Ms. Edna has been tending store for 60 years

By BETH BUNCH,

The pickup trucks start pouring into the make-your-own parking spaces around Stuarts Farm Supply on U.S. Hwy. 589 South about 6:30 every morning… except Sundays. If they happen to beat store owner Edna Stuart to the punch, they have access to the building, so they can get the lights turned on, the coffeepot perking and the conversation started.

Stuart has been running the store for about 60 years. And what a store it is.

Need a nut or bolt or maybe some PVC pipe? A belt for a piece of farm equipment, a lawnmower blade, plow share, motor oil or cast iron skillet? Antacids, headache remedies, Dr. Tichenor’s for a bug bite, pickling lime, ravioli, hash or chili, crackers, eggs, Vienna sausage or potted meat, a can of Rotel tomatoes for dip or some Creamery Girls milk?

You’re in luck. You’ll find all of it scattered across the low-ceilinged structure where a vast assortment of “stuff” hangs from the rafters. Everything imagineable is tucked in the nooks and crannies. There’s even mineral water Stuart has bottled in her old cleaned-out prescription bottles. It sits on the shelf next to other products and is a remedy Stuart swears by for helping clot blood if you get a scratch or cut.

A lot of the antiques have already been sold.  A homemade fan, which packs quite a punch, usually gets geared up by noon each day.

Coffee is 50 cents a cup, a nut or bolt is 35 cents (depending on size), an individual pack of instant grits is 29 cents, but the camaraderie is priceless.

The group of men that sits around discussing weather, politics, crops and the like are a group of what Stuart refers to as “regulars.”

“What you see is regulars,” she said. “One just recently moved to the Veterans Home in Collins and another is absent. They are all men who live in the area and come on a regular basis. They start to leave to begin the next part of their day about 9 a.m. They say, ‘Women gossip, but men tend to business.’ I stay over here. I don’t pay them any attention. No, no. I’m afraid I might hear something I don’t need to.”

Allen Broome comes in after the crowd has dispersed to sit a while. The 80-year-old Broome laments he’s about tuckered out.

“I like to have overdone it the other day,” he said. Too hot? “No, I just worked too long. Picked four bushels of peas in the rain. I got soaking wet four times. I had forgotten that I had my 20th birthday 60 years ago.

“You don’t want me to tell you what I know about that woman,” he says giving a nod to Stuart. “She had to work too hard. She’s been at it for as long as I’ve been knowing her and that’s a long time.”

Broome said he isn’t much of a coffee drinker. “I used to come in and have a cup of coffee. These days it’s more for the visiting. All the old wore-out people who came in have moved on and some more of us are getting close.”

Broome said he lived right up the road when they built the store. “They used to have a supply of anything you wanted, but the last few years the demand for that type of stuff is dead,” he said. “And they don’t sell near the kind of stuff they used to, but they used to have a good hardware store here. You could buy it here if you couldn’t buy it nowhere else.”

Broome met Stuart’s husband, Willie, about 1945.

“We’ve got a good little community,” Broome said of the area around the store.  “Used to be the best there was in the country. Everything in the world has drifted in here now. You don’t even know your neighbor. I used to know everybody, could tell you who was coming down the highway before they got here. Now I can’t get out in the road.

One of Stuart’s regular customers and a favorite of hers is Rep. Brad Touchstone, who lives out in the area. Touchstone comes in during weeks when the state Legislature is not in session to have a cup or two of coffee as he listens to the concerns of his constituents and on weekends with his daughter, Rylee Jane “RJ,” to get a root beer and some peanuts.

Touchstone noted that his grandfather, Kimble Bradley, was a wholesaler who used to call on small country stores and called on Ms. Edna.  “I was here before anybody else,” she said. “I’ve been here a long time.”

“If you ever want to run for office, this is a staple stop in Lamar County politics,” Touchstone said.

He noted that Stuart was instrumental in bond issues in the ‘’90s. “I’m still paying for that,” she added. “People still hate me for that.”

“She was an opponent of that first bond issue,” Touchstone said. “She was instrumental in getting rural people engaged in that debate.”

“I was looking out for the taxpayers,” she interjected.

One of Touchstone’s favorite “Ms. Edna stories” was when he was serving as Lamar County prosecutor. “The defendant walked up, a young girl, and said she had a witness to testify on her behalf and it was Ms. Edna Stuart. I’ve never seen anybody stand up to a Mississippi Highway Patrol like this lady did,” he said, sitting on a stool behind the counter.

