Irl Chevis Rainwater (standing, left, with pool cue) was born January 23, 1890, in Sardis Mississippi. He was the fifth of the six children of Lemuel Flewellyn Rainwater and Laura S. Jones. He was educated in the Sardis school system where the principal, Mr. Gowty, said that he was an excellent student of mathematics, but an indifferent Latin scholar.
Following high school, he went to Southwestern Baptist College (now Union College) in Jackson, Tennessee where he played on the baseball team. Much to the disappointment of his father, who longed for one or more of his sons to share his law practice, Irl then enrolled in the Engineering School at Georgia Tech where he joined and lived in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.
Unfortunately, his college career did not last long because during the Christmas holidays of his second year, following much prodding and teasing by his friends, and without his parent’s consent, he married Hazel Harris, his girlfriend since his days in Sardis. He was twenty-one at the time (by one day). Not only was he dismissed from college since there were no married students in those days, but he was kicked out of the house in Sardis and went with his new bride to live in a one room boarding house. He supported the two of them by working in a local sawmill.
They later moved to Crawfordville, Arkansas near where his Uncle James lived, and their first son, Irl Junior was born there. During this time, Irl served two years in the army with General Pershing on the Mexican border during the Pancho Villa campaign of 1914-1916. Since Irl had become a father, he was exempted from further military service.
Following his release from the army, Irl moved his new family to Memphis where he took a job in a grocery store. One of his fellow workers at this store was a man by the name of Clarence Saunders. Saunders conceived the idea for a self-service grocery store and was able to get enough financial backing to open a store, based on this concept, in Memphis in 1919, with Irl as his store manager. He called it Piggly-Wiggly. The huge success of this first store caused Saunders to send Irl, and others, on the road to franchise the business model and eventually there were Piggly-Wiggly stores all across the country, and the stock was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Saunders made millions and Irl prospered as well. Irl thought so highly of Mr. Saunders that he named his third son, born in 1920, after him: my father, Clarence Saunders Rainwater.
Sadly, Saunders pushed his luck too far. There isn’t enough space to tell the whole story of the downfall of Piggly-Wiggly, but it fell hard and everyone invested in the stock lost everything.
Irl moved back to Sardis and worked for a while for H.J. Heinz. Later he moved the family to Mobile, Alabama where he became general manager for a small grocery chain called Economy Stores. This chain was later bought out by the Hill Grocery Company, and Irl eventually became the manager of the Hill stores in central Alabama. He worked there until retirement when he and Hazel moved to Perdido Beach, Alabama. They lived there until he died on January 22, 1971, one day short of his 81st birthday.
The photograph was taken in the early twenties in a local pool hall in Sardis, Mississippi, as sort of a joke. The gentleman standing on the right was a friend William Dorr. Seated front left with the pistol is Louis Hope Carlyle who had married Irl’s sister Cary in 1916. He worked for the Illinois Central Railroad. Seated next to him is Sidney Bernard Harris, the brother of Irl’s wife, Hazel. He was active in local politics and later became the sheriff of Panola County.
Photo and biographical information supplied by Michael V. Rainwater, based on information provided by his Uncle Lemuel Rainwater.
© 2018 Michael V. Rainwater
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