The Owen family name is common around Tunica County, Miss. Generations of them have farmed, run businesses, been doctors, politicians, ministers and community and civic leaders. Sterling Owen III can tell you about some who fought in the Civil War and some who remained neutral. And, like all families, there are probably a few black sheep somewhere along the way.
However, Sterling can do more than tell you about the family history; he can show you a good bit of it. He and his son, Sterling Owen IV, maintain their farm's business headquarters at the Evansville community in the family's old commissary, which was built in the 1880s by Sterling III's great-grandfather, Dr. Richard W. Owen.
“It was built when the railroad came through sometime between 1884 and 1890,” says Sterling.
“He was a medical doctor, who came here from Tennessee after the Civil War to live with his uncle who was a Methodist minister at the time.”
The building served several roles through the years: it was a commissary, a U.S. Post Office and finally a general store. The farm offices, however, have always occupied the rooms in the back.
“I have been told the Mississippi River flooded in 1883 leaving the county seat at Austin landlocked. A vote was taken among the people in Tunica County to determine the new county seat. The vote was between Evansville, Tunica and Dundee. Tunica won the election, but that lets you know Evansville was a thriving community,” says Sterling.
The Evansville General Store closed to customers in the mid 1980s, but the building has been in continuous use since it was built.
The building has walls between 18 inches and 2 feet thick with heavy coats of plaster over the bricks. The plaster has cracked and fallen away in many parts. The front of the building has two entrances. One-half of the building is used only for storage, but the other half has a large open area full of memorabilia from its days as a general store, including the sliding ladder along the wall used to reach items on the top shelves; old Coke crates; bottles; chairs; and the single-bulb lights that dangle from the ceiling.
On the original shelves, which run along the wall from floor to ceiling on both sides of the building, can be found a mixture of new and old. Books of all topics are mixed with old ledgers and other business records. Old lamps, baskets and bottles are interspersed with items Sterling and his wife, Cherie, have collected.
At one point, Sterling played in a band called the Turnrow Cowboys, but they are now inactive except for the occasional impromptu sessions held at the store. Acoustical panels and amplifiers are in one corner with old, rough wood benches and a variety of lawn chairs, old stools and cane-backed chairs arranged in a semi-circle for the people who drop by to either sing or play an instrument.
“The offices of Owen Farms are in the back of the building. Two of the offices are original to the building and one was added off to the side years later to bolster a wall that was shifting,” says Sterling.
Cherie took an interest in tracing the history of the building and the men and women who have worked in and been associated with it. She's managed to find and frame photos of most of the Owen men and women who at one time managed the land and those photos hang on the wall. The exception to her wall of honor is Dr. R. W. Owen.
Other large framed maps show sketches of fields from decades ago and one even has a rough layout of the Evansville community.
“We've been approached about getting the store on the National Registry, but we have not yet looked into what steps are necessary to do that,” says Cherie.
For now, Sterling enjoys talking one-on-one with people who appreciate the history of the building and the area, and they allow some small groups to use the building for social gatherings.
“I have a lot of memories here,” he says. “As a boy, I'd ride my horse up here and get meat and cheese or a handful of cookies out of the big cookie jar,” he says. “Back then, general stores were everywhere. Today, we have to go four or five miles to buy a cold drink.”
Eva Ann Dorris is an ag journalist from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at 662-419-9176 or [email protected].