The Kingdom of Heaven Is a Country Store

By Kerry Rose Graning


Photo by   Peter Burka

Photo by Peter Burka

 

If she would marry him, he would build her a kingdom of heaven on Earth, a testament to their love for God and for each other, from the simple walls of her roadside country store in Mississippi.  

He'd build her towers of pink, red, and yellow cinder blocks with eagle-topped spires, and he'd cover them in Mardi Gras beads, aluminum-foil filigree, and bottle caps. He'd start work on a wooden prayer tower two stories high but not up to code, and he'd nail painted signs to it reading, GOD DON'T HAVE NO WhITE CHURCH AND he DON'T HAVE NO BLACK CHURCH. He'd turn the City of Vicksburg school bus in her side yard into a chapel and sit tourists down in the aisles while he stood at the wheel and preached that everyone, whatever they believed, was welcome here.

They had been dating for only a few months when the Rev. Herman D. Dennis proposed this in 1984. He was 68 at the time. She was 69.

As Margaret Dennis would tell a reporter years later, “I robbed the cradle a bit.” 

Both Margaret and “Preacher Man” (as she called him) have since passed away, while Margaret’s Grocery still stands but not without a hand to steady it.

Orange caution tape now encircles the property, clashing with the faded color scheme. The prayer tower leans a few more degrees every year. Blue and black tarps drape the store’s roof, which, constructed with layers of asbestos tiles and tar paper, is like a sponge, barely able to support the weight of a child. 

Mere feet behind the store sits the edge of an eroding ravine, and down at the foot of that ravine sits a brick Baptist church, which Margaret attended for over 60 years. The church now owns the ground her grocery stands on, and it, for reasons more complicated than artistic taste, seemingly wants little to do with the preservation of Martha’s Grocery.   

~~~

In 1944, Abie and Margaret Rogers bought a small trailer-like cabin on the side of Old U.S. 61 in the Kings community north of downtown Vicksburg. The only sign they installed above the porch read Margaret's Groc. & Mkt. in black ink. They had a slot machine and a jukebox, and they sold hogshead cheese, Coca-Cola, and, according to some rumors, bootleg liquor.   

It was one of the first black-owned businesses in Vicksburg.

In 1979, a man trying to rob the store killed Abie, and around that same time, Preacher moved back to Mississippi.  

He remembered being born, Preacher did, or so he used to tell people. He remembered his mother’s face, drenched in sweat, as she pulled him into the world and passed from it herself moments later, her arms slowly growing cold around him. He remembered being found days later and brought to his grandmother in the Mississippi Delta, then to his father, who treated him “worse than a dog.”

As a teenager, he ran away and found work on a cotton farm in Leland, Mississippi, until he was drafted to fight in World War II. The first time he ever preached to a rapt audience was on a ship headed to the South Pacific, which had just gotten word of an approaching Japanese fleet. After the war, he enrolled in a German-run school in Georgia. There, they taught him masonry, carpentry, and a lesson that would stick with him years later: 

“They said don't build something like anybody else. Make it different. Make it better."

~~~

And that’s what Preacher tried to do for the next twenty-five odd years. 

At night, in a tiny bedroom at the back of the store, Margaret would dream, but Preacher would have visions, instructions from God. In the morning, she’d help him interpret them, and they’d go to work on a replica ark of the covenant or a sign reading “The Devil Is on the Prowl” or a vented tower for an outdoor barbecue pit. 

There was no money. They scavenged almost everything — the plywood, the bricks, the plastic flowers, and the painted toilet-tissue rolls. Preacher would glue hair bobbles and Christmas ornaments to plastic-foam trays from Margaret’s meat counter and arrange them on the ceiling like the tiles of a basilica. On Margaret’s birthday one year, she told him she wanted to paint some of the red and yellow cinder blocks pink — her favorite color — and she ate snap peas from her pocket while she did it.   

 
Photo by   Peter Burka

Photo by Peter Burka

 

Years passed this way. The grocery captured the attention of the occasional local newspaper, of European tourists following the “blues highway,” and of Southern art professors, who included it in their folk-art slideshows. Margaret and Preacher were photographed for books and featured in National Geographic Traveler.

But they continued to live on nothing, until nothing was no longer enough. In 2009, Margaret got sick and passed away. Preacher followed three years later. And upon their deaths, Margaret’s Grocery was deeded to the Cool Springs Baptist Church.

~~~

For decades before she met Preacher, Margaret led Sunday school at the church, teaching countless children how to read. The congregation’s affection for her was and is still palpable. But though she brought Preacher along with her most Sundays after they married, Don Maxwell, father of the current pastor, Byron, will still tell you they knew her first husband much better. 

When I visit father and son during a break in choir practice, I get the vibe they didn’t appreciate someone else preaching on the hill above them and they didn’t appreciate that someone’s ostentatious display. The first time I walked into Margaret’s Grocery, it reminded me less of a simple Baptist church and more of a Catholic cathedral — the white, scroll-cut boards like a vaulted ceiling, the collages of magazine cutouts, toothpaste caps, and teddy-bear beads like marble friezes.  

On top of this, Preacher, while full of love, was also full of passion and easily carried away. His sermons for tourists occasionally slipped into fire and brimstone, and he was known to follow their cars out onto the highway as they left, evangelizing through the crack in the window. He also sometimes came to Cool Springs as a “visiting preacher” (a title that sounds self-appointed when Don says it) and kept up loud commentary while the pastor spoke. 

“You couldn’t stay up there too long with him,” Byron says, laughing.

He also admits he doesn’t hear a lot of support in the community outside the church for the preservation of the grocery, and while his congregation would like it saved, it’s out of their hands. They don’t have the money.

The best hope for its preservation, it seems, is a pocket-sized woman sporting a pair of steel-toed boots and a snarling weed-whacker.