Stuart recalled the story of a young girl who was arrested in front of the store. “They treated her bad. I don’t know why I didn’t carry her some water out there. I know she was dying for some water. It was the hottest day we’d had that year and he pulled her around to the front of her car that was still running.

“When I went to court I stood up and said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, IF somebody is guilty, you give them a ticket and you go your way and they go theirs.’ You don’t call a wrecker to come get their vehicle and put them in jail. They claim she was following this MHP too close, but she was not. You don’t do that.”

Touchstone added, “I’ve never seen a highway patrolman that nervous.”

“I saw how he treated her out there,” continued Stuart. He called five people out there to help with that little girl. We stood there and watched it all. The very idea of calling five backup for that little girl. I went down there to the courthouse on principle. I know sometimes MHP officers have a hard time, but sometime you get some who are abusive, and he was one of them.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a little public accountability,” added Touchstone, noting the patrolman’s nervousness.

“I just told him how I felt,” she said. “The judge told me to shut up, but I’d already said what I wanted to say.”

According to Stuart, at times the political discussion can get heated.

“Lot of politics gets discussed in here, don’t it?” she asks Touchstone. “It’s not quite as bad as it used to be. Several years ago we had quite a few Democrats in here, but now it’s more Republicans. The Democrats get kind of rough; thought their way was the right way, but I reckon everybody is different. Everybody has a right to feel the way they do.”

Shes quick to tell you she was a supporter of Donald Trump and is proud of the mailouts she received from his campaign, eager to mail off a check of support. A bumper sticker in support of “45” is stuck to the windshield of her golf cart.

 

89 and kicking

Stuart was born in Georgia, but moved to the Pine Belt when she was 6 years old. “I’ve been here ever since,” said the soon-to-be 89 year old. “That’s rubbing 100.”

She grew up in Rocky Branch outside Sumrall.

Her future husband used to ride his bicycle to her house when she was about 16, she thinks. “I wasn’t grown,” she remembers. Stuart went to work at Freedom Alliance at about the same age.

 “My mama signed a special paper for me to go to work, because it was war time,” she remembers. Her husband served his country, but as to how long he stayed in is a big foggy.  “It gets confusing; sometimes I get ahead of myself.”

Stuart is quick to note that “things aren’t like they used to be… (I’ve gone from horse and buggy to outer space.”

Stuart and her husband opened their first store in Oak Grove in 1958, but they were only there for about 18 months, prior to moving to their current location. “I liked it a lot better over here than in Oak Grove,” she said. With the growth of the Hub City westward, Stuart said Hattiesburg had taken a lot of her business, “but we are still convenient for those right here in the area.”

Stuart ran the store, which at one time included a hardware store on the south side of the building, which Hurricane Camille did a number on.

“I’ve mostly run the store with the help of my children” – four boys, Allen, Austin, Jerry and Gordon Stuart, and a daughter, Judy Stuart Carter. “I’ve lost two sons,” she said. “I always thought I was supposed to go first, but you can’t control that. I just couldn’t hardly stand it. Stuart also has a lot of other help – 16 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, two great-great grandchildren – all who call her Grandma. “Some help in the store and help me. They are all a blessing to me. All the grandchildren pitch in and a great-grandchild has started doing the yard.”

She lost Willie in 1978.

 A long time ago the store opened at 5 a.m., “when the boys were at home and were old enough to get up and open it,” said Stuart. “These days it’s whoever gets here first; everybody waits on themselves and if a customer needs help, we all help. This is a community store and everybody helps everybody else.”

Ms. Edna used to fix breakfast, but not anymore. “No, I don’t cook. I fix food for me,” she said  while eating a bowl of grits. There are supplies in a cooler in the back, where a son will come in from time to time and whip up something.

The store is open every day except Sunday. “Christmas, Fourth of July, my birthday, you name it. We are open from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m,” Stuart said.

Stuart opens, while Harvey closes each day. “It keeps me young being here every day,” Stuart said. “We’ve been through some rough times.”

Those rough times have included Hurricanes Camille and Katrina.

“Camille was bad enough, but Katrina was pure torture,” Stuart said. But Stuart opened the store like clockwork.  “I had gas for them. One day, I believe, is all it lasted. People were lined up all the way back to Black Creek wanting gas. It was just a terrible time. I don’t ever want to go through that again. It blowed half the roof off. Camille almost got the whole top. It picked the roof up, but it was so heavy it didn’t come off.”

An old generator behind the store has been used two times during the past 10 years, but only Stuart’s sons know how to turn it on.

