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Weekly 150

Mr. Leon Purvis (Part I)

Country Boy, Grocer and Musician

Posted 11/26/19

Thumbing through the archives this week, I came across a feature about Leon Purvis from 2004. I vaguely recollect Mr. Leon in the local grocery store, but a few years ago I met his son Keith through …

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Weekly 150

Mr. Leon Purvis (Part I)

Country Boy, Grocer and Musician


Thumbing through the archives this week, I came across a feature about Leon Purvis from 2004. I vaguely recollect Mr. Leon in the local grocery store, but a few years ago I met his son Keith through the Washburn family. Deborah Turner’s feature was packed with numerous stories about Mr. Leon, and I felt it fitting to include the majority over a two-week period.

Ivy Leon Purvis was born October 16, 1930 to sharecroppers Barnie and Susie Brown Purvis in a log cabin near Trezevant, on a farm Purvis called the “Jim Green Place”. Leon was the fourth child in a family of seven children: two girls and five boys.

When he was just a few months old they moved to the Harvey Quinn near Walker’s School, one-room schoolhouse located four miles north of Atwood, where five of the children attended school. Flora May Pendergrass and Bertha Lynn Walker where two of the three teachers who taught 30-plus students each from first to eighth grade.

“One teacher with 30 students or more made it hard to learn,” Purvis said. “I had to rely on my brothers and sisters to help teach me at home, besides, Dad and both Mother had very little time to help; besides, they both had very little education, if any, but they could still sign their names, count money and figure cotton weights.”

“By this time there were five of us children big enough to help Dad and Mom on the farm,” said Purvis. “We were a very poor family as far as money was concerned, however, I can’t ever re­call going to bed hungry. My mother was an ex­cellent cook and could always come up with three meals a day, maybe two in the winter months.

“In the spring and summer, we always had a good garden that provided plenty of fruit and vegetables. In the fall and winter, we had canned fruit and vegetables along with cured pork meat from the smokehouse, plus canned tenderloin and sausage.

“One of the first things I remember at school was swapping my sausage and biscuit lunch for some peanut butter and crackers. We never could afford peanut butter. In fact, there was never any in the cupboard until I married and went to work in a grocery store in the early ‘50s in Trezevant.”

The family’s nearest neighbor was Clip arid Bertie Palmer, who owned the first radio in the community. “It was a huge radio, about two and a half feet wide and half as tall as a modern refrigerator,” recalled Purvis.

“The dial was about the size of a tea cup and it had about eight or 10 buttons for tuning. This is where I first heard the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville.”

Neighbors gathered at the Palmers waiting for the “Solemn Ole Judge” George D. Hay, to blow, “something like a fog horn” and say ‘Let Her Go Boys!’

From 8 p.m. until midnight, hands kept busy pulling cotton from the cotton bolls the Palmer family had piled high as the ceiling in an empty room.

What a good fellowship!’’ Leon recalled. No one thought about going home ‘til the Opry went of at 12; they only talked during commercials.

Leon and his brother Glynn enjoyed tagging along with their father on trips to Curtis Tate’s small grocery store in Trezevant on Saturdays, where their absolute needs were purchased “on the credit.” Arriving in their two-horse wagon, the boys would play marbles and spin tops until around 4 p.m. when it was time to go home.

“Wait a minute,” the boys would say, scrambling to the store to spend their nickels each had been carrying all day. On the way home, they’d rummage through the grocery box while their dad drove the wagon.

“We found no goodies, just necessities like flour, sugar and coal oil for the lamps, as we didn’t get electricity in our area until about 1944 or 1945.”

Leon and Gynn were the only Purvis children still in school when, in 1941, the family moved to the Cobb Place, about two miles east of the Hollyleaf community. Lloyd was in Europe in the Army; Mildred was married and her husband, Bill Smith, was fighting the Japanese in the Pacific; Billy Joe had died at 17 months old with colitis in 1938; Imogene quit school when she was 13; and the youngest, Jimmy Lee, born in 1941 was just a baby.

