In October of 1917, 20 year-old Reuben Lott opened a small furniture store in his namesake on Front Street between a hardware store and a butcher shop. Beginning with sales primarily to the logging camps, Mr. Lott branched out over the state in years to come. Located across the street from the train depot and lumber yard, Lott Furniture fell right into the hub of regional commerce. Little did Mr. Lott know, his store would still be a part of the downtown community a century later.
World War II and the Great Depression took a huge toll on the economy in Laurel and many jobs were lost, leaving families penniless and businesses abandoned all around the city. Mr. Lott’s method of financing allowed customers to pay their bills in small amounts and kept the store alive during some of the nation’s most difficult years. Our oldest ledger shows a sale of two iron bedsteads to a Viola Broach with a bill of just one dollar a week. Sometimes, our customers even paid as little as 5 to 25 cents per payment.
By the late 40s, the store claimed the two neighboring businesses to expand into a space three times its original size. Sales broadened to neighboring counties and Mr. Lott began hiring traveling salesmen to collect payments and sell wares door-to-door. Our wood-bodied trucks became traveling symbols of Lott Furniture and were soon recognizable all over town.
“Laurel’s Front Street was the place to be, because it was the city’s widest street with its cafés, barbershops, shoeshine parlors, and furniture shops.” – The Frog Blues & Jazz Annual 2009
In the 40s, Blues vanguard Blind Roosevelt Graves sang and played his guitar right in front of Lott Furniture daily. He and his brother Uaroy drew massive crowds to Front Street just to hear them play, locals and travelers alike. It’s been said that Blind Roosevelt was a big influence on the Delta Blues musicians who would stay to listen between train stops.
“Lott Furniture received all its merchandise on train. The train depot was the first landmark in laurel. You can imagine travelers and workers getting off the train and hearing Roosevelt Graves singing and playing across the way in the middle of the busiest part of Laurel.”
“The brothers attracted large crowds in Front Street. Roosevelt was so popular that his crowd blocked the pavement. At that time Front Street was a four-lane street and when you wanted to pass by you either had to push yourself through the crowd or go to the other side of the street. Since their usual spot was in front of the Lott Furniture Company store, the owner, Reuben Lott, was pleased with the large crowds. The more people listened in front of his store, the more people would take the opportunity and visit the store to buy furniture When the Graves brothers played their songs in front of Lott Furniture Company’s store the police sometimes intervened and summoned people, who had gathered around them, to make way. Quarters, half-dollars and dollars were put in Roosevelt’s tin cup which he had strapped on his guitar. He had to empty that cup many times during the day. Even policemen put tips in his cup.” – The Frog Blues & Jazz Annual 2009
In the late 40s, Nellie Rowell moved to Laurel from her hometown of Newton, Mississippi to seek any work she could find. In her early 20s, unexpectedly left by her husband, and a newly single mother of two children, Nellie came to Mr. Lott with just a high school diploma and a promise of devotion to her job. She worked steadfastly and unflinchingly for 58 years, becoming a figurehead, and a dog-eared page in the Lott Furniture story.
Mr. Lott began to open locations in nearby cities, along with a second store in downtown Laurel. Sitting where Southern Antiques is today, Laurel Furniture carried more expensive furniture and accessories than Lott and catered to different kinds of customers. Sometime in the 50s, Nellie met her landlord’s son, Willie Joe (WJ) Rowell, and remarried. WJ worked as Laurel Furniture’s store manager during these years, while Nellie remained at Lott.
By 1965, there were eleven stores that scattered Mississippi. On Fridays, the books from all locations were brought to Lott Furniture and Nellie would take on the tedious task of balancing and recording weekly transactions and return the books the following Monday. Long time employee, Henry Smith, left to open Smith Furniture around 1960, and remained friendly with Mr. Lott. After Henry passed away, WJ Rowell bought Smith Furniture and worked there until he retired in 2004.
The 70s was a time of technological innovation that replaced traditional bookkeeping in many businesses. Manual typewriters and calculators were now obsolete, and computers became record keepers rather than ink written by careful hands in ledger books. Although aging, Mr. Lott was determined to keep records by hand even though updating to computers would have been much quicker and easier. He was unwaveringly certain that personally writing a customer’s name built a relationship that shouldn’t be sacrificed for efficiency. So while we did adopt some modern office equipment, we continue to this day to write all account information by hand.
Mr. Lott had no children, so he sold each of his stores to its respective employees when he retired. The stock percentages were determined by position and seniority, giving Nellie Rowell the most sizable part of the main store. Other stockholders retired, were paid out, and eventually Nellie became the sole owner of Lott Furniture.
By the late 70s, urban renewal was in full swing, and the promise of growth for downtown Laurel was soon lost as the once crowded streets became barren.
In 1983, Nellie’s longtime coworker and friend, Bernie Stockman passed away, leaving Nellie in need of help. Three of her children became regular employees during these years, filling roles she couldn’t by herself. Her sons Bobby and Rodney made deliveries and worked as outside salesmen, and Rodney’s wife Angie assisted her in the office. Reuben Lott and his wife Blondie both passed away in the late 80s, leaving a new family to be protectors of the Lott legacy.
During the 90s, Bobby left the store and we began to phase out outside salesmen and collectors. Sales were only made on location or over the phone, but Mr. Lott’s financing remained as it was in 1917.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated downtown Laurel and much of the Southeast. Our storefront was destroyed and the metal façade installed in the 50s was blown away. We were surprised to find that the original building was mostly intact underneath. We repainted the brick and installed a canopy inspired by the early 1900s, restoring the storefront to something reminiscent of an earlier era.
Today Nellie’s youngest daughter Candy, Rodney, and Angie remain at 320 Front Street. Nellie’s oldest daughter, Patsy, has devoted many hours doing everything from office work to interior design. With careful management, we have been able to stay true to our roots and our customers while sustaining our business and carrying on as a part of our community.
We look forward to Laurel returning to its former glory with the rise of a younger generation of entrepreneurs and creatives. We take pride in our little town and the recent surge of “hopefuls” and “doers” that are emerging around every corner. We see families and newcomers of all kinds settling into new and old houses alike, and we just want to help make those houses feel like home.
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