By Billy Watkins
Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
November 2, 2001
During the late 1950s and early '60s, Marion "Poppa" Smith
served as the public works superintendent in Ackerman.
"Which meant he was the general town flunky," laughs Joan,
his wife of 53 years.
Smith smiles and agrees. "I did whatever folks in town asked
me to. Cleaned out sewers. Patched holes in the streets. I even
served as the fire department. Carried 500 feet of hose on a
two-wheel trailer behind my car. That was our firetruck."
He's 72 and retired now.
"And he's still the general town flunky," Joan laughs again.
"People call him all the time to do stuff for them."
Tractor work, mostly. Disking land. Clipping pastures. During
the winter he does woodworking. Gun cabinets are his specialty.
And in his spare time, Smith is building Poppa's Country
Museum in his back yard, containing everything from an 1894
Coca-Cola bottle to his 1923 Model T Ford.
"A lot of it is stuff passed down in my family," Smith says,
"and a lot of it is stuff that people don't want anymore.
"You know, they find things in their attic. It's in their
way. They want to get rid of it. And I'm the one they call.
"I've only got two rules: It has to be old, and it has to
work — or at least be fixable. You'd be surprised the things
people don't want anymore."
Smith walks inside the museum-in-progress and warns a visitor
to cover his ears. It doesn't help much. The vibrant sound of
the old Ackerman lumber mill whistle is so strong it rattles the
leaves of Smith's thick patch of grapevines growing nearby. He
blows it three times, then comes out smiling.
"When I was a boy, we lived our lives around that whistle,"
Smith says. "It blew at 15 minutes till 6. That meant 'get up.'
It blew again at 7, when work started. It blew at 12, at 1 and
then again at 5. We set our watches by it.
"I actually found that one on eBay. I had the original, but I
gave it to a boy whose daddy used to work at the mill and wanted
Smith paid $450 for the replacement. "It was worth it to me,"
he says with a shrug.
He is a man who treasures the memories of his boyhood, spent
both in the Delta and the central Mississippi hills.
"My daddy (Casey) farmed cotton in Sunflower County until I
was 13," Smith says. "When World War II came along, he lost all
his young help and decided it might be time to give up farming."
So the family moved back to Choctaw County. Smith has been
here ever since.
"Everybody knows Mr. Smith," says Ann Coleman, Ackerman's
municipal court clerk. "You see him ridin' around town in his
Model T. You hear him blowin' that whistle. I hear he's got a
lot of interesting things in his museum, but I haven't made it
by there yet."
It is open for all to see, free of charge. He's even got a
Web site: www.poppascountry.com.
His collection includes a 1907 pea sheller, a Sears & Roebuck
seed planter from 1903, wood stoves and heaters, Civil War
cannons, a box of chalk from Ackerman's old one-room
schoolhouse, clay marbles, a railroad hacksaw, seats from the
old Ackerman theater, ice tongs, a coal-burning heater pulled
from a long-gone caboose, and his daddy's 1941 John Deere
tractor in good running condition.
A shiny 1936 Henderson bicycle is parked in the corner.
"This was mine when I was a boy," he says. "Got it in '39. My
brother inherited it, then when he got a new one I bought it
back from him for a dollar. You can't find bicycles like this
He pats the bike's padded seat and moves on to other items: A
well bucket. A fruit presser. A piece of real barbed wire, much
thicker than today's imitation. The glass milk bottle he used to
pack in his school lunch.
"Know what this is?" he says, holding up an empty bottle
labeled Jamaica Ginger. "It's what caused people to get the 'jake
leg' back in the '20s and '30s. Made 'em crippled. It was about
99 percent alcohol and folks drank it to get a buzz. But
somebody poisoned it. I knew three or four folks to get the 'jake
He nods toward a large coffee pot hanging on the wall.
"I had an uncle who died of cancer," Smith says. "He ran away
from home and went to Florida to pick fruit for a living. Didn't
have much money. First two things he bought were a coffee pot
and a cup. That's the coffee pot."
Smith insists on taking a visitor for a ride in the Model T,
which is immaculately shined and polished. He drives it through
town almost every week. It takes him a few presses on the
foot-starter to get the black classic going, and the front
wheels shimmy on occasion. But the car — six years older than
its owner — maneuvers through downtown Ackerman with ease and
Pedestrians, many of them Smith's friends, smile and wave.
"I can get parts for this car a whole lot easier than I can
for my '99 pickup," he says. "I've had folks want to buy it, but
I cut 'em off before they can name a price. It ain't for sale. I
enjoy it too much."
Since retiring in 1986 from the waterworks business, Smith's
health has declined. He was diagnosed with Grave's disease, a
thyroid disorder, in 1996. In '98 tests revealed he also is
battling heart disease.
He takes medication for both and goes about his business.
"My health won't let us travel as much as some retired
couples," he says. "But that's OK with me. I'm happy right here
where I am.
"Come winter, when the tractor work dies down, I'll go
through a lot of the stuff in the museum I haven't had a chance
to tag and research. I'll get that old wood heater going, put me
some peanuts on top of it, and I've got it made. A man couldn't
ask for a better retirement than what I've got."