On a cold night in January 1983, Dottie Baker sat alone at a bar in Cleveland, Miss. Then 21 years old, she had just graduated high school after a year-and-a-half-long break she attributes to “rebellion.”
She was at a crossroads. She did not want to continue living in nearby Shaw, but she had no particular path out of the Mississippi Delta. When she was young, Wheeler dreamed of becoming a nurse, but life had not shaken that way.
Then, Jim Wheeler walked through the door and immediately caught Dottie’s eye.
“He had this large, muscular neck and these broad shoulders,” the now Dottie Wheeler recalled, gripping her neck and flexing her muscles. “And it all led to this small waist, just like a football player.”
Jim sat down at the bar as another man whisked Dottie away onto the dance floor.
When she returned to the bar, she looked at Jim and said, “That man was drunk.”
“There are a lot of drunk people here,” Jim replied before asking Dottie if she wanted to go somewhere else.
They left the bar together that night. By February, Dottie was living with Jim and his mother, Cassie, an hour northwest in Sherman Creek. There, Dottie helped Jim run his mother’s country store, Youngblood’s. Several months earlier, Cassie had fallen into poor health, which led Jim to return home from his career as a salesman in North Carolina to take over the business.
Dottie’s grandmother passed away in a house fire a few months later in June. Cassie got the call late at night.
“I fell to pieces when she told me,” Dottie said. “I got coffee and took a shower and calmed down before I went back (to Shaw). Cassie told me to stay as long as I needed, but I told her I would be back home (with Jim and Cassie) by the afternoon.”
Dottie had found a home in her new life with Jim and Cassie, and she dove fully into the work of managing the store.
“I got to be my own boss,” she said. “And I loved meeting all the new people. It felt like home to me.”
The store also connected to her motivations behind her original dream of being a nurse. Just like in a hospital, she was able to carry on a store tradition of helping people in need. Underneath the front counter, Dottie Wheeler keeps a black leather ledger. Its pages are filled with tabs, which customers can use as a way to get goods now and pay later.
“People come and tell you they are going through hard times,” Wheeler said. “It’s saying, ‘We will work with you,’ and helping them when they need it.”
In response, the community returns that trust. On the wall above the counter, a green poster board details people who did not pay their debts in a timely fashion.
“That specific list has been up there for at least 10 years,” Wheeler said. It features around only 15 names, most of them crossed out.
Feeding the Sherman Creek Community Since the Great Depression
M.R. Hackman originally founded the grocery store, which Jim Wheeler renamed Sherman Creek Grocery, during the Great Depression in 1933. Hackman was known in the community for helping his customers, often letting people take home food for free when they particularly needed it.
Rosie Gunn attended elementary school at the Sherman Creek school, and students could go to the store during their lunch break to get food.
“With 25 cents, we could get bologna, crackers and something to drink,” Gunn wrote on Facebook. “And if we didn’t have the 25 cents Mr. Hackman (would) still let us have it. I thank God for them.”
Sherman Creek Grocery is located in Tallahatchie County, Miss., off Highway 35, connecting Charleston to Batesville. The rural area once sported numerous small grocery stores and gas stations, but the rest have since closed, leaving Sherman Creek Grocery as the only nearby option for necessities.
“I try to keep my prices down so that people can afford it,” Dottie Wheeler said. Maintaining that goal has become more difficult, though, as the store is not on supply companies’ delivery routes for reasons Wheeler has been unable to ascertain. So she is forced to drive 70 miles to Southhaven to buy goods in bulk from the Sam’s Club.
More than just a place for groceries, the country store also serves as a beacon and timekeeper of the community’s past and its people. Customers regularly gather at a wooden table near the back of the store to talk or play cards.
“You didn’t need a clock or a calendar; you just needed to watch the kids grow up,” Dottie remembers Jim saying.
‘All This Sugar’
George Johnson, who goes by “Cuz,” came by the store for the first time in the late 1940s as a child. He was born into a sharecropping system on a nearby farm and often spent his free time on the store’s porch throwing nickels. He and his friends, usually other farm workers, would place a container on one end of the porch and attempt to toss a nickel into it from the other side.
