The crowd began applauding mid-sentence, but Lecile Harris continued making his declaration.
“They had a bad habit of announcing me from Memphis,” the ProRodeo Hall of Fame barrel man said. “I made sure, in the whole time I’ve been in my business, that I am from Collierville. I’m proud to be from Collierville, even if I’m in Africa.”
Harris, now 82, was on stage with four other prominent citizens of Collierville during the chamber of commerce’s Talk of the Town event on April 10.
The general membership luncheon at the Ridgeway Country Club also featured Taylor Stamps, Mary Jean Smith, Tom Brown and Tommy Hart. Each shared anecdotes and memories of Collierville from their childhood.
Stamps, whose family owned Stamps Motor Company where the Army Surplus store is now located, remembered the blaze which showed him the true nature of the community.
On July 22, 1944, a fire started in the garage and burned that building, the Stamps living quarters above it and five other buildings around the square.
“I’m eight years old. I’m standing in the middle of Main Street with the bottom of a pair of pajamas. That’s all the Stamps family had from my view. The good people of Collierville came to our rescue. They opened their hearts, their billfolds and their houses and they took the Stamps family in. That’s when I learned humility. The good people of Collierville ... you can’t beat ‘em,” he said, shaking his head slowly.
Next to him, Mary Jean Smith, current owner of The Silver Caboose restaurant and Banyan Tree Realtors, shared the family legacy of a century of entrepreneurship anchored on Town Square.
Her grandmother was involved with Hinton & Craig, where Hewlett & Dunn is now located; her father opened Hall’s Grocery next to what is now her restaurant.
“Isn’t that ironic?” she asked with a laugh.
Though there were six grocery stores on the square when Hall’s opened in 1939, her father’s place was unique because he offered frozen food lockers. This was before freezers were commonplace in home kitchens, she said, and each family had its own locker where they could store frozen fruits, vegetables, meats and whatever else they wished.
Patrons had to ask Mr. Hall to retrieve items, however she said there was one woman who was trusted to enter the freezers when she wanted to.
“That was Mrs. Lucius Burch,” Smith laughed. “I guess he figured she was a safe bet.”
Hall’s Grocery also technically had the first elevator in town, she said, which was a piece of sheet metal with pulleys with which the second level storage area could be accessed.
Town Square has always been dear to her family, especially considering the Methodist Church is where she and her family members have all been christened and married.
“I guess you could say our family are all real square people,” she joked.
The square was also the forefront of the mischievous tales of Harris and Stamps and the memories Brown shared as well.
Harris remembers moving to Collierville in 1940, at age 4, and moving around a bit. In the 1940s his family lived at the Hester Hotel, which is the property currently under construction by John Green & Company Realtors. Right on the railroad tracks, the troop trains would pass through and Harris’s mother, and other women, would have cornbread and fresh vegetables from their gardens ready for them.
“That era was really neat for some of us,” Harris said before sharing more stories about the cafe his parents owned.
For Brown, who’s African-American, memories are a little different.
“At that time, if you were a negro, you couldn’t walk across the park,” he shared.
There were a lot of horses and mules on the square back then and he remembers going to town with 50 cents and having money left over after watching a movie and getting concessions.
As he became an adult, he worked with a group who fought for meaningful jobs for African-Americans.
They were told there weren’t qualified African-Americans and brought up hygiene – which he called a sore spot with the committee – but they were eventually successful.
“We were able to get some of the blacks employed at some different companies in the Town of Collierville,” he said.
In 1945, Tommy Hart’s father and uncle began Harts Manufacturing.
He has lived his entire life in Collierville – and shared with the group more stories from high school. In one, Harris was told he’d never make a living clowning around, which elicited a hearty laugh.
Collierville is a great place to live, they all agree, and Hart suggests the reason the town has grown so much is because of its city leaders.
“The leadership in Collierville ... the door has always been open,” he said, noting some areas are not as welcoming to newcomers. If a show of hands were done, he said, there would likely be eight newcomers out of 10 people.
Those whose families have been embedded in the fabric of Collierville since its infancy don’t mind, though.
“We’re glad you’re here,” Hart said.