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Birney Imes: Aretha's garden


Birney Imes



Elbert came in the back door shaking his head. "You ought to go see that cabbage; it's as big as a tire." Elbert Ellis is the maintenance person here at The Dispatch. He doesn't get excited easily. 


"Down at the Shell station," he said pointing east. 


As I was leaving for the day, Elbert mentioned it again. I went back upstairs and retrieved my camera and notebook. I am ever nostalgic for the days when people brought large fish and odd-shaped vegetables by the paper to be photographed and put on the front page of the next day's edition. That is as much of who we are as are the too-often dispiriting stories about those we entrust to run our government. 


Years ago I went out to the Lone Oak community near Caledonia to photograph a 120-plus pound watermelon. The proud grower allowed us to keep his prize melon in the newsroom for a week. Parents and grandparents brought their kids by for pictures. 


A sweet potato/squash/cucumber shaped like a duck could get you on the front page in those days. Same for a giant catfish, invariably said to be caught in Moore's Creek, a stream that might support a school of bream. 


Aretha Macon, a cashier at the Express Mart on Main, was happy to pose with her trophy cabbage and share the secrets of its making. 


"An old man told me to pull off one of the bottom leaves every week," she said. "It works." 


Saturday morning Aretha gave me a tour of her garden. She lives off Nashville Ferry Road on Cherub Lane. 


Earlier I had emailed the picture of Aretha and her cabbage to several friends, Columbus natives, who love the touches of local color that grace our pages from time to time. One who lives in Nashville wrote back and asked about the name, Nashville Ferry Road. 


I forwarded the question on to local history expert and Dispatch columnist Rufus Ward, who examines the question in today's column (page 2A). Nashville was a river town 12 miles south of Columbus that existed during the first half of the 19th century. As it turned out, the town was in the river's flood plain and was eventually abandoned. According to Rufus, the ferry operated until the 1960s. 


Aretha, the daughter of a moonshiner, grew up near that ferry. She lives eight miles away from her childhood home in a double-wide trailer at the end of a dirt road. Her well-tended front yard is bordered with careful plantings of cannas, gladioli, roses and native shrubs.  


The kitchen garden is in the backyard. Name a vegetable grown in these parts and chances are Aretha is growing it: okra, tomatoes, potatoes, rutabagas, melons, cucumber and so on. In addition to all that, she has five more cabbages that rival her champion. 


Too frequently we encounter people in our coming and going -- Aretha has worked in local convenience stores for 38 years -- without ever knowing much about them. Other than to say she is unfailingly pleasant, I knew little about her, and presumably she knew little about me. 


Yet, through an odd sequence of events, I happened to be standing in this small Eden of her making. A cool breeze drifted across from neighboring fields; several pastures over, cows were lowing.  


"Do you want some potatoes?" Aretha asked, taking up a spading fork. 




She plunged the fork into what appeared to be an unplanted part of the garden. The dirt was rich, brown and granular. The first spadeful yielded half dozen rose-colored potatoes of different sizes. Same with the next. It's as though she was unearthing gold doubloons there in the dirt. There was a certain magic to it. I tried to gather up the potatoes, but there were too many of them. 


"We'll wash them off and I'll get you a bag," she said. She picked half a dozen squash. "You like banana peppers?" 


I end up with a plastic bag of produce and a head of cabbage, not as big as a tire, but almost. 











Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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