The letters are faded and worn, but somehow that makes the message seem even more genuine. Rust coats the old fastenings at the sign’s corners, where the edges crinkle and bend like a piece of cardboard after it gets wet and dries.
A frail gray vine traces down the sign’s pale, weathered face. Even though much of the “K” has been torn out and an “S” looks to follow soon, the message, “Jesus is King over Nettleton,” still bears strong.
Over the past 24 years, the sign has been rained on, snowed against, baked by the sun, and battered by the wind, but it is as faithful as it is rugged, and doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere anytime soon.
Nettleton’s sign is the last of four signs put up in 1988 by a tight-knit young couples Sunday school class. Nettleton resident Don Roberts and Tupelo’s Mike McBunch were a part of the group. Roberts now owns and runs Roberts Auto Parts in Nettleton, while McBunch owns The Hair Co. in Tupelo.
The group wanted to find a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Nettleton’s founding. McBunch said the group met to brainstorm ideas, and the signs are what they came up with.
“It was all Mike’s idea,” Roberts said with a laugh.
To raise money for their project, the class held a fundraiser at Nettleton High School’s football field. They sold watermelon by the slice.
McBunch and Roberts recalled buying their load of melons from Jim and Doris Bryant’s Big Star, and hauling them back to the football field to be kept cool in kiddie pools filled with ice.
At the end of the day, they had enough to commission four signs, including the one still standing. Of the other three, one said simply “Have a nice day” accompanied by a bright yellow smiley face. Another read “Know Jesus, Know Peace, No Jesus, No Peace.” A third sign was inscribed “Worship In Nettleton,” the words stacked on top of each other to spell “W I N” with their first letters.
“We weren’t trying to make a political statement or anything like that. We just wanted to put a smile on people’s faces,” McBunch said.
McBunch said he remembered that time as a happy one, when everybody helped everybody. Even now, when he drives past it on his way into Nettleton, that sign gives him the warm feeling of going home.
R.V. Adams, mayor and native of Nettleton, remembers when the signs were put up. Even though only one has survived, he said its message is still relevant and true to the Nettleton way of life.
“Our people really come together to help when someone is down,” he said.
Adams recalls the signs were originally placed at the four main entrances to the town; two on Highway 6 and two on Highway 45. For insiders, the sign welcomed them back; for visitors, they gave a glimpse into the town’s identity.
“Every community has an icon,” McBunch said. Amory claims the world-renowned Bill’s Hamburgers, Corinth boasts a Civil War battlefield, and Tupelo has Elvis.
McBunch said these icons are crucial to a small town’s identity, but he said Nettleton’s sign is especially telling in an age that is becoming increasingly secular.
“I feel like we are getting away from so many things in this country. America is losing its hometown values, and the things we cherish are falling by the wayside,” he said.
McBunch doesn’t say this as a political statement, or accusation, but as a man passionate about the place he came from, and the future of that place.
“It’s just like my barber’s pole out there,” said the barber of 32 years.
“If we lose these tiny pieces of Americana, we lose who we are,” he said.
Rogers, who is assisted in his store by his wife and children, said the statement made by the sign is important for Nettleton’s youth. He hopes they will appreciate coming from a town that relies on God.
“It’s important to show the kids what we stand for. Hopefully that kind of thing will be a good model for them as they grow,” he said.
The two men agree Nettleton is a place that still has a conscience. For them, there is no place better to make a living and raise a family. As a barber, McBunch comes in contact with people from all over, including men and women who moved to Northeast Mississippi for a job. He said even if they were hesitant at first, once they get here, they never want to leave.
“That’s why our little part of the world is so awesome,” said McBunch, “We are people who haven’t forgotten the basic things that made America great in the first place.”
Next year will be Nettleton’s 125th anniversary. Adams and a few other residents are mounting efforts to restore the sign, or possibly install more signs. Though he can’t get involved from a mayoral standpoint, he hopes people will reach out as individuals and offer their ideas and support.