Local families recall memories of life at ‘The Mill’

by Benita Fuzzell
AS THE MILL – This vintage photo of Reed Bros. Feed & Seed was provided by Kay Nelms Mathias, whose childhood memories of the mill are shared along with her siblings in this week’s edition of The Current. (Photo submitted) AS THE MILL – This vintage photo of Reed Bros. Feed & Seed was provided by Kay Nelms Mathias, whose childhood memories of the mill are shared along with her siblings in this week’s edition of The Current. (Photo submitted)

As knowledge of the Reed Brothers fire in South Fulton began to spread, many of Lenny’s customers felt the devastation.

Some not only felt hurt for the Hohlbein family, Lenny’s employees and the loss of a business, but also for memories of Reed Brothers Feed and Seed, when it was affectionately referred to in their families, as “The Mill.”

Twin Cities natives, and current local residents, Kay Nelms Mathias, Billy “Bubba” Nelms, Jr., Ronnie Nelms, Connie Nelms Smith and Danny Kimbell have fond memories of the regulars at Reed Brothers beginning in the 1960s, when their fathers, Billy Nelms, Sr. and William Moss Kimbell first worked there, and later became owners, eventually selling the business to the Hohlbein family.

“The most enriching part of my memories of the mill was when it was filled with old gentlemen farmers, who may not have been educated in one way, but who were all so smart. I remember they knew so much about the earth, the weather,” Bubba Nelms said.

“For example, they might look up at the sky and say ‘See those clouds that look like filly tails? Those mean it’s gonna be raining this time tomorrow...things like that. A lot of those things I have never forgotten. I also remember the smell of molasses. You could smell it because when they would grind hay at the mill, junk hay, fescue, whatever, for feed, they would add more molasses to it so the cows would eat it. At the mill, you didn’t just buy feed, thy would clean seed. We would help Daddy down there, working. It really didn’t seem like work though. We would help unload the Purina trucks from Memphis, and we would try to get as many bags on a dolly as the grown men. There were times traffic would be backed up with 25 lined up to get feed. One funny story, there was this UPS driver, who would always come late on a Saturday. Daddy would try to close at lunch on Saturdays. Daddy told him he was going to have to buy him a watch so he would know what time it was because it never failed, that driver would come so close to lunch. But daddy loved to work there, and he loved the people. He would never open up on Sunday during church time, but if somebody needed something, feed and such on Sunday, after 1 he would open up for them. That mill provided financial security to a lot of families. It was the last one left. At one time we had Browder Mill, Butts Mill...Jack Austin had a mill behind the welding shop. But then the big farms kind of took over. At one time, there were lots of farmers who just farmed 80-90-100 acres,” Bubba said.

Danny Kimbell’s father, William Moss Kimbell, began working at Reed Brothers in 1949.

At that time he delivered feed in a 25 mile radius throughout this part of Kentucky and Tennessee. He would make his way around Ruthville, Dukedom and Latham, taking and delivering orders.

“When I got older, and worked at the mill, I actually had that same route. After a while, after I was born, Daddy started working in the office there in sales, in the early 60s. He ended up working there 50 years, until it was sold to Lenny,” Danny said.

When Danny was a student at Fulton’s Carr Elementary, he would often walk across the street, over into South Fulton to the mill where father was, because his mother was working at E.W. James then, before she began her career at a local bank.

“I would stay there with him until she got off. I remember a lot of older people sitting around inside there, drinking cokes and eating peanuts. It was a gathering place. I also remember a fire there, maybe in 1987-88, in the building east of where Lenny’s is now. It burned to the ground, and was rebuilt. There was another time, I remember standing on the dock, where the deck is, around Lenny’s and there was a flood that came up over that front dock, into the office, I think in the 1990s,” Danny recalled.

At one time, there was a feed mill at Butts Mill, Browder Mill and Reed Brothers, which was the last to grind feed.

“It’s kind of funny that Reed Brothers and Southern State, both ended up becoming restaurants, when they were both in the feed business,” Danny said.

In one building, back in his childhood days at the mill, he said feed would be ground and mixed for customers, then sacked. Salt, molasses and other things could be added according to what the customer needed.

He also remembers when the mill sold dog food, horse feed, cow and hog feed for any thing from baby pigs to hogs.

“When it was time to shell corn in the Fall, there were times when the 2-ton trucks would line up, and I tell ya, they would be lined up down the street from the mill and even across the street down the side of Carr Elementary. Reed Brothers had this really neat card system they used, for when grain would be brought in to the mill. If someone wanted to buy grain, to feed their cattle and hogs, after they brought the grain in to store, there was a system they used where they would have this card, and they would keep up with things that way, on everyone’s cared. Like, they would deduct 100 bushels off, and make a note of it on that card, of what was deducted,” he said.

Kimbell recalls there were “some great people who worked there, besides my dad and Mr. Billy Nelms”, including Mr. Mick Sanders, Mr. George Brock and Mrs. Jean Rushing, who was the secretary there for many years.

“It was a great place to work and just hang around,” he said.

Ronnie Nelms has a special piece of Reed Brothers history, an original sign from the 1950s which hung in the office.

“The sign is 50s, probably earlier. My dad took it down and was throwing it away. It was rescued off a garbage trailer by a man from Water Valley. It was a two-side sign and he sold me half,” Ronnie said.

“My biggest memory of the mill was all the folks sitting around in rocking chairs in the office eating peanuts and drinking cokes and coffee. I used to just sit and listen from the time I was a young boy to an adult. I learned a lot, some good, some bad,” he said.

The other thing that sticks out to Ronnie, is how the workers were more like family than employees.

“Many worked there their whole lives. It was just a fun place for me to experience growing up,” Ronnie said.

Connie Nelms Smith, the youngest of the Nelms children, remembers walking in the door of Reed Brothers, and there were dog food bags lining the outer walls.

“It was like a jungle gym for a kid. We climbed on them being careful not to tear them open. There was a pot belly stove in the area where Lenny’s pizza oven was. Now that I think of it, the exit pipe fitting might have still been on the wall. There was a circle of chairs that most always had old farmers sitting in them talking, reading the paper and eating the free peanuts that they had. Inside the front door to the left, where the trophy case was situated most recently, was a large wooden, very cool, seed cabinet that had drawers in it and every drawer contained different loose seeds. Along with the seeds were different size metal scoops and the “famous” small paper bags that were used to put the seeds in. I don’t remember them being weighed. I think they may have been priced by the scoop size,” Connie said.

Her reference to “famous” small paper bags is associated with her dad known for keeping a small cardboard box behind the counter, full of change, to purchase “a bar of candy and a sodie water” (as Mr. Billy called them), for every child that came through the door.

Kids visiting there were also sent home with a small brown paper bag full of double bubble bubble gum.

“We actually gave them away at Dad’s funeral as well. There was also this huge scale with a dial maybe 18” across and double bars for weighing and that was another fun thing to play on,” Connie said.

She said her dad never owned a calculator or computer and It was amazing to watch him take his paper tickets and add them up much faster than could be done with the most modern electronic devices.

“In the old days, there were swinging doors in between the office area, now the ‘bar area’ and the side room, where the stage is, at Lenny’s. They always reminded me of the old saloon doors you would see in old westerns, only longer and maybe solid, best I remember. That is where the truck scale was and I loved being down there with Dad so I could watch him take this long metal hollow tube and shove it into the farmers load of corn or beans and then close a lever on it and bring it back in to check it, maybe for moisture or something before weighing it and deciding how much the load was worth. There were several other rooms because that building went on and on. I do remember the seed sower that was back there. I really don’t know how it all worked but there was a spout that you could turn on and off and Dad would let me help situate the cloth seed bag and open the spout and fill the bag to the appropriate size. Then, there was a sewing device that would stitch the bags shut. There was also an opening in the floor for the over flow of seeds,” Connie said.

Reed Brothers also offered other services to farmers, such as spraying fields.

