Editor’s Note: When I went out for my drive earlier this week, I passed through a little town called Dixie. Years ago when I was a reporter, I spent a day in Dixie with some lovely folks. I pulled that story to share with you today. This is a mosey kind of story, so if you have a hankering to read blogs that are only a graph long, you’ll want to skip this one. But if you like a good tale and are interested in country folks, this one’s for you. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did reporting it. (The photos I took this week).
DIXIE, Wash – Since 1889, Dixie Grocery has stood like a sentry along Highway 12,about 10 miles east of Walla Walla. A steel pole with a yellow and red neon sign beckons to passing motorists. Blue metal siding fortifies the building’s vintage clapboard. Inside, refrigerators hum and an air conditioner sputters. And somewhere nearby Katie Couric chats softly with Matt Lauer.
The grocery, originally a combination post office and general store, remains the center of social activity for Dixie residents. But the town isn’t much more than a blip, maybe 200 people, residents estimate. Kay and Richard Cummings have owned the store for 13 years. When they knocked out the back wall to make space for the Coca-Cola machine and refrigerated Snapple case, they discovered relics of the store’s past. “We found steel wool in the wall – insulation. And we found receipts dating back to 1937, a calendar from 1964 and buttons on their original cards,” Kay Cummings said.
A petite slip of a gal, Cummings chirps the same cheery “Hello” to all who enter, those with jangle in their pockets and those without. She could charm a pitchfork from Satan. And that bunch of aging ruffians gathered around the table at the back of the store would never admit it, but even they’re not immune from her spell. A telling sign hanging in the window explains why Cummings has her way with the fellows: “All men are created equal. Poor things.”
Some folks in Dixie mosey down to the grocery for Moon Pies and sodas, matches and a pack of Camels, a jug of milk and a box of cane sugar. But the dawdlers in the back of the store come for coffee and as much of Cummings’ attention as they can wrangle. ”They’re at the Liars table nearly every morning by 8 a.m.,” Cummings said.
A picture of Osama bin Laden, with the phrase “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” is thumb-tacked to a post above the aptly named Liars table.
Randy Townsend, 41, lifted the brake on his wheelchair and maneuvered his way up to a corner of the table, right next to Charlie “Bud” Ayers, who gave his age as “37.”
“She asked your age not your waist size,” said Tom Lamb. Lamb cradled the shank of a pipe as he gingerly stuffed the bowl with a pinch of tobacco. Lamb gives his own age as “39, twice.” Steve Thonney, 60, and Jim Kibler, “older than dirt,” laughed aloud. Ayers snorted at Lamb. A self-made intellectual and wise-guy philosopher, Ayers sharpened and baited his hook.
“Dixie was named after a band,” he said. “I like most music, but I like opera best. Carmen is my favorite.” After that ramble, no one raised an eyebrow, shrugged a shoulder or snorted.
Still, there was reason to be skeptical of Ayers’ claim of being an opera aficionado. Dressed in coveralls and with his downy-white hair neatly shorn, Ayers looked more like a Grand Ole Opry fan than a hoity-toity patrician.
“He keeps threatening to show up in a powder blue suit with a yellow tie,” Townsend said. Chuckles rippled around the table. Ignoring his pals’ guffaws, Ayers continued: “Someday I want to go listen to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and wear a tuxedo.”
Now the heads were shaking in unison and disbelief. It takes an ax of God to pry pennies from Ayers’ pockets. He won’t splurge 50 cent for coffee, much less a trip halfway to Georgia and back.
“I’ve been known to be a bit on the tight side,” Ayers admitted, sheepishly.
“Bud’s so tight he has muscle spasms if he steps over a dime,” Thonney
“I’ve chased him down the road to get him to pay me 7 cents!” Cummings added.
Ayers won’t even waste milk on his oatmeal.
“He eats it dry,” Cummings said.
“Well,” Ayers explained, “if you work like a horse, you’ve got to eat like a horse.”
Laughter erupted from the table. Lamb inhaled deeply. Smoke billowed around his pipe’s bit.
“You ought to come see my hummingbirds,” Lamb said. “I had 34 feeders up this year. It takes 150 pounds of sugar to feed them all.”
Too bad Dixie doesn’t hold the Mule Show anymore, Thonney said. Now that the Mule Show was really something to behold. Folks would stream into Dixie all week long for the event.
