Margaret’s Grocery N. Washington icon crumbling

Published 11:45 am Tuesday, September 6, 2011

As Margaret’s Grocery, Vicksburg’s famed folk-art “Bible castle” on North Washington Street, continues to deteriorate from the effects of heat, humidity and time, a tenant has taken residence in the adjacent house trailer, the former home of the attraction’s creators.

The Rev. Herman and Margaret Dennis created the castle in the 1980s and 1990s, using concrete blocks painted red, yellow and pink, Styrofoam balls and blocks, cardboard tubes, hand-lettered signs, bottle caps and countless other common items. The site also features a school bus which “Preacher” Dennis turned into a chapel for services.

Margaret Rogers Dennis had owned and operated the grocery for nearly 40 years when she married Preacher in 1984, and he was the prime mover behind what he dubbed a tribute to his wife and to their faith in God.

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The couple signed a deed giving Cool Spring M.B. Church, which sits just behind Margaret’s Grocery, ownership of the store and property upon their death. Margaret Dennis died in 2009, and Herman Dennis, 96, lives in a Vicksburg nursing home.

Church elder Frank Johnson confirmed Friday that “a young man” has been living in the trailer since March or April.

The tenant is serving as a sort of watchman-caretaker in lieu of paying rent and has permission to park a pickup on site between the old store and the bus so he can work on the truck in the shade, Johnson said. Other household items have found their way out into the yard, however, including a cushionless loveseat, paint cans, one tennis shoe and a dishpan full of empty soda and tea cans.

“I cry when I drive past it,” Jackson photographer Suzi Altman said last week. “There is only so much we can do to protect the place.”

Artifacts that have been part of the castle for nearly 30 years are falling apart — towers tilting, cardboard tubes unraveling, paint peeling and hand-painted plywood signs toppling.

For more than a year, Altman has spearheaded a drive to preserve Margaret’s Grocery. She formed a nonprofit organization and began a campaign to move the grocery south on Washington Street to a city-owned spot south of Jackson Street and establish an interactive museum. The project could cost $300,000, Altman has said. The site was used by the city this year for the Farmers’ Market.

In February, the “Save Margaret’s Grocery” group was among about 50 people who met with U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson in February, hoping to secure federal funding to help with the project. Thompson told the group that federal programs do not work without community involvement.

Since, the grassroots effort has stalled.

“There is not a lot of money or community support,” said Altman. “As far as preservation is concerned, it’s far beyond our means.”

Speaking for Cool Spring M.B. church, Johnson echoed the thought. “We’re a small church, probably 250 members, and we’re trying to keep the church going,” he said. “We can only hope the state or the city or the federal government, or individual people, will come in with money to help. We don’t have any means of doing it.”

If they were to succeed in moving the grocery, items that are beyond repair could be re-created from the many documentary photographs and videos taken over the years, said Altman.

“It would be a horrible loss, if it can’t be saved — for Mississippi, for the world of folk art, for the community,” said Altman. “The Mississippi Arts Commission would be beside themselves.”

Altman said she got permission from Dennis, his daughter — a resident of New York — and the non-profit’s board of directors to salvage photographs and artifacts from the house trailer and put them into storage as the 2011 Mississippi River Flood was inundating nearby areas, displacing residents and wildlife.

The flood, which crested in May at 57.1 feet, 14.1 feet above flood stage at Vicksburg and 1.3 foot above the Great Flood of 1927, did not reach Margaret’s Grocery.

The items — irreplaceable things Dennis had handcrafted — were cleaned, catalogued and safeguarded, Altman said.