“Dad would spray the farmers fields. I am not sure if it was round-up or fertilizer or what but I would ride shotgun with Dad, bouncing around so much I would sometimes hit my head on the ceiling of the truck! We would ride with the windows down so that I could keep an eye on the boom, on my side of the truck to make sure the nozzels were not clogged up,” Connie recalls.

Kay Nelms Mathias, the oldest of the Nelms siblings, and the accredited historian of the family, said her dad began work at Reed Brothers one week after she was born in March 1956.

“He and Mr. William Moss Kimbell were good friends and they worked there together – Mr. Kimbell more the brains while Daddy served as the brawn. Daddy always remarked how “book smart” Mr. Kimbell was with mathematics, in particular. Daddy only had a high school education, but he could do anything from tinkering on an old car to remodeling our family home,” Kay said.

One of her earliest memories of Reed Brothers is the chicken house. In a building down the street and around the corner from the grain mill sat the chicken house. Mr. Billy Nelms was the one who took care of the chicken house and drove a refrigerated box truck which carried wooden slatted boxes filled with frozen chickens to deliver to many of the mom-and-pop grocery stores around the region.

“His route was not only local, but went as far as Duquoin, IL. My three siblings and I took turns riding with Daddy on the“chicken route”. What a glorious day spent riding shotgun with Daddy in that truck,” Kay said.

Kay also shares Connie’s memory of no customer entering Reed Brothers without Mr. Billy offering them a pop and a candy bar.

“I am certain they never made any money off those machines. Another one of my Dad’s favorite giveaways was Double Bubble bubble gum. It was in a huge tub under the counter and every kid who ever entered the doors left with a small brown paper sack filled with Double Bubble. At Daddy’s funeral as people left the service on a table near the door sat a tub of Double Bubble and small paper sacks so that folks could help themselves, just as Dad would have wanted.

Kay remembers one of the things folks in the community enjoyed was how large earthworms grew with all the grain which fell on the grounds around the mill.

“Those worms were huge and folks came regularly to dig up some of them to go fishing. Also because of all the grain and animal feed available with a creek running close behind the building rats were always present. These were well-fed huge rats and a few times a year we had a rat- killing at the mill to cut down the population. This helped to cut down on the damage they did eating into and destroying bags of pet food and grain on a daily basis. Because of the constant rat population and once the rats could no longer be killed with guns inside the city limits, Dad took in as many cats as he could. That may possibly be what spurred my need to rescue animals in my home as an adult. He invited anyone with kittens or cats that needed a home to bring them by the mill. He found homes for some of them, but there was always a broken bag of cat food or two available for them to eat,” Kay said.

She remembers, as a teenager, Harris Fork Creek flooded and there was muddy water running through downtown, Carr Street, and all along Broadway in South Fulton.

She said the South Fulton football field was filled with water and as the creek continued behind Reed Bros. the creek waters began to rise above the dock in the front of the mill.

“Daddy received a call that water was coming up above the dock and into the office of the mill. All of us took off walking toward the mill. Once we got near, we waded water up to our waists to get into the mill and began to move as much as possible up above the flood waters. We were able to salvage most things on that day,” Kay remembered.

She also recalls a turning point in her family’s life, when a fire burned the custom grinding mill at Reed Brothers.

“Daddy and Mr. William Moss Kimbell purchased the mill after that fire which they operated until his retirement in 2000. Once he retired and Lenny Hohlbein bought the property Daddy, Mr. Kimbell, and Mr. Mick Sanders stayed to help get things squared away,” she said.

“Reed Brothers was just “the mill” to us and our children as they grew up. It was always an adventure to go and see which customers were there when we went in. My Daddy ran a tight ship and didn’t tolerate the use of filthy language by any man in front of the ladies who worked there either at the counter or in the secretary’s office. As our son, Bryant, became a teenager he worked side-by-side with my Daddy as he attended high school. The mill holds such special memories for me and I will always treasure them. Nothing can take them away, not even a fire,” Kay said.