Delta Family Grocery

My family came to the Lula area around 1940 and started a farm on Flea Harbor Road. Flea Harbor Road is 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 farmed or became a merchant. My Grandfather, James “Jimmie” Dean farmed and  my Grandmother, Ialeen Martin Dean, opened a small store grocery store on the place.  All three of their children would follow her into the merchant class of the Mississippi Delta. Georgia Bell Dean Hanks 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 along with several other clerks. My Grand mother helped when needed and my Father, Buddy Dean, also worked at Lula Grocery.  L.T. Genus would work in that store the next forty years for my Aunt and later my Father.  He worked at the meat counter and helped stock groceries.

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Lula Grocery was a long building with shelves on one side full of groceries and had 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.  The check out counter was in front.  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 had the building moved in front of my parents house.  I would be raised in that little red store building and later the metal building that replaced it.

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

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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 always basically grew up in a grocery store/ juke house.  It was good.

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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 piece of Wonder Bread to them or, if they got lucky, a piece of lunch meat or bologna.

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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 some fun days.  A local blues musician might stop by and play some tunes.  I learned how to play checkers in that store along with poker, black jack, and dice.  Everything a Delta boy growing up needed to know.

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In the early 70s, my Uncle Glenn Dean, opened up Dean’s Quick Stop on Moon Lake.  He sold beer and groceries to people around the lake or those going to one of several night clubs to listen to Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.

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Moon Lake was a happening place back then with at least three clubs built on the lake.  Conway’s Mother owned one and was known as Mrs. Jenkins place.  Later Oscar Smart would buy this club. I remember visiting here as a little kid and watching people dance.  My father would stop by with me on Sundays and visit with Oscar.  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 job titles.

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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.

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Ialeen Dean opened up a clothing store in the 1970s in 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.

Rural stores began to close up all over the Delta as the population declined.  New options like Walmart, Freds, and Kroger opened up and these chain stores could sell goods cheaper.  By the late 1980s, business was not good.  Dean’s Grocery and Lula Grocery were struggling.  Aunt Georgia Bell decided to sell her store.  The family who purchased 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.

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In the early 90s, Buddy Dean 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 mainstays.  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.  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 the person would come back and ask if it was ok for them to come back in.  Nobody was ever banned forever. Dean’s Grocery was like that.  In the early 2000’s, Dean’s Grocery was sold and Buddy retired.  The store operated a few more years, but closed.

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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.  When my Father opened in Lula, 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.

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