Teeney

Teeny3

I can’t ever remember there not being a Teeney but my story has to start in the years before I remember anything.

Thinking the War would soon be over, my father, Eugene (Gene) Powell had quit his job in Oklahoma with DuPont making smokeless gunpowder in November of 1944 and headed to West Palm Beach with my mother and a four year old little boy. His plan was to join up with 3 of his brothers, Clarence, Jim Reid, and Charles, who had been farming in and around Hendersonville, NC in the summers and in Florida during the winters. They had a lot of acreage planted in tomatoes out around the Range Line and 20 mile bend and needed all the help they could get.

Without getting into a lot of detail…here’s what came down: winter tomatoes in Florida in the 1940s were harvested green to be shipped refrigerated in ice-bunkered semi trucks to major markets in the Northeast where they would be gassed to ripen them after their arrival. Tomatoes that had even begun to ripen (star breakers) when they were picked and made their way to the packing house were routinely dumped in the nearest canal because they would surely rot before they could ever reach their destination in Philadelphia, New York or Boston.

It was near the end of the growing season in March of 1945 that, rather than discard them, my father loaded up a pick-up truck with boxes of these ripe tomatoes and headed into town. He had no trouble peddling off his load to restaurants and “mom & pop” grocery stores and decided to repeat the excursion the next day. After a week or so Daddy was encouraged by the manager at the Morrison’s Cafeteria to “start selling all the other fresh produce” along with his tomatoes. The only problem was that there weren’t going to be anymore tomatoes because the season was over, the fields were picked clean, and the Powell boys and their crews were heading back up to North Carolina where the Spring planting of corn and beans was already underway. What to do?

As it turns out, my father Gene, along with Clarence and Charles joined up to form Powell Brothers Produce Co. The plan was for Clarence to load up trucks at various farms in the Carolinas and Georgia for Charles to drive down to West Palm Beach. They rented an old cork insulated refrigerated warehouse built in the 1920s by Kraft Cheese, bought an old tractor-trailer, a pick-up, and a 2 1/2 ton Diamond T and persuaded two of the farm crew to remain in Florida to help get the business started. The two men that volunteered to stay behind were Garland “Red” Moffitt and James “Teeney” Logan. Both had known my father since childhood and had been raised in and around Horse Shoe, NC where the Powell family lived and farmed the bottom land along the French Broad River.

Almost from the start, things didn’t work out the way they were planned. Clarence shipped a full truck load of rock-hard clingstone peaches that there was no market for and Charles would get drunk in some roadhouse along the highway all too often. After only a few weeks, Clarence and Charles had washed their hands of the new business in West Palm Beach and Powell Brothers had no brothers.

Even though citrus and some leafy vegetables were still being harvested locally, the only way to get all the other items that a new produce supplier needed to maintain an inventory of what their prospective customers demanded was to travel down to the old Miami Produce Market on virtually a nightly basis. This meant that someone had to crawl into the big stake bodied Diamond T about 10:00 PM, drive two hours down old State Rd. 7, spend hours haggling with hucksters and large wholesalers, load the truck with the baskets, sacks, crates and boxes in each purchase, then drive back up the road to the old warehouse on Clare Ave. in West Palm Beach. By now the sun would be coming up and this was only the start of the day’s work!

After unloading the truck and rotating and stacking the produce in one of the coolers or on the potato and onion platform along the railroad track at the back of the building, orders that were being called in on the phone by customers had to be assembled, loaded back on one of the trucks and delivered. My mother was always in the office to answer the phone and we even lived in the back room sleeping on cots and cooking on a hotplate for the first month or two.

Somewhere along the way we picked up an additional piece of the family puzzle. Deloach (Loach) Tinsley, after being shot at by the Japanese in the Pacific, just showed up one day and hung around for 40 years. This trio that, ironically, enabled Powell Brothers Produce Co. to get off the ground and thrive beginning in 1945 weren’t brothers and weren’t named Powell…….they were, and will always be remembered only as, “Teeney, Loach, and Red”!

