There is a tale-spin in a small Texas town. This man is to blame. And does he have stories.
by HOLLY HABER photographs by NAN COULTER
ATHENS, TEXAS — This East Texas town of 13,000 has an informal historian, and he holds court at the local Dairy Queen. Well, technically it’s not a Dairy Queen anymore, not since longtime owner Jay Benson died in 2006 and his daughter, Buffy Benson, learned the franchise fees would double. After a lot of angst and prayer, she retooled it into Benson’s Eats & Treats to honor her dad, who opened the fifth DQ in Texas here in 1949. Though the fast food now differs from DQ’s (it’s better) and the print on the ovoid sign reads Benson’s, locals in this quiet town just 90 minutes southeast of Dallas still call it the Dairy Queen.
Thurman Powell, a resident of Henderson County for nearly all his 89-and-a-half years — a man who grows collard greens and roses in the backyard and trims his grass by push mower — has a standing gig here every Monday at lunchtime: He greets customers and tells tales of his life and community. Powell has an encyclopedic memory. He easily recalls that it cost “three dollars and a quarter” for the new Winchester .22 rifle his daddy gave him around 1933, and he relates quirky stories, like the one about the merchants in Murchison and Athens who swapped general stores because they wanted to relocate.
“Everybody is happy — they love our Thurman,” says Benson.
Powell made a handsome living selling cars, and has lots of car tales. He bought his first automobile when he was a child by fixing a broken bicycle and trading it, along with $1.50, for an old Ford Model T. He sold that for parts and made about $4 in profit. He applied for a driver’s license at 14 because his dad wanted him to deliver produce to Athens in a 1937 Dodge pickup instead of the old way — by mule-drawn wagon. “We went to the courthouse and the guy said, ‘OK, turn the lights on, blow the horn, and let’s go drive around the square.’ We got out and he said, ‘OK, you get your driving license.’” He recalls a neighboring tenant farming family that had an old Model T they couldn’t afford to use. “They had six or seven children and didn’t have money for Christmas presents,” he recalls. “They went to town and got a can of gas and put it in the Model T and drove it around and around the house. That was their Christmas present.”
Jimmy Mitchell, a retiree who sees Powell at Benson’s nearly every Monday, comes over with his wife, Martha, and starts joking with Powell’s daughter, Susan Woodruff of Dallas. “My beauty nap isn’t working,” deadpans Mitchell. He wisecracks about losing money in the cattle business, while looking straight out of central casting in his feedlot cap and overalls. What’s the difference, I ask him, between a ranch and a farm? “Well,” he says, “it’s according to whether you’re from here or from Dallas. If you come here from Dallas or California, then you own a ranch.” Mitchell is collecting East Texas idioms for the Athens Daily Review. Can he recite some? “Quicker than a minnow can swim a dipper. Hotter than a pot o’ collards. Lower than a snake in a wagon track. It’ll feel good when it quits hurtin’. ” For once, Powell is stumped. He has dozens of sayings he’s written down for Mitchell, but he can’t remember them offhand. Later I call him and he recounts them, including one of his favorites: “If you want to start on top, dig a ditch.”
Stories are much more Powell’s forte. He might tell you how his grandfather and great-grandmother walked to Texas from Tennessee around 1870, and how he grew up in the ’20s and ’30s in rural Unity, which doesn’t exist anymore, plowing behind a big red mule and living mostly on salt pork, vegetables, beans and black-eyed peas.
“We ate mostly peas in the winter because you could keep them in a flour barrel — you ever heard of a flour barrel?” he says. Vapors from a pinpricked bottle of High Life poison placed near the top kept weevils out, he adds. They didn’t have electricity. “You didn’t buy ice until you started selling crops,” he notes. “Then you could have iced tea.”
Thurman Powell, a resident of Henderson County for nearly all his 89-and-a-half years, has a standing gig here every Monday at lunchtime