Characters, Cards and the Cotton Row Club

By admin  |  August 21, 2012  | 

The stuff of legends down Ramcat Alley in downtown Greenwood

by Maude Schuyler Clay

Located behind legendary Cotton Row in Ramcat Alley off the Yazoo River,  the Cotton Row Club is thought to be the second oldest building in Greenwood. A former stable and blacksmith shop, the Cotton Row Club became a place where cotton factors and other businessmen congregated around the 1940s. Since cotton season lasts only about four months, there was plenty of “down time,” and when the cotton men weren’t hunting and fishing, they were at the Cotton Club playing hearts, gin rummy and poker.

Emmett Chassaniol, whose grand-father started Chassaniol Cotton Company in 1919, has long been a player and observer of the cotton scene as well as a member of the club. He remembers fondly that Mr. Buff Hamlin and Mr. Chickie Smith would make a personal bet every year about the outcome of the Ole Miss/Mississippi State football game. Whoever lost the bet would have to “pick a turkey” (yes, pull all the feathers out of a shot wild turkey) on Howard Street in full view of everyone at the Christmas parade.

Another piece of lore, which Emmett swears is true, and which is verified with Mr. Charlie Swayze’s written documentation, is that a Mr. H. L. Hunt of Texas won $50,000 in a high stakes card game in Arkansas with a bunch of Delta cotton men, and that was the money that Hunt used to stake money on one of his many successful operations.

Mr. Stacy Ragland started coming to the club in the 1950s as a kind of a strong man (a.k.a. bouncer and keeper of the peace) for Mr. W. A. “Smitty” Smith. “They’d fuss and carry on, but I could take care of that,” Mr. Ragland says with a wink. “Never had the police come for nothing. But now, the FBI, they did raid the place.”

In 1971 the FBI raided all the alleged bookie joints in Mississippi, squatting for a week at the Cotton Row Club. In an attempt to find out who was actually placing bets there, the FBI took all incoming calls on the club’s phone. Several erstwhile people called in their bets unbeknownst, initially asking for Smitty or Mr. Ragland, whom the FBI said were “not available” or had “stepped out for a moment.” Plenty of people went ahead and gave their amounts and names, not realizing they were talking to the FBI, and some were later questioned.

When Mr. Nick “Neckbone” Joseph, a huge Notre Dame fan, called in his Notre Dame bet, he first asked for Smitty and Mr. Ragland. They were “unavailable.” Mr. Joseph queried, “Well, what is it looking like for the Almighty?” The “G” man on the horn, who was truly flummoxed, said, “What does pigskin have to do with the Almighty?” Mr. Joseph, realizing all was not copasetic at the Cotton Row, speedily hung up the phone.

The prevailing consensus on the FBI sting operation (in the end, no one was charged) was this: never before or since had that many cotton men been seen milling and idling about in Ramcat Alley.

Since there was largely nothing else to eat at The Cotton Row Club, the FBI men, who all week had been eating the requisite pickled eggs from the huge jar on the counter and putting the money in the “egg cup” provided, reportedly yanked all the egg money when they skedaddled out of town. Otherwise they didn’t get much of anything to pin on the Cotton Row Club.

Mr. Ragland bought the club when his former boss Smitty retired. Amy Evans of the Southern Foodways Alliance interviewed Mr. Ragland in 2003. When she asked him about the current atmosphere of the club, known for its “tight crowd and tight lips,” he answered, “Well, it’s more of a less, uh, a place where the cotton people, you know, come in here and have drinks some afternoons and—just sit a few hours before they go home. That’s about all it is to it.”

Evans asked if women were allowed in the club. “If they want to come in and sit down and have a drink with the men, I don’t care. But way back yonder, it was just strictly a stag club and a lot of wives just wanted to come in here to see what was going on and what the place looked like and everything, so well, it used to be, uh-no, uh-huh, no women hung out here,” said Mr. Ragland.

Cotton Row Club is not a restaurant, but a private hideaway and watering hole for local businessmen and their friends. An anonymous source says, “If truth be told, Cotton Row has always been primarily a bookie joint and a drunkard’s paradise. They have always played some serious poker there.”

Starting with cotton futures in days of yore and football, baseball, and basketball games, one could place a bet in Cotton Row. The-old-fashioned chalkboard, ticker tape, and the “wire” (Telex), which came out of New Orleans, used to be the norm, but now it’s mostly done with the telephone and the internet. The rule is that all bets are “collected (win) on Tuesday or paid out (lose) on Tuesday.”

