A fire in 1991 destroyed more than 25,000 books on hand at the Mississippi River Publishing Co., caused considerable personal injury to the family and took away a long-held dream of owning a small business beyond their farming operation.
For the Neill family, it’s been a long way back from the 1991 fire that changed their lives in so many ways. However, in June the dream of reestablishing their publishing company in rural Mississippi has come true with a new name and new location.
Brownspur Books debuted in June with the reissuing of Robert Neill’s popular book titled “The Jakes,” along with another title — “The Flaming Turkey” — due out this month.
Long on history and the outdoors, Neill is a product of the Mississippi Delta, and quite proud of that fact. Even the name Brownspur Books has its roots in the area around the Neill homestead.
“That’s the name on the old maps,” said Neill. “The timber companies bought up most of the land in the Delta years ago. And to get their timber from the Delta woods they built railroads through the Delta.”
The Brown Spur was the name given to the timber camp used for loading timber on the Bogue (Phalia) and Delta Railroad Line. It was located between Bourbon and Goose Hollow, which is somewhere east of Leland, west of Indianola and south of US 82, said Neill.
At the height of the former Mississippi River Publishing Company’s operation, Neill and his partner, Bob Tompkins, had nine books published or going to press along with books from other writers.
In fact, Neill has had three of his publications nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in literature although he’s still waiting to win that award.
“But all that was destroyed in the fire,” said Neill where the publishing company was located in an old plantation commissary building and guesthouse on the property.
As the commissary was being rewired, the books and business were moved into the guesthouse, which caught fire destroying years of work and creativity. The fire gutted the house.
Neill sustained third degree burns on his hands and arms. His wife, Betsy, underwent life-threatening surgery and his son, Adam, had three knee surgeries and shoulder surgery due to the fire.
“It was quite a traumatic experience, but we’ve lived through it and have moved on,” he said. And moved on the family has with the same pioneer spirit that started the first business.
Since 1991, Neill has been an account executive for WXVT-TV in Greenville.
“I had to do something else for 11 years. We lost everything in the fire. It takes a lot of time to get back on your feet. I didn’t quit writing. I wrote four other books while I was out of publishing,” he said.
But the publishing industry has changed drastically even since 1991 when Neill and his agent were involved with Neill’s outdoor books and writings.
“I’ve been working on this since before Easter,” said Neill. “My former agent called me from Nashville recently and said that the technology has changed so much in the industry, and he had a company that could publish for us with a pretty quick turnaround time,” he said.
“It’s been Betsy’s and my dream to publish again but we didn’t have the money to do it. Now we’ve been able to put it together. Now we’re doing it,” said Neill.
“I think it’s wonderful and I’m so happy for Bob, or Uncle Bon as he’s also known. His books are wonderful. Now with the business, we can get into publishing again,” said Betsy Neill.
Previously, Betsy handled the accounting and business end of the company while also dealing with more than 450 books stores across the South. She even evaluates my material and tells me where I was going wrong,” said Neill.
Now she’ll ease into the operation of the business since she’s already working with The River Group, a radio conglomerate out of Greenville.
Writing has been a part of Neill’s life for more than 20 years since he started farming 20 years ago after leaving military service. But even before that, Betsy had him put down his thoughts on legal pads as he recovered from knee surgery where he played guard on the University of Mississippi football team.
Neill also notes that he was on the team in 1960 and 1961 when it won championship games.
Betsy told him to write down all his turkey stories and thus began the series of books on turkeys with the first being “The Flaming Turkey” in 1986.
Next up for the company is “The Barefoot Dodgers,” which is a story about the local Dodgers team at Brown Spur.
Neill has won numerous writing awards along with being a syndicated columnist where at one time, he had columns in 99 newspapers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.
For more information on Brownspur Books, contact Bob and Betsy Neill at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (662) 686-7789. A Web site will be up and running by the end of July.
Contact MBJ contributing writer David Lush at email@example.com.