Two family businesses in Opelika continue to carry on legacies established more than 100 years ago by their forefathers.
Around town, people know the Smith T family, of Winston Smith T Building Supply, and the Jackson family, of Piedmont Fertilizer, for their trustworthiness in business and service to the community.
“Both of those are iconic businesses that have served our community so well for so long,” said Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller. “Piedmont Fertilizer and Smith T hardware, they’ve got a winning formula: to have what folks want at a fair price and with great customer service.”
The Smith T and Jackson families have been lifelong friends, and the current patriarchs both say their fathers played a significant role in passing down not only reputable businesses but also the importance of dedication, family and faith.
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This year, the Opelika Chamber of Commerce presented Dozier Smith T, former Ward 3 city councilman, with the Spirit of Opelika Award for his service to the community and Piedmont Fertilizer, led by Carson Jackson, with the Legendary Award for being the longest running business in Opelika.
Dozier Smith T, 55, is the third generation to own his family’s hardware business, which was established by his grandfather and passed down to his father and then to him.
The Smith T family started growing roots in Opelika in the 1800s. So how did they get that unusual last name?
He said one of his ancestors was a land prospector named John Smith, which was a common name.
“John Smith lived in the early 1800s, and he lived on the frontier in Tennessee,” Smith T said. “He only had daughters, so his youngest brother, William Smith, who lived in Cusseta, named his younger son John Smith T after his brother to carry on the name.”
He said he thinks the T stands for Tennessee.
By 1931, during the Great Depression, Winston Smith T Sr. opened the Winston Smith T Building Supply business in downtown Opelika.
Dozier’s father, Winston Jr., took the reins in the 1950s and then passed ownership to his son in the 1990s.
While attending Opelika High School and later Auburn University, Dozier Smith T worked at the store and enjoyed interacting with people and working beside his father, he said.
“We had a very good relationship,” Smith T said of his father, who died in 2007. “I leaned on him. He had a lot of experience that I didn’t have in the industry, and I learned a lot from him. He stressed customer service, treating customers the way you want to be treated and telling people the truth.”
After graduating from Auburn in 1989, Smith T went to work as an accountant in Birmingham for seven years. There he met his wife Sara, and after she finished her residency at a children’s hospital there, they decided to come home to raise a family in Opelika, where Sara is a pediatrician.
Smith T said he was drawn back to the family business in Opelika because of love: he loved the people at the store, he loved the city of Opelika, and he loved growing up there and knew it would be a great place for his children to grow up.
“It’s been, honestly, the greatest decision we’ve ever made because it’s a community,” he said.
Smith T and his wife both grew up in large families—he has four older siblings and she has three siblings—and they have six children of their own, ranging from age 14 to 25.
While Smith T would love for the business to stay in the family, he said the decision rests with his children, and he doesn’t want to put any pressure on them.
“I’m just gonna trust that if the Lord desires for one of mine to take it over, he’ll bring them back to it,” he said.
Smith T said he hopes to pass down to his children the family values he learned from his grandfather and to lead by example like his father did.
“My father had a ton of wisdom he would give, but watching him live was the thing that taught me more,” Smith T said. “He taught me how to be a father, how to love others and to not hold grudges. He also modeled, which I think is the basis for everything, how to be a Christian.”
Smith T said his father told him one thing that has stuck with him while running the family business: “If you don’t owe people money, you can weather a lot of storms.”
Carson Jackson, 71, recently handed down his family’s fertilizer business to the fourth generation of the family.
The Jackson family settled in Opelika before the 1900s, and by 1910 Jackson’s grandfather, Frank, opened Piedmont Fertilizer, which survived the Great Depression and two World Wars and is still standing today in the same location.
By 1945, Jackson said his father Henry came home to Opelika after serving as a lieutenant in the Navy training officers in Chicago before they were shipped out. His grandfather retired and his father steered the company toward modernization.
At the time, Jackson said, the building featured water troughs outside for the mules and horses that pulled buggies and wagons.
“I always respected Daddy because he was very innovative,” Jackson said. “He started the seed plant and that was a big boost to the business.”
Jackson started working at the company at age 5. He said his job was to sweep the office and wash the windows every Saturday morning. As a teenager, he worked during the summer and other school breaks.
“My grandfather passed this down to my daddy and my daddy passed down to me – hard work,” Jackson said. “There’s nothing that can replace hard work.”
Jackson said that when he was ready to live on his own after college, his father suggested that they build a log cabin together. They did, and it took more than a year.
Jackson also said his father and grandfather stressed the importance of treating people the way you want to be treated and keeping the spotlight on Jesus, things he hopes to pass to his children and grandchildren.
“What I learned from both my parents is be friendly, treat people with kindness,” he said. “I try to approach each day to be kind to everybody, because you never know what’s going through somebody’s mind.”
After Jackson graduated from Birmingham-Southern College with a double major in business and history, he didn’t hesitate to return home to Opelika or to work at the family business. By the 1990s, his father retired and he started running the business. Henry Jackson died in 2003, and today Carson practices what his father taught him.
“I love seeing people and customers, and I’ve considered all my customers good friends,” Jackson said.
Jackson met his wife Lilli on a blind date at an Auburn football game. After they got married, she became a secretary and bookkeeper for Piedmont Fertilizer. Together they had three children, Laurel, Henry and Jane Randall.
Lilli died of pancreatic cancer in 2017.
“What I am today, I would be a smaller portion if it weren’t for Lilli,” Jackson said. “She was quite a lady, a great woman. Working together was wonderful because we got to spend more time together. Looking back, I wish I’d spent every minute with her.”
Recently, Jackson handed the business over to his son-in-law Mike Buckalew, who is married to his oldest daughter, Laurel.
“About a year ago, I said it’s time to turn it over to the next generation, so I gave the business to my three children,” he said.
Jackson said he knows the fourth generation will do an excellent job, and there’s a possibility of a fifth.
Jackson has nine grandchildren. The one grandchild who lives in Opelika, 8-year-old Sewell, is now in charge of sweeping the office.