The Entertainer of Ackerman
Mississippi's Marion Smith boasts several
spanning more than a hundred years of small town and farm
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
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
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
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
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
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 -
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.