By Brandi Perry
Long gone are the days when family-owned general stores dotted Mississippi’s backroads and byways, taking with it the sense of community and the ability to buy your hardware or houseware right down the road. Fortunately, there are still a few general stores still standing throughout the state, but very few of them are still open for business.
However, just 20 minutes north of Meridian sits the small town of Kewanee. Population counts have not occurred here in a long time, and besides the rumble of trucks passing by or the whine of a train as it comes through town, things move a little slower here. That may be exactly why the Simmons-Wright Company survived all these years.
The original store was made of solid wood and was built here in 1884 by William Simmons and Tom Wright. What is now the back of the store was facing the Old Dixie Highway and ran from Meridian down to Key West, Florida. The location of the store was not only important for the highway but also for the railway. Being so close to the railroad allowed the train to stop and deliver goods needed by the farmers in the area. This one general had such an incredible impact on the livelihood of the people in this community.
By the 1880s, the store included a blacksmith shop, a gristmill for grinding corn and wheat, a cotton gin, and a sawmill, plus it carried everyday items such as groceries, clothing and other necessities. Money was a funny thing back in the day because farmers from the community were able to pay off any debt, they had in the store by using the cotton from their fields. In return, the farmer and the store owner get exactly what they needed. Even though farmers nor anyone else can use cotton as currency here anymore, that seems to be about the only thing that has truly changed here in Kewanee.
The original store burned to the ground in 1926 and was replaced by the one that is standing now, a two-story brick structure the same year. Success continued for the store even through the Great Depression and wars but in the 1950s, ownership of the store slowly started to change. Ms. Bernice Simmons took over the store in the mid-1970s and ran it until she passed away in 1998 at the age of 96. She had lived in the Kewanee area all her life and left just briefly so she could attend college. After her studies were finished, Bernice returned home to be the bookkeeper of the store and then the owner. After she passed away, she left the store to Gary and Manning Pickett in her will, and the store is currently run by Gary and his wife, Janice.
The store has not changed much in the last 138 years. When visitors walk into the store, they undoubtedly feel as though they have just been transported 100 years in the past. The bottom floor of the store is the sales floor, and it is packed full of history, antiques, hardware and food. Yes, the store still carries all the necessities their neighbors may need. The creak of the old screen door sent this writer back nearly 30 years to hearing that exact same sound on the front porch of my grandmother’s house in Neshoba County. I knew in that instant that this would be a special experience.
Coming from the brightly lit exterior inside will make visitors squint in the dimly lit room. But, once their eyes adjust, they can see why thousands of visitors from around the world step through those doors every single year. A spiral notebook just inside the door has hundreds of signatures in it. While flipping through the pages, it was easy to see visitors from nearly all 50 states, Australia, South Africa, Britain and Canada. No matter where you are from or how long you intend to stay, the history of the store beckons you to every nook and cranny. Old home remedy bottles have found their home under a glass cover after being pulled off the shelves many years ago, while farm tools and seeds are ready to be picked up by whoever is planting the latest garden. Upstairs there are so many incredible antiques that may have been there since the first store existed. It is so important to take your time while you wander around Simmons-Wright because you do not want to miss anything!
In 2011, Gary and Janice decided to open the 1884 Café, a nod to the year the store was open. Between the catfish, fried chicken or Mr. Gary’s pecan-smoked pulled pork, there is not only plenty of delicious items to enjoy but just as good conversation. You see, the general store has become the place the local men have their coffee or lunch and share the news of whatever is going on in the community. Sit a bit and enjoy the conversation. They will make you feel like friends no matter how far you traveled to be there.
In addition to the delicious food, there are plenty of Mississippi gifts for sale as well such as candles, soap and books. If you want to take a little taste of Mississippi home with you, there is also local salsa, pickles and chowchow. If you are just stopping in for a snack, grab a piece of homemade fudge, freshly fried pork rinds or some hot boiled peanuts. That and an ice-cold bottled coke can fix any problems you may have!
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Simmons Wright Store is located at 5493 Highway 11/80 in Kewanee. From Interstate 59, just follow the signs. The store is open Monday from 7:30 am to 4 pm, Tuesday from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm, Wednesday from 8 am to 4:30 pm, and Thursday and Friday from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm.
If you have any questions before your visit, reach out by phone at 601-6321884 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, check out their website at www.thesimmons-wrightcompany.com.