By RUTH MORGAN
For Starkville Daily News
In a world where we have instant communication, TVs that fill an entire wall, and refrigerators that protect our food and all our other modern conveniences, it is hard to realize that less than 70 years ago a large portion of Starkville and the rest of the world did not have electricity in their homes.
Harry Lawson McIngvale Sr. was one of the leaders in providing electricity and its modern conveniences to the Starkville area.
In 1928 “Mr. Mac” graduated from Starkville High School as a part of the first graduating class from the facility that is now known as the Greensboro Center.
In 1933, he worked his way through a business degree from Mississippi A & M College (now Mississippi State University). One semester, Mr. Mac earned his tuition when Dudy Noble asked him and a friend to wire the gymnasium which Dudy called the Old Barn. Mississippi State College decided they needed lights for their ball field. Mr. McIngvale and William Gearhiser were both students, but they agreed to climb the very tall poles and install the lights. They enjoyed their work so much that they would return to the poles to watch the night games. What a view.
During the summer between his junior and senior years, Mr. Mac was earning money for tuition by selling radios. He had deposited enough money for tuition (then $36) in Security State Bank, but when he went to get the money, he found the bank closed possibly because a run on the bank. He saw the President of Security State Bank, Mr. J. T. Steele, and explained to him his dilemma. Mr. Steele pulled $36 dollars out of his own pocket and gave to Mr. McIngvale for tuition. Mr. McIngvale paid him back as soon as the bank reopened.
Mr. McIngvale’s father, George McIngvale, originally came to Starkville after being offered the position of manager of the city water and light department. At that time the City had its own electrical generator and along with the generator at Borden milk plant provided electricity for a few homes, street lights and several businesses. The McIngvales built a home on Louisville Street which burned in 1931. George McIngvale purchased a lot on Washington Street for $450 and built a house which was home for the McIngvales until their death in 2005.
Harry Lawson met his future wife, Mildred Hamlin, and they courted during the time he was in college. Back then, the Mansion at Old Waverly was abandoned, and it provided a beautiful backdrop for their courtship since she lived in West Point. They were secretly married for two years before they told their parents. After that, they left Starkville and moved to Hattiesburg and then Gulfport where he worked for Mississippi Power and Light. After World War II started, he worked as a civilian at the “Seabee” training base in Gulfport teaching the sailors how to assemble and service field refrigeration units being shipped to the Pacific theater of the war. As the war was winding down, Mr. McIngvale moved back to Starkville when his father died in 1943 to help take care of his mother.
When Mr. Mac got back to Starkville he decided to open his business on Lafayette Street across from Martin Hardware at that time. He wanted to sell appliances, but since the war was going on, it was very difficult to get anything made of metal, such as refrigerators, ranges, etc. Instead, he sold paint, records and did electrical wiring. As the war ended, there were lots of young men looking for job,s and the government set up a job training program for the veterans, supplying them with a set of tools and paying part of their salary for the first year or so. Frank Ellington and Joe Ford were two of the young men trained by Mr. McIngvale. As appliances became available and the economy improved, Mr. McIngvale started servicing all brands of appliances, taking care of commercial refrigeration in grocery stores, cafes, and providing electrical wiring for homes and businesses. The National Guard Armory, which was located in the building currently occupied by City Hall and the police station, was the scene of large sales events in the mid 1940s. Mr. McIngvale would have a booth there for his McIngvale Electric and Refrigeration Company, where he would display his Kelvinator refrigerators, ranges, water heaters and fans along with a line of Empire Milking Machines for the growing dairy industry. At about this time, TVA was starting to provide electricity to the rural areas of Mississippi such as Rockhill, and Mr. Mac would wire the houses and sell the owners a refrigerator, range, etc. Of course, no one had much money at that time, so he would allow them to make payments. One lady would come in each week with a flour sack containing her family Bible. She would take out the Bible and leaf through the Chapters pulling out $20 bills. Since she could not count money, Mr. McIngvale would tell her when she had the right amount and give her a receipt, and she would leave for another week.
The first TV came to town costing some $400, which was a tremendous amount of money at that time. It was a two-foot wooden box with a ten-inch screen. Mr. McIngvale had hired P.D. Lee, Sr. to do radio repairs, and they set up the TV in the shop at Lafayette Street. The nearest television station was Memphis Channel 5, which only broadcast at night. They had to install a high antenna on the roof of the shop which they constructed from electrical conduit. The picture was, of course, black and white and very grainy. Most of the programming consisted of wrestling matches and westerns. One night when Gene Autry was going to be on, Mr. McIngvale opened the shop for the large crowd that came to see the Western Hero. He continued doing this until the newness wore off. Then he would put the TV in the front window of the store leaving it on for the people walking by at night. Many Starkvilians did not believe the picture on his TV was coming from Memphis. Some wondered how “the little men got in that box,” and some said it was just a moving picture.
In the 1950s, Mr. McIngvale purchased an older house next door to their home on Washington Street with the intention of moving the shop. As the house was torn down in preparation of building the shop, a friend of Mrs. McIngvale who worked at Shep’s Cleaners, Annie Mae Jenkins, asked for the lumber to add on to her home. In exchange for the lumber she would raise a pig for him every year afterwards. As the house was being removed, a large brick cistern was found under the back porch. It was filled in with bricks from the house but continued to provide moisture for Mr. McIngvale’s prized tomatoes that he grew in a garden above the cistern. After the shop moved to 214 South Washington, Mr. McIngvale was able to tend his large truck garden before starting work at McIngvale each day. His generosity with the produce from his garden was well known. As the business grew, there was less and less time for Mr. Mac or his men to work on coffee pots, irons and other small appliances. So, one day Mildred McIngvale decided she would see what she could do. Over the years she became very proficient at repairing small appliances and was much sought after for resurrecting a favorite coffee pot or toaster. Unfortunately, in the mid 1980s, several serious health problems ended her repair career, though she continued to can and put up vegetables from the garden. Mr. McIngvale was a longtime member and trustee of First United Methodist Church, where he maintained the heating and air conditioning system for many years. He would go to the church late on Saturday night and early on Sunday morning to be sure it was comfortable and operating properly for the members.
Mr. McIngvale would open the shop and tend his garden well into his 90’s. Probably because of this, he was blessed with excellent health requiring practically no medication. As Mrs. McIngvale’s health deteriorated, Mr. McIngvale insisted on being the primary caregiver--even cooking for her each day. He told his family that he would be the primary caregiver of Mrs. McIngvale until she died. When she died after 74 years of marriage, he died less than two months after her in 2005.
Ruth Morgan is a local columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .