Ed Grisamore

Gris: Miss Essie still minds the store


Estelle Jarrell lost track of the number of steps she has taken from her house to Jarrell’s Grocery.

It may be the most well-worn path in Taylor County.

It’s a short distance, unless you’re measuring in calendars. A strong-armed country boy could aim a slingshot from the edge of her bed of Knock Out roses and hit the side of the store, which was built in 1905.

“I’ve walked many a mile going to that store,” she said. “And I’ve walked many a mile inside that store.”

Estelle is the matriarch of the community that bears the family name. There are so many Jarrells in this neck of the woods, you could shake a tree and one of them would probably fall out.

Jarrell’s Grocery on State Road 208 is the center of that universe. It’s an institution, a step back in time that still sells hoop cheese and “streak o’lean” fatback. It had a cracker barrel long before there was a Cracker Barrel.

There is an antique cash register on the worn wooden counter, covered with four generations of fingerprints. Most of them belonged to Estelle, who, until recent years, wrote out all her sales receipts in longhand.

Last Sunday, at Miss Essie’s 100th birthday party, new road signs went up at each end of Union Church Road. By proclamation, it was renamed Estelle Jarrell Road.

Her father-in-law, Floyd Jarrell, opened a dry goods and hardware store in the back of his house more than a century ago. He later built the store across the road, selling everything from chicken feed to shoes to bolts of cloth and cans of Vienna sausage.

At one time, there were other small, country groceries along the same stretch of State Road 208. Many locals still refer to it as the Old Wire Road. The telegraph wire from Richmond, Virginia, to New Orleans, ran beside it. In the community of Jarrell, the dirt road once detoured in both directions around a large oak tree, giving new meaning to ‘‘divided highway.”

Estelle was born on the Talbot and Taylor County line. Her family migrated along the Old Wire Road near Jarrell when she was 2 years old. As a child, she bought candy at Jarrell’s Grocery. She started getting the family discount in 1934 when she married Fred Jarrell Sr. at the height of the Great Depression. They later ran both a dairy farm and operated the store.

Once upon a time, there were three front doors, with groceries to the right, dry goods in the center room and hardware behind door No. 3. The walls eventually came down for one-stop shopping.

She has lived in her house a couple of hundred paces up the road for almost 75 years. She and Fred Sr. moved there on Christmas Eve in 1940. Two days later, her oldest son, Fred Jr., was born.

In the early years, she could peep through the holes in the floor and watch the chickens running under the house. Or look up at the threadbare ceiling and see a few stars at night.

Her husband died in 1988. Until a few years ago, she opened the store every day except Thursday -- her day to go to the beauty parlor in Butler -- and Sunday, when she took her place in the pews at Union United Methodist Church.

Now, her day is not complete unless someone takes her to the store to sip a bottle of Coca-Cola and greet the loyal customers who drop by.

“I don’t feel right if I don’t get to go down there in the afternoon and sit on the sofa,” she said.

Although her sons, Fred Jr. and John, take turns keeping the doors open, it’s more a way of life than a livelihood. They are there for a few hours every day, usually in the late morning and afternoon, still honoring their mother’s traditional Sunday and Thursday days off.

“We stay open for the community,” said John, “and out of the goodness of our heart.”

“We told her one day we might have to close the store, and she said we couldn’t do that,” Fred Jr. said. “I said, ‘Mama, who is going to run it?’ And she said, ‘I am.’”

Maybe she could. After all, she might live forever. Her genes are as strong as tenpenny nails. She has had siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and other kinfolk who reached their 90s and even 100s. It is with great sadness she remembers her twin sister, Katie, who died at 5 months old.

Miss Essie doesn’t stay in the kitchen much any more, but she is legendary for her fried chicken, pound cake and divinity.

It has been nice to have the key to a 110-year-old grocery store next door.

She has never lost her way.

Contact Gris at 744-4275.