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Casey Marion "Poppa" Smith, Sr.

I appreciate your visit to Poppa's Country Museum. Please tell your friends about this place of old stuff and remember to visit often.

The Entertainer of Ackerman
By Randall Murphree

Mississippi's Marion Smith boasts several thousand mementos
spanning more than a hundred years of small town and farm history

Know why a soft drink is called a pop? Why a fire hydrant is called a plug? I do, but only because I went down to "Poppa's Country Museum" in Ackerman (Mississippi) the other day. Poppa Marion Smith taught me a lot that day. It all started when I saw a local television feature on Smith's backyard museum, and I knew I had to go see for myself.

Upon arrival, I was warmly greeted by Marion and his gracious wife Joan. For well over an hour, Smith, 72, would entertain and educate me on everything from pop bottles to player pianos, from wooden water mains to Wonder Bread. His extensive collection can rightly be called authentic Americana, mostly 1900s with a few artifacts from earlier days mixed in.

Poppa is quickly off and running, treating me like a VIP as we tour this homemade museum. Actually, as I get to know the Smiths, I suspect every visitor gets VIP treatment. They are Mr. and Mrs. Hospitality.

"It started close to the house," Smith laughs. Then he waves his arm toward his expansive backyard and continues, "Now it's moving east."

Outside walls are adorned with S&H Green Stamp and Wonder Bread signs. The three-bay main building houses a 1923 Model T Ford sedan, a 1941 John Deere tractor, a 1923 Model T truck, countless household items spanning the 1900s, and many mementos from businesses in the region.

An open shed shelters other assorted tractors and farm equipment. The old Gulf gas pump, discovered rusting beneath a pile of rubbish, was a birthday gift from his patient and understanding wife. After all, how many men could get away with collecting "junk" by labeling it a "museum?"

Among the first prized possessions he shows are two short lengths of underground wooden water lines. Smith himself once sold water works supplies to municipalities in the area. Some earlier water mains were hollowed out logs. He says his two sections of wood main are probably from the late 1700s or 1800s.

"Nobody had it but bigger towns," he says. "They made some of them tongue and groove and put them together like flooring. They were made of cypress or oak. But when you buried them underground and got them away from the air, with the water on the inside, they would last forever."

Smith pulls a long wooden peg from one of the water main sections, and explains the origin of the term fire plug. "This is the reason we call a fire hydrant a fire plug," he says. "This was a fire plug." The wooden plug was driven into the top of the water main. It was left accessible by a hole from the top of the ground down to the plug. A hook on the back of the fireman's ax was used to pull the plug out of the water main. "They'd just let the water bubble up in the hole, and then set up a bucket brigade to carry water to the fire."

Also in his collection, Smith displays a small "Fire Flag" from the earliest days of Ackerman's Fire Department, which he helped organize. High school girls hand sewed the flags, and the fire department distributed them to residents or businesses at intersections in town.

"I gave each man a flag," Smith explains, "and when the fire whistle would blow, they'd go out in the street with a flag and stop traffic so the fire truck could get through."

Smith moves on with our tour, briefly identifying more items: "Old telephones carried two batteries like these. A bee smoker. A gas light I found at a flea market."

He slows down again to talk about his collection of churns. "This was a lap churn," he explains, pointing to a short, barrel-like device. "We didn't have a lap churn, our churn was just an old hand-operated churn. But you could lift that one out of the cradle and put it over in your lap. I guess it was restful."

He shows a gun rack with antique guns. "This one is from the Civil War era," he says. "It's U.S. Army-made, but that's not really the official northern gun. At a gun show I found this bayonet that fits it. This was my grand daddy's gun, and that's a World War I gun."

A few steps farther on, he demonstrates a hand-held gimmick, fitting the goggle-like object against his face. "When I was a kid living at home," he says, "we had several things to entertain us. One of them was a Stereoscope and Views. When you look through it, it gives depth. Just about everybody had those. Apparently, they were pretty cheap. I think they were about three dollars in the Sears catalog."

He lets me try it out; sure enough, the "View" - a card inserted into the Stereoscope - is enhanced by the three-dimensional effect. I'm reminded of the Three-D movies that required "magic" glasses when I was a kid.

We move on as Smith tersely narrates, "Trombone I had in the band. Steam radiator out of the old school. When they did away with them, they were about to haul them off, so I grabbed one off the garbage truck. I'm pretty good about doing stuff like that!"

He stops again at a wall decorated with dozens of tools. "That's my grand daddy's broad ax," he says. "Daddy kept it down through the years. All of these tools came out of my dad's shop."

Pop goes the bottle

In another corner, it's history time again. "The Biedenharn Candy Company in Vicksburg bottled the very first Coca-Cola in 1894," Smith relates. "Biedenharn started putting it in bottles like this pop bottle. When you got ready to open it, you opened it by popping the stopper out." He points out how the stopper was pushed far down into the bottle neck. When withdrawn with an attached wire, it produced the "pop."

Coca-Cola bottles were often cooled in springs or other impure water sources. Smith says the state health department soon outlawed the bottles because dirty water from the bottle neck might drain into the soft drink, but the nickname "pop" stuck. "That's the reason they started capping bottles," he explains. "This is the capper they used to cap regular Coca-Cola bottles. It came out of the local drug store."

Smith also has a number of Coca-Cola bottles from a plant that once operated in Ackerman.

Entering the next bay, Smith says, "I love this old '41 John Deere tractor my dad bought in Greenville. He used to let me carry cotton to the gin when I was nine years old." Personally, I'm already wondering about the ornate light fixture hanging above the John Deere.

"The lights in these buildings came out of the old Methodist church," Smith continues, as if reading my mind. "This one came from the sanctuary."

He has chairs from Delta State Teachers College, a few folding seats from Ackerman's old theater, one of the town's oldest cash registers from the Ben Franklin Store, and a big collection of Columbia records close to a hundred years old. "This record has grooves on just one side," he shows me. Then he plays it on his windup phonograph.

He goes on: "Nail keg. Cast iron skillet. You've got to see my bicycle. I've got the one and only bicycle I ever had, a 1936 Henderson. My brother inherited it when he came along, and then I bought it back from him for a dollar. I restored it and kept it and still ride it."

Outside, he explains a parade of old farm equipment that stretches across the yard. "This hay baler here is kind of unique," he says. "It was powered by a mule, like a sorghum mill or cane squeezer. The mule went round and round and pushed this rod to press the hay." Farm hands had to bring all the hay to the machine and feed it into the hopper.

After a look at the Smiths' huge vegetable garden, we check their blueberry bushes and fig trees, both hanging heavy with bumper crops. There'll be plenty to share with their son Buddy and his wife Carol, grandson Casey, and granddaughter Stacey and hubby Chip Fowler. And, I expect, a host of friends and neighbors, too.

Dusk nears, and we head back toward the house, stopping by his shop for a quick look at some of Marion's beautiful, hand-crafted woodwork - gun cabinets, porch swings, toys.

As we visit in the Smiths' comfortable den, it becomes very evident that, for all his interest in the past, Marion Smith is not one of those fellows who's trying to live in the past. No sirree! In fact, he's pretty much a Renaissance man. He shares with me some of his recent poetry. And he tells me I can read more, and learn about his museum at his Web site - www.poppascountry.com.

In the living room, Marion selects a roll to put in his player piano. Strains of "The Entertainer" fill the room. It's an appropriate theme song for a visit to Poppa's Country Museum.

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