I’m driving north on US 43 out of Creole, Alabama. The Mobile River is just a good homerun ball’s distance to my right as I travel north. Every half mile or so I pass a gated entrance with a winding gravel road that disappears into the pines. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of large holding tanks, rail yards, and skywalks between four story industrial buildings. Chemical plants. Paper plants. Steel plants. Alabama Power sending out the juice that keeps the lights on across LA.
This is a fairly barren section of the great state of Alabama. I drive for miles without seeing a single landmark. No place you could say, “Take a right at the Gulf Station.” There is no gas station. There’s nothing but pines and scrub oaks and Spanish moss, and small dirt roads that run from the highway to the horizon and out of sight.
US 43 is a split four-lane with a grass median. The posted speed limit is 65, which means that all the log trucks are running pedal-to-the-metal. I’ve never seen such a caravan of logs moving down the road. Product processed through the plant and down the river and out beyond Mobile Bay. Some ship loaded with a little bit of Alabama is headed for some distant port.
I’m making my way to Safford, Alabama. A crossroad town at the intersection of State Route 5 and 22. This little farming hamlet sets in the corner of Dallas County, just 25 miles or so from Selma, where my wife grew up. I hear tell that there’s a hardware store there that you have to see to believe.
The full name of this establishment is Safford Hardware, Sporting Goods and Equipment. Based on the website, the whole enterprise lives under the name, Safford Trading Company. I wonder about the name. Maybe they couldn’t decide what they wanted to be. Maybe somebody took a look at Home Depot, Dicks and John Deere and decided to roll all of that into a country store.
I’ve been to a few country stores where, all in one place, you could pick up an alternator for a 1970 Chevy Cheyenne, a box of soda crackers, a can of red wigglers and a pouch of Redman. The kind of store where men wore straw hats and bibbed overalls. The Coke cooler sat on the floor full of 6 oz bottles covered in ice. And the wire rack on the counter next to the cash register was full of Lance crackers and salted peanuts.
I don’t really know what I’m looking for. I’m not expecting post and beam timber construction with massive stone pillars. I doubt this is gonna be slick city retail gone country. This is one of those adventures where the unknown is half the fun of going.
The tall pines are giving way to pasture and cotton fields as I get closer to my destination. The sign says Safford 5 miles. When I get to the crossroad, there’s an abandoned building on my left. An open field on my right. An old white farmhouse sitting catty-corned that could use some paint. And a high chain-link fence on the other corner.
I can’t see a sign but based on the inventory inside the fence it looks like this could be the place. I hang a right on a small county road, then back left into the supply yard. From what I can see, this is starting to look like an old farmers paradise. Bushhogs, pinch gates and portable corrals in the front corner. Picnic tables, cook stoves and smokers under the shelter. In the far distance, tripod stands, camo long boats, and flatbed equipment trailers.
I ease up in front of the side door and shove it in park. The hand-painted sign reads, “Live Bait Inside.” Then, just up to my left under the covered porch, I see the main sign, Safford Hardware. There’s a virtual sea of pickup trucks all over the yard.
I’m barely in the door. “Welcome to Safford’s. What can we do for you today?”
“I’m looking for the restroom.” 90 miles of coffee since I left Mobile is starting to work on me.
I walk through the general hardware section, which rivals anything I’ve ever seen. Two walls of Husqvarna small tools. Fishing gear. Clothes. Clocks. Bags of feed. Fencing. Feeders. This is incredible.
I make my way upstairs to guns and ammo. Loads of taxidermy on the walls. Archery gear. More camo gear. Two guys and a gal sitting behind the counter against the back wall. “What can we do for you?” Customer service is not dead.
“I’m looking for shotgun shells. 12 gauge and 16 gauge. Field load and Pheasant Load.” Every place I’ve been in the last six months has given me some excuse as to why they are out of shells. Not here.
“Yes Sir. Winchester. Remington. Fiocchi. What’s your flavor?”
At this stage in the story, I should point out that I am wearing my Georgia Bulldog cap in the heart of Alabama. On any given day, this is probably not the best idea due to some long-standing feelings about college athletics. A man my age should be more sensitive to his surroundings. And, taking note that Larry, the guy behind the counter is wearing a capital “A” on the front of his crimson cap, I should have politely removed my cap so as not to offend.
But I did not.
I told him what I wanted. He started checking his stock. “I’ll take three cases,” I told him.
“I see you’re an Alabama fan.” I pointed to his cap.
“Yes sir.” He nodded at my cap. “I see you’re not from around here.” My cap had not gone unnoticed.
Now everybody knows that a case of shells is 10 boxes. If you’ve been shooting since you were a boy, you know that as well as you know three strikes is an out.
But I decided to verify this with Larry. Play like I wasn’t sure. “Remind me Larry, how many boxes in a case? Is that 18 or 33?”
Larry is about half bent over, looking under the counter. He raised his head just enough to cut me a look. I wasn’t sure if he was smiling, or if he was reaching for a 9mm. Could have been either one, I guess. In light of the recent national football game, Larry didn’t seem to find my humor very appealing.
I took out a second mortgage to pay for my shells. Larry thanked me and said something about having a nice day and not letting the door hit me in my backside on my way back to Georgia.
I drove on up to Selma. Visited with my niece and great-nephew for a few minutes. Stopped by New Live Oak Cemetery to pay my respects to Mom and Pop. Because of my wife, Selma still feels a lot like home.
If you ever get over this way, stop by Safford’s Hardware. There’s a lot more to it than hammers and nails. The customer service is first rate.
And they love talking football.