~~~

Suzi Altman first encountered Preacher and Margaret the way most people did — by pulling her car up outside the store. It was 2001. She’d just come from a 15-year stint in New York City to work on a movie set in Mississippi and was struck by Preacher’s milky blue eyes, Margaret’s cracked voice repeating everything to him because she knew his hearing aid never worked, and the way they invited her into their home mere moments after their introduction. She decided she’d been up North too long.

She started visiting a few times a month, bringing some groceries and cash and her camera along. When Margaret passed away, she spoke at her funeral, and when Preacher got sick, she helped move him into a nursing home. And about 10 years ago, she started a nonprofit to save the grocery.

Unfortunately, kudzu waits for no woman. Neither do weeds, ant beds, or rust. So Suzi and her wife, Nancy Anne, spend endless hours at the site keeping all natural attackers at bay. Their battalions are especially aggressive in May, when I meet the women there. Once we’ve got them on the retreat, though, we spread a blanket out before the old barbecue pit and celebrate with gas-station fried chicken and meat pies.     

“The church owns the dirt we’re sitting on,” Suzi says between bites. “I own everything above it and I pay rent. I came here with a check to buy the land, but… .” She trails off, shrugging her shoulders. 

She’s tried to tell the church elders that preserving the grocery would also bring economic development and tourism to the area. They say they want it saved, but twice she’s shown up to discuss getting their story out there and twice they’ve stood her up.

“It's in their community. … They are an integral part of this. But they need to show their support — that means monetarily, physical labor, a picnic lunch or fundraiser or a community event.”

She says most of the congregation has never even been on the chapel bus and wanted it sold for scrap before she bought it.

The image of the bus — sweaty Italian tourists seated in its shag carpet-covered pews, blinded by tinsel and aluminum foil, and Preacher at the wheel pouring his heart out to them — is what first drew me to this site. 

But there are other images in my head. The shuttered businesses along my drive here. An unoccupied swing fixed to an asphalt slab, which I think is supposed to pass for a playground. A homely, rusting school bus parked along the adjacent road that would make Preacher cringe. And the muddy flood water swallowing the homes near the church. And inwardly, I can’t help but wonder, who can blame them?  

~~~

“It was so different there when I was a kid,” says Vicksburg’s current mayor, George Flaggs Jr., of the Kings community. Local businesses and families once thrived. It was once self-sufficient.

Now, the few residents left are too old or too poor to move out, no new businesses have moved in for years, and petty crime runs rampant. Suzi constantly comes up with new ways to safeguard the grocery from burglars, who once yanked its air conditioning unit right out of the window and stripped the back room of its copper piping as Preacher slept nearby.

Much of this can be attributed to rising water and abandoned neighborhoods. Almost every year now, the Mississippi River floods, overflowing the nearby Yazoo River into the Kings community. Most of those affected don’t have insurance and are flooded out of their homes for months at a time.

In 2018, the mayor approved a $98,000 contract for a redevelopment plan of the area and a citywide $55 million capital improvements project. But Kings residents aren’t holding their breath, especially after the project was greenlit, then put on hold, and greenlit again within a year. 

“The revitalization project could do some good, but it’s just a matter of whether it’s actually going to happen or not,” says Pastor Maxwell.

I envisioned this article as a simple love letter to Margaret’s Grocery. Just look at it, Suzi and dozens of others in the art community said. What kind of person wouldn’t care about preserving that? 

But if my house was underwater a few months every spring or my voice went ignored because no one in my community was a major taxpayer and some women from out of town told me my real concern should be an abandoned grocery store, my question might instead be, who gives a damn?

~~~

There are no villains here. Suzi, the Maxwells, Mayor Flaggs — these are just a bunch of people trying their best to save the things they love.

It’s just that Margaret’s Grocery doesn’t have much time left to be saved.

That’s the thing about art made by poor people. Styrofoam meat trays are not exactly a durable medium. Neither are tissue-paper rolls, plywood, or magazine clippings.

The question now is how to preserve something that's so susceptible to the elements, not just the wind and rain, but the politics of race, religion, poverty, and privilege surrounding it.  

Suzi wants to restore the site to a faux roadside attraction again where people can stop, take pictures, and read signs explaining what it once was and directing them to a climate-controlled building downtown. Here, she wants to recreate the interior of the grocery; unfortunately, it seems the most fragile elements must be moved indoors if they’re to be saved. 

The most promising aspect of the plan involves using the downtown building as an interpretive center with meeting spaces, workshops, and classes teaching kids to use their phones to record the oral history of the Kings community and of the grocery. I’m nervous, though, about how much of the site will get moved there, how well Kings will be represented, and how little interest will remain throughout the art world in helping this community once it’s gone. 

If you Google Margaret’s Grocery, you’ll find dozens of simple love letters waxing poetic about this theological park, its folk elements and vernacular art, and its self-taught, outsider artist. 

You’ll find very little on the Kings community, though. 

But they can’t be so easily separated, not if the goal truly is to preserve Preacher and Margaret’s message. Old U.S. 61 was once a major highway. People from all backgrounds, every race and nationality, would be tempted to stop by the towering colors against the skyline — the red, yellow, blue, white, and pink. Preacher wanted them to stop here. Not in touristy downtown Vicksburg, not at a museum. In this community. Majority black. Majority poor. 

Forget art. Forget religion. Preacher never called himself an artist, and I’m not even sure he was very good at his namesake either. Rather, the reason he and Margaret painted it the way they did was simply so that everyone would see what they saw.

“People are like a bouquet of flowers,” he once said. Remarkable, almost divine, like a roadside country store, “like a bouquet you’d give to your wife, all different colors.”