Throughout the years there have been plenty of characters at the Cotton Row Club. In 1989, the members of the club welcomed fellow member and Viking employee, Dale Person, who had brought several Viking distributors from the East Coast as his guests. Some of the Cotton Row Club members met them at the door dressed in Civil War Reenactment uniforms, replete with guns, and their battle cry was, “Welcome Dale and your (expletive) Yankee buddies.”

Another longtime member, Walter “Toady” Garrott, made a list of “characters that have passed on in Greenwood and Leflore County.” This is a long list, but page one alone lists:

Sam Harris, Joe Holiday, Ollie White, Dr. Fred Sandifer, Sr., Mr. Whetstone (no one seems to know his first name), “Ole Man” Moyer, “Uncle Joe” Williams, Bob Barnwell, Faison “Chooky” Smith, David Earl Williamson, Charlie Bell, Sr., Big Bob Smith, Nick “Neckbone” Joseph, Ralph Holiman, Dr. Johnson, Willie Belk, Sam Williams. Three more full pages of names follow. Most of these “characters” were membersOne of the most amusing stories about the Cotton Row Club was when Mr. Tommy Gregory Sr., a successful businessman and inveterate card player, won the club from Mr. Whetstone. After repeatedly losing at gin rummy to Mr. Gregory, Mr. Whetstone finally threw down his hand—and the keys to the joint—and told him, “The club is yours.” Nothing was heard of Mr. Whetstone again. Mr. Gregory was responsible for putting in a concrete floor, as Mr. Whetstone had always had a dirt floor. As much as Mr. Gregory really wanted to keep the club, his wife, known as Baby Girl, said he absolutely could not keep it, and he sold it to Mr. Joe Holliday for around $1,000. Tommy Gregory Jr. reports that Mr. Gregory, who died in 2010, has some of his ashes “looking over the place.”

A beloved part of the Cotton Row Club was Mr. L. V. “Hambone” Howard, the only African American man amongst an entirely white membership. Hambone shined shoes at the club for more than 30 years. Hambone also answered the phones at Cotton Row, took wagers, and as he himself said, “I was there for Mr. Stacy through thick and thin.” He once had a sign (replete with hand drawn, E.T.-like pictures) that said, “I come all the way from Mars to get a Hambone shine.” When the Alluvian Hotel opened in 2003, they built a special shoeshine stand for Hambone. Some of the shoeshine moves Hambone demonstrated, what he called “finishing touches,” were “Granny’s Dog Bite, “Choo-Choo,” “Horse Trot” and the “TV shuffle.” In his life inside and outside Cotton Row, Hambone dressed in very colorful, natty suits and hats, and he daily delivered The Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper to businesses all over downtown Greenwood. He was also a preacher every Sunday for many years on the radio station in Indianola. If you listen to a recording of the Reverend Howard’s radio sermons, they sound like pure poetry:

“Nothing to Sell, but the truth to Tell. Your bible takes you out of a world of chaos and confusion And brings the healing balm of Gideon to every sin-sick soul. The Bible contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, The doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers. Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe, and practice it to be holy.”

Hambone died in 2010, about six months after Mr. Gregory died.

Bubba Buford bought the club in 2006 from Mr. Ragland, who retired due to bad health. It is currently run by Chris Cascio, the grandson of Faison “Chooky” Smith, who died in 1982. Cascio has made a few improvements to the physical structure, but not so many that it is much different from how it looked in the olden days.

On a recent visit to the Cotton Row Club, I was entertained royally and graciously by some of its members who told me the main rule of the club is: There are no written rules. The second (unwritten) rule is: “no thin skin is allowed.” Current membership numbers around 65; these days, to “keep the place running,” it is a paid membership with dues running about $300 a year.)

A kindly gentleman by the name of Andrew Dillard has taken Mr. Hambone’s place, and he will shine your shoes or fetch you a beer or bring you whatever you want—unless you want food.

Whitman Mounger told me in the days he was hanging out there, that Mr. Lewis Buford “cooked something at Cotton Row almost every day.” Viking donated a stove to the club in later years, but from what I understand, it has rarely been used. They sell cold beer out of an old Coke machine, but most members bring their own spirits and wine. There’s a movie theatre-style popcorn-popping machine with an intoxicating aroma, the aforementioned jar of pickled eggs, and that is about it in the way of refreshments.

As an institution, the Cotton Row is firmly attached to the historic cotton economy of Greenwood and the Delta. It’s a place of mythic folklore and it has a huge following. There truly is no place quite like the Cotton Row Club. But it’s not a place for sissies. Long-time member Tom Fulton has purportedly said on more than one occasion to newcomers and seasoned members alike, “If you get your feelings hurt easily, you need to get your a** out of the Cotton Row Club.”

Delta Magazine May/June 2011

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