CLARKSDALE, MS – The man who had a hand in forming the first public cotton ginning operation in the Mississippi Delta and literally planted the idea for a farming enterprise that would become known nationwide passed away peacefully Saturday, July 7, 2018, at the age of 92.
And while Bill Heaton may be known for the Bobo Moseley Gin and Heaton Pecans, it was his love of life and family that sticks in the minds of his son and daughter.
“He loved life so much,” said his son, Cliff Heaton. “He loved to hunt, to fish. I can’t tell you how much time he spent with me and my sisters. It was us first, work second. That’s just the way he was. We were a very close family.”
Heaton said “that love of life” was exemplified in the days he spent quail hunting with his father or the hours Bill Heaton spent watching his daughters play tennis, the trip to Europe he and his wife took, or the time his father simply sat alone hunting for turkey.
“We were a very close-knit family,” said his daughter, Darrah Pierce. “Summertime, Daddy would come home for lunch every day and we’d have those wonderful lunches with the vegetables we grew in the garden and the catfish we caught. It was family.”
Born in Chicago, the son of the late William Sutcliffe Heaton, Sr., and Louise Bobo Moseley Heaton, William Sutcliffe Heaton, Jr., attended Clarksdale High School, where he excelled in academics and athletics.
Upon graduation from high school, he attended the University of Louisville under the Naval V-12 program and was assigned to the United States Naval Forces in the Pacific Fleet, where he briefly served as an officer during World War II. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Louisville in 1946
He continued his education at the University of Texas, majoring in cotton marketing. He then returned home to enter the family business with his grandfather, A.J. Moseley, and his great uncle, Charles G. Bobo.
Bill Heaton was a visionary. That was shown during his 20s when he and his great-uncle transformed Bobo Moseley Gin into the first public ginning operation in north Mississippi. During a time in which cotton farmers were transitioning from mule labor to tractor labor, Bill Heaton saw the growth potential in expanding cotton ginning services from nearby sharecroppers to farmers five, 10, 15 miles away.
“He basically transformed our little family gin from a 2- to 3-mile radius to a full-service gin that prided itself on service and taking care of our customers,” Cliff Heaton said.
Through the use of upgraded equipment, the Bobo Moseley Gin was able to process a farmer’s cotton better and faster than before.
“We would turn trailers around two or three times as fast as anyone else,” Cliff Heaton said. “That’s how we grew into the public ginning and we’ve just continued to grow since then. It’s a big business, there’s no question about it.”
During his business years, Bill Heaton not only ran Bobo Moseley Gin and Heaton Farms, but also served as a director of Delta Council, was an active member of the Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, and was on the board and served as vice president of Delta Oil Mill and North Delta Compress for many years. He served on the executive committee of the Bank of Clarksdale and Union Planters Bank for over 25 years and was an active member of the National Cotton Council Bale Packaging Committee. He also enjoyed his membership in the Cotton Carnival, Osiris, the Clarksdale VFW and the Clarksdale Elks Club.
Pierce said one of the most important things he father valued was an education.
“Daddy always pushed the value of a good education, saying it can’t be measured,” said Pierce, who would gain a love of business from her father.
She recalled her teenage years, working in the accounting office at the cotton gin, learning calculations and numbers. It was where, she said, she got “fascinated by business.” At her father’s urging, Pierce would go on to graduate from Ole Miss with a business degree and later earn a master’s degree in business administration.
“We learned that farming is a business,” said Pierce, who is now the marketing manager for Farm Press. She called her father a pioneer in farming techniques.
“He researched, he did his homework and he was extremely smart,” she said.
While Heaton Pecans are now widely known, it was peaches that Bill Heaton first grew on 250 acres surrounding Lyon. The land was known then as the Bubba Moseley Peach Orchard and there was a peach stand right where Heaton Pecans is located now on Highway 61 North.
“Over time, Daddy began to realize he could buy peaches cheaper in Arkansas that he could grow them,” Cliff Heaton said.
Around 1961, Bill Heaton planted the first orchard of pecan trees that would grow to include 180 acres. Heaton Pecans has only continued to blossom through the years and the pecans are now sold at retail stands and via mail order and the business has expanded to include candied and cooked pecans.
“It all started with his idea and his vision to plant the pecan orchard,” said Cliff Heaton, who now oversees the Heaton Farms operation in addition to Bobo Moseley Gin.
It was also during his first years of farming when Bill Heaton met the love of his life, Elsie Darrah Wilsford, and they were married in 1952, making their home in Lyon, where Bill Heaton resided until his death.
Bill Heaton is survived by his son, William Cliff Heaton, and his wife, Chris; a daughter, Darrah Heaton Pierce, and her husband, Buddy; six grandchildren, Lyndsey Parker Sims, Preston Parker, Whitney Harrington Young, Cadey Heaton True, Ann Granville Heaton and Lucy Heaton; and eight great-grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his wife of 60 years, Elsie Wilsford Heaton; his daughter, Betsy Heaton Harrington; and his grandson, William Cliff Heaton, Jr.
Funeral services were held Sunday, July 8, 2018, at the First United Methodist Church in Clarksdale. Interment was in Oakridge Cemetery.
Pierce said one lasting memory she’ll have of her father’s visitation and service was discovering the sheer number of people who had hand-written letters from her father offering congratulations, condolences or a simple thank you.
“They were so personal and everybody saved them. Everybody in this town has one of Daddy’s letters, some even two. How special is that? They keep them in their Bibles, in treasured places so that they’ll never get thrown away,” Pierce said.
“He was one of those men that come along every once in a while who garners respect from everyone,” she said. “He enjoyed people and helping any which way he could and he didn’t need to shout it to the world.”
Bill Heaton was involved in numerous civic and business organizations. He was an original founder of Lee Academy and served on its board of directors for many years. He was active in First Presbyterian Church for many years, serving several terms on the Board of Elders and the Board of Sessions. He later joined Lyon Methodist Church, where he was an active participant until his death.
Lyon mayor Woody Sawyer said Bill Heaton was “a steward for the town of Lyon.”
“His relatives were basically the founders of Lyon. He loved the town and would do anything that we needed help with. I can’t tell you how many things he’s done over the years, and he never asked for anything in return,” Sawyer said.
“He was just a Southern gentleman that everyone is going to miss,” Sawyer said. “He was a very, very smart, intelligent man. Every summer he provided jobs for high school kids, black and white. He didn’t see any color. He was very fair.”
Cliff Heaton said his father was one of the smartest men he’s ever known.
“He was a master of it all. He taught me virtually everything I know. He taught me how to handle good times and how to handle adversity. Those are the things I’ll always remember him for.”