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Restoring history: Wilkinson County grocery preserved as museum

 

WOODVILLE — In the summer of 1955, Willie and Estelle Arbuthnot opened a small grocery store in the Pinckneyville community, 10 miles west of Woodville.

In the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, Arbuthnot Grocery was one of the first African-American owned businesses in the area.

The only gas station within 10 miles, the store was a pit stop for many passing through on their way to work at Joan of Ark Cannery, The Matte Plant or the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Beyond just a refueling stop for travelers, the store became a staple of the community and a lifeline for many families in Pickneyville.

The Arbuthnots’ place was a gathering place for patrons, many of whom would shop and visit, playing songs on the jukebox or playing a game of pool.

The doors were open every day, including holidays, except during church services on Sunday. The store carried meats, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, medicines, toiletries, clothing, hardware and animal food.

It’s where many of the community’s large families got their groceries, even if they couldn’t afford them.

The Arbuthnots offered credit to their customers, and even those who could not pay their ticket didn’t go hungry, and Willie and Estelle even offered them jobs to help out.

Outside the walls of their store, the Arbuthnots were instrumental to the development of opportunity in the community, helping to build the African-American public school, becoming involved in voter registration and civil rights efforts and other work.

When Willie died in 1967, Estelle worked tirelessly to run the store while caring for her children and bedridden mother for more than 15 years.

When Estelle died in 1998, the store closed and came into the possession of the Arbuthnot’s granddaughter, Jacqueline Arbuthnot, who they adopted as their daughter.

The store sat in disrepair until Jacqueline, who lives in Georgia, decided to undertake the preservation of the store and try and get the store and the Arbuthnot house listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I was walking around in there one day thinking about the contributions they made to the community,” Jacqueline said. “I thought it deserved to be on the National Register because of their community service and because they were instrumental in the innovation of Wilkinson County county and what was going on in that little town of Woodville.”

The store needed a great deal of work, Jacqueline said. The roof was replaced, the store was rewired and refurbished to stage it just as it had been when it was open. Much of the wood was salvaged, and the windows and door remained the originals.

The store and house were placed on the National Register in May 2016 and now serves as a museum that Jacqueline said she hopes to develop further to include artifacts and information about local African-American history as well as history of the area.

“Whenever I’m there, my mind always reverts to when Mama and Daddy were there, and the place was filled with laughter and food, and people would come and sit and play the jukebox or a game of pool at the pool table,” Jacqueline said. “I feel real good … that I was able to give something back after even though they’re gone, something that will be etched in history forever.”

The museum will host an open house at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 20, with entertainment and refreshments.

The event will include a ceremony, ribbon-cutting and performances from blues musicians YZ Ealey and Theodis Ealey, Grady Champion and G.C. Cameron.

Arbuthnot Grocery is located at 8990 Pinckneyville Road. For more information, visit agmuseum.weebly.com.

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