COLUMBUS TO HICKMAN
Another morning in Columbus-Belmont State Park. The kids are still up before us riding bikes, saying hi to me as I get set on my own. Today we decided to follow a route suggested by Greg and Norma that had us in the bottomland. It was different than what we had planned, but it was shorter and more direct. It required us to ride first, going until we hit gravel, then we ditched the bikes and set off on foot. I rode the first several miles, then Tom ran the first 5K, I picked up the next, and finally Tom finished out on bike into town to meet with Karen at the Kentucky Nut Corporation. The bottoms were full of cypress trees, pecan trees, bare fields that couldn’t be planted this year. You could see corn and beans on the higher ground, wildflowers too, and the landscape quickly went from bottoms into higher ground of Hickman, Kentucky neighborhoods in the blink of an eye.
Down the road in Hickman where the buildings still have painted signs on their sides, that’s where we met karen Langford. Tom rode up on bike and Karen stepped outside to meet me and Norma. We all stood out front and talked a spell, got to know each other as cars were coming down Moscow Ave and people waved. A few pedestrians passed through and exchanged niceties. Karen eventually took us inside to see the inner workings of the Nut Factory. She told us the history dating back to the Roper Pecan Company since 1940, and how her husband—the lawyer/farmer (now judge)—decided to invest in the company in the 80s when the company had a transition. Since then, much of the work has fallen to Karen, and she is working really hard to keep one more storefront from being shuttered in this small community. She showed us the custom cracking machines, where people can bring in their own pecans to be cracked. Also the back room where they do the canning and roasting—everything is “really high tech” she said, with a grin and a laugh, including the large salt shaker! It’s a labor of love, but there are no other nuts like these, according to Karen. And we made a purchase and took some home to test out the theory, so be looking for a review… ; )
Now nuts are good, but they weren’t going to fill me up, so we stopped at the nearby gas station for some lunch. “Gas Station Lunch” is a staple around here, according to Norma, especially in a small town where there are few sit down restaurants. Tom and I had fried chicken and egg rolls, and I’d say we were more than satisfied. Besides that, I think Norma knew about everyone in the place! But again, we had to get on our way….
We drove from the gas station down to what we are calling “Old Town Hickman” along the seawall. This is a part of town that obviously used to be a hub, a center of commerce and activity that has now been abandoned and started to crumble. And yet, the seawall has a beautiful series of murals painted on it (who did these???) and the parkland in front of the wall is kept up with picnic tables—a very nice amenity.
It’s there that we set ourselves up at one of these picnic tables and waited for John Wiley Gannon Kentucky Bayou Outdoors, 33 year old hunting guide. John has been hunting since he was seven years old (or that’s the age he would admit to on tape). His progression of guns went from toy pop gun to BB gun to .410 shotgun to 20 gauge to 12 gauge… and now back to a 20 gauge just because he fires so many rounds every year and it’s more gentle and easier on his shoulder. John’s path to becoming a guide started when he was 20 years old, out with friends, and a truck came by with Tennessee tags. Three guys in a big old farm truck. The oldest guy, 21 years old, walks up, and John steps out to talk to him. This guy turns out to be Jeremy Barns, and he has a family farm in Obion Creek. As they get to talking, they realize that they had hunted together 10 years ago the day a dead duck had washed up and no-one was to touch it because it would put you over your limit and the warden was watching. They even held the dogs back from picking up the duck.
Anyways, John Wiley always knew he would be a guide someday, and this young man Jeremy was starting up guide service in Tennessee, so he told him any time you need a hand with that, let him know. Jeremy was setting up his guide service around Reelfoot lake where he had some blinds set up on land that was grandfathered in. As luck would have it, Jeremy did indeed need some help one day—he had mixed up some epoxy to fix some old decoys and realized he had mixed too much. The epoxy was going to set before he had time to use it. He needed help to make quick use of the material, so he called John Wiley over to give him a hand and slather the epoxy on those decoys at pace. John came to his aid that night and they were able to use up almost all the epoxy, and then John kept coming to help almost every day after that.
From there John started fixing breakfasts in the duck blinds, and he was good with a duck call and with customers. Not only that, John was good with computers as well, so he started marketing the guide service on Craigslist and got the season booked in no time. By the second year he was working as full partner with Jeremy handling all Kentucky the customers. Eventually John bought the bones of the business from Jeremy and moved everything into Kentucky.
Now John Wiley is quite the entrepreneur, but don’t go thinking he’s got it all figured out through this guide service. By no means. John himself will tell you otherwise. His family has been in several businesses—hardware store, storage units, car wash, trailer park. He’s worked for his family in one way or another most of his life, amongst other jobs. According to John, he’s only only applied for one job ever and never been fired from or quit any of the jobs he has worked. At 16 he got on a drill, drilling wheat… “Strong back, weak mind”, he says, in explaining being a kid hired to do farm labor. He also got a job on a ferry boat as a deck hand, another story in itself—for another time perhaps.
John was told at a young age that if you want to own land you either need to be a doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief. This shaped his interest in politics and going in for work at a couple of attorneys’ offices, and while never becoming a lawyer himself, his skill at building relationships—and the right relationships, including with these lawyers—has led him to the leases he now has on land for his guide service. This, he hopes, will eventually lead to ownership. In addition to the farming, the ferry boat, the clerking, and of course the guiding, John Wiley also does catering for the local hot spot HUBB’s, which is often a job he goes to at 2pm right after leaving the duck blinds with his clients!
