On the drive home Wednesday afternoon after a morning of hiking with friends in William Bankhead National Forest, I happened upon a derelict barbecue joint, which, like so many beauty shops with diverting names (Hair 911, Me and Mrs. Jones, the Hairport), merited a second look.
There under a lean-to roof attached to the remains of what was, as the sign atop the building declares, “Butt Hutt BBQ” sat a man amid tables piled with produce.
Meet Rayburn Reeves, who is 85, looks to be 70 and exudes the vitality of a 40-year-old. Reeves was wearing a fuchsia polo shirt and a chain around his neck bearing a jeweled cross the size of a small fist.
We were in the Crossville community just inside Lamar County on Alabama 18 between Fayette and Columbus.
Reeves said he closed the Hutt a few years back to take care of his third wife who died in 2020 with COPD.
As I pulled in, he was bagging three large tomatoes for a repeat customer. Also available were new potatoes, onions, peppers, jars of canned tomatoes, pepper sauce and salsa made by Reeves and a bookshelf laden with Marshall pottery he’s collected over the years.
A chicken named Rooster Cogburn and two half mountain-cur, half blue heeler dogs, Cookie and Muffin, cavorted underfoot.
“I grew up in Bartahatchie plowing a mule, picking cotton by hand and starting fires in an old fireplace with pine knots,” Reeves said, by way of introduction.
In addition to his rural childhood working on the farm, Reeves served in the Army as the Vietnam conflict was ramping up; ran for and served two terms as justice court judge in Hamilton, Mississippi; serviced HVAC systems for Dill and Norris; drove an 18-wheeler long haul for 30 years; became a barbecue impresario in 2014 and is now a roadside vendor.
He describes a childhood rich with experience that would be unrecognizable today.
“In 1951 Daddy sold all the mules and got a tractor,” said Reeves. “I begged him not to sell ol’ Tom. I had some money saved. I said I would take care of him and feed him.”
Reeves’ pleas were in vain. Ol’ Tom met the same fate as the other mules.
“I went down in the woods and cried and cried,” he said.
Once, wanting to emulate their uncles’ colorful language, Reeves and his five brothers built a podium where they would stand and take turns practicing their cussin’.
That lasted long enough for mother to get a branch off the peach tree and end the cussin’ practice, once and for all.
Reeves dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and in 1959 joined the Army.
As it often does, the military greatly expanded Reeves’ world view.
Before the military he thought his uncles were as wise as sages, that “the world ended in Tupelo.”
“How can you be so ignorant,” he remembers thinking about those same uncles after his military service.
Reeves returned to Monroe County and in 1964 was elected justice court judge in Hamilton. He was 23.
“I beat five good men,” he said.
“Success in politics is being able to talk to someone one-on-one,” he says.“If I saw a man picking cotton, I’d stop and help him pick cotton.”
He served two terms and got out of politics, he says, because he didn’t like fining his friends for DUIs.
He says the formula for success selling produce is no different from politics.
“They are shopping with you because they like your personality,” Reeves said.
He says he became a produce vendor just to have something to do and because he was “too old to get a job.”
“It kinda grows on you,” he says about his latest venture. “It gets in your blood.
“If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have gotten up at 2 this morning and drove to (the farmers’ market in) Birmingham.”
I picked up a tomato as I readied to go. “Take a couple of those with you,” he said
Birney Imes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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