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Today is June 18, 2021

Mississippi Seen

Herbert Harper

By The Mayor of Downtown Hot Coffee

Herbert Harper

Herbert Harper was the undisputed “Mayor of Downtown Hot Coffee.” The parameters of “Downtown” Hot Coffee run from the east side of what used to be Knight’s Store to about 50 yards west of it. That’s where the signs are at least. And Herbert Harper oversaw everything in between.

There are some people you like the instant you meet them. Herbert was that way for me. He and his wife Judith ran the old Knight’s Store, renamed J&H Harper Grocery for Herbert and Judith. (Judith was the “Knight” — Herbert just married above himself.)

Hot Coffee had been on my “to do” list ever since I started roaming around Mississippi with my camera — finding places that not everybody knew about but needed to. The odd name is the Covington County town’s attraction. Way back, folks traveling to where, Laurel? Ellisville? It varies with the telling. Anyway, after a few hours, they were weary and wanted a break. So, the driver of the coach would tell them that they were only, “So many miles from Knight’s Store and a good cup of hot coffee.” After a while, it got shortened to “We’re just so many miles away from hot coffee.” And before you knew it, hot coffee, a beverage in a cup, became Hot Coffee, a destination on a map.

Harper’s store was an amazement to me. They had pretty much everything a country store should have — from “Co”-Colas to hoop cheese — and of course, a pot of hot coffee. Plus, Herbert put together a museum of old stock he had found in the warehouse room. He displayed high top, button-up women’s shoes, old dresses, men’s hats, coal oil lamps and medicine bottles. Herbert even found a stuffed sturgeon someone had caught in the Leaf River (I think it was the Leaf) and had it on display, too.

The oddest thing in his mini-museum was an old coffin. The old store used to sell coffins a long time ago. So, Herbert put it on a high shelf with a glove sticking out from under the lid. And when someone would look up at it, Herbert would pull on one end of a fishing line over on his side of the store which tugged on a fi nger of the glove in the coffin and the glove would wave at them. Needless to say, it was a conversation starter.

I miss the J&H Harper Grocery. The store was one of those things that had been there forever, and you just figured it always would be. But time has its own idea about what’s permanent and what’s not. The store closed several years ago. And Herbert himself recently graduated to where things don’t change nearly as quickly as they do in this life. But knowing Herbert, I bet he is already seeing if pranks are allowed. And if they are, watch out for when we get there. No telling what he will have rigged up.

 

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Walt is also a reporter and 4 p.m. news anchor at WJTV in Jackson. He lives in Brandon and is a Central Electric member. Contact him at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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