“We had 53 mules that first year,” Thonney said. The event was held each June for several years back in the 1980s. Folks,
near and far, loaded up their spit-shined mules and packed them into town. A parade kicked off the event. ”It’s just like a horse show,” Thonney explained. “You clean up your best mule and stand ‘em up straight. The best looking mule wins.” When the crowd outgrew the town, organizers moved the show up the road to Dayton. ”It just got too big for Dixie,” Thonney said. “We had over a 100 entrants
that second year. People were bringing in their horse trailers and pick-ups. We ran out of room.”
And there hasn’t been a parade in Dixie since community leaders ran out of money for such events.
“We spent all our money – $2,000 – on ribbons for the show,” Thonney said. Then “a rain storm hit, and people who usually came for the show couldn’t get here because they had to stay home and put the hay up. I’ve still got the ribbons in a box in the basement. I sold Cody, the last of our mules, last spring.”
Dixie has one school, one church, one grocery and one cemetery. Herman C. Actor, the town’s first settler, was a handyman in Gov. Isaac Stevens’ survey party when Stevens, Washington’s first territorial governor, led an expedition to find the best transcontinental railroad route during 1853 and 1854. Stevens contended that the best route was northwest from Chicago through Washington.
But to convince the rail kings of that, he needed make peace with the region’s Indians. So in June 1855, Stevens helped negotiate the Treaty of Walla Walla with them. Shortly, after it was signed, Actor homesteaded a golden spot along Dry Creek. It was Actor’s neighbors, the Kershaw family, who suggested the town’s name. Jimmy, Jack and Billy Kershaw and their mama formed the Dixie Quartet. And Mama Kershaw’s favorite tune was Dixie : “I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.
It’s a fitting name. Once a stop along the stagecoach line that ran between Walla Walla and Lewiston, Dixie is still a good place for travelers to stop. There’s always someone who remembers the old times and is more than willing to sit a spell and talk about them. Some may talk of who ran the last preacher out of town. “That amen section of the church put the boots to him and he left,” Thonney said.
They yak about the former school superintendent, who also got the boot. Well shoot, school has never been the same since they took Mrs. Walker’s paddling board away, Ayers said. ”It ruined the country when they took the board out of the schools,” he said. “There’s an old saying, ‘Troops without discipline are not troops, they’re a mob.’”
But some of the fellows were glad to see the board wrestled away from Old Lady Walker, who was a teacher at Dixie School back in the 1940s and 1950s when these fellows were young, fidgeting in their chairs and at her mercy.
“I still have blisters in my cheeks where she lifted me off the ground,” Kibler said.
She’d whip you for “being too good, looking too suspicious,” Lamb said.
Townsend is by turns the youngest and quietest member at the Liars Table. But he’s lived in Dixie all of his 41 years. A gunsmith by trade, he spent five years of his life on the professional motocross circuit racing for Team Yamaha. But that was before the debilitating accident that left him unable to move his legs. ”I rolled my pick-up in 1984 coming back from a race at Horn Rapids,” he
said. “It was winter and the roads were icy.” The accident didn’t slow him down much. I’ve kept driving crazy stuff – ATVs, snowmobiles. I still fish and hunt,” Townsend said.
Then Ayers interjected, “I used to hunt everyday.” Their conversations go like that. Interruptions are accepted and expected.
“Yeah, in which war?” Thonney asked, with a cackle.
“I wouldn’t even have to check in with the game warden,” Ayers said, noting he served with the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. But that’s all he had to say about the war. “I don’t ever talk about it. I got tired of having nightmares.”
Pushing back their chairs, the loiterers stand and yank coins out of their pockets. The five-man toss will be repeated until only the loser remains standing. If there are three or more tossing, the goal is to get a match. When it gets down to two tossers, they call “heads” or “tails.”
Ayers lost the toss. It was his turn to pay the tab. “Can I use my food stamps for this?” Ayers asked.
Meanwhile down the road apiece, Postmaster Richard Gage, 59, is waiting for Ayers to show up at DixieÕs nook of a post office, zip code 99329. Gage had called Cummings first thing that morning and told her he was in a bad way. Stuck all day in that cage of a post office with no toilet paper on hand. Could she send some relief down with Townsend or Ayers soon? It was after 9 a.m. when Ayers finally sauntered in with four rolls of 2-ply in a bag.Gage grabbed the sack. Then, he held up an envelope, sealed with several strips of Scotch tape.”See this, Bud? HANDS OFF! Take this money to Kay (Cummings),” Gage said to Ayers.