Stuart lives literally right behind the store. “I don’t know why in the world he built down in this hole,” she said referring to the house Willie had built. “We had 90 acres.” Stuart preferred a home site over in a field “that had a perfectly round hill and the prettiest oak trees you’ve ever seen, but he didn’t want the house over there for some reason.”

Stuart also has a street – Edna Lane – named in her honor just across the street from the store.

 

Keeping busy

Stuart keeps a spiral-bound notebook, where the orders she places on a weekly basis are kept. Suppliers deliver once a week to the store.

Need a phone number? Forget technology. You might check the back cover or the inside back two pages of an old phone book or two Stuart keeps behind the counter….or maybe look on a wall back in the kitchen area, where you’ll find a series of digits written there in Magic Marker, just like you’ll find the names of grandkids and great-grands on the wall beside the front door.

Also forget modern gadgetry, that’s not for her either.  “She complained when I put a printer up here,” said Harvey, who is at the store on a daily basis to lend a helping hand. Stuart has her own technology to keep thieves at bay and the business running like a well-oiled machine.

And yes, there was the time she shot a burglar in the leg, after she quit chasing him. She has no need for a fancy alarm system. Her system works just fine.

In addition to the wide variety of stuff inside the store, Stuart’s Farm Supply also carries fuel – non-ethanol gasoline and diesel, which are her best sellers. She is proud to call Mac’s Construction, Big Bay and Canebrake Utilities among her most popular customers. The businesses have accounts set up and pay once a month. At one time, the store carried kerosene, but once the pump tore up it wasn’t replaced since not many people were using it anymore.

But these businesses aren’t the only ones with accounts. Open the second drawer in a cabinet behind the counter and you’ll find a drawer full of ticket books with a person’s last name written on the binding. “I used to have the whole thing almost full,” she said of the books that allow customers to also charge items.

“I know the ones who’ll pay,” she said. “They write down what they get throughout the month, add it up theirself and write a check. Some I didn’t let do that. I knew which ones to trust. People appreciate it. Well, some do, some don’t. Some of them take advantage of you, but most of my customers don’t.”

While customers are on an honor system to pay, if they don’t, she has sons that can go out and “collect” the money.

From underneath an old bench in the conversation pit, Harvey pulls out a box of old ticket books – those of customers who didn’t see fit to compensate Ms. Edna for the goods she so graciously let them purchase on credit. Harvey said in many instances, people who are later on in years and have owed money and never paid it, come in to settle up their bill, not wanting to pass away owing somebody.

And then there are those who are down on their luck and found their way to Ms. Edna’s doorstep, where she’s given them food or a little gas to get them a little further down the road. And she’s been known to pay a house note or two or three for those who have fallen on hard times and are struggling to get by. “I’ve done that ever since I’ve been in business,” she said.

A golf cart proudly displaying a variety of stickers on the front windshield sits outside the front door under the overhang and lets customers know Ms. Edna is in the house.

In the last several months a photographer from Missouri stopped in. “I thought she was from the tax office,” said Stuart, noting that she started in on her about that “old house over there on Edna Lane that was tumbling down and they charged her $347.” The photographer was just traveling the countryside, stopping at small country stores to take photographs, some of which she mailed back to Stuart with a note.

Ms. Edna is adamant she won’t ever turn over the store to her children.

 “My house and store will be in my name as long as I live. Sometimes you just don’t know what to do and when you do it, you do it wrong,” she said.

When her work shift is over, Stuart gets in her golf cart and heads around back to her house to catch Wheel of Fortune. “I watch it EVERY night,” she said, admitting that she can solve the puzzles sometimes, but not too often. “How long has Vanna been on there?” she asks. “I think she’s been there about as long as I’ve been at the store, but I don’t dress up like she does.”

“When I leave to go to the house I’m through with the store. I don’t come back. They used to get me to come up, but I got them out of that habit. They’ve got to come when I’m open.”

 Harvey said they do just enough business to keep the store open. “All of us work for free,” she said. “The store keeps her happy. They tell me that back in the day, this place used to be packed with a line all the way to the back.”

The crowd has disbursed and it’s time for the day to continue as it does everyday. Stuart is cutting her regular day a little shorter, but knows that she’s leaving the store in very capable hands.

As for Touchstone, “All I know he’s a nice fella and I wish him the best. What you going to run for the next time?” she asks before leaving.

Touchstone turns it back to her, asking what she thinks he ought to run for. Her reply is quick and honest, “Whatever you are the happiest in and best suited for.”

Seems as if Edna Stuart has taken her own advice.