For some families in north Mississippi, their life’s work is a part of their heritage.
Written by Rachel Burchfield | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Tupelo Hardware Company
Tupelo Hardware Company, the iconic shop where Elvis’ mother, Gladys Presley, bought him his first guitar instead of the rifle he really wanted, nymight be the most famous hardware store in the world. But it is also an institution within the bonds of the Booth family, now in its fourth generation as a thriving family business.
George Booth III is the fourth generation of Booth men who have run the store and is currently Tupelo Hardware’s vice president — his father, George Booth II, is the owner and president. Booth III was a teacher in South Carolina for a number of years, but always knew that running Tupelo Hardware was a foregone conclusion for his future. He came back to Tupelo five years ago to assume the role of second-in-command and heir presumptive of the family business.
“I taught school for a number of years in South Carolina, and a lot of people probably thought I’d stay there,” Booth said. “Teaching was fun, and I enjoyed it, but I knew I would come back at some point. For anybody who’s on down the line like me in the fourth generation, there’s definitely pressure to try to keep things going.”
Booth’s great-grandfather, George Henry Booth, opened Tupelo Hardware 93 years ago in 1926, three years before the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginnings of the Great Depression. The business survived that dark period and the horrific 1936 F5 tornado in Tupelo that killed 216 and leveled many businesses. In 1946, five years after Tupelo Hardware’s new building opened in 1941, Gladys Presley stopped in to buy her 11-year-old son Elvis a birthday present. She paid $7.75 and 2 percent sales tax for a guitar that changed music — and Tupelo — forever, eternally cementing Tupelo Hardware into the annals of history.
In 1945, George Henry Booth’s son, William Thomas Booth, returned from World War II and went to work for the family business. After his death in 2000, his son, George Booth II, took over at the reins, and is still owner and president today. In 2014, George Booth III began working full-time for Tupelo Hardware, and family ownership will likely continue into a fifth generation — that is if Booth’s 18-month-old son, William Colin Booth, signs on to it.
“If my dad had just worked here as an employee, I wouldn’t have had the draw to come work here myself, especially since I had other interests,” Booth said. “But the fact that we own it, it’s different — think of it as renting versus owning a house. If you own a house, you have to maintain the value of the home in order to get the proper return on investment. When you own a business there is blood, sweat and tears invested, and you have more skin in the game.”
In a poignant photo, two-year-old Kaleb Nelms stares right into the camera, dressed in an incredibly oversized firefighter’s jacket and boots belonging to his father, Shawn Nelms. At the time the photo was snapped in 1999, Shawn had worked for the Corinth Fire Department for about a year. It was around this time, Kaleb says, that he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a firefighter, just like his dad.
And 21 years later, he made it happen — as of January, Kaleb ybecame not only rShawn’s son, but also his firefighting brother. They can’t work on the same shift since Shawn, now a lieutenant, can’t have supervisory charge over Kaleb, a rookie. )But every morning, Kaleb’s crew relieves Shawn’s crew at Station 4 in Corinth. And every morning, Kaleb comes in early to work, arriving at 6:15 for his 7 a.m. shift — to have coffee with his dad.
“That few minutes in the morning is kind of special,” Shawn said. “A lot of mornings I still see him as a little boy and think ‘How does the time pass this fast?’”
Since firefighters work 24-hour shifts every third day, they become as close-knit and tight as any family. Shawn’s fellow firefighters watched Kaleb grow up just as Shawn did, and Kaleb played as a child with the kids of many of his firefighting brothers. Now that he’s one of them, they kid him and call him “Baby Nelms.” Though it is a family tradition in many bigger cities like New York and Boston to pass the firefighting torch down in families from generation to generation, Shawn said he would never force his son to follow in his footsteps unless he wanted to — which Kaleb always odid.
“My dad’s always done everything he had to do to make ends meet,” Kaleb said, choking back tears. “Firefighting has been a part of my life since I was born. It’s all I ever wanted to do, and I’ve never changed my mind. It really means a lot to make sure our name gets carried on. It makes me want to be a better firefighter. I’ve seen the pride he takes in his work, and I’ve seen how happy it makes him.”
“He’s got big boots to live up to,” Shawn said. “I always told him growing up, ‘If you want to pick up the axe and run with it, pick up the axe and run with it.’ The bar is set high for him to live up to. If he wants to be equal to or greater, he knows what he’s got to accomplish. I am so proud of him — every father aspires for their kid to do greater things than they ever did. There’s not a more loyal line of work to do [than firefighting].”
