Some barn, huh? Robert and Caroline Bryan Harrell are pictured in front of their party barn.
We bumped along in an all-terrain vehicle over miles of paths that crisscross the 600 acre track of land adjoining Old Waverly Country Club near the banks of the Tenn-Tom Waterway.
It was a sultry July afternoon, but my driver didn’t seem to notice. He was intent upon educating his captive audience about fascinating tidbits of trivia – like the length of a furlong or what the abbreviation CC means on a prescription medicine bottle…important stuff like that.
The legendary Robert Harrell was giving me a tour of what amounts to an amusement park. At least it’s an amusement to Harrell, its owner and developer. I was beginning to understand how he got his reputation for mischief.
As long as I can remember I’ve been the recipient and distributor of “Robert Harrell stories,” some so far-etched I couldn’t believe they were true. If you had the good fortune to grow up in Clay County Mississippi it was practically a requirement to carry in your head a repertoire of Harrell’s antics to share during a conversation lull.
There was the time he and his wife Caroline were attending a funeral in Shreveport. Robert left his suit in a motel in another town and had to go to a big box store to buy a suit. He put it on in the dressing room and tried to check out. The clerk made him get on the conveyor belt so all the items of clothing – including his tie – could be scanned. That’s always good for a chuckle.
His daughter told me about another time when her mother and all seven children had piled into the family vehicles and headed off for church, leaving no way for Robert to get to town. No problem. He got on the riding lawn mower in his coat and tie and drove to church like it was the most natural thing in the world! The family was mortified.
His funniest episode was several years ago when he borrowed a friend’s car to go to town to buy a newspaper. While riding along he spied what looked like a breath fresher on the passenger seat. He gave himself a few squirts before discovering he had “maced” himself. He screeched to a halt and dashed into someone’s yard. He passed out while swallowing water from the garden hose. Thankfully someone called the ambulance and he was carted off to the hospital.
He even told me a new one.
“A few friends and I were going to Point Clear to play golf and there was some kind of dinner planned. I grabbed a sports jacket out of garage. At the function that night someone came over and asked if I knew I was wearing a dirt dauber nest on my back!”
I was able to verify some of the stories as we bumped along touring the amusements and it became clear why so many people genuinely like Robert Harrell. He has the knack of making every one feel like they are the most important person in the world.
As we barreled across the landscape, practically every bend in the road revealed another “attraction” that was constructed by Harrell to entertain his guests. Along a creek bank is a miniature log cabin that he built as a test run for a full-sized version he’s building nearby with his own hands and the sweat of his own labor. The next turn reveals a tree house he built for his grandchildren – all 26 of them.
“I thought they would love to play in it,” said Harrell pointing out some of the features he incorporated into the kid’s dream house. “They’re more interested in electronics,” he said, still wearing the characteristic Robert Harrell grin.
The masterpiece of his handiwork is a gargantuan “barn” that has become the seat of family gatherings. It is also his private play house.
“To tell you the truth I built it because Caroline was tired of all my tools and hobbies taking up the garage,” he said. There’s that grin again. “I promised her a big kitchen on one side with enough tables and chairs for family and friends.”
The kitchen is the size of a banquet hall. The other end -Robert’s side- stands in stark contrast to the orderly, spotless kitchen. His play area features shelving extending 30 feet to the roof to enable him to survey his myriad of projects, all in various stages of completion. There is a miniature village depicting a 19th Century town – all fashioned by him, by hand. Vintage implements, state of the art tools, and old toy collections are co-mingled with a kind of order understood by Robert alone.
Nearby is what will become the new greenhouse. It’s not finished because he’s currently preoccupied by the log cabin From its front door you can see a miniature church he built many years ago.
A contractor by profession, Robert is now retired and piddles around his “compound” while dreaming of what he will do next. And that is the sixty four thousand dollar question. Whatever it is, there will be a story about it to pass around at your next get together.
Harrell and his grandson Hunter play a round of chess on the set he built from wood harvested from trees on his land.