Story of a Delta Merchant Family

My family came to Lula around 1940 and started a farm on Flea Harbor Road.  The Mississippi Delta offered only a few pathways to having a better life in those days.  You either farmed or became a merchant. My Grandfather, James “Jimmie” Dean farmed and  my Grandmother, Ialeen Martin Dean opened a small grocery store.  They chose to try both ways. All three of their children would follow her into the merchant class of the Mississippi Delta. Georgia Bell Dean and her husband Wilbur Hanks moved to town and purchased Union Grocery store in the 1950s. She renamed the store Lula Grocery and hired L.T. Genus to work for her. My Grandmother helped when needed and my Father, Buddy Dean also worked at Lula Grocery.  It was truly a family affair. Mr. L.T. would work in that store the next forty years for both my Aunt and Father.  He worked the meat counter and helped stock groceries. Mr. L.T. as everybody called him was part of the family.

Lula Grocery was a long building with shelves on one side full of groceries and two aisles. In the center were shelves with bread and more groceries.  On the other wall were  more items to buy and coolers.  The meat box was located at the back along with a walk in freezer.  Storage was in the back.  Both Lula Grocery and the building next door had high ceilings and skylights.  When I was little the skylights had been boarded over so I don’t really remember them, but you could tell they had been there.  The check out counter was in front where you could buy cigarettes and your groceries would be bagged.  Later on Aunt Georgia Bell expanded next door and opened up a clothing store.  Times were good.

In the late 1960s, after I was born, my parents opened up Dean’s Grocery on Flea Harbor Road in the same building my Grandmother had ran as a store.  She had closed it after my Aunt moved to Lula and the building was moved in front of my parents house.  I’d be raised in that little red store building and later the metal building that replaced it.

Unlike my Aunt at Lula,  Deans Grocery sold gas and served the people living all over Southern Tunica County and Northern Coahoma County.

Buddy Dean would pick up families if they needed a ride and carry their groceries to them.  Stores in those days sold everything families needed and usually people would buy in bulk for the month.  In the 1970s, Buddy Dean replaced the little store with a new and larger metal building.  He bought grocery carts and shelves from a store that went out of business in Clarksdale.  There were four aisles. On one wall were meat and frozen food boxes.  In the center were shelves filled with canned goods and whatever you wanted to buy.  Full shelves were also found in the back.  On the other wall were containers for onions and potatoes, drink boxes, and the meat counter.  The front counter was where customers checked out or sat and drank beer. In those days, stores were not only places for people to buy what they needed, but meeting places and hangouts.  I basically grew up in a grocery store/ juke house.  It was good.

Every Christmas, my Father would give away bags full of oranges and apples to his customers.  He made lunches for local farmers and would have them ready on the long white counter for them to pick up.  Cold cut sandwich (bologna, lunchmeat, liver cheese, or ham), chips, drink, and hostess cake.  Nothing like a fresh cut bologna and cheese sandwich.  There were containers for penny cookies and we sold lots of penny candy too.  Hoop cheese and crackers or cookies was a great meal.  There were large bags of flour and meal on a center table.  People had large families in those days.  The companies put their flour and meal in cloth sacks that could be used as pillow cases after they were empty.  Kitchen towels were on these bags as well to entice the ladies to purchase that brand.  Dean’s grocery also sold bags of hog shorts, corn, and dog food.  Anything you wanted.  This was before Walmart.  Gallon lard cans lined the back wall.  I hated those cans.  When I was a child and got in trouble, I would have to sit on one of those cans until I stopped crying.   Like all good country stores, there were benches for people to sit and talk out front.  Even the dogs and cats loved being out front checking in on who was coming to buy groceries. Hoping somebody would throw a slice of Wonder Bread to them or, if they got lucky, a piece of lunch meat or bologna.

Dean’s Grocery today. Closed but still standing strong.

Friday and Saturday nights were big as local people gathered outside to laugh and talk along with drinking some good cold beer.  A fight would break out sometime, but those were the days.  Men would be mad for awhile and before long everybody would be friends again. A local blues musician might stop by and pull out a harmonica. Sit down on a sack of chops or dog food and just let loose.  I learned how to play checkers in that store along with poker, black jack, and shooting dice.  Everything a Delta boy needed to know. One of these musicians that would play harmonica at the store was Arthur Williams. I didn’t realize that he was well known until I was older. Other bluesmen who came by were Frank Frost and Sam Carr. Their old manager Lee Horace Bass always sat and told stories as I listened intently on every word. Old men who still liked to make moonshine mingled with preachers and farmers. Beer drinkers and coon hunters. Everybody together. That was the Delta.

Arthur Williams

In the early 70s, my Uncle Glenn opened up Dean’s Quick Stop on Moon Lake.  He sold beer and groceries to lake goers or those partaking at one of the night clubs to listen to Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Uncle Glenn was a man bigger than life. He fished and hunted. He rode horses and wrecked cars. He was a policeman too. He did it all. There was a life about him.

Glenn Dean

Moon Lake was a happening place back then with at least three clubs built on the lake.  Conway’s Mother owned one which was known as Mrs. Jenkins place.  Later Oscar Smart would buy the club. I remember visiting there as a little kid and watching people dance.  My father would stop by and visit with Oscar on Sunday afternoons and let me play as they talked.  I always loved the little red vending machines that you could put a nickel in and get a prize.  There were some great hamburgers out there too.  Oscar Smart not only ran a business, he was the local constable and loved to hunt. People in the Delta always had lots of different jobs. There was always an odd line between the police and club owners. Sometimes you couldn’t tell the difference because they were the same people. Thats the Delta.

