We were there when Southern Living beat the odds.

Linda and I, left, and Faye and Gerald Crawford are on hand to celebrate 50 years of Southern Living.
Linda and I, left, and Faye and Gerald Crawford are on hand to celebrate 50 years of Southern Living.

IT HAPPENED A LONG TIME AGO in a galaxy far, far away.

I’m sure of it.

Yet, perhaps it only happened yesterday.

A bunch of farmers in Birmingham, Alabama, got together and decided to start a new magazine.

A few favored it.

A few more opposed it.

For the opposition, it was heresy.

And I suppose it was.

For those of us who lived in rural America, Progressive Farmer Magazine was sacred.

It was placed right alongside the Bible.

My father quoted from one as much as the other.

Progressive Farmer answered more prayers.

But then, my father was a weekend farmer.

The Powers at Progressive Farmer, during the 1960s, realized that so many, especially those in the younger generation, were leaving the farms.

They were headed to town.

And a lot of them, God forbid, were moving to the sin-filled streets of big cities.

They were watching their subscribers trading tractors and pickup trucks for little red sports cars. They drank from demitasse cups instead of jugs and mugs.

Their departure from the farms sent a quake that registered 9.8 on the Richter scale through the Southland.

The Powers at Progressive Farmer countered with the launch a new magazine.

Let’s call it Southern Living, they said.

Let’s aim the magazine at the farmer kids who are now the urbanites.

What do they like?

How do they live?

Well, let’s write about travel.

Let’s dish up some good food recipes.

Let’s show them how to turn their homes into show places.

Let’s beautify their yards with flowers and gardens.

They’ll still be sending their subscription dollars to Progressive Farmer.

They just won’t know it.

In the beginning, from left to right, editor Garry McCalla, travel editor Caleb Pirtle, managing editor John Logue, assistant travel editor Karen Lingo, chief photographer Gerald Crawford.
In the beginning, from left to right, editor Garry McCalla, travel editor Caleb Pirtle, managing editor John Logue, assistant travel editor Karen Lingo, and chief photographer Gerald Crawford.

Here’s how the Powers looked at it.

Southern Living would be cosmopolitan and sophisticated, published by and written by cosmopolitan and sophisticated journalists.

So they hired Gary McCalla from Freer, Texas, population 2,783, as editor.

Here came John Logue from Pineapple, Alabama, population 130, as managing editor.

They went out in the hinterlands and brought in some kid named Caleb Pirtle from Pitner’s Junction, Texas, population depleted, as travel editor.

Handling the food editor’s job was Lena Sturges from Hunt, Texas, She always said Hunt was located smack dab between the two towns of Comfort and Welfare.

And they placed a Nikon Camera in the hands of Chief Photographer Gerald Crawford from Webb, Alabama, population 1,417.

The South had a magazine.

We were in charge of the sophistication.

The ladies drank wine.

The men drank bourbon.

We ate steaks chicken fried.

We believed football ranked just behind Baptists and Methodists as a religion.

We came from places that thought “Half Price” and “Mark Down” were brand names.

We promoted travel to Wizard Wells, Texas, Ninety-Six, South Carolina, Slicklizzard, Alabama, and Plum Nelly, Georgia, named because it’s plum out of Tennessee, and nelly out of Georgia.

We had a small staff.

We flew by the seat of our pants.

We had no idea what we’d do tomorrow, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be what we did yesterday.

And we loved each other.

We were family.

The magazine came along at just the right time.

These were the sixties, remember.

Every other region in the nation looked down its nose at the South.

We were rednecks.

We were hillbillies.

Our women didn’t have teeth.

Our men didn’t have shoes.

Our barns had corn.

Our corn was turned into whiskey.

And, Lord, we were a prejudiced bunch of bigots.

The fight for Civil Rights erupted.

Then it exploded.

And newscasters and editorial writers from all over the nation were lining up to tell the South what a wicked, horrible, and terrible place it was.

The South made Sodom and Gomorrah look like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which were in the South but didn’t count as Southern.

Then Southern Living came along.

We were, a bunch of barefoot boys and girls wandering the back roads of the South preaching a gospel no one had heard in a long time.

The South is a great place, we said.

The South is filled with wonderful people, we said.

The South has fine, progressive cities, we said.

The South has communities with people who genuinely care about each other.

The South has its own rare and gentle beauty.

Just look at its antebellum homes.

Just look at its gardens.

Eden would be envious.

Wait a minute.

We have an Eden.

