Meridian Star

Local News

April 27, 2014

Feast for the Senses

Historic store stands as symbol of earlier days

MERIDIAN —     KEWANEE — The smell of old wood and fresh cooking, the sound of a train rolling through outside and the sight of colorful products from a bygone era create a feast for the senses for those entering the historic Simmons-Wright Company in eastern Lauderdale County.

    In the 130 years since William Simmons and Tom Wright opened the store, the same family has remained in ownership.

    Originally a general mercantile store that catered to cotton farmers, the store sold everything from farm supplies and groceries to caskets and candy.

    The original wood structure burned in 1926 and the building was replaced with a brick structure, which now stands as a combination grocery, antique and collectibles store and restaurant.

    Current owners, Gary and Janet Pickett inherited the property from Gary's great-aunt Jewel Bernice Simmons, a daughter of one of the original owners.

    The Picketts have operated the store since 1996, two years before Ms. Simmons died. She had worried about the future of the store.

    "She asked me, 'If I was to leave you the store, will you not sell it?' I said, 'No I won't sell it,'" Pickett said.

    His aunt then asked him to make another promise.

    "She said, 'I'm going to leave it to you on two conditions  — you don't open on Sundays and you don't sell beer."

    Pickett agreed and the store went to him. In the following years, some people have tried to nudge Pickett toward bending his pledge, telling him that his aunt is gone now.

    "No, she's not really gone," Pickett said. "Her presence is still felt here."

    From the bright sunlight outside, patrons may have to stop a second or two to let their eyes adjust to the darker interior as they walk in, but a more powerful adjustment occurs as they look around and take in the sense that they are walking into a place where time moves at a slower pace.

    Walls, shelves, display cases, and floors are all wood — solid wood that appears impervious to the effects of time. In the winter, heat is provided by an old pot belly wood stove, with a couple of small gas and electric heaters as backup, Pickett said.

    There is no air conditioning, but large fans placed throughout the store in front of windows provide a cool breeze throughout the store.

    Tourists and locals enjoy the place, Pickett said.

    "We've had people in here from Japan, Russia, Germany, Sweden. The Swedish people are the coolest people that we've had," Pickett said. "We've had Australians, South Africans, people from all over. It's amazing the variety of people you get to meet."

    The couple added the 1884 Cafe two years ago, which offers a variety of southern cuisine, including pecan-smoked barbecue.     The store can seat about 60 people, up and downstairs.

    There is also a cotton gin, blacksmith shop, gristmill and warehouse. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina damaged the area extensively, Pickett  said, and they are still working to restore the buildings.

    In March, 2008, the property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Musicians appear on Friday nights and on special occasions, PIckett said, and local artists display their works for sale.

    Picket has fond memories of when his grandfather operated the store.

    "Grandpa didn't sell any alcohol but he did sell antiseptic. If you're familiar with antiseptic, you pour enough antiseptic into a Coke bottle, you've got a pretty powerful little old painkiller there," Pickett said. "Grandpa wondered, 'I don't know why I'm selling so much antiseptic.'"

    The Simmons-Wright Company is located at 5493 Highway 11/80 in Kewanee. For more information go to:

 thesimmons-wrightcompany.com.

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