FORT PILLOW TO COVINGTON
Today we journeyed from our campground in Fort Pillow State Historic Park (pop. 3 campers) to Covington (pop. 9,000). We woke to birdsong under tall trees, passed through rolling hills, saw vast agricultural fields . . . and raced 18-wheelers on southbound US 51.
We’re closer to Memphis, Tennessee and feeling the influence that a nearby urban center has on surrounding communities. Many Covington, Tennessee residents commute into Memphis for work, but there’s also a base of industry here that provides local job opportunities – employers like Unilever, Charms, Sugaright and Dyersburg State Community College. We saw a few of these industries as we arrived in town.
Our first stop of the day was at a smaller, but no less important employer, Tennessee Gins Inc., a cotton-growers cooperative. Manager Russ Bailey met us as at the main office as we ran into their complex of warehouses and machinery. At first Russ thought we might be lost—he doesn’t normally see people in a strange van toweling off in the parking lot. He soon recognized that we were his 11:30 appointment and welcomed us in for coffee and a conversation.
Tennessee Gins is a consolidation of several former cotton gins. At this facility they remove the seed and compact cotton fiber for shipping and further processing. The industry of growing, harvesting and processing cotton is complex and fascinating. Most people, including us, don’t understand the importance of this crop and how it shaped American history.
We first learned the story of cotton further upriver from good friend Reginald Petty. He gave us a New York Times Magazine article to read as we went to bed (https://www.dropbox.com/…/full_issue_of_the_1619_project.pd…) which prepared us for the region we were about to enter from the perspective of the people who truly shaped the land with their very hands and labor. Russ’s story of cotton aligned more with the industry experience (https://en.wikipedia.org/…/Cotton_production_in_the_United_…) as he grew up either growing, buying, or selling cotton in his day. There’s a lot to know about cotton, that’s to be sure, from all sides, and it’s definitely not as simple as a label on your t-shirt.
Russ has worked at Tennessee Gins, Inc. since 2005. . . just after leaving his 12-year stint as Mayor of Covington. He was the last of the part time mayors, keeping a day job as part of a cotton buying concern at the time. He did that from 1978-2001 while he was mayor. During his terms as mayor, he abolished century old school system that was struggling, as well as successfully recruited the Slimfast Corporation to locate here. While they are no longer in the area after several mergers, there are still several sugar and ice cream concerns like Unilever in the area able to maintain industrial jobs for the citizens. Russ says he can’t take solo credit, but he was involved.
He’s always been in agriculture, though, following in his father’s path through Murdoch Cotton Grading School and into a career of cotton. His dad came back from Okinawa in 1947 and went to the Murdoch Cotton Grading School, eventually passing away in 1981. The gins make their money off the seed. In recent years, with farmers planting GMO seed, yielding more cotton per acre, they wind up with less seed at the gin. The gins making less money. It’s a tough business to be in. Tennessee Gins just sold to Green Point Ag.
As we’re talking to Russ, a vehicle pulls into the parking lot outside. Russ glances over his shoulder and says, “Uggghhh, I hope he doesn’t stop.” But he does. Turns out, it’s his good friend Tom Hatcher, who stops in to join the conversation. Tom is originally from Manilla, Arkansas, but has made Covington his home. He’s a good Baptist and has spent the majority of his adult years serving as hospital administrator in the area. His life in Arkansas was spent in the timber business with his father, but somehow that prepared him for his new life in Tennessee where cotton was king and the people were still of the same southern fellowship.
Russ is also very involved in the history of this community, serving as county historian and leading the local sons of the confederacy. He casually referred to our second contact of the day, David Gwinn, as his protege in terms of genealogy knowledge, so we were eager to meet David and see the connections. Russ was gracious and kind with his time, obviously a busy man, and offered his home telephone number in case we needed anything. The kindness in the South continues into Covington it seems, and we are forever grateful.
Russ says he was born old, and has no desire to be anywhere else but Covington. He was too young for Vietnam, and hasn’t traveled much. But he knows very assuredly why he makes this place home. In his answer to that very question he quoted Edward Carmack, saying:
“The SOUTH is a land that has known sorrows; it is a land that has broken the ashen crust and moistened it with tears; a land scarred and riven by the plowshare of war and billowed with the graves of her dead; but a land of legend, a land of song, a land of hallowed and heroic memories.
To that land every drop of my blood, every fiber of my being, every pulsation of my heart, is consecrated forever. I was born of her womb; I was nurtured at her breast; and when my last hour shall come, I pray GOD that I may be pillowed upon her bosom and rocked to sleep within her tender and encircling arms.”
We ventured on into town, with me running the last 5K or so from Tennessee Gins toward City Hall. After a bit of getting lost, asking for directions from a man at the gas station, and then a policeman at the Water Treatment Facility, I eventually found my way. However, now to find Tom. He had lost me after the first turn on the route, and I didn’t have a cell phone on me. As I dripped sweat onto the counter at the City Hall, I asked to use the phone, trying to explain the situation. I called, no one answered. I went back outside, and I saw the van turning the corner. I chased after and he didn’t see me—I kept chasing to no avail. I gave up and just walked up the hill. Finally it seems he rounded the block and we found each other.
I toweled off and we walked into the town square to grab a lunch. From lunch we headed back to City Hall to meet with David Gwinn finally. Up to the second floor, around the corner, and there he was in his office, counseling someone on how to get a business license—apparently his main line of work beyond genealogy. He came out to greet us and we all walked down the hall into the city council chambers to sit down and chat a bit.
David has been involved in City and County Government for a long time. He understands the business, political, and structural history of Tipton County as well as the genealogy. From prohibition to power and infrastructure, David can give you the litany of what went on with who and where and when. David is 54 years old. He’s seen Tipton County, Tennessee change drastically. It used to be populated by families that used to live here for generations. Now they are supplanted by people who have moved here from Memphis. Covington, Atoka, Munford, and Millington are all affected. People don’t know each other. Church congregations are dwindling. There is a loss of community. David wishes that there had been more planning.
Later that night, we went to Dyersburg Community College to share stories with the Covington community. There we met up with some members of the local community theater and Lauren from the chamber of commerce. After a nice visit with them, learning about their work with youth and other members of the community in Covington to enhance arts and entertainment, we connected with some of the staff at the college who were working the evening shift. Arthur Ezell and Eula Dyson were kind enough to sit with Tom and I on the patio, sharing their story of finding their home in Covington, finding good work, and investing in the community. These are the people that make a community strong, and we are so glad that we had a chance to talk to them tonight.