Crisco Snow

Buckeye Cottonseed Oil Mill in a ~ 1920 snow.

Buckeye Cottonseed Oil Mill in a ~ 1920 snow.

As the slow, steady progress of bungalow demolition and repurposing continues, I thought I might backtrack through daughterofthedelta and provide more photos on some of the Greenwood places that meant so much to Sara. And since we’ve just been treated to a lovely “snow event” that frosted our trees and entertained our children before gracefully melting away, this image from 1919 or 1920 seemed timely. So let’s reach back a full century and explore what we’re fortunate enough to be viewing.

These icy buildings are part of the Buckeye Cottonseed Oil Mill, located just west of today’s Highway 49/82 bypass and the Hinman Bridge over the Yazoo. The dark structures looming on the left are the massive cylindrical tanks which stored the seed; they still stand out there today. A system of conveyor belts connect the tanks to storage sheds; those are gone, as are most of the old brick buildings and various functional structures which were scattered around the large complex. Also gone (but relocated to Strong Avenue) is the large frame Queen Anne home which sat in the shadow of those ominous tanks and housed the Buckeye’s manager and his family. At the time of the snowstorm, that manager was my grandfather, Howard Evans. He lived in this lovely rambling home with my grandmother, Jessie, my great-grandmother (“Bama”) and my aunts, Jessye (“Tiny”) and Mary Olive (“Mamie”).

Mamie and Tiny in the Buckeye snow.

Mamie and Tiny in the Buckeye snow.

These were the pre-Sara days, happy years on the very far western edge of Greenwood, separated from town by cotton fields and dirt roads. The rumble and vibration of the oil mill machinery must have been a constant presence in the lives of the Evans family, but it symbolized a steady job and a certain status in the community. According to Sara, my grandmother was inordinately proud that her handsome young husband was the manager of such a large and vital enterprise.

Buckeye employees enjoying the snow; names unknown.

Buckeye employees enjoying the snow; names unknown.

Howard oversaw the daily operations of one of Greenwood’s largest employers, quite a responsibility for a man still in his 20s. And what exactly was the Buckeye? Well, if you grew up in Greenwood in that day or mine, the Buckeye and Planters Oil Mill were as much a part of the landscape as cotton gins and the courthouse. The Buckeye dated back to the late 1800s, when farmers would contract with the oil mill to take their ginned seed off their hands. It was a necessary industry, but not one that would set the woods on fire. To understand the growth of the cottonseed oil business, we’ve got to go way up to Cincinnati, Ohio. Half-a-century before this snowstorm, soap maker James Gamble and his brother-in-law, candle maker William Proctor, teamed up to compete with others in those businesses in southern Ohio. They did all right for themselves, growing into a little company that they called Proctor and Gamble.

P&G, as it came to be known, was at war with the meatpacking industry by the 1890s, fighting for lard and tallow to use in its household products. Their chemists set to work looking for a substitute, and in 1907, a German immigrant named E.C. Kayser figured out how to throw hydrogen atoms into a cottonseed oil fatty acid chain. OK, enough science, cut to the chase: Herr Kayser had invented Crisco (CRYstalized Cottonseed Oil).

America’s housewives went nuts, with a little help from P&G’s marketing department. What young mother in 1910 would not prefer the ease and consistency of snowy-white Crisco, sealed in a convenient can, to the messiness of hog tallow? Demand went through the roof and cottonseed oil was suddenly solid gold. Proctor & Gamble looked south to the cotton belt states and quickly bought up eight Mississippi operations. Greenwood’s plant was deemed “The Buckeye” in homage to the Buckeye State, Ohio. And the seed rolled in from the fields and tumbled down conveyor belts which stretched out to the Yazoo River and was dumped into vast tanks and magically transformed into cottonseed oil. And Howard Evans made sure it headed off to the factories of his boss, Proctor & Gamble, and went home each night to the white house at the edge of his empire.

The Buckeye house, Sara's first home. Now located at 1216 Strong Avenue.

The Buckeye house, Sara’s first home. Now located at 1304 Strong Avenue.

The old house has long since been moved to Strong Avenue, ironically just two doors down from the bungalow that is now being dismantled. The Buckeye is no longer the Buckeye and has been through numerous name changes and owners in the century since these photos were made. But it is still a magical place to me, a reminder of my grandparents in their youth and all the promise and dreams that lay ahead of them. When I was small, Sara would tell me that the star on top of one of the Buckeye’s buildings, lit at Christmas, was placed there by her father. It wasn’t, I’m sure, but it made for a nice story and sealed this jumble of mysterious structures in my mind as special and to be revered. I hope it’s the same for others who grew up in “Buckeye families.”

Three of Howard's men at the Buckeye, circa 1920. Names unknown.

Three of Howard’s men at the Buckeye, circa 1920. Names unknown.

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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4 Responses to Crisco Snow

  1. Susan Rew says:

    Mary Carol,thank you for posting this story. I think my grandfather worked at the Planter’s Oil Mill.

    • sec040121 says:

      Sadly, only a couple of dilapidated buildings at that site. These were huge job locations for Greenwood a hundred years ago. Also in relation to your family, Volume IV of Greenwood books has several good photos of the building where your dad had his business.

  2. Teresa says:

    Did your mother have any memoirs of prohibition. I am in the process of writing a book. Thanks.

    • sec040121 says:

      No,Teresa, I don’t think she commented on that, except perhaps a passing mention of the “Gold Coast” in Rankin County. Of course, “Prohibition” was the “law” in Mississippi until the mid-1960s, so she was familiar with all the local bootleggers.

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