It’s in Alabama.

No one respects its past and its traditions more than the South.

Down home Southern cooking is the best in the world.

It’s against the law not to serve grits.

If not, it should be.

And God’s only regret was sending manna from heaven instead of turnip greens and sugar-cured ham.

Those first years were tough years.

We hung on from issue to issue with broken fingernails.

But we loved the South.

And the South loved us.

Southern Living became the most important and successful magazine in the nation.

We scratched for 96 pages an issue when we began.

We were averaging 356 pages an issue when I left a decade later.

For subscriptions, we charged you an extra dollar a month if you lived outside the South.

You’d be surprised at the hundreds of thousands who were willing to pay it.

But that was then.

This is now.

Gerald Crawford and I fifty year after it all began in Birmingham.
Gerald Crawford and I fifty years after it all began in Birmingham.

Last Monday night, Southern Living celebrated its 50th anniversary. That’s quite a milestone for a magazine that was supposed to die in its tracks. It didn’t die because we wouldn’t let it.

Gerald Crawford and I were there with John Logue.

We lost Gary McCalla and Lena Sturges along the way.

We celebrated the magazine.

We honored those who were missing.

We applauded those who are now carrying the torch.

What was is no more.

What is goes on.

I’d start it again if I could.

I can’t.

Thanks for the memories.

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  • Roger Summers

    Ah, the grit. And the grits.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      What else is there? Of course, red-eye gravy makes them worth eating.

      • I must visit that place, the mythical South. Wish I could walk – I have the feeling it’s important to walk around to see everything.

    • A favorite waitress in Laurel, Mississippi, never got tired of telling about the “damn Yankee” who ordered “One grit… just to see what they were like, you know?”

      • Caleb Pirtle

        I hope she told him she was going out and pick the grit off the grit tree to make sure it was fresh.

        • She did tell him “something like that.”

  • John Ewing

    Fantastic! We grew up with “Southern Living”and welcomed its arrival every month…wonderful to know the backstory. Thanks, Caleb & Linda!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I knew you were a son of the South, John, when I saw your writing.

      • John Ewing

        Ha! So true, Caleb – we Southerners are steeped in place, story, and all things appealing to the senses (Southern Living’s forte)…no matter where we end up as adults, that’s always what grounds us.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          John, many of us believed the South was Camelot. At least it was magical.

          • John Ewing

            Certainly magical, Caleb…and still is. The South is always ripe for reinvention – its vigor, vitality, beauty, and YOUTH are its best assets. Of course, the best food anywhere: full disclosure, my stomach defines “South” as El Paso to Richmond 🙂

  • TomAdkinson

    That’s great, Caleb. To paraphrase an old saying about one’s origins, “I wasn’t at the magazine at the start, but I got there as soon as I could.” You and the magazine gave me opportunities to see places and have experiences that I didn’t deserve at that age. From that time, I have friendships that have lasted a lifetime. I have great memories, including Lena’s story about trying to explain to a teetotaling reader what the key ingredient was for the holiday bourbon cake. I remember everyone’s eager anticipation of your return from trips so we could hear your tales from the road, ones that didn’t get published. We had the freedom to explore, to tell Southerners about their region — and tell non-Southerners what they were missing. I send my thanks.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Tom, Southern Living had some important by-lines, and yours was at the top. You, Karen, Crawford, and I did it our way because no one was around to tell us any difference. It was like we were playing backyard baseball and changed the rules every time we didn’t like the old ones.

  • Lana L. Higginbotham

    Caleb, My mother subscribed to two magazines: Ladies Home Journal and Southern Living. My sister continues the tradition. That’s the way of the South. Your part in it makes sense. Stories from the southern backroads connect and lead us home. Congratulations!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Lana, when they wouldn’t let me write about the back roads any more, I took a back road back to Texas.

  • April Coker

    Love the history, Caleb, and the story of how you helped launch an icon! It’s an honor to know you and Linda. Thank you for letting us in on the magic. What a legacy!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      We had a wild run, April, but it was a good one.

  • I think we “can’t start again” because, though “We had no idea what we’d do tomorrow, it sure as hell wouldn’t be what we did yesterday,” we would still wind up in the same place we’d started from – Pineapple, the one in Alabama, or Pitner’s Junction, Texas, or Childersburg, also in Alabama, or Hot Coffee, Mississippi, or wherever else we had been when we started this outrageous trip.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I’ll raise a tomato juice toast to outrageous trips. We meet the greatest people on them.

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