Crisco Connection

Mamie and Tiny at the Buckeye house

“We later moved to a house on Mississippi Avenue, stayed there a short time, and then moved to the ‘Buckeye house,’ which was located next to the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company (later Yazoo Valley Oil Mill).

“Buckeye Cotton Oil was owned by Proctor and Gamble. Daddy had gone to work as a bookkeeper for the oil mill and later was made manager. Mama said he was the youngest manager (at age 28) in the Proctor and Gamble system, and she was quite proud of him. The Buckeye house was later moved from River Road to Strong Avenue, where it still stands today.”

“The Buckeye” still stands, too, vastly enlarged and sprawling over many acres on River Road Extended. The complex has changed hands numerous times over the past decades, and I have no clue as to its function at this point, although I know it still involves crushing or pulping some agricultural product. In my grandfather’s old photo album, there is one large picture of the plant around 1920, and some of the brick buildings seen in that snapshot are still to be found deep within the maze of tanks and storage sheds that have surrounded them. For some reason, it sticks in my mind that the “Buckeye house” which Sara describes sat approximately where the brick office building now stands, right on River Road. That could be a faulty memory, and I wish, among so many other wishes, that I had asked Sara to point out the location of the old house on Strong Avenue. Just another mystery for the ages….

A swing around the internet yielded some interesting details about the Buckeye and Proctor and Gamble: That Ohio company was founded before the Civil War and quite successful in soap and candle manufacturing. An 1890s meat-packing monopoly cornered the market for lard and tallow, threatening the heart of P&G’s empire. Their chemists began to experiment with cottonseed oil and eventually stumbled on the process of hydrogenating that oil. Voila! Artificial lard, first called “”Krispo, then “Crysto,” (which offended some religious types) and finally, permanently, “Crisco.” With a massive market ad saturation campaign, P&G had housewives lining up at their grocers’ counters for this miraculous can, and the rest is history. P&G had acquired the cottonseed oil mill (ca. 1901) in Greenwood and one in Birmingham in 1902 for a steady soap oil supplier, but the advent of Crisco sent them into overdrive. An odd (and yet to be fully explored) sidelight to this story is that by the early nineteen-teens, a cabal of cottonseed mill owners in Texas began to fix prices, driving farmers and ginners out of business if they did not agree to the local mill’s standards. This practice spread throughout the South and led to the formation of a secretive society, the Sons of Plato, who conspired to set prices and deal with those who didn’t cooperate. Mississippi had several active chapters overseen by a “ruler,” the “Plato,” in Memphis. All very mysterious and troublesome, but broken up by a Louisiana lawsuit around 1912. I find it comforting that this was several years before Howard Evans took over the Buckeye. It is documented, however, that this was still a cutthroat business during after World War I.

To me, the Buckeye has forever loomed in our family history as a positive place and the source of pride that our father and grandfather helped to build it into a successful enterprise. Some of my earliest memories involve being bundled into the old Plymouth station wagon on a cold December night and tooling out Strong Avenue, past the hospital and the old Holiday Inn, to see the magical lighted star on top of the Buckeye. My mother (inventive sort that she was) may or may not have told me that our grandfather Evans put that star there himself, but that’s what I believed in those innocent days. I still think of him, and her, whenever I see the lights up there on River Road.

And the twist to this tale? Sara grew into the master of Crisco artistry, crafting delicate roses and leaves from that white paste, sugar and food coloring. I would sit at our kitchen table as she worked the mixture into just the right consistency and color and began to carefully shape the rose petals and tiny, veined green stems. Occasionally, a sample would be passed on to me, always with the admonition that “Your teeth are going to fall out.” A price happily paid for one of Sara’s Crisco Creations.

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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