Dean’s Quick Stop closed after my Uncle passed away in 1973.  Oscars burned. Today only the wooden poles that held up Oscar’s are left in Moon Lake as a reminder of those wild days. Large homes stand lazily along the bank oblivious to the memories of the past. Times change but the past is just above the water. Thats the Delta.

Ialeen Dean opened up a clothing store in the 1970s at the former Bank of Lula Building. She sold used clothes, new clothes, and shoes of all kind.  I remember stocking boxes of converse shoes for kids to buy.  I used to love to sit under the porch and watch the trains go by.  She had a good business, but decided to retire and get rid of the store. Some other people tried to make it work but they all failed. Today the building lies idle and in decay. No room for small clothing stores anymore. No room for small towns anymore. Thats the Delta.

Rural stores began to close up all over the Delta as the population declined.  New options like Walmart and Kroger opened up and these chain stores could sell goods cheaper.  By the late 1980s, business wasn’t good.  Dean’s Grocery and Lula Grocery were struggling.  Aunt Georgia Bell decided to sell her store.  The family who bought it converted the clothing store into a laundry naming it the Wash Bucket.  On one wall, they had a large mural painted of local blues musicians and the Kate Adams, a famous steam boat that travelled the Mississippi River. They couldn’t make the store work though. Times were changing in the Delta.

In the early nineties Buddy purchased the stores and moved Dean’s Grocery to Lula.  Business picked up.  Tourists flocked by to see the laundry.  Locals met and drank beer enjoying the fellowship.  He put a pool table and juke box in the back.  Once again, Dean’s Grocery was a happening place.  Smoke sausage sandwiches, pigs feet, pickles, wonder bread and cold beer were what people wanted.  There might be a dice game in the alley and cars parked from one end of the street to another.  R.L. Blackmon came to work for my Father. I will always remember him saying, ” I come for the work” and ” Let em know who me is.”  He loved to drink and my father and him fought all the time, but there was a strong bond between them.  Mr. L.T. continued to work the meat box and where ever Dad needed him.  He was one of the greatest men I knew and always had a smile.  Mrs. Bertha  came to work for Dean’s Grocery.  Her bubbly smile always welcomed customers in as she worked the cash register.  Mrs. Bertha was also quick to open the door if Dad had to throw somebody out.  That happened a number of times too.  It wouldn’t be long though before that person would come back and ask if it was ok to come in.  Nobody was ever banned forever. Dean’s Grocery was like that.  In the early 2000’s the store was sold and Buddy retired.  The store operated a few more years, but closed. He was the last of the family to be a merchant. Times had changed in the Delta.

Today, the two stores lie empty and in bad condition.  The roof has partially collapsed in the laundry.  Doors are boarded up and windows are shattered.  The porch is long gone and grass grows up around it.  Dean’s Clothing lies empty with broken windows. Dean’s Quick Stop was torn down years ago. The little red Dean’s Grocery was moved when my Father built a new metal building. Later it was destroyed by a storm.  When my Father opened in Lula proper the Flea Harbor Road location closed. Today it stands strong, even though the business has ended. Time has not been good for these historic buildings. Nobody washing or buying clothes, nobody getting a sandwich, nobody buying a beer.  Most of the people who walked in and out of these doors are gone. Names like R.L., B.J., Wheel Slip, Raymond, and Rufus are only faint memories.  Lula Grocery and Clothing, Dean’s Clothing, Dean’s Quick Stop, and Dean’s Grocery are all closed. They will always be part of My Delta though and their memories shall live on. Memories are what we have lots of in the Delta.

10 Thoughts

  1. Best story ever my friend. ❤❤❤

    On Tue, Jan 14, 2020, 7:37 PM My Delta: Food, Fun and History wrote:

    > Cliff Dean posted: ” My family came to the Lula area around 1940 and > started a farm on Flea Harbor Road. Flea Harbor Road’s on the Tunica and > Coahoma County line. The Mississippi Delta offered only a few pathways to > having a better life in those days. You either ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this story. As a child my dad also farmed at Flea Harbor along side Roger Johnson. I’m 62 and at age 12 we worked the land next to the store at Flea Harbor.. I knew every character he names because some of them worked for Mr. Roger later on. He also started farming at Flea Harbor before my dad rented the land next to Dean’s Grocery. We ate lunch there mose days we were farming at Flea Harbor, I knew Mr. Wilber Hanks when i was 12 and later he became the game warden. This story really makes my day and all the childhood memories on Moon Lake eating at Oscars. I am honored to have read this story. The wonderful memories had sipped away until he outlined life in northern Coahoma County.
    Thanks so kindly Cliff Dean

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciate that. Thank you so much. This place has such great characters. It was an amazing place to grow up. I still love living here. Just in these three counties, Tunica, Coahoma and Phillips, history is everywhere.

      Like

  3. This brought back many fond memories for me. I remember all the people you were talking about. I wondered what happened to them. I live in Texas and drove up to Lula made me sad. I visited with Roger Johnson . I lived there until 1978. Roger and Emma were my neighbors.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The daughter of Grant Taylor and Ida Taylor had a Shop in Lula, Mississippi fixing on Cars and he was a Bus driver. I remember the store growing up in Lula My name is Thelma

    Liked by 1 person

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