Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Onward Store

100-year-old general store in Sharkey county

Photo courtesy of The Onward Store
Photo courtesy of The Onward Store

Back in 1902 a black bear was saved near Onward, Mississippi when President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear that was tied to a tree. It became the most famous bear hunt in America, and launched the birth of the Teddy bear—America’s favorite toy. In 1913, a small general store was built nearby to serve the community.
Nearly a century later, another hunter saved the store. “I had my eye on the store for about 20 years,” says Mollie Van Devender. “Every time we went to our hunting camp, I had to turn by it.”
The store, located on the corner of highways 1 and 61, had deteriorated over the years and was in a bad state of disrepair. “I learned that it had been owned by the same family for over 98 years,” says Van Devender. “It was being leased by a gal, and she was ready to get out,” Van Devender explains. “The building needed too much work, and in order to do it, she would need to buy, not lease the building. “The owner lived in Atlanta, and as fate would have it, he was ready to sell.”
Van Devender and her husband, Billy, closed on the building in July 2012. A major renovation followed. “I kept it as historically correct as I could,” says Van Devender. “While we were renovating, the Old Red Barn in Rolling Fork blew down, and we bought some of the lumber from the state to use in the store.
Today, the Onward Store serves primarily the hunters who frequent the hunting camps in the surrounding area.
“During hunting season, we’ll have hunters here from several states. Sometimes everyone in the place is dressed in camouflage,” she says.
But as the word gets out about the delicious food served in the store’s restaurant, more and more people are making the drive to enjoy a great dining experience. The restaurant serves breakfast daily and dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“Dinner is more upscale, with steaks and seafood, and people can bring in their own wine,” Van Devender says. “And we just started opening from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays during the hunting season. We’ll see how that goes before making it permanent.”
Van Devender says she would prefer to reserve Sunday as a day of rest for the folks working in the store.
“We try to accommodate the locals, who like to stop in on their way home from deer camp, as well as the employees, many of whom appreciate the opportunity to make some extra money.”
When the Van Devenders bought the store, there were two people working in the kitchen of what was then a short order type restaurant. Now there is a staff of 12. “We’ve given a lot of local people jobs, which is important in places like Sharkey and Issaquena counties where the poverty rate is so high. We’ve been so pleased with the folks working at the store. They are so dedicated and honest.”
Running the business has been a challenge for Van Devender, who has never owned a business before. “I’ve chaired the (Junior League of Jackson’s) Mistletoe Marketplace, which is like having a full time job for two years, but this has been a real learning experience.”
Van Devender says they tried putting gifts in the store, as well as featuring work by Mississippi artists, but she is now putting less emphasis on gifts and more on convenience. “We still carry some Mississippi artwork, and a few novelty gifts, but in the end, the Onward Store is basically a convenience store,” she says. “We sell 100 cases of Bud Light a week!”
Van Devender adds that renovating the store and restaurant has been very satisfying for her. “I have always liked a project. This one has been especially important due to the historic significance. I’m proud that we have been able to preserve a piece of Mississippi history while serving the community.”
— Susan Marquez, Delta Business Journal

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