Of the three; Teeney was the only one that, reflected in the crucible of time, was truly irreplaceable. Sometime in late 1946 my father came to the conclusion that he could not continue his nocturnal trips to Miami. The business was growing and there just weren’t enough hours in the day. The strain on my mother, who had to run the warehouse while Daddy was trying to get some sleep in the afternoons, was just too much for a woman that was now pregnant. After only one trip riding along with my father to learn where to go, Teeney had more work on his shoulders and a new job description.

For any of you younger folks, (and at my age that includes all of you) that are reading these ramblings of an old man, I think I may need to paint a little reminder. Life in the South in the 1940s for a man or woman of color was much different than it is today. James Logan was a black man that was about to push himself into a business world that had never seen his likes before. The phone rang around midnight and the man on the other end of the phone said to my father: “Gene, if you think I’m going to sell any produce to a nigger, you got another thought coming!” According to my proud family accounting, my father’s words were short and simple: “well, the gentleman you are referring to is James Logan and if you don’t sell to him you won’t sell to me because he’s got my money in his pocket and I’m not coming back!”

There were some anxious moments before Teeney got back to the warehouse that morning but, when he did, the truck was full. James Logan had become the first accredited black wholesale buyer ever on the platform of the Miami Produce Market. As the years went by there would be many more but none, white, black, or Latino would demand more respect.

Teeney’s stature and importance in the business was much deeper than just that of a key employee. All of the Powell boys had a problem with alcohol and my father was no exception. On a few occasions, especially around the Christmas holidays, Daddy would “go on a toot” and disappear for a day or two. You can’t be in the business of supplying food to customers serving hungry people on a part-time basis and, had it not been for Teeney, my mother could not have made it alone. Driving down to Miami to buy the items on a list is important but making out that list and knowing how to price invoices is even more crucial. In my father’s absence, my mother was totally dependant on Teeney to know how many bushels of jumbo sweet potatoes Harvey’s Bar-B-Q would need to make their pies or how many crates of artichokes the chef at the Breakers Hotel might order for a special party for King Hussein of Jordan and how much to charge each of them when the time came.

Teeney had a special name for most people he worked with or around. My father’s first job when he got out of College in 1936 was a one year stint as a school teacher at Mills River School. It was at this time that James Logan probably started sarcastically calling Daddy “Professor”. As the years passed Teeney had shortened it to “Fessor” and that was how he always addressed my father. I was not so fortunate…the only moniker Teeney ever gave me was “Needle Dick”.

I worked at the warehouse every summer around Mr. Logan (somewhere along the line I decided that the name “Teeney” was disrespectful and elected to make the change). I even took his place driving down to Miami after I turned 18 and he went on vacations. By then I had gone off to Ga. Tech and gotten married but, after 5 years of learning how to be an engineer, I only worked as one for 3 months at Lockheed in Marietta, GA before moving back to Florida in October of 1963, hooking back up with my father, Teeney, Loach, and Red and going back to selling “taters & onions”.

Teeney4James (Teeney) Logan and Jimmy Powell (the car is a brand new 1964 Dodge Polara)

The years after my wife and I got back in town are a blur of babies, business, buildings, and bustle. Our sleepy little produce business grew and expanded. By 1969 we had changed the name to Powell Purveyors, Inc., built and moved into a new warehouse next door, and expanded our product line to become a “full line food service distributor.” We now sold, not only produce, but frozen food, meat, dry groceries and even cleaning supplies. All of this did not, however, diminish the importance of having Mr. Logan still overseeing produce purchases, inventory control, and keeping his huge lettuce trimming pocketknife on the ready to insure that everything stayed, or at least appeared to stay, as fresh as the morning dew.

It was during these years that Teeney’s mother passed away and he traveled back to North Carolina and, according to what his sister Nelley is now telling me, saw most of his 14 brothers and sisters for the last time. I can only imagine what being raised in a family so large that they virtually ran out of names must have been like. I thought my father was kidding me when, as a young boy, I was told that Teeney had a brother named Tutum and a champion bean picking sister named Athlete.

