COTTON PLANT - There's nothing remarkable about the brown brick store that sits just inside the Tippah County line on Highway 15. Unless you ask the people inside. To them, Dwight's Grocery & Service Station is a haven, a place where friends and strangers alike share news, gossip and laughs and eat barbecue that's "the best in town" according to a sign on the front window. But the store, which has served at least three generations of farmers, neighbors and travelers along the route, won't be around much longer. "I was supposed to have it closed by today, but I'm going to get to keep it open until the end of the year," said Dwight Burks, who bought the store in 1992. Dwight's is closing not by choice, but by circumstance. Highway 15 is to be widened one day, and the store sits in the way. The Mississippi Department of Transportation also has bought the three acres behind the business, leaving no place for the store to reopen. "It's sad to have to get out," said Burks, 58, who started working at the store when he was a teen. In fact, he became the butcher for James and Joye Rodgers, who owned the store before Burks. The store, located about seven miles from New Albany, 10 miles from Ripley and three miles from Blue Mountain, is the perfect stopping place for travelers. It's open for breakfast and lunch. It has a two-pump gas station. And it's a meeting place for Cotton Plant residents who say there's no place else to go. "I come here every day," said Jerry Huffstatler. "This is an important place; it's a community place. And when it's gone, all it will be is a crossroad." The shelves are quite bare now as Burks tries to sell his remaining inventory. A sign on the front door says "30 percent off groceries." Cans of apple pie filling and beans sit near spices and candy and other assorted items. The thick-cut bologna in the old meat cooler looks good with the hoop cheese that's for sale at the front counter. And if you need an old Coca-Cola cooler, it's yours for $600. But most of Dwight's customers are regulars who are trying not to think about the end. To them, there is no price on what it means. This place, whether it was called Dwight's or Rodgers, is all about family and friends. For Pete Pannell, it has long been a part of his daily routine. And the store's closing is going to put a serious snag in it. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "My wife quit cooking for me about 10 years ago when I started coming up here to eat. I get food for my cat here, too. We solved all the world's problems here - and started some, too." Burks takes in all the comments with a smile, enjoying the camaraderie that's quite evident. It's been that way as long as he remembers. The Rodgerses bought the store in 1962, and he began working for them not long after as a teen. He moved his way up to become the store's butcher. And when the Rodgers decided to sell the store, it was only natural for them to offer it to him first. "He's been like another son to us," said James Rodgers. "I've even tried to get them to adopt me," Burks responded with a wink. Barbecue and biscuits Burks gets to work early, getting up at 3 so he can start cooking his famous barbecue pork. Before the sun can peek above the fields that surround the store, breakfast is being served, with sausage biscuits being snapped up by truck drivers, students, farmers and workers. By the time lunch rolls around, fried chicken and barbecue are ready, and a steady stream of people comes through. Some diners get their food to go. Many others sit at the tables next to the drink coolers in the back of the store. There, too, is the butcher shop where Burks used to ply his trade, learning under the watchful eye of the Rodgerses how to run a business. "I didn't get rich, but I did make a living," Burks said. The same can be said for the Rodgers family, which ran the place for 30 years before selling it to Burks. The store was a bit bigger when the Rodgerses owned it, with Joye running a craft store on one end of it. But the store had a little bit of everything in it, as old country general merchandise stores usually do. Need some nails or roofing tacks to go with that bacon and eggs? Got it. Soap and laundry detergent and canning supplies? You bet. "We were like a small Walmart before there was a Walmart," James said with a chuckle. "We didn't have it all, but we had a lot of it." The Rodgerses, along with their sons, Tracy and Jimmy, still stop by often. And they say Burks - and the rest of Cotton Plant, for that matter - is getting a raw deal. "People have long supported this place, and they still do," said Joye Rodgers. "We've had our Cotton Plant reunion for three years now, and all 250 people who show up each time would say they don't want to see this place close." When Highway 15 is four-laned is anybody's guess. While it's on MDOT's list of priorities, funding the project is another matter. And that's what bothers many in Cotton Plant, who say they don't understand why Dwight's can't stay open longer. "It won't be through here before Dwight reaches retirement," Joye said. "There's no sign that they're going to be getting started anytime soon. If this made any sense at all, we could accept it. But it doesn't make sense. I hate to say it, but Dwight has gotten a rotten deal." Burks, though, is resigned to the fact that all good things must come to an end. "The best part about working here all these years are the people - the friends I've made, the stories that have been shared," he said. "We've looked out for one another. People have been good to me. God has been good to me, and I've been blessed. I'm not sure what I'll do. I might go work for somebody else, or I might work for myself again. I hate to see it has to end. But I'll always remember the people and this community."

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

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