“Money? Did you give me money? Where is it?” Ayers said, taking theenvelope. “I’m going to move to Greenland and live in an igloo.”
Gage is also Dixie’s self-declared police chief and mayor. ”Kay sent me a note saying she wanted to get things around town fixed. I
told her we’d get things fixed if people came to a meeting to discuss it. But we’ve never had the meeting,” Gage said.
And that’s how business is done along Highway 12 in a town that has more characters than commerce. Gage likes it that way.
“I wouldn’t want to go any place else. People have time to talk here,” he said.
Hundreds of tourists have traveled by charter bus and private car to Tom Lamb’s home along Dry Creek. Dry Creek isn’t actually dry. Rushing water can be heard from the corners of Lamb’s back yard. But “most every county around here has a Dry Creek,” Thonney said. “I don’t know why.” Posted in Lamb’s front yard is hand-carved “Hummingbird Lane” sign. Across the two-lane Biscuit Ridge Road, voluminous amounts of blonde grain waves from tumbling hills. ”I see game on those hills all the time,” Lamb said. He even has a picture
of an albino deer he once spotted there. Walking across a dry lawn, Lamb pointed to the multi-colored feeders that
lure hundreds of hummingbirds and hundreds more hummingbird gawkers to his home each May. Barn swallows, Washington kingbirds and wild turkeys also keep Lamb company. ”Here’s a bit of advice,” he said, with a chuckle. “Never look straight up
at a bird.”
Lamb inherited more than just a lush spot along Dry Creek from his papa, he apparently got some of the settler’s perseverance. Displaying a few scrawny magnolia blooms sprouting from a sickly bush, Lamb noted the tree isn’t native to Dixie. ”A lady from Louisiana brought it to me,” he said. The tree’s trunk is less than 2 inches in diameter. Some magnolia trees in
Louisiana have trunks the size of Fords. ”This tree is 30 years old, and it’s the first time its bloomed,” Lamb said.
Patience and perseverance are virtues the folks at Dixie Community Church try to practice. For years, Neva Cook has served as Sunday school superintendent and Sunday school teacher at the rural church. Cook makes sure she knows who is new in town, so she can welcome them and their children to morning worship.Cook said Dixie is a real family town. But she revised her claim when pressed about why there weren’t any kids riding bikes down the street. “Well, there are only 35 kids in the whole school. Mostly, retired people live here,” she said.
Cook and Elsie “Granny” Patterson opened the doors of white-washed Dixie Community Church on a recent summer morning. The meeting place smelled musty, a mixture of Lemon Pledge over old varnish. “We’ve been devastated by a happening in our church that’s hindering us,” Cook said. She was unaware the rascals at the grocery already had divulged the story of the preacher being run off.
“It was a matter of dismissing a pastor,” Granny Patterson said, bluntly.
The church is going through a hard time, but good times will roll again soon, Granny promised.
“We’re looking for a new pastor,” she said. And working on new bylaws, Cook added.
Besides the church has seen scrappy times before. Chartered in 1887 and incorporated in 1888, Dixie Community Church is the “oldest acting continuous Christian church in the state,” Granny said, proudly. “We’ve even got a letter from President Reagan.”
Record attendance was 18 years ago, when 96 people – nearly half the town - showed up for Easter Sunday. “We always have our biggest crowds on Easter Sunday and Christmas,” Granny said.
Cook and her husband, Paul, retired in Dixie about 20 years ago. They have a place along the stream. “We love it,” she said. “Although, you used to could fish the stream and now you can’t.” Blame those Fish and Wildlife fellows. Still, like most folks in Dixie, Cook isn’t interested in city living. ”I like the people. The peace and the quiet,” she said. Dixie. Old times there won’t ever be forgotten as long as Cummings keeps pouring coffee for the pack of prevaricators gathered around the liars table, and as long as somebody keeps track of the church scrapbook stuffed with hundreds of relics testifying to days gone by. “This is a community where everybody looks out for everybody else,” Granny said.