Argo School, better known as “Cross-eye” was about a mile across the fields. Legend had it several women teachers had been run off by some of the -older boys, who at around 20 years old were more interested in mischief and meanness than either learning or work, and got their kicks out of seeing how fast they could run each new teacher. The problem was finally solved when a “big, tall, ugly cross-eyed man” took the job and got their attention.

“The students said they couldn’t tell who he was watching, so they all learned to behave,” Leon laughed, “Thus the school was referred to as Cross-eye until it was torn down in the mid-’40s and everyone then was bused to the city schools.”

Leon ranked first in his class when he gradu­ated from the eighth grade in 1944, and also last, since he was the only student in his class. His teachers, Rachel Coleman Akin and, later Mozelle Pinson -both of whom he was very fond - boarded with people who lived near the school as “it wasn’t feasible to go back and forth to Trezevant or Jarrell Switch five days a week.”

After moving to the Carl Wallace place, then back to the Cobb place for a time, the family in 1945 moved “into our own home built by Dad with a hammer, handsaw and a square, little more. Leon graduated from Trezevant High School in May 1948 and immediately went to work in a grocery store for Curtis and Marg Tate called H and T Grocery, making $12.50 per week.

A couple of years later, Roy Watkins asked if he would like to cut meat for him in a larger store just down the street.

“I told him. I had no experience at this and he said, ‘I know that, that’s why I want you; I’ll teach you the trade. The last two or three butchers thought they knew how, but they were just botchers.’ My starting pay was $25.00 a week. I thought I would fill up a corner in the local bank.”

When he wasn’t busy in the butcher shop, he helped bag beans and other grocery items to load on John Bunt Adams’ “Doodle Wagon,” a rolling grocery store mounted on a wagon pulled by two big horses, through different routes, five days a week. Later, a bob truck was able to make the runs faster.

A few years later, Glynn King and Ben Everett, owners of the U-Tote-Em grocery chain and KECO Milling Company, bought the Watkins’ store and retained Leon as their butcher. After several months, he became the chain’s youngest manager at the age of 24, a position he held for about ten years.

Leon continued living on the family’s 65-acre farm until, in 1954, he married Wanda Gay Castleman of Gleason, and moved to Trezevant. The couple had one child, Leon Keith, born in 1957, and also raised Leon’s niece, Donna, from the age of three.

Between the years of 1947 and 1950, Leon and several of his friends formed a country music band with Leon singing, Hilliard Mann on mandolin, J.L. Rodgers on steel guitar, and Millie Frances Burpe on rhythm guitar.

They played at community centers, picnics and “just any where we were asked that didn’t sell or allow alcohol on the premises,” as well as radio programs as far away as Humboldt.

Leon and Hilliard later formed a gospel quartet called the “Rhythmaires” with Leon singing first tenor, Fred Gowan singing tenor and sometimes lead, Richard Welch singing lead and other parts, and Mann singing bass. Fred’s wife, Patricia, was a pianist.

“We had a good time singing at homecomings, revivals, and community events and did a Sunday morning radio broadcast over McKenzie’s WHDM radio station for two or three years, with the studio being under the old McKenzie Hotel (now where McKenzie Banking Company is) in a small section of the basement,” Leon says. “After this group, I filled in for other members of the McKenzie Quartet while some were out due to illness. One long period was when Gillman Presson was out with a throat problem.”

Jason R. Martin

B.S. • M.A.Ed • MLS

Councilman, Ward II

Rotary Dist. 6760, Asst. Governor

WestStar Class of 2019

P: 731.352.3323

E: jmartin@mckenziebanner.com

Jason Martin is a life-long resident of McKenzie. He graduated from McKenzie High School in 2000; earned a Bachelor of Science in History from Bethel College in 2004; a Masters in Education from Bethel University in 2009 and a Masters in History and Humanities from Fort Hays State University in 2011.

Weekly 150, McKenzie,


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