Bernice Historical Society
People and Places
Uncle Tom Phillips
Barbara Green Pilgreen recently shared with me an article about “Uncle Tom Phillips” of Bernice. The article first appeared in the Farmerville Gazette on the occasion of his 88th birthday and was entitled “Oldest Bernice Business Man Celebrates His 88th Birthday”. Going back through my files I found a couple of more articles on this most interesting of individuals. The combination of the articles tells the story of one of the earliest of residents in the town of Bernice who became a business owner in town at the age of 80.
Tom Phillips was born in Tuskegee in the early 1850’s and in 1858 moved with his family to Lincoln Parish settling in what is now known as Vienna. Shortly after arriving in North Louisiana the Civil War broke out and Tom’s father joined the local forces and was sent to Shreveport where he died of sickness.
Young Tom attempted to complete his education but the necessity of providing for his family and an illness that weakened his eyes forced him to quit school; as the oldest in the family Tom now became responsible for his Mother, three sisters and one brother.
Shortly thereafter Tom carried his family to live near Summerfield where he would marry Permelia Tanner and engage in the business of farming. The area between Summerfield and what would become Bernice was dotted with small farms and large families and in 1881 Phillips brought his family to live near the area called “The Big Woods” in what would become Bernice.
Farming in this area was quite difficult and in 1910 at the age of 51 Tom would abandon farming as a living and resort to being a traveling salesman to provide for his family. This was a job that Phillips held for many years traveling around the area of North Louisiana. In later years Phillips turned this knowledge of Union Parish into one of his hobbies and would compile a history of the area between Middlefork and Corney Creeks.
The years flew by for Phillips and his family. His wife Permelia passed away in 1912 and his five children grew up and now had families of their own. Phillips, nearing the age of 80 decided it was time to give up his traveling job and have a job that kept him home at night. After much thought, he came up with the idea of establishing a seed store in Bernice. His first store held only a table on which stood jars filled with seeds needed by local farmers and home gardeners. The demand for these products grew and Tom added cabbage and onion sets to his inventory.
By 1939 the business was located in a frame building on Main Street between the bank and the drugstore. (By my best calculation that would put his store between the Bernice Pharmacy and the Bernice Town Hall.) Phillips adorned the outside of his building with signs advertising the latest medicines and the latest movie shown down the street. The store was the meeting place for men of all ages and a bench near the store provided a seat for many an observer of life on the streets of Bernice.
Phillips business might have been a seed store but his acknowledged love was psychology and history. Both were subjects he studied for over 20 years. His interest in psychology came about from a visit to school with one of his sons. The speaker at this meeting talked about mental healing and how knowledge of psychology can change a person’s life. I am sure Phillips used his knowledge of both subjects to entertain those subjects who came to visit his store.
In 1939 he was the oldest business man in the town of Bernice at the age of 88. He was described in the article appearing in the Gazette as a “remarkable old man with his walking stick and white beard; aristocratic, gentlemanly ways and careful good English”. His knowledge of the earliest years of Bernice was a first -hand account and many a person sat or stood in his presence to hear his tales.
One such tale was of an old pioneer who walked into the kitchen early one morning and told his wife “We gotta move. I heard a rooster crowing this morning and this place is getting too crowded for us”.
When asked the secret to his long life Phillips attributed his years to a “strong border, meaning stomach”. In addition he added “I never drank, smoked or caroused much at night”. He also attributed his age to his belief in mental healing and felt that too many of our aliments were conceived in the brain and could be cured by the same brain.
Tom Phillips died in May of 1939 and is buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery. His children were Elizabeth Phillips McCuller, Susan Phillips Green and Mattie Phillips Key all of whom were living in Bernice at the time of his death. His sons were Mack Phillips and Sam Phillips, both of whom settled outside of Union Parish. Numerous relatives still live in Bernice.
As I wrote this article I could not help but wish someone still had a copy of the history that Phillips wrote on the area in and around Bernice. What an addition to the Bernice Archives that would be!
Cathy Buckley is a native of Union Parish and lifelong citizen of Shiloh. She served as Principal of Spearsville High School for many years until her retirement. Cathy is now the director of the Bernice Depot Museum and a active member of the Bernice Historical Society.