E.P. 'Elmo' Birkhead


He moves slowly to the back of the feed store, across a worn wooden floor built with his thick hands more than half a century ago. The cool air under the sloping roof has a grainy, musty aroma. Stacked bags of feed are everywhere. Yellow sunlight peeks through a few cracks in the siding.

"See them old wagon wheels up there?" E.P. "Elmo" Birkhead points with his cane to two ancient wagon wheels fastened to the sloping roof. "My dad bought that old wagon in 191O," he says in a clear, soft Texas voice as easy as prairie grass in the wind. "From Coahoma he'd go to either Colorado City or Big Spring by dirt road to buy his supplies in that wagon, and sometimes I'd go with him. We'd stay all night in the wagon yard, and the next day he'd buy supplies and groceries. It was 30 miles to home. Course I liked to go; all kids like to go, don't they?"

As a skinny 10-year-old, Birkhead went barefoot in summer. "My ol' feet got so tough I could go through grass fires and it wouldn't bother me," he says, sitting down in the Birkhead Feed Store office, ready to look back on 100 years of living in Texas.

Direct and uncomplicated, Birkhead is the classic contented man with nothing to prove. His son, E.P. Birkhead Jr., who now owns the feed business, listens nearby. Eating a quick lunch just outside the office is his grandson, James Birkhead.

The senior Birkhead always keeps his brimmed hat on, a neat, tawny-colored felt hat, the kind Lyndon Baines Johnson used to wear. "Always wore a hat as a boy," Birkhead says slowly. "I don't never not wear a hat now."

He says he remembers his mother and father with nothing but love. "My daddy homesteaded here from Kentucky," he says. Birkhead and his five sisters and four brothers were raised on a farm where cotton was the money crop. "We did all right," he says.

It was four miles to school everyday. "Sometimes we walked; sometimes we had a horse and buggy," he says. "Didn't know much about football then. Us kids would play baseball, but back then it was known as town ball."

Drought years were hard on farming, particularly 1916-17. "We never put a plow in the field," he says. "It was too dry. Never rained a drop. The topsoil all blowed away. You'd get up in the morning and look out the window and see the whole thing a-coming, and it'd be blowing all day, piling up the topsoil on the fence rows."

Two of his brothers went to California for jobs, and sent money home. Another brother got drafted into the Army in World War 1. "We got by pretty good," he says, "and I didn't have to buy shoes." He laughs slowly, watching the laughter spread around the room.

After high school, Birkhead decided he wanted to try college and went off to Hardin Simmons University some 200 miles away in Abilene. Warren Harding was president, and Texas was on the verge of an oil boom.

"I played football at college," Birkhead says, "and did pretty good as a tackle. Next year the coach wrote letters offering me a scholarship. But I didn't go back. I was just a farm boy, I guess." He was too young for World War I, and too old for World War II.

He returned to farming, and married a local girl, Christine, in 1933. A brother-in-law, who was doing well in the feed business, helped steer him away from farming. "I decided to come to Midland," he says, "and a man named J.P. Carson had a feed business. He just give it to me. I didn't buy him out, he just give it to me."

Oil-rich Midland was booming. Eight to 10 dairies plus a few horse ranches were flourishing. "They were all my customers, and I had me a good little business," Birkhead says.

In 1973 he turned the business over to his son, who was a schoolteacher at the time. After 66 years of marriage, Birkhead's wife passed away last year. "She was a good friend," he says quietly, "and the most beautiful thing I ever saw. I don't remember me and her having any big fusses. We got along real good."

Rummaging through his quiet past, and down through his years as a businessman, does he have any regrets?

"Well, I don't think so," he says, pausing. "I've thought about it, having the opportunity to go back to college on a scholarship and everything. I don't know if I did the right thing or the wrong, but I don't really regret it. I just lived and kept living. Never thought much about it. Never smoked or drank or cussed either. I just turned out to be what I am."

He leans forward, signaling conclusion, thanks his visitors for their interest, rises slowly, and walks back into the store. Customers and relatives greet him warmly, and he responds with humor. After posing for two dozen photos, he says laconically, "Well, I guess I had my picture took," and laughs. He moves outside, and stands slightly hunched in the sun on a dock, waiting for his ride home, humming a little tune to himself.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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