Arts & Culture

Behind the Stories of our April/May 2020 Issue

G&G editors share some of what went into producing the “Saving the South” issue

Why These Post Office Photos Have a Special Meaning for Me

By Caroline Sanders, Assistant Editor

 

In troubling times, I find solace in Eudora Welty’s reading of her quirky 1941 short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” It’s the single most delightful audio clip I think I’ve ever heard (aside from perhaps University of Georgia football announcer Scott Howard’s elation as Sony Michel crossed into the end zone at the end of the 2018 Rose Bowl). In her Mississippi lilt, Welty speaks through her young narrator who is so irked by her idiosyncratic family that she opts to move out. “And as to where I intend to go, you seem to forget my position as postmistress of China Grove, Mississippi,” Welty writes. “I’ve always got the P.O.”

Welty’s inspiration for this story, they say, sprang from a photograph she took of a woman ironing laundry in the back of a post office. In researching and writing for the “Southern Heroes” feature in the April/May issue, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Boillot, another photographer inspired by the South’s zip codes. For her master’s thesis at Duke University, Boillot traveled throughout the rural South shooting endangered and defunct post offices. In places like Sherard, Mississippi, and Harkers Island, North Carolina, Boillot’s shots capture empty window fronts, salvaged mail slots repurposed in a home, and foundations where P.O.s once stood. In them all, I see my favorite post office: Culloden, Georgia, 31016.

photo: Rachel Boillot

From left: Sherard, Mississippi; 38669: Postmistress Ida, 2013; Harkers Island, North Carolina; 28531: The Postmistress’s Daughter, 2013. Photos by Rachel Boillot

Carrilee Ouzts Sanders.

From 1947 to 1973, my great-grandmother Carrilee Ouzts Sanders, served as postmaster—she rejected the term postmistress—in Culloden (population hovering beneath 200). A formal, no-nonsense powerhouse of a woman, she took the job after her husband died in 1943, leaving her to raise two young children. My dad remembers visiting the post office when he was a child, exploring the stately former bank building with its heart pine floors and lofty ceilings, helping sort mail and playing amid the clerk’s desk, stools, mailboxes, and bins. Carrilee put up mail every day of the year, including Christmas. The post office was the only place that every citizen frequented, and she saw herself as Culloden’s lifeline to the world outside.

photo: Heather Ozee

A recent photo of the former post office in Culloden, Georgia.

I visit Culloden only occasionally these days when passing nearby (although not quite on the way to anything, it’s only a twenty-minute detour off I-75). I’ll stop in for a plate of fried chicken at Lockett’s Kuntry Cooking and a visit to the gravesites of the generations of Sanders who once populated that zip code—including Carrilee and now, my grandfather, too. While there, I always peek inside the empty, derelict post office that for so long marked Culloden’s place on the map.

Today, though the postal system no longer holds the same place in American life it once did, it still connects us, delivering bills and advertisements, letters, packages, wedding invitations, and of course, magazines. With Welty’s warm story and Boillot’s evocative images, no matter what happens to the postal system, these post offices and their places remain alive in the Southern imagination, as they do in mine. May we always have the P.O.

Interviewing Wendell Berry

By CJ Lotz, Senior Editor

 

I’ve been a fan of the poet and small farmer Wendell Berry’s writing since I was a teenager, and when Garden & Gun came up with the theme “Saving the South,” I just knew Berry had to be a part of it.

I reached out to Berry’s longtime editor, Jack Shoemaker at Counterpoint Press, and hatched a plan, editor-to-editor. We approached the writer Silas House, who is also a Kentuckian and a friend of Berry’s.

Perfect timing: House had recently spent the day with Berry at his farm in Henry County, Kentucky. The two went for a long walk along the Kentucky River and saw Berry’s writing studio. They drove back roads in Berry’s truck, and he pointed out the cemetery and church that are important to his family, as well as the post office where he picks up his mail.

With this new assignment from G&G in mind, House devised a plan to continue talking with the notoriously interview-shy Berry. Instead of the usual method—recording on a device—House wrote out his questions and snail-mailed them to Berry, who responded with typewritten answers, marking his edits in pencil, and mailing them back to House.

The process showed, as House writes, “Berry’s insistence on looking at everything—trees, rivers, words, discourse—with deep care and interest.”

As we edited the piece for the April/May issue (Wendell Berry: The Poet of Place), House and I looked back at Wendell’s typewritten notes, and considered Berry’s own edits in pencil. It was powerful to feel like we were all working on this project together.


 

About G&G’s Jell-O Salads

By Phillip Rhodes, Executive Managing Editor  

 

I’ve heard from so many people about our In Praise of Jell-O Salads story in Garden & Gun’s current issue—that it called to mind happy memories and even spurred some to dig into their own recipe boxes and get cooking. That’s wonderful—exactly what any editor hopes for. So I want to share a little more about how it came to be…

When Editor-in-Chief Dave DiBenedetto first began talking about a special “Saving the South” issue of Garden & Gun last year, I thought a story about Jell-O salads, like the ones so many of us grew up with, would provide a complement to all the serious stuff elsewhere in the issue. Serious stuff is worth celebrating; so is light-hearted stuff. But now that I think about it, and given the present circumstances, this story is actually more serious than it seems.

My mom, Jenny, made the Sunshine Salad you see in this beautiful photo by Johnny and Charlotte Autry a lot, though her version looked very different. She usually prepped it in an ordinary little Corning ware casserole dish, and it would wait in the fridge until she needed it for one of the weeknight suppers we always sat down to. Because no matter what, our family of four ALWAYS sat down to supper together. No one retreated from the table to their rooms to watch TV; we had one TV, and it got four channels. Mom planned the family’s meals a week (or more) in advance and grocery-shopped for them with a list organized by aisle. Dinner was what dinner was and if you didn’t like it then that was too damn bad. Take-out wasn’t an option either. We lived two miles down a boulder-strewn dirt road twenty minutes outside of a small East Tennessee mountain town; restaurants were a treat, usually reserved for Sundays after church.

So instead of a moment of gentle nostalgia, what this story turned out to be is a tribute to three important skills my mom taught me: resilience, planning for the future, and being there for the people you love. Cheers to that, and thank you, mom. We all could use a little more of those qualities—and some extra sunshine—in our lives right now.

>>Get Phillip’s mom’s recipe for Sunshine Salad

 

Coming soon: More stories about the making of Garden & Gun’s April/May issue