Station 4 isn’t the only Corinth fire station where fighting fire is the family business.
Ricky Maness became a firefighter in 2002, when his two middle sons Tate and Tanner were 8 and 6, respectively.
As little boys, Tate and Tanner were fascinated by their dad’s fire truck and wanted to dress up in the uniform just like him. As teenagers, they remained interested, often showing up as bystanders to a fire Ricky was fighting, to watch him at work.
“If they were not in school or if it wasn’t in the middle of the night, they were there for about every big fire we had,” said Maness, an engineer at Station TK. “That inspired them, watching me do it. They’d say ‘I want to do what Daddy does.’”
Now 25 and 23, Tate and Tanner have officially made their father’s work a family affair. The brothers each joined Corinth Fire Department at age 21, the earliest one can become a firefighter, in order to get the most beneficial experience from the career.
“I told the boys ‘If you want to do it, start at 21,’ and they both did,’” Maness said. “I wish I’d started earlier.”
Maness is proud to have second-generation firefighters in the family, but of course, he worries. He works with one of his sons on some shifts, and even though he is his firefighting brother, he’s still his son — and watching him run into a burning building can be nerve-wracking.
“I operate the trucks, and I don’t get to see what’s going on inside,” Maness said. “I do worry, but it also excites me to watch them, knowing they’re turning into men now. I’m proud of them.”
It’s too soon to tell if there will be a third generation of firefighters in the Maness family. Tate and Tanner’s children are just babies. But Maness said it could happen — the most likely candidate right now is his oldest grandchild, 6-year-old Jace, who dresses up as a firefighter for Halloween.
“I’d be excited to see it,” Maness said. “There’s some bigger towns that have third generation firefighters, but I’ve never seen it around here. If it does, that’d be great. I’d never tell them not to do it.”
Brody’s Family Restaurant
Brody’s Family Restaurant is all about family, right down to the eatery’s name. When Kallie Hughes opened her restaurant in 2000, it was called Main Street Grill and Pizzeria because of its location on Main Street in Okolona. But when the restaurant moved in 2007 to Church Street, its name no longer made sense. So Hughes — who now has the second generation of her family business, son Chris Hughes, as co-owner — named the restaurant after her first grandchild, Brody. (The Hugheses now have seven grandchildren, twith the eighth due in August.) The restaurant’s commitment to family is reflected in its full name: Brody’s Family Restaurant.
In fact, nearly every member of the Hughes family has worked at Brody’s at one point or another, but Chris Hughes has stayed on even after his siblings went off to pursue careers elsewhere. He finished his mathematics degree at Mississippi State and returned to help run the restaurant, known for its burgers, dinners like hamburger steak, catfish and country fried steak, and homemade pizzas with hand-tossed dough. (Hughes said he can still remember studying for tests back by the pizza oven.)
While the Hughes family is behind the operations of the restaurant, Brody’s family encompasses the entire town of Okolona.
“Being as tight-knit as this town is, you get a lot of connections with a lot of people,” Hughes said. “A lot of the people that come in feel like extended family. We talk with them, we laugh with them, and it sucks to lose them. We’ve lost quite a few over the years, whether they pass away or just move off to other places, and it hurts when those things happen.”
Brody’s has customers who have been eating there since the beginning. Some people stop by every day.
“In a small town, everyone knows everyone, and I can just about tell you everyone’s name that walks in,” Hughes said. “They don’t have to tell me what they’re going to order, I just go back and grab it.”
Other customers, like ones he had this week, are brand new, but still treated like family.
“Just the other day we had three guys in from South Africa,” Hughes said.
The restaurant’s loyal customer base grew from Brody’s commitment to good food and good service — and, as Hughes said, because people have to eat.
“I was at the bank earlier talking about something, and mentioned Brody’s was closed for a couple of weeks [for the Fourth of July],” Hughes said. “The girls in the bank were like ‘Where am I gonna eat?’”
Only about six people have ever worked for Brody’s that weren’t blood family, Hughes said, and they become like family, too.
“A lot of days it doesn’t even feel like work,” Hughes said. “We come in, clean and prep, talking and joking the whole time. We walk out at night, talking and joking the whole time..
“Family is the business.”