“I made a good bit of money, for a kid,” he recalls now. “Ever since then, having a curb market has just seemed like a cool thing to do.”
Several years ago, Barton revisited his childhood dream by opening Mathis Creek Produce on Old Highway 78 in Argo. But the new venture was a mixed blessing as well — just as the small shop was getting established, it was destroyed by the historic April 2011 tornadoes, as was half of Barton’s nearby home.
“I had an oak tree this big” — he gestures with his hands — “laying across my bed.” It took him months to recover, during which the curb market was out of business for nearly a year. “My home had to come first,” he says, “and the process of rebuilding the market was discouraging. But the thing was, I didn’t have the heart NOT to build it back.”
In the three years since, the business has not only thrived but has added several new lines of merchandise, including bent-and-dent groceries, soft drinks, propane tanks and live bait.
Nowadays there are several of the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local!” posters throughout his shop, and he takes the slogan literally.
There’s a greenhouse directly behind the market, and a garden about 50 feet off to the side. Though he buys some of his produce at farmers’ markets in the off-season, he’s steadily becoming more self-sufficient. ”This year looks like it’s going to be the best garden ever,” he says. “We’re already getting squash, cucumbers and peppers, and this morning I saw some okra that should be ready to pick next week. We’ve also got watermelons and cantaloupes coming up.”
Of all the vegetables his shop carries, Barton says fresh tomatoes remain the clear favorite. And though he’s been gardening for most of his life (“I was growing and selling produce long before child-labor laws,” he says with a laugh) he’s constantly learning new things.
“A friend who lives down the road is a wealth of information about growing tomatoes,” he says. “Such as, if you crush up calcium tablets and dissolve them in water, then pour the water around the base of the plants, it keeps the skin on the tomatoes from splitting.
“And there’s a solution you can spray on the blooms to make them hold onto the plant better. I’ve already got bunches of little green tomatoes.”
Juggling the demands of the produce shop with his regular job can be stressful, but he’s also developed a small sideline business that draws on his mechanical skills: equipping department-store mannequins with small motors inside their arms, so that they can wave advertising signs outside businesses. He’s already made and leased a few to businesses on Highway 78, and has requests for more.
In the meantime, one of the mannequins serves a different purpose. She’s been converted into the scarecrow for Mathis Creek’s garden — wearing a Crimson Tide T-shirt and holding both arms in the air to signal a touchdown.
Barton’s football predilection is evident in other touches throughout the shop — and especially its restroom out back, whose walls are lined with memorabilia both old and new.
One piece is a “Roll Tide” automobile tag, die-cast in lead, that’s at least 50 to 60 years old.
When a customer asks Barton what his favorite vegetable plate would consist of, he doesn’t hesitate. “I had it last night,” he says. “Field peas, fried green tomatoes, creamed potatoes with gravy and cornbread. With some cube steak. The only downside of a good meal like that is that I had planned to work some more, but instead I had to lie down and rest.”
Barton has a lot of work in store over the next several weeks.
“Last year, we used the greenhouse mostly for hanging baskets of flowers, but I plan to use it for starting plants. I want to make this a place for producing food year-round, and the greenhouse is part of that.
“In the past, the shop has been somewhat like a hobby, but I want it to be more. We’ve got big plans for this little place.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org