An iconic company, in fact: Viking Range, the economic engine of Greenwood, Mississippi. And then, because perhaps a local boy has a responsibility to do more, Fred Carl set about rebuilding Greenwood itself--buying and rejuvenating faded structures, setting up people in new businesses, and generally renewing civic optimism. These are the voices of Fred Carl's Greenwood.
Fred Carl, President and Founder of Viking Range
'I was born and raised in Greenwood. My grandfather moved here from a small town about 20 miles away. He was a builder, as was my great-grandfather and father--they did both commercial and residential buildings. You have to when you live in a small town. When I was a boy, downtown Greenwood was bustling. It was considered the cotton capital of the world--people came from all over the Delta to buy and sell cotton, so there were fine restaurants and two department stores that sold fur coats. My grandmother, two great-aunts, and mother would drive down Howard Street on a Saturday, park near the Irving Hotel--it's now the Alluvian--sit in their car, and visit with folks. I stayed in the back seat people-watching. Downtown Greenwood stayed vibrant through the early '60s, but then the civil rights movement brought marches, police dogs, the whole works. And in the '70s, the bypass arrived and looped around town. When the strip malls showed up along the highway, downtown Greenwood just withered away.
"I was a weird kid--I began designing towns when I was 12. Other kids would be playing baseball or smoking cigarettes and I'd be inside drawing airports and schools. By high school, I started assessing our town, thinking of all the things Greenwood needed. When we got a bowling alley in the early '60s, by God, I was thrilled! My parents believed in traveling. Wherever we went, I'd say, 'Why don't we have this in Greenwood?' It was during these trips that I began to understand demographics--we might drive through a town in Indiana with the same population as Greenwood, but it felt much bigger. I saw how poverty, which is rampant in the Delta, affects a place.
"I met my wife, Margaret, at that bowling alley. It's a corny, small-town story. She was 15, I was 19, and we married three years later. Then I got shipped off with the naval reserve to Iceland during Vietnam, which was a rough start to marriage. When I finished my service, I wanted to move to Taos, New Mexico, to live in this commune I'd heard about where a bunch of architectural freaks were building their own utopian village. Margaret had a fit, so I went back to Greenwood to work for my daddy. By then, downtown had gone way downhill. It was so sad to see--a part of me withered too. I went to Ole Miss in Oxford to study city planning, then moved back home to work as a contractor. My second office was next door to the headquarters for Staplcotn, which is still the biggest cotton company in the South. I restored the office in exchange for rent in 1981, which you could say was my first downtown restoration project.
"Margaret gave me the idea for Viking--she wanted a Chambers stove, like her mother had. I looked everywhere and could not find anything close so I decided to build it myself. I was 37 when I built the first Viking stove back in 1985 and almost 39 by the time it went to market. I felt 49. I used to tell myself if I can sell 1,000 stoves a year, I'd be doing pretty darn good. We sell that many a week now.
"We had a rough time in the early days. I remember once I said, 'Margaret, let's pull up stakes and move to Jackson.' But I couldn't do it. I'm hardheaded. You have to be. Plus, so many people from Greenwood would stop me on the street and say, 'Hey, Fred, how's the stove project?' I'd never have gotten that support in Dallas or even Jackson. I might not even get eye contact in New York. In fact, ain't no way in hell I could have done Viking anywhere else but Greenwood. This is my cocoon."
LIZ WELCH is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, Real Simple, Glamour, and Inc., among other publications. She is the co-author with her siblings of the recent book The Kids Are All Right, a highly regarded memoir of her childhood. @lizmwelch