Our Country Store series continues with a favorite ‘happy spot’ store that was built in 1893. It was the main stop for the train, along with the cotton gin next door.
SY Wilson in Arlington was literally the store that sold everything that anyone could ever need—from the cradle to the grave. As a matter of fact, there are still a couple of coffins on the third floor—one that was used for rentals, and one that was unused—still in the crate. Coffins used to be big business, but they were often inaccessibly expensive. People would ‘rent’ a coffin to lay out their family member, but after the funeral, they would place the body in a plain, pine box to be buried—thus the ‘rental’ coffin would be saved for someone else. At one time, SY Wilson was the largest supplier of coffins to Memphis Coffin Co., according to old ledgers found in the third floor storage. “It’s been interesting going through all of the boxes—we’ve found old medicine bottles, things with names like ‘Black Draught’ and ‘666 Syrup’—you know they had to be bad, but people were taking things like mercury and heroin to heal themselves… people just didn’t know,” Robert Winstead told us as we got a chance to see the third floor.
Complete with Sam Wilson’s wheelchair, a cradle, many boxes of papers and old bottles, supplies, ropes, saddles, and much more, the upstairs is a wonderful place to visit. But not many people get to go to the third floor; it’s used as office and merchandise storage for the Winstead’s—and with the uneven floors, it’s not usable for the public. “They stored potatoes over the winter up here and the floor is a little hilly after storing huge quantities for the entire season,” Winstead explained.
SY’s was a popular gathering point for the community. Winstead continued with their plans for the future, “We still want to be that spot at the Arlington Depot Square. If there’s an event in Arlington, we want to be involved.”
The Winstead family bought the store from the original Wilson family a couple of years ago, but they were the only family that was considered simply because they would be good caretakers of the history of the building. Their family bought seed and fertilizer from the Wilsons to begin their sod farm years ago; this just continues the history between the families. “When you have as much history as this building has seen, it’s an honor to take care of it, give it new life and carry on,” Winstead explained, “Along with groceries, hardware, dry goods and everything else they sold, this was the original Model T dealership for Memphis, and we are actually using that showroom for our kayaks...our goal is to restore, not to renovate it into something that doesn’t fit.” They have kept their word—they are using the old store fixtures, and making ‘new’ store fixtures from items they found inside the building—including bedsprings from the rooms the traveling salespeople used in the old days. The one fixture that will remain in the store, untouched, is the painting of Sam Wilson. They are adding a display of artifacts from the store’s history as a reminder of its glorious past.
Until the late 1990’s, the store continued to be a hardware store—a little like the modern Lowe’s would have been in that time period. After the hardware store closed, the Wilson family had an antique shop, local art and a ‘fun place to be’ store. The Winsteads are taking the ‘fun place to be’ and continuing with their own version.
When they sold Stockyards, Kim Winstead was going to retire—which lasted about six months. She began looking for something that the family could do together. They bought this and started bringing in merchandise that each of their family members loved. That’s changed a little and they now have a little bit of something for everyone—per the consumer. They now have clothing, jewelry, shoes and boots, hunting and fishing gear, kayaking gear, and so much more with an emphasis on American made, Tennessee made, and Locally made. They feature apparel brands like Patagonia, Columbia, Chaco, Southern Marsh, and Ariat. They also carry kayaks and paddleboards from Hobie, FeelFree, NuCanoe, and Pau Hana. They are adding a new and unique flare of quality apparel, gifts, and outdoor equipment. Their mascot, Raylan, the store dog, is a bit of a celebrity in his own right. He makes sure he greets every visitor with a quest to get them to play, always with his ball ready.
In the month of October, we also wanted to explore the rumors of hauntings in the store. “Yes, there have been several instances of things that are hard to explain,” Winstead smiled. “It’s an old building, it’s loud at night, but when big, heavy doors just pop open…. And things move around on the third floor, as well as in display cases on the first floor—we’ll have things laid out nicely and the next morning, especially the watches, will be all jumbled up, moving 2-3 inches or turning themselves over.”
Trey Inman chimed in, “One of our display cases is seriously in question. No one was around it, I was closest to it—checking out an older couple’s purchase and the entire glass-back of the case shattered. No one was there, no temperature change, just a big crash.”
Another employee, Lauren Wilson, also has had experiences with weird things. She explained, “One morning, only two of us were here and my co-worker asked me to turn on some lights that you could only get to on the second floor. By the time I got there, the lights had turned themselves on. Sometimes on the third floor you hear laughter and have dramatic temperature changes in the basement. She smiled, “You just never know—but you get used to it.”
SY Wilson’s is in the heart of the Depot Square in downtown Arlington, where it’s always been and will always be.
For more information, you can go to sywilson.com.