Hal Carter relaxes with daughter Dixie in the sitting room
of his bedroom suite in the Carter's McLemoresville home.
Hal Carter, known best as the father of Dixie Carter and
secondly as one of Carroll County's greatest
entrepreneurs, was born in McLemoresville on December 3,
1909, well after the railroad had shifted business and
government influence to the nearby towns of McKenzie and
Huntingdon, but still early enough to be one of the last
students educated in the famed McLemoresville Collegiate
At 93 years old, his conversation ebbs and flows like
waves along a beach, picking up small memories to bring
them rolling into shore then washing back to sea, leaving
bits and pieces to be explored later as other memories
swell forward with a new wave, leaving the listener
nevertheless delighted as his eloquent speech mixes with
Southern colloquialisms to hint at the expressive
environment in which his daughter honed her talents.
With his older brother, Leon, in college, Hal and his
sister Melba grew up together in the old Carter homestead
that was first owned by his "Grandpapa". The downtown
property was nevertheless part country, with cattle milked
in the barn at the back of the house.
Hal remembers Melba as "the meanest baby I ever saw," he
says, recalling that he would put his sister in her baby
buggy and run around and around the house to keep her
happy. "The minute I would stop she'd turn around with her
red hair and red face and start crying again," he said
with a look of consternation.
His sister was named for the famous Australian opera
singer "Madame Melba" whose music Hal's father, "Papa",
listened to on the gramophone (record player) in the
evenings. Papa's name was Horace, a name he detested so
much that he insisted his son not be named after him,
which resulted in Hal growing up with the similar name "Halbert".
Hal laughs that his own grandson was named Horace in
loving remembrance of Papa.
He recalls marveling as a youngster at the uncanny
resemblance of his father's profile to the Indian on the
Indian head or buffalo nickel that was first minted in
1913. "I used to put my finger, when I was a little boy,
on that Indian head nickel and cover that Indians' hair
and feather up and it was my daddy's profile exactly,"
declares Hal, who says he discovered only after he was
home from the Army that his father's mother was a Cree
Another memory is big square downtown where it was once
supposed the courthouse would sit. "On Saturday when I was
a little boy, that square would be covered up with wagons
and buggies; there wasn't no cars then," he declares,
"When a car would come by, I'd run around and around the
house hollering 'auto'bile, auto'bile, auto'bile!' It
would excite me when I 'd see a car. There were only two
cars in McLemoresville: one was owned by Dr. Bryant and
the other one was owned by Jim Brumley, who had a store
and a cotton gin and a lot of farms."
Running around the house was second nature for Hal, who
ran everywhere he went. "I could outrun any boy in school;
I could move!" he says, "I could run like a rabbit." He
put his running skills to work on the school track team
with the quarter mile being his best distance while also
participating in 220 and 440-yard races. "When you win a
220 or 440 race you hurt but you have to keep going," say
Hal, who learned early that success could sometimes be
Along with endurance, he discovered the virtues of
patience and perseverance in basketball practices that he
extended to a solo routine after the other boys had gone
"I practiced one thing," he says sternly, describing the
tedious repetition of shot after shot from the 18-feet
point, half way between center court and the foul line,
that paid off big in games against greats like McKenzie's
Tom Winsett who later played baseball with the Red Sox,
Cardinals and Dodgers.
"That's all I practiced; I got to where I could make that
shot like a foul shot," he says enthusiastically,
recalling a game in which he was stumped at the center
line with all his teammates covered. "I had to decide what
to do; I decided to shoot - I had to shoot - and when that
basketball came down - shoop! - that whole gymnasium just
He pauses, smacking his lips on the memory. "I remember
that sound with pleasure," he nods. He was awarded a gold
basketball "for being the best player on the floor" at a
West Tennessee Tournament held at Martin that included
Jackson and Memphis schools.
Baseball was another passion, with Hal playing on the
McLemoresville/Trezevant team. Although an old injury he
received while relief pitching left his elbow and shoulder
"sore to this day", Hal relishes the memory of his best
game, when had a double, a triple, a homerun and two bases
in one day. "I had a good day," he smiles.
Despite his skill in sports and opportunities to play for
college teams, Hal had grown to abhor school due to what
he perceived as unusually severe treatment at the hands of
his teachers, who were also his first cousins.
"When I finished that school I knew I wouldn't go to
college even if my daddy wanted me to," he pouts, still
angry at the helplessness of his former situation.
Hal worked at the McLemoresville store with his father for
close to two years before the pair opened another store in
Huntingdon. Eventually, Hal partnered with James Williams
of McKenzie to add stores in McKenzie, Union City and
Dyersburg as well.