Johnson still comes by the store almost every day, as he works for the farm across the road. His boss, Sam Hobson, said Johnson serves as a “walking encyclopedia” of Sherman Creek. The farm worker entertains audiences around the wooden table with his verbal stories, but his walk into the store tells a history of the community all its own.
He enters the store’s front door these days with a noticeable limp, a symptom of a hip replacement that he needed years ago. When Hobson took him to the doctor to see about the procedure, an x-ray of his leg yielded the discovery of bullets hidden within his leg from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Despite Johnson’s shuffling walk and slender frame, however, the sound of his large boots makes his presence unmistakable. His sizable footwear was once the reason a farmer caught him stealing sugar with his friends from that farmer’s illegal whisky still supply in the late 1950s. Numerous illegal stills hid away around the area, which led local authorities to cat-and-mouse games in the woods near the store.
“We saw all this sugar, and we each took some,” Johnson said. “I was told (the farmer) knew it was me because I was the only one with that big of feet. That was just after Emmitt Till. I thought I was gonna die.”
Johnson remembers his mother paying the farmer $70 and giving the sugar back. Now, those whiskey stills are long gone, and Johnson remembers and shares the old story while sitting around the country store table with a grin and a laugh.
“Like to went to hell!”
A Signature Sandwich with a Sweet Twist
George Hackman, M.R. Hackman’s grandson, does not visit the store regularly anymore, but when he was a child in the early 1960s, he helped his grandfather run the business.
“I could do everything but take the money,” Hackman recounted. “I was too young for that.”
Hackman spent most of his time watching, listening and learning in the store. Hackman remembers that farmhands would come in and make the same type of sandwich for lunch. A large metal jar was on the counter, filled with the vital ingredient: cookies.
“Two Jack’s lemon cookies, bologna and cheese,” Hackman said. “I eventually tried one and became addicted.”
Back then, the cookies would be stacked loosely in the jar. Customers would reach in with their bare hands to grab as many cookies as they liked.
“Couldn’t get away with that now,” Hackman remarked of the lack of sanitation.
The counter no longer boasts a cookie jar. Instead, a jar sits on the counter filled with individually wrapped pieces of chewing gum.
Going ‘Back in Time’ at the Historic Wooden Table
Initially, customers mainly used the back table for games of dominoes. The store constantly had a line of people waiting for a turn at the tabletop, which featured a dominoes board inscribed into the wood. In Charleston, dominoes games had entry fees. At the country store, the game was free to play.
“Eventually, the table’s lines were worn completely out,” Hackman recalled. “And then the new, plain wooden table had lines worn into it from the dominoes games.”
Dominoes games are no longer commonly played on the wooden table. Now, customers and community members like Johnson, Hackman and Hobson use it as a verbal time machine, whether they are waiting for one of Dottie Wheeler’s signature sandwiches or just killing time.
“These two can go back in time when they are together here,” Hobson said of Hackman and Johnson. “It always brings back memories that I have forgotten,” Hackman said of the table.
But Wheeler, who peers over at the wooden table and listens from her seat at the front counter or stops by to stand near a chair while checking the progress of an ordered grilled cheese on the stove, has no choice but to look ahead. She is keenly aware that maintaining a country store is challenging in today’s economy.
“All of the ones that are left are struggling,” she said. Running the place has gotten only tougher since Jim died in 2020. Most in the community thought that Dottie would sell the store.
“They were wrong,” Dottie Wheeler said with a glimmer, “When you walk into this store, it is like you are walking into my living room. I’ll be here as long as the good Lord lets me.”
Jim still has a presence in the store. Dottie keeps a laminated copy on hand of a column he wrote in the Charleston Sun-Sentinel in 2010 highlighting the history of the store and his childhood near it. Beneath the article are eight clipped-out advertisements for the store, each with a different slogan beneath the store’s name.
One stands out: “Change is difficult, but often essential to survival. We are changing.”
Sherman Creek Grocery (17 Peters Hill Road, Enid) is open on Mondays from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Sundays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, call the store at 662-647-3785.