You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
It was October of 1955 when Tennessee Ernie Ford released what may have been his biggest hit. I had just arrived at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia as a raw freshman. Atlanta and Georgia were exotic locations for me. My first visit was when I stepped off a Continental Trailways bus in the rain all alone in the biggest city I’d ever visited. Eighteen hours on the bus with everything I owned including a used $10.00 typewriter I had never used and a new tuxedo that I had never worn.
But my story starts in the company town and the company store. Hodge, Louisiana is the town of my birth, and we moved back there after I finished first grade in the neighboring town of Jonesboro. We had to move back because my father, an electrician at the Southern Advance Bag and Paper Company, had been promoted and his new position required him to be as near to the mill as possible. I could see the mill a hundred yards or so from my bedroom window, so I guess we were close enough.
Hodge, Louisiana was a mill town. The mill town is a piece of the American landscape that for better or worse is no longer with us. The mill owned everything within the city limits. I use the word city with caution, since the whole town was about four blocks by four blocks. The only exceptions to the mill’s ownership were the school, Hodge Elementary; the three churches and the post office. And the post office was renting its space from the paper mill.
You really did not have to leave town: a service station that also was the sporting goods store, a grocery, a drugstore (the first in our town to have air conditioning), men’s and women’s clothing, and a wonderful hardware store, in what would now be called a strip mall. Adjacent was the movie theater, a barbershop, post office and city offices. The mayor was an employee of the mill and not an elected position. There also was the spot the boys in my family were prohibited from entering, much less the girls—The Pool Hall—like a scene from the musical, “The Music Man”.
Behind that strip was the Hodge Clinic and Hospital that must have had at least 12-15 beds. All of this was owned and operated by the Southern Advance Mill. The icehouse was below and behind the drugstore and was a great place to visit in the summer. You also got your very cold watermelons there, after doing a whole bunch of thumping. Don’t know why we did but I still do—looks good in the produce department at Kroger. Before everyone had an electric refrigerator, we had ice delivered to our icebox as the cooler was known. There was a large cardboard square with a black spinner on it that you adjusted each day so that the iceman could tell how much ice you needed, cut it loose with his icepick, and bring it in with his tongs.
The feed store was also behind the drug and grocery stores and it is remembered for two very different reasons. First, most of the shopping there was carried out by the woman of the house because feed was packaged in cloth bags of various colors and designs. When the sack had been emptied, that fabric showed up at school as a new dress or shirt. And it was at the feed store that I saw my first automated soft drink machine. It looked like a large chest freezer and after you opened the lid, you slid your drink down metal pathways, inserted your nickel and removed your soda. You could find all sorts of exotic flavors, but my favorite was the small “Grapette”.
I worked in the grocery store for the last three years of high school, but only during the school year as I had a job each summer working on and running the waterfront at a Boy Scout camp. The store had three checkout lanes and was the first “supermarket” for miles around. I was sacking groceries and the pay was $.25 each hour. I remember only one tip ever and that was from my best friend’s mom. Twenty-five cents an hour doesn’t sound like much, but I remember pulling into the full-service gas station getting $.25 worth of gas along with an oil check and a clean windshield. After all, my car, a 1935 Buick that I bought for $50.00 would use one gallon of twenty-five cent gas to get to and from the neighboring town of Jonesboro where my girlfriend lived—Almost every time!
I had looked for and found a Cushman Motor Scooter to buy when my father offered to pay the car insurance if I bought a car instead of the scooter. With a family of seven, another set of wheels would be welcome. It was older than I was by two years, had mechanical brakes, and leaked through the canvas insert in the roof. The roof was repaired when I glued my kid brother’s tent on the existing canvas, and I sewed new seat covers out of four bath towels. The box of dye said red, but the seat covers/towels came out a putrid pink. The shade that pulled down over the small rear window was the envy of all my male friends.