Duck season is an intense 60 days. John takes in about 6-8 people per visit, and as soon as one is out, the next is in. He wants to build a lodge and event center at his family farm property in Mayfield, but until then he houses his guests at his own home. From all accounts, it’s quite a show from before sun up to late in the day, sometimes with plumbing back ups to boot! But John Wiley is ready for all fit. He also encourages his customers to spent time in town, time and money that is! So the 2pm cut off time for being out of the blind is both to boost local tourism AND to give the ducks a rest—a bit of a conservation effort in this business as well. Now after duck season is over, John goes into a bit of a depression, as he searches for the word, he’s wanting to compare it to the postpartum depression a woman goes through after pregnancy… Obviously this is a very intense experience for John—but he’s never been through pregnancy, either. ; )
John’s biggest beef with his hometown is acceptance. He’s run for city commissioner four times, and never once gotten elected. He’s young yet, but he feels there’s more than age stacked against him. He’s the first generation of his family to be Hickman born here. He’s “not kin to everybody here. I’ve not inhereted… I’m the first born here. So I’m not accepted in certain circles for certain things… I still get looked over and passed up… it’s not nice.” A good friend of his who was a city commissioner died in a car accident, and the local custom was that the vacant commissioner position be offered to the person who came next in the polling, which was John. Instead, John never heard a peep before someone else was announced as the new commissioner.
In his research of different hunting environments, John spent time in a town in Kansas of 300 people hunting turkeys. He loved it there because by the second time you meet the people they know your name, they seem to want to know you. John says it may be easier to do what he’s doing out west, but he loves Hickman. He’ll keep working all the jobs, keep guiding, and keep hoping for the future when he retires to his own land to hunt and guide when he pleases.
While we we talking with John Wiley, another pick-up truck pulled up and Norma fielded the interjection. Turns out the truck and folks in tow were our next interaction, Beau Choate. Thankfully, he graciously waited in Norma’s company while we finished our chat with John, and then we wandered over to meet Beau.
Turns out Beau was born in Hickman, but his family moved to Fulton, and then Chicago, then back to South Fulton by the time Beau was entering college. He worked as an accountant for many years, but then moved back to the Land Between the Lakes region and became director of Western Wetlands Tourism. When he retired from tourism, Beau came home to Hickman and realized things had really changed there. He was heartbroken, really. The vibrant place he remembers from childhood is no more, but he still believes old town Hickman could be a destination. Beau sees shops, eateries, and people—stick houses along the sea wall to see over the levee. And he’s not just dreaming, he’s made an attempt at Mayor, running in the last election, and is currently involved in the local chamber of commerce as well. He’s also looking to invest in a nearby farm property for a B&B and event center. According to Beau, it would take about $450K to get the property where it needs to be, purchase and renovation, but he thinks that’s actually reasonable in today’s economy as a business investment.
Some of Beau’s community improvement efforts are a bit slowed, however, because he’s recently taken in a female veteran who has COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), an old friend of his from growing up. With his care for his friend, his time is limited, and he’s doing what he can. He just feels folks around Hickman are not quite progressive enough. They seems to become relaxed or complacent in their jobs, when what is needed is forward thinking change.
I think we haven’t heard all we have to hear about the future of Hickman from Beau Choate. We’ll be staying tuned, and if revisiting, grabbing a rag bologna sandwich per his recommendation!
We all climbed in our vehicles, and Tom and I followed Norma for one last long drive out to Fulton this time. We were meeting up with she and her husband Greg at a place called The Keg Bar & Grill, well known for oysters on the weekends. As soon as we sat down, Norma ordered us up two plates of blacked oysters—Louisiana Gulf Oysters no doubt!—and we feasted mightily. According to the owner, the truck gets there on noon on Fridays with the fresh Louisiana Seafood, and it doesn’t last through the weekend. No west coast oysters for him! He likes his oysters muddy not sandy.
This dinner was our first opportunity to really get to know Greg a little better. Besides that he’d been Hickman County Judge Executive for 27 years—the longest standing county administrator in the state of Kentucky ever… besides that, we also learned that Greg suffers from a rare and debilitating genetic disease called Hereditary Spastic Paralegia. The first symptoms he experienced were at the age of 43, but his dad had been suffering from the disease for some time and eventually died from complications related to the disease. The short of it is that the disease limits your mobility to the point where in Greg’s father’s case, he had become so bedridden, that sores had manifested on his body at such a scale to become so infected to end his life.
In the last several years, Greg decided to leave the position of County Judge Executive (even though he was running opposed). He announced that he wouldn’t run again, and both he and Norma’s life changed forever. He had already started to get involved in the Spastic Parapalegia Foundation Spastic Paraplegia Foundation #hspandpls SpasticWorld #hspandpls, but now that work ramped up. He and Norma were on the quest to convince them they needed an Executive Director to direct the efforts and fundraising of the organization to truly enable more research for the disease. However, the existing board members were more conservative, and suggested to Greg that he do the job for free and show them why an Executive Director is needed. So, how could he say no? Since that time, he and Norma took on the co-executive director position on an indefinite basis to prove the point, now dedicating 40 hours a week each to this work. Greg knows that the work he is doing with the Foundation won’t inevitably aid his own recovery, but hopefully the research will help his daughter who is showing signs of the disease, and her children who are at risk.
As anyone reading these last few posts can see, Norma is going full speed all the time, and Greg would like for things to slow down just a bit. We all joked a bit about how somehow I slowed down after moving from Chicago to Minnesota, and maybe Tom could share the recipe with Greg for how to make that happen… Regardless of what speed Norma is going, though, she is all in for whoever she has invested in—us, John Wiley, Robb and Rose, Beau Choate, and of course, her husband Greg. I can’t say enough for the good that Norma Pruitt Promote Ky is doing for Western Kentucky, one individual voice at a time.