Christmas in Wiggins.
We, too, have traditions that have been handed down to us. In more modern times, it is the Germans who have been given credit for initiating the custom of the Christmas tree as we know it. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes, "The custom of having a Christmas tree decorated with candles and hung with presents came to England with the craze for German things that followed Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840."
But church historians are adamant that the custom of the tree is much older. They point out that "believers" are the "righteous branch," and therefore a tree has been used to symbolize this truth since the days of Isaiah the prophet. They cite the custom based on Isaiah 60:13: "The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee; the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary." The "glory of Lebanon" refers, of course, to the great cedar trees that once grew in abundance there. The imagery of this verse, not to be taken out of context, is that the barren hills which surround Mount Zion (Jerusalem) will, in the new state of things (when Jesus comes back), be forested with tall, beautiful trees not unlike it was in the beginning in the Garden of Eden.
Christmas, the day that has traditionally been set aside by Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus, is the most revered of all holidays on the American calendar. This has been the case as long as the United States of America has been a nation, and it was not different 100 years ago when farmers, loggers, and others traveled over dirt roads to shop for their loved ones at the big Kew Mercantile Company store in Wiggins. This commissary served dozens of communities in south Mississippi for more than 20 years. The history of this store, with its seemingly unending variety of tools, Queens ware (china dishes), shoes, hats, bolts of cloth, books, coffee, tobacco, candy, and much more, is an interesting one.
In 1907, from 1,036 miles north of Wiggins, at Des Moines, Iowa, two millionaire businessmen, brothers W.O. and E.C. Finkbine, saw in the most northern section of Harrison County--that area which in 1916 became Stone County--considerable mineral wealth in the form of brick clay; ochre and paint pigments; building, moulding, and glass sands; timber; gravel; and building stones. This list of "milk and honey" was enticing to the two entrepreneurs, who already owned the Green Bay Lumber Company with lumberyards scattered all over the state of Iowa in addition to a 17,000-acre wheat farm in Canada. But the selling point that was of most interest to them was the vast acreage of virgin yellow pine timber.
The two men knew a good opportunity when they saw it, and before the year was out, they purchased the John H. Gary sawmill in Wiggins and built a large mercantile commissary to enhance their business. The commissary was operated under the name of the Kew Mercantile Company and served Finkbine Lumber Company employees and the community at large.
For most of the mill workers, the big store was a godsend, for it basically assured them that they would have food and clothing for themselves and their families. During this era, most blue-collar workers had never been trained in the handling of money. Many were tempted by the world and its ways to separate them from their pay. It was common knowledge that large percentages of these hard-working people were broke every week, well before the next pay period. Knowing this, lumber company owners (and not just the Finkbine Lumber Company) essentially protected their workers by paying them three times a day in checks or tokens that could be used solely in trade at the commissary store. Only on Saturday night were most workers paid in cash. As strange as this may sound to us today, this was a widely accepted practice, especially in the lumber industry, during the early decades of the 20th century.
There were other mercantile stores in Wiggins, but none was larger than Kew, and in the days before billboards were as popular as they are now, the storekeepers made good use of the exterior walls and front of the Kew building to advertise not only their products but their way of doing business. Their slogan, "The Big Cash Store That Always Gives Full Weight and Honest Measure," was painted in extra-large lettering on the front of the building. Also painted in easy-to-read letters were "One Price To All And That The Lowest," "Supplies Always The Freshest--Styles Always the Latest," and "Everything Marked in Plain Figures."
The Kew owners realized from day one that they were more than just the new kids on the block--they were also from north of the Mason-Dixon line. So they took extra steps to assure customers that they were not there to take advantage of anyone and that the store was there to serve the public by always giving them their money's worth whether they were buying fresh produce for resale or selling the latest household or clothing items. Consequently, as the lumber business grew, so did their stock and their store. In fact, they operated a branch store at D'Lo in Simpson County from 1916 until 1930 and another branch at Stillmore, a nearby lumber camp in Stone County, during the years 1926 and 1927.
By the 1920s, the name of Kew Mercantile Company was so well-established that it was virtually an institution. Shoppers came from as far away as Gulfport and Hattiesburg by train and automobile to shop for the latest items. It was not uncommon to see soldier boys who had gained a few hours leave from Camp Shelby there looking for something to send their mothers or sweethearts back home.
From a little Christmas sale catalog entitled The Guide Post, published by the Kew Mercantile Company in 1924, a number of interesting facts are discovered. On the first page of the 32-page catalog, the store owners referred to their establishment as "The Store of the Christmas Spirit." In page after illustrated page, they offered everything from Christmas decorations to a pre-cooked Christmas meal of turkey or chicken with all the trimmings to electrical lamps and appliances advertised with the words, "An Electrical Christmas Is a Happy Christmas." One page presented an array of items for ladies such as "Scarfs, Hand Bags, Beaded Bags, Gloves, Ivory Toilet Sets, Silk Umbrellas, Sweaters ...," with the headline reading, "Every Man Knows That Every Woman Likes Silk Underthings!" They offered furniture, curtains, blankets, linens, rugs, and other items too numerous to mention. For men, there were two complete pages of items from tools to neckties and from knit sweaters to leather boots. One advertisement showed a sketch of a smartly dressed man wearing a stylish hat under the wording, "Give Him A Stetson." Men were also encouraged to come and buy their gasoline for the low "Kew price" of 17 cents a gallon.
For the children, "Our Store Abounds in Christmas Gifts," read one full-page ad, along with the words, "Santa Claus has emptied his pack at the Kew--his own store--and invites everyone to meet him here." A list of some of the many toys in their toyland included "automobiles, velocipedes, iron wagons, metal banks, doll beds, wheel barrows, garden sets, mechanical toys, coaster wagons, doll buggies, toy pianos, ten-pin sets, rocker toys, block sets, mechanical trains, horse and carts, dart games, baseball gloves, marbles, tin spelling boards, toy drums, ring tossing sets, cedar chests, doll furniture, doll tea sets, friction toys, rocking chairs, tool chests, map puzzles, pedal bikes, fire engines, trumpets, dolls--all sizes, pop guns, musical instruments, and books ... Assembled in our Christmas book display are hundreds of books that boys and girls enjoy reading."
On October 29, 1929, the stock market fell in New York, bringing to an end the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans. The demand for goods and services plummeted literally overnight, and early in 1930, the Finkbine brothers--with no market for their lumber--were forced to close their mills and both of their beloved Kew Mercantile stores. It was the end of an era.
For years afterwards, untold numbers of Mississippians enjoyed reliving the moments when they walked through the doorways of the big Kew stores into the nicest wonderlands they would ever know. Today, the city of Wiggins is becoming one of the most thriving residential cities in the state. Few people a century ago could have visualized the Wiggins of today, and who knows but that the Wiggins of tomorrow may be "Kew Bigger" than even we can dream. Merry Christmas!