My boss at the grocery got into some sort of trouble with the Louisiana State Labor Office because I was working more hours each week than the state thought a teen should be employed. I was delighted to hear that my hours were to be shortened, but that was short lived. My instructions were to punch out on the clock at the time that would make the state folks happy, then get back to work. My supplemental pay came out of the cash register each evening.
One day one of the checkers failed to show up for work. The manager asked if I knew how to operate the cash register. It did not look that difficult, so I said yes. The first day, I came out $10.00 short and the second day $4.00 over. Because I was now a checker, my pay was increased to $.75 per hour. I was on my way!
It really was the Company Store, and you charged your purchases against your pay for that week, but you could not use it to go into debt to the company. I had a phone device hanging behind me as I checked the groceries that connected with the credit office. I would place the sales slip into the machine and tell the person on the other end the name and amount of the sale. If the amount was still in the next pay envelope, the machine would punch a hole in the slip letting me know it was valid. If it was not, I was instructed to tell the customer that they were short this week and had to return enough items to qualify to charge. It always was of interest to see what products made the cut and what went back on the shelf. Tobacco products always made the cut in the 1950s. The mill paid in cash each week and to increase their visibility in the surrounding area, paid with a lot of $2.00 bills. We would often be in Shreveport for medical visits and store clerks would recognize that we were from the Hodge paper mill.
Hodge was an ideal place to grow up for me. The mill had been built in the 1920s and to entice the skilled workers from the northeast United States to start up and run the new mill’s machines, the town had to be attractive to those coming there to work, and they were primarily from Maine. The only families living there had to be employees of the mill. Single men and single women lived in separate dormitories which were very much like the dorms I lived in in college, private or semi-private rooms with common bathroom accommodation. Your house got new wallpaper every five years or so and the trip to the hardware store to pick out the paper for your room was one of the real treats of being there.
I said ”your room”, but you must understand that my room housed the three brothers; we each had a single bed under a set of two windows, but unfortunately, mine was under the windows over the chicken yard. You can imagine what the summer and attic fan did for me. Heavy canvas, after being used in the paper making process, was nailed to the underside of the houses in the winter to keep the pipes from freezing. There was also a trash pickup provided by the town—sort of. All the trash was burned in 50 gallon drums behind your home, but even those needed to be emptied. During the war when vehicles, tires and gas were scarce, the town did this with a mule and wagon.
The sidewalk between the two towns was featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not as the longest continuous sidewalk in the country. It was said to be two miles long and went over the Little Dugdemona River swamp.
The majority of the manager/supervisors had come from Maine and were Roman Catholic. As a result of their influence and affluence, we had a priest and three nuns along with the three buildings they occupied. The buildings were directly in the center of the town with a huge graveyard attached. When I was young and at home from college, we played football in the Catholic graveyard. It had not been used very much at that time for burials. One of the nuns was the kindergarten teacher, one the housekeeper and one taught piano. She was Sister Hyacinth and was my piano teacher through elementary school and allowed me to “play” the pipe organ in the sanctuary. The Methodist church where my family worshiped had the only graveyard of any size around and was truly a spooky place for us kids at the grade school across the street.
My first job that required me to have a social security number was working for the town at the swimming pool. The pool was located next door to our home and only a small stand of trees separated the properties. My job was to collect the dime admission at the gate. I sat in a small hut and felt very important. Pools at that time were rarely chlorinated so the pool was drained and refilled each week. The lifeguards recruited the neighborhood kids to push the brooms that removed the algae from the walls and bottom of the concrete surface. With that income in hand, I bought my first bike from the Western Auto Store in Jonesboro. Along with the pool, we had two tennis courts that also served as our skating rink when no one was playing tennis. In another direction was the youth center with a baseball park behind it. The youth center was where we learned to dance and to play ping pong. We squared danced until we wanted more, then danced to the music of the 50s which is still the best out there. The ballroom had a revolving crystal ball and if you haven’t slow danced with one, you should. Friday nights after a football game was a must on our social calendar.