Despite the animosity between Hal and his older cousins,
he and his youngest first cousin, Opal, were close
friends. When Opal went to the University of Tennessee at
Knoxville a year after Hal graduated, she introduced him
to Virginia, the young woman who would later become his
"She had a Spanish look about her," Hal muses, dreamy-eyed
at the fond memory of his wife, then says stridently, "I
got struck on her but I couldn't get married," explaining
he was only making $50 per month working at his father's
Despite his stated poverty, Hal admits living at home with
his parents and charging the gasoline for his Ford car,
plus shopping in the family store, made life easier. His
clothing was tailor-made in Chicago, constructed from
measurements he provided the tailor. "I've stayed
reasonably dressed up all my life," says Hal, who recalls
wearing knickerbockers as a small boy and who still
dresses for breakfast every morning in suit and tie.
The couple dated for five years before Virginia realized
Hal was determined to remain single. "She quit me; she
gave up on me, finally," he sputters, repeating his
reasoning, "I was only making $50 a month - I couldn't get
married! - but after she quit me, I had gone to Trezevant
after some freight and saw Opal with my wife in the car. I
stopped them and made a date with Virginia for that night
"We got married pretty quick - I was in the mood then! I
was afraid she'd get away from me; I knew I wanted her but
a man's silly to get married on $50 month."
The couple honeymooned in Chattanooga where Hal says, "We
stayed a week and saw everything, including a car that
climbed straight up Lookout Mountain."
More than satisfied he had married the right girl, Hal
nevertheless laughs, "All of us kids did right the
opposite of what mama told us to do; She told us to marry
a Methodist Republican and we all married Baptist
Democrats. I'm still a strong Republican - Papa was - and
I'd been anything Papa was; I loved my daddy."
Hall and Virginia had three children, Hal, Jr., Dixie and
Midge, by the time Hal was called to join the U.S. Army
forces during World War II. Older than many of the men he
encountered, Hal still summoned the skills of his youth in
races with the others to the mess hall, where he would
sometimes lie in recuperation rather than partake in the
meal. "When I went in the Army I was 5'9" and weighed 228
pounds, and when I came out I was still 5'9" and I weighed
165 pounds," he reports.
One memory of his Army days continues to haunt Hal.
Following orders, he and another soldier were searching
for snipers among two-story buildings in a German village
lit only by twilight when, Hal says, "Something stung the
bottom of my ear. I turned quick enough to see the rifle
flare so I knew where he was. I've never been worse scared
than I was going up those steps trying not to make any
noise. I kicked that door open and a tall blonde boy at
the window wheeled around with his rifle to kill me. I
held my rifle right below my belt and shot first."
He awoke to discover his buddy transporting him to the
first aid station after a German soldier standing behind
the door had bashed him with his rifle butt.
"I had a droopy left eye for a long time after that," says
a simultaneously grateful and regretful Hal, acknowledging
the youth had a family just like he did.
Sadly, it was his father's death that brought Hal home
after two and a half years away from home. He was on a bus
in Memphis when he heard a commotion outside and looked
out the window. "They were saying. 'The war is over! The
war's over! Germany surrendered!'" he shares.
Hal returned to the Carter store in Huntingdon after the
war, where he honed his theory of personal service that
made him a successful businessman. "I treated them like
long lost friends," he shares. "I'd say, 'Yes sir, what do
you want today,' and grin and then stand there and talk to
them. It worked good; from that grew an enormous
The store "had everything any dime store had" plus Stetson
hats and other goods and "shoes from the biggest shoe
company in the world."
The shoes, though expensive at $20 a pair back then, were
one of the biggest sellers in the store with lines of
customers stretching from the front door all the way to
the shoe department 100 feet away. Customers didn't mind
waiting their turn at the x-ray fitting machine. "When
they could see they had the right room for their toe, why,
they'd say, "I'll take it!" declares Hal, who would talk
to the customers as they waited, saying, "Now y'all have
patience please, just wait on us, we'll get to you, we'll
get to you," while two other fitters assisted customers.
One thing the store didn't carry was groceries, "except
toilet paper," grins Hal. Remember, "Don't squeeze the
Hal installed a central checkout, unheard of in department
stores of the day, and insisted with perfectionistic
fervor that items be displayed correctly.
"I had to have that store looking exactly how it ought to
look; I had worked in stores since I was eight years old;
I knew how it ought to look."
Hal lost his beloved Virginia in 1987 at the age of 77.
"She was always sickly," he says sadly, recalling the "ptomain
poisoning" she contracted before their marriage that
caused a lingering weakness. "I never regretted marrying
her - I loved her - and to me she could do no wrong. I did
my best for her."
He suffered another loss when Hal. Jr. died two years ago
after a long illness. "I used to say, 'I know that I have
to be prepared for Papa and Mama's death - according to
nature they won't live as long as I will - but I don't
know how I could face it if one of my children died,'" he
shares with a pained expression that turns to fierce
grief, "You know, I had to face it! My boy died, and there
ain't but one way to handle that - you have to endure it,
you just have to endure it," he ends in a whisper.
Living with Dixie and husband Hal Holbrook in California
has been a saving grace for the widower who says, "She's
been awful good to me, awful good to me, and Mr. Holbrook,
Dixie's husband, he is so good and kind to me. Dixie says
to me, 'Daddy, I want you to live with me, I need you.'
And I've been with her ever since, right under foot all
the time," he laughs happily.