The Mississippi delta, land of cotton, birthplace of the blues and, to the great surprise of many, home of the range, the high-tech, high-fashion, high-priced Viking range created, manufactured and headquartered right here in Greenwood, Mississippi.
"Oh, they always was surprised," they really are," Fred R. Carl Jr. told Bill Geist. "'This great, good-looking, big ol' product is made in Mississippi?' It's just that image that we have: We grow cotton and catfish, and that's about it. But, of course, that's not true at all."
Fred Carl Jr., a local builder, came up with this strange notion in the early '80s that people wanted big, hulking, fire-breathing, restaurant-style ranges for their home kitchen.
"The robustness of it is really appealing to a lot of folks," he said, showing Geist one particularly robust model.
"Is this about as big as they get?" Geist asked.
"Well, we have one bigger than this. This is the 48. Believe it or not, we have a 60-inch."
When Viking introduced these ranges, wasn't most of the country going the way of the microwave, doing less cooking?
"Yes, they really were. They sure were. So we were kind of doing the opposite, weren't we?"
No one in the range industry thought much of Fred's idea.
"Oh, they laughed and sent me on my way," he said. "So I finally said, 'Well, shoot, somebody needs to do this, so I'm going to just start trying to figure out a way to get this done. I think I could sell these,' you know?"
He drew up some plans, made a sketch, and hired a couple dozen locals, none of whom had any expertise.
"And you brought them in and pointed to the stuff and said, 'Make me a stove,'" Geist said.
"Sure did, yup. Basically did. That's about what it amounted to."
The first was in 1987. Fred spread the word about his new stove by phone and fliers. But would anybody want one?
Yes: Patricia King of New York City, a serious cook. She told Geist a restaurant stove was her first choice.
But building codes didn't allow it. Then she came across Fred's flier.
"I was the first person to ever buy a Viking range," she said. "It was accidental that I happened to be the first person, but I kept telling the architect, 'I cannot be the only person in the United States who wants this. I can't be.' And it turned out that I really wasn't."
Then orders began pouring in. Fred had himself a range company.
"And I said, 'Well, I guess I'm going to have to put it in Jackson.' That's about as far away as I was willing to go, the capital. So I actually rented an office, and I drove down there for several months."
But Fred grew up in Greenwood, and is a local boy at heart.
"It just struck me one day. I said, 'This just doesn't feel right.' And I said, 'I'm going to do it in Greenwood, or I'm not going to do it at all.'"
Well, he did it, all right. He's sold several hundred thousand stainless-steel behemoths, and they've became trophy ranges for baby boomers, selling for $3,000 to $10,000.
A whole lot of people buy these expensive Viking ranges, and they never use them. To them, it's a status symbol, like having a Mercedes in the garage or maybe a big, powerful Hummer. They don't just want to keep up with the Joneses; they want to carmelize them.
Fred has driven annual sales to more than a quarter billion dollars, and he's brought his beloved hometown of Greenwood along for the ride. Viking employs more than 1,000 people here in an area that's seen manufacturing jobs move out of the country.
"We're in one of the most impoverished regions in the country right here in the Mississippi delta," Carl said.
And having successfully built his stove, he's now rebuilding his town.
Carol Puckett Daily, who heads what's called the Viking Hospitality Group, showed us the Alluvian Hotel and what will be the entrance to the Alluvian Spa.
"We do have a number of Viking people that come to the hotel, the dealers and distributors," she told Geist. "We also have an inordinate number of stove groupies."
Stove groupies? Yes, people who love their Vikings so much that they make pilgrimages to this Mecca to see where they were born.
These out-of-towners are staying at the hotel and taking a tour of the Viking plant.
"I'm excited!" says one.
We tagged along to the facility where they turn sheets of steel into ranges, like this BTU beast: "That one right there is a six-burner with a griddle and a char grill," the guide says.
Viking visitors can also take blues tours and Mississippi delta food tours, and learn to cook the local cuisine at Viking Cooking School.
We visited a duck class.
"Anybody have any questions about cleaning ducks or what to do with them once you've shot them?" one instructor asks.
Some students are lucky enough to own their own Vikings. Others don't yet. They come to test drive the Hummer of the culinary world.
Geist asked one man if he were suffering from stove envy.
"Yes. Yes, I am."
"How many burners are you going to get?"
"Well, you know, I'm going to probably get either the four or the six. And, you know, I want the griddle in the middle. I mean, whether or not I use it, it just sounds great when you say, 'griddle in the middle.'"
The whole town may as well just change its name to Viking. The old car dealership is now the Viking Training Center. The abandoned opera house is corporate headquarters. The old building on Cotton Row is the showroom, and more Viking projects are well underway. It all really adds up.
Maybe they should change the name of the town to Fred, Mississippi.
Why is his hometown so important to him?
"This little town is, you know, like everyone's hometown," Carl said. "It's special to us. It's where we grew up. It's where our friends and relationships were formed.
"It's a neat little place that has had some difficult times. And you hate to see that. You want your hometown to thrive and prosper. And I felt like I could help contribute to that. And that just would be good for Greenwood."
Would that every small town in America had a local boy at heart like Fred Carl.
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