A short distance out of the neighborhood we had a nine-hole golf course along with another dancing location that we called the country club. The course was free for our use, and we played –a lot. Its location was next to the wood lot for the mill where the pulp wood was brought in and as the mill expanded, the golf course fell victim and was moved further out of town. By then, the mill had divested itself of all of the extraneous holdings like the county club, store and homes.
The two towns were joined together buy more than just a solid sidewalk. The senior high was the Jonesboro Hodge High School—Good ole JHHS. Getting back and forth between the two towns was really very simple. If you stood in front of the service station/sporting goods store in Hodge or on the corner of main across from the courthouse in Jonesboro, people knew you were wanting a ride to the other city. We rode with lots of folks that we did not know. There was also a red bus that would get you to the mill in time for your shift and it was known appropriately as “Nickel Willie”.
The mill operated 24 hours a day-seven days each week and only stopped a couple of times each year for maintenance. If you wanted to work a shift when you were home from college for example or for any other reason, you waited at the gate at shift change time to be called for the “extra board”. You stood at the gate with your lunch in hand hoping that some worker had not shown up and his job could be done by an unskilled laborer—You!
My father was the chief electrician and would know if I was waiting at the gate to be called in. Any money I could make then was a help toward my college expenses, so he used me as much as possible at times when I was home. He had five children and at least one of us was in college covering a span of more than twenty-five years. Four of the five finished college and went on and completed some sort of graduate program. The only one who did not go to graduate school was by far the smartest, getting a degree in physics, entered the Air Force as an officer and did atomic research at the Air Force research center in Ohio.
We lived our lives by the mill whistle. It blew 10 minutes before the shift started and then again on the hour telling you it was time for work. For those who did not work shift work, it also blew at twelve noon and most of those workers could walk home for lunch—which was called dinner. One of my early jobs was with my little red wagon making a trip to the boardinghouse to pick up lunches and delivering them to the gate for those workers who lived and got their meals at that establishment. Fortunately for those of us who lived right under the mill, it did not blow for the eleven PM shift change. A volunteer fire crew would be called to a fire in the town if the whistle blew at some odd time. It did, however, blow and did so for hours when World War two ended. We rode our bikes through the town with streamers flying and playing cards making that wonderful flapping sound against the spokes—And the whistle blew!
Southern Advance Bag and Paper Company was a benevolent dictator, and we were better off because they were. Compared to other small towns in North Louisiana, we were sheltered and better paid. Our fathers for the most part did not have to leave to fight in the war because the manufacture of paper was considered to be a vital part of the war effort. We celebrated courtesy of the mill a royal fourth of July each year, Santa brought all of us a bag full of candy and nuts for Christmas (paper bag for sure) and Juneteenth was a day off for the African American workers although I did not appreciate the real meaning of that holiday until years later.
Our education at JHHS could have been better as some of us learned when compared at college with students from the south whose parents had sent them to prep schools across the south. In Jonesboro and Hodge, only the kids who were in big trouble were sent to military schools and it was eye opening that such good and smart students also came out of that curriculum. But from just my group of friends and classmates came all sorts of doctorates, MBAs, medical and dental degrees from great universities from across the country. It bothers me still that for the most part the Hall of Fame of JHHS has consisted of its athletes and left out those who excelled in public service, science, law and healthcare.
In 1955 the mill decided that the supervisors did not have to live in the town and my parents moved to a home in Jonesboro that they purchased and where they lived out their lives. I left home the same summer so for me, my hometown was and still is Hodge.
As for me, I married my high school girlfriend as soon as she graduated from LSU, and we celebrated our sixty-fourth wedding anniversary this summer. I served in the US Army as a captain in the Dental Corps right after graduation. I had a successful career as a dentist, have three wonderful daughters, and three awesome grandchildren, but those are stories for another time and the next chapter is not finished yet. I was raised and educated in a company town, and I thank God, my parents, and my lucky stars for it. The values and ethics that molded me continue to enrich my life, so I’m proud to say “I owe my soul to the company store “
Dr. Skip Buford
JHHS class of 1955