It was falling back on his families farming experiences that got Teeney started in his next phase of life….one that I admire most of all. He had moved his family a little north to Riviera Beach and began farming a small patch of ground out west of Military Trail in his spare time. Why he chose the crop he did … I have no idea but over a very short period of time Mr. James Logan became a major grower and wholesaler of the finest scallions (green onions) on the market. He perfected the art of cultivating and growing what we referred to as “pencils” instead of “bulb green onions” which were the norm of the time. He started out growing and harvesting just enough to keep the Powells supplied but was soon selling his merchandise to every produce company in town and even filling order for the same wholesalers he had been buying from for years in Miami.

Teeney was approaching 60 years of age and had been wearing a broad leather back brace for years. I very vividly remember the day he came to me and said he was leaving us. His words were “I just can’t do the lifting anymore…it hurts too bad.” In a few days he was gone and there was no retirement party or ceremony…there just came a day when …

After all these years I feel as if a chapter is missing from my life. We went on in the late 70s to expand the business many times over and moved, still another time, into an even larger new warehouse in Riviera Beach in the summer of 1982. Our move was accompanied by cocktail parties, open-houses, and employee-supplier get-togethers. We did all of this but, to my knowledge, Teeney was never invited and I don’t remember his name even being mentioned.

A few years back I had an occasion to be driving near Horse Shoe and decided to pay my respects at the gravesite of my grandparents, Mama and Papa Powell. While trying to find the Old Camp Ground Cemetery, I drove up a dirt road and stumbled on an old church and smaller graveyard. Curiosity getting the best of me, I found many of the headstones with “Logan” on them and knew immediately that none of my kin were buried there. I went on to find the Powell’s resting place and hadn’t given the instance anymore thought until very recently.

Genealogy is one of my favorite pursuits. I’ve tracked mine and my wife’s families back many generations but you always reach a point where you can’t go any further. My roadblocks were simple, too many John Powells in 1700’s Virginia and Conklins marrying Conklins in 19th century New York. But I got to thinking…what if I was a black man? If I was, I would know before I started my research that the trail would probably end in 1865. To this end, and stumbling on an old photo of Teeney and myself, I remembered the little church and cemetery in Horse Shoe and went to work on Google.

Here in our 21st century informational wonder world no one can hide their trail…not even Tutum or Athlete and certainly not Nelley or Fred or Joe Mann or Paulette. My search for Teeney’s roots has led me to the Logan Chapel and an extended family that, as best I can tell, has extraordinary pride in where they came from and those that came before them. They have embarked on a quest to refurbish and preserve the first black church in the region. The place of worship was founded by freed slave families led by their patriarch John Wesley Logan soon after the Civil War.

John Wesley LoganJohn Wesley Logan

   For over 100 years, descendants from these families gathered at the church the second Sunday in September but these homecomings have been interrupted because the Chapel has been deemed unsafe for use. I’ve been in contact with Teeney’s daughter Paulette Smith in Charlotte and my son Bobby drove up from his home in Greenville, SC to meet with Fred and Nelley. They are the last of the 15 children (ages 93 and 86).

ChapelFred Logan and Bob Powell

    Bobby and I are trying to work with Joe Mann, a distant nephew of Teeney’s that’s a building contractor who lives in Columbus, OH. We have offered to help finance the renovation of the old Chapel but are running up against the “age problem”. All of the Logan clan that still live in and around Horse Shoe are motivated but all of them are older than I am and that’s…well you know.

I’m offering this modest written tribute to encourage all of the far flung Logan family and those they hold dear to continue their work, maintain their heritage, and to never stop in their efforts to create a culture of family pride. The only Logan family member I’ve ever known was James E. Logan and, by virtue of these pages I’ve written, no one in my family will ever forget him.

Jim Powell

Teeney1…the living poinsettia is from Nelley, Fred, Paulette, and all your loving family

…the green onions are a remembrance from Fessor and Needle Dick

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