In the age of cigarettes, when every Waffle House table had an ashtray and every employee lounge held a smoke cloud, tobacco so dominated North Carolina’s culture that the men who auctioned it became national celebrities.
If they were good, they stalked through warehouses from here to Florida, hawking bales of golden leaf in a voice that was part game-show host and part accountant, spitting out a mantra of dollars and cents faster than a machine gun.
And by most accounts, the greatest of all came from tiny Louisburg in Franklin County – a tenant farmer’s boy named Percy W. Joyner. He once sold 1.03 million pounds of tobacco in a single day – believed to be a record after more than half a century.
And with that feat in mind, the town recently placed a stone on a prominent Main Street intersection known as Boddie’s Corner, the site of a bygone drug store but more importantly a tribute to a legendary comment made on national radio by their famous auctioneer:
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“I wouldn’t swap you standing room on Boddie’s Corner in Louisburg for the whole damned state of Kentucky.”
Though Joyner said it nearly a century ago, it remains a suitable motto.
As the seat of Franklin County, Louisburg already enjoys a quirky reputation as the home of the International Whistlers Convention. Its resident artist, Will Hinton, a professor at the two-year Louisburg College, painted the state motto – Esse Quam Videri – as an 80-foot wall mural with a clashing stripes and checkerboard pattern. Honoring a silver-tongued tobacco salesman is just the latest attempt to drag some of the town’s eccentric charm into the 21st century.
Born in Louisburg, Joyner grew up mostly without a father and without much in the way of formal education. His own obituary describes him of having a manner “not conducive to school and discipline.”
But he succeeded in the tobacco trade through a mix of style and smarts – the ability to keep track of bids flying at him five at a time and announce them all in a lightning-fast chorus of numbers and nonsense syllables. Most important, he made people money. By most accounts, he cut a colorful figure as the cigarette ringmaster.
“He was fond of Panama suits,” said Boyd Sturges, a Louisburg attorney.
In the late 1930s, at the height of his fame, Joyner finished an auction in Lexington, Ky., and walked back toward his hotel. On his way, a radio reporter recognized the famous leaf hawker and button-holed him on the sidewalk, asking for some words for the listening audience.
His opening question: What did Joyner think of the Bluegrass State? Hearing Joyner’s response – “for the whole damned state ...” – the sheepish reporter ended the interview.
Joyner would later become a Franklin County commissioner, helping pave roads for the rural school buses. Franklin Memorial Hospital, now closed, bore his name at the entrance. But as tobacco waned as the state’s banner, so did Joyner, who died in 1980.
I wouldn’t swap you standing room on Boddie’s Corner in Louisburg for the whole damned state of Kentucky.
Percy W. Joyner’s famous quote
Stories linger of his feisty behavior, long past his prime. Convicted of a traffic violation in old age, he taunted the patrolman who’d arrested him by falsely claiming to be zooming home from Rolesville in a most illegal and dangerous fashion, challenging the trooper to arrest him again. From his living room, he watched the trooper fall for the gag and race past his house.
“Patrol cars had tall radio antennas,” recalled Louisburg attorney Charles Davis, laughing. “Percy said that trooper’s antenna was parallel to the car.”
The only regret among locals old enough to remember Joyner is that his name does not appear on the marker, which says only “Boddie’s Corner.”
But Joyner’s wisecrack lives on. It is recounted in full on page 4 of T.H. Pearce’s collection of Franklin County folklore, “How to Sell a Dead Mule,” of which the Louisburg library has four copies.
And it survives on the brick sidewalks he sought to elevate, one golden bale at a time.