Supply, The Shell Station, and going to The Redwood Inn, and Primos Café with my dad. I’m sure you can think of others.
The agendas and topics of discussion at these gatherings vary greatly. There are bible studies, business meetings, political drama, and hunting and fishing lies, but generally it’s just local catch up and the conversation just seems to flow. One meeting place in particular stands out for me and the history I have with it is memorable. I thought I’d share it with you.
West of Canton, lies a serpentine road through the heart of Madison County. Along this road, are farms and fields with history dating back to the pre-civil war era. At the intersection of Virlilia Road and Patrick Road, once stood a structure, a meeting place, an old-time country store, known as The Virlilia Store. Aptly named, don’t you agree? For years, this iconic establishment was the epicenter for farmers and local residents to purchase goods, supplies, and good ole country prepared meals. During the time I was “part” of this era, the store was managed by Jerry and Cornelia Kraft. This store was the gathering place for many of the cotton producers I consulted for.
There were five clipboards hanging on the wall behind the cash register. This is where I placed the “bug reports” for my growers. Many days, my scouts and I would have lunch here, along with many other local producers. Farm reports were discussed, and a plan of action was created to battle the pesky boll weevil and other cotton insects. Such memories were made here!
I remember a particular cooler in the store and on one side, it was stocked with Heineken beer. This beer was for a large cotton producer, Mike Hardy, and for him only. This was his stash, and no one else even reached for this specimen. Truthfully, no one was probably even familiar with this flavor back in the day, but each afternoon around sunset with the farming duties taken care of, Mr. Mike would walk into his spot, reach into the cooler, and toast the day.
This store was home to world class bucks and shed antlers. The whitetail population was just beginning to expand in this fertile area of the state, and you wouldn’t believe how big these bucks were back in the day. Genetics were, and still are to some degree, unsurpassed regarding quality along this corridor of fertile farmland. The walls of this mercantile were lined with dust covered mounts that were as much a part of the store as the patrons themselves. It was comical when a “newcomer” happened to find our secluded oasis for the first time. I bet they had a crick in their neck from staring at the walls. It was our best kept secret…. for a while anyway.
One could always find the main staples of any country store here. In addition to coffee, sugar, and gasoline, there were the standard sodas of the day like Orange Crush, Nugrape, and of course, Dr. Pepper. 10-2-4, do you remember that marketing slogan? Hoop cheese, bologna, and saltines were always there for the taking and the crackers were never stale.
For something heartier, a stroll to the kitchen would find Mrs. Cornelia and Ms. Betty whipping up the finest meals one could ask for. Fried pork chops, turnip greens, purple-hull peas, mashed potatoes and gravy, and some of the best mouth-watering cornbread you have ever tasted came to life here. This was home to the local deer hunters during winter as well. Mr. John Hannon and Mr. Wayne Parker owned a large tract of prime hunting land bordered by many other large tracts of farmland. I won’t go into the history of “T-P Ranch,” also known as “T-Bar” but these gentlemen purchased this tract from Mr. Taylor and Mr. Prince, with trophy whitetail management taking over as the main agenda from cotton production. I still remember those cold, December days with steaming hot vittles and stories of legendary bucks being told at the counter.
The movie, “A Time to Kill” was filmed in part at the Virlilia store. This was the opening scene to the movie. At the time, we were in the midst of a tobacco budworm flight, and insect pressure was heavy. Cell phones had not been invented at this time. Wow, that’s hard to envision, isn’t it? I relied on a radio in my Ford Bronco to communicate with farmers and ag pilots back then.
When I pulled up to the front steps of the store, there were people scurrying about like kids on a playground. Cameras were set up everywhere and it was quite chaotic at the time. I left the door open on my truck waiting on a pilot to “radio” me so I could guide him to the fields I wanted treated. We walked in to grab a quick bite and sit on the porch while we waited on my pilot, “Wild Bill.”
The store was stocked with more items than I have ever seen before. Barrels of crackers and rock candy lined the entrance. Canned goods, hats, overalls, tobacco, and a multitude of other goods were available. My scouts and I started grabbing sausages, cheese, crackers, and soft drinks for lunch. Cornelia came running out from behind the counter telling us that these items weren’t for sale. This was for the movie setting. I didn’t even know what movie she was talking about. We ended up with a couple of cold burgers that were left from lunch and walked outside. One of the movie producers told me I would have to move my truck for they were about to “roll” the cameras.
About that time, I heard my pilot call me on the radio. The movie guys were inquisitive, and I said there was about to be a turbine spraying cotton next to the store. They didn’t even know what I was talking about. I reached for the radio and told Bill to give me a fly by in front of the store. I saw the plane bank and head our way. He dropped in on the deck and gave the California folks a bird’s eye view of what we see everyday during bug season. I remember one of those “moviemakers” exclaim, “that guy’s crazy.” I just laughed. The movie making was put on hold for a little while as my pilot finished the application. I guess my claim to fame is that I delayed the movie while fighting bugs. Heh!
I’ll never forget the call I received from one of my growers, Wickey Mansell. He said, “I’ve got some bad news, the store burned last night.” I couldn’t believe it. An iconic establishment that was such a large part of so many lives was gone. The country kitchen, the pictures, the giant bucks, my clipboards, and Mike’s Heineken, all reduced to ashes.
It’s still uncertain how it happened. There was speculation that it had been robbed and then set on fire. Some said it was torched because of the movie. It was a very old building so it could have had electrical problems. The cause, as far as I am aware, was never determined. All I know is that we lost a wonderful gathering place that night, never to be replaced again.
Just like the store, the landscape has also changed. At one time there were very few hunters in this region. Over time, these large tracts of land have been sold into many smaller tracts. There are pickups at every gate in this country now. The bucks have been high graded for years now and the age structure and quality has diminished. Lines of cyclists travel this corridor daily resembling that of chartreuse spinnerbaits on wheels.
Yep, the era of what we once knew is forever gone. At least I was blessed for years to make a living with great people who shared a love for the land and the whitetail. Google, on Youtube, the song, “Country Store” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. If you’ve never been treated to what a real country store is and my words haven’t fully described what one is like, surely this song will bring a picture to your mind. Watch, and see if you don’t agree.
Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it.