My Little Town 20110221: Gene and Katy

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This is an installment of an extremely irregular series that I write when I begin to remember people from my childhood.  I grew up, for the most part, in Hackett, Arkansas, just about nine miles south of Fort Smith, Arkansas, almost on the border with Oklahoma.  This was quite the “redneck” part of the nation.

Hackett, when I was little, still had a sunset law on the books.  Those of you not from the South may not be familiar with such a law, but they were real (and likely still are on many books, but obviously not enforceable any more).  Essentially, a sunset law dictated that any black person (NOT the term used at the time) could not remain in the town after sunset, to prevent black families from moving into the town.

The penalty was, at least in my town, that being black and there after sunset was not just an offense, but a shooting cause, both by citizens and law enforcement.  I report this not to titillate, but just to illustrate how many southern jurisdictions were run until recently, and some still are.

Gene and Katy, surname Pittman, were store owners cattycornered around the street from my parents’ house.  They were very nice folks, and lived just south of town on the hill east, Pittman Road.  Like many of us, they had lots of relatives that lived close by.

Their store was the bottom floor of an ancient (well to me, built in about 1875) rock building.  As an aside, the sandstone produced even now in west central Arkansas is in great demand for both exterior and interior use.  It is water and ice resistant, making it excellent for exterior use, and choice stone has a beautiful range of colors, making it very decorative.  But I digress.

Katy was like an aunt to me, and Gene was my “buddy”.  Here is how stores in that day were run.  The era was from around 1964 to, say, 1975 or so, when the big boxes took over.  By that time they were quite old, anyway, so could not really run the store very well.

There were two doors.  The main one was a massive oaken and glass one that opened into Main Street.  The back door was a sheet metal one that Gene would open early if the weather was warm, but kept closed when it was cold.  When I was a kid there and then, it got COLD in the winter.

They had run the store since, I guess now, around 1946 or so, and it looked old.  But you could find almost anything that you needed there!  They had a refrigeration unit for fresh vegetables, you could get lettuce (expensive, at 15 cents a head), carrots, milk, cream, and other common materials.  They had a “pop machine”, acutally a refrigerated glass bottle, dime activated soft drink vending machine, that I often bought Nesbitt cream soda, root beer, and strawberry soda.

Gene was also quite the meatcutter.  He had a huge (for a kid) walk in cooler in which he kept whole cuts of meat.  When you went to Gene’s store and asked for a piece of round steak, he would go into the cooler, heft up the WHOLE leg of beef, and take it to his huge, one piece sycamore log cutting table.  All you had to do was tell him how thick you wanted it, and his butcher’s knife soon found the steel sharpener, usually for half a minute or so.  He would expertly slice all around the bone, showing me how to do it all of the time, and then get the bone saw to free it.

Paper on the scale, he would weigh it and mark down the price so that Katy could get me to pay for it.  He was very quick with his actions, and I think that he was probably a trained butcher.

For pork chops, he would bring out an entire rack, and ask what we wanted.  I was too little to know about them, but on pork chop night my mum would walk over to identify the ones that she wanted.  Gene would cut out the chops in only a stroke or two for each, then take his cleaver and split it from the backbone.

That really impressed me!  I loved hearing the THUMP of the cleaver cutting through the pork chop and becoming lodged into the chopping block, but Gene actually never embedded it.  He was good at what he did, and always just barely penetrated the rack.

Then he would take it back into the walk in cooler, and I as a mischievous little kid, would get to work.  I would run up and slam the door whislt he was in there!  I do not know what I was thinking, but somehow I wanted him in that cooler!

Of course, he had an emergency release protocol, and he would always come out of it feigning shivering and always said, “You almost got me that time!”  What a good guy!

They also had canned goods, and around Thanksgiving, my mum would have me go to get a couple of cans of oysters for the dressing.  Again, most folks from the north do not realize that southern dressing (“stuffing” in the north) often used, but not that often does not now, canned oysters.  I  promise what I am about to say is NOT made up, but it also has to do with societal evolution.

When I first went over to get them, they were labeled Niggerhead Oysters.  There was a horrible image of a black man eating one on the label.  This must have been around 1964.  Later, they were relabeled Negro Head Oysters, with a more conventional image of a black man cooking them.  There are images on lots of Tube sites showing those labels.

Now, this might just be a bit of youthful fantasy, but I keep thinking that they were finally labeled Black Head Oysters, but I do not remember for sure.  Any comments pro or con would be welcomed.

My family ran a tab with them.  Katy would write down (on what was called a “ticket”) what I bought, or any family member for that matter, and every month my mum would go over and Katy would pull out all of the tickets, and my mum would write a check for the total.  Then Katy would give my mum the tickets.  There was a lot of trust there.  No one ever tried to shaft anyone.  It was more like friendship than business.

Oh, before I forget!  My mum at one time smoked Salem cigarettes.  Not wanting my father to know, she always gave me the money run and buy them.  I remember when they went from 25 cents to 35 cents per pack!  Katy would take the coins and give me, at around eight years old, the pack of cigarettes!  Today she would be put in jail for it!

Well, this is just a piece of growing up in My Little Town.  Have any of you other tales to tell?  If I get enough interest, I might make this a regular feature.

Warmest regards,


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  1. our little towns?

    Warmest regards,


  2. our little towns?

    Warmest regards,


  3. As a 67-year-old East Texan/Arkansan, I fondly remember much of what you describe. We have lost a great deal of our cultural identity through the death of those small towns.

    Re. race relations of the time:  My towns (Tyler and Pine Bluff)were larger than yours and held their own black communities, so there were no sunset laws, just a thick pervasive inequality.  

    My beloved little town, the Pine Bluff of the late ’50’s, is now a shell of its former self. Abandoned storefronts line what was once Main Street. Drive across the South and you see the same picture over and over — whole little towns that have withered and died, and the dark dead eyes of vacant shops.  The Big Box rules.  Mom and Pop died.

    The great majority of my all-white high school graduating class has left Pine Bluff, and our 50th reunion is to be held this year in another town!

    Sorry to be so damned morose, but the passage of an era is a heavy matter.  BTW, I believe that the black man on your oyster can ran off with Aunt Jemima.  Neither has been seen lately.

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