By Bob Arnold
For more than two decades, area folk knew Charles Ray Fortson as their insurance man. Today, they know him as the source of good country cooking, bait for their fishing, and varied food and convenience store items at the venerable lake store, which he now calls Uncle Ray’s, across from the entrance to Lake Lincoln State Park.
A man of many trades, Fortson also spiced up his resume as a young farm boy, a teenager on tugboats, offshore oil worker and commercial carpenter.
A Houma, Louisiana, native, he settled with his family at age five at Summit, Mississippi, when they came to care for his ailing grandmother. His mom reared the kids at home, while his father was an offshore oil worker.
Growing up, Fortson remembers large family functions with thirty to forty relatives where he learned his cooking skills and developed his love of the art of preparing barbeques and other Southern style meals. He also fished in the area’s rivers and ponds, tended a garden and raised animals – chickens, hogs and horses – on his family’s mini-farm. His father took him and his brothers and sisters to movies when he was home from his offshore work, and Fortson still enjoys science fiction films like Godzilla.
When he was 16 years old, Fortson worked on tug boats in Louisiana for $45 a day, and bought his own clothes to contribute to a big family. After graduating from North Pike High School in 1981, he tried following his father’s career path offshore, but didn’t like it because “you couldn’t go anywhere after work.”
“So I went to work in construction for a McComb company and learned carpentry,” Fortson recounts. “I still have the tools and my old belt.” Over almost a decade, he was involved in building the EOLA hotel at Natchez and Walmart stores throughout the area for the commercial construction firm.
Fortson gave up the seasonal work of construction for the stability of the insurance business in 1990, joining Florida-based Independent Life’s Brookhaven office as a debit agent in Claiborne and Jefferson Counties, where he would go door-to-door in the neighborhoods and develop relationships with families, selling them life, health, home and property insurance and collecting their premiums before they spent their meager incomes on something else.
“It opened my eyes to world, and the lifestyles of people who often live hand-to-mouth,” he says.
Fortson became a successful agent, earning a $1,000 a week. “During the first two years in the insurance business, you sell to people you know – friends and relatives, and then to people you don’t k know,” he says. “After five years, you are a good agent.” Fortson was good enough to become a staff manager at Independent Life, teach classes on the insurance business at Farm Bureau, and open his own office in Brookhaven under contract with Alfa Insurance in 2001.
For Alfa, Fortson developed a client base of second-generation sons and daughters of immigrants from India who owned a variety of small retail businesses. He became the company’s top insurance salesman in Mississippi before a reorganization that led him to take an early retirement. In 2016, he joined Woodmen of the World in insurance, but started looking for new opportunities as a store owner – something he had always wanted to do. In 2019, he opened Uncle Ray’s in the store location across from Lake Lincoln State Park.
With the help of his friend Diane Sullivan and sister Vicki Westmoreland, Fortson has been building a business at Uncle Ray’s that has focused on three distinct income streams as a convenience store, food service and bait shop. Fortson is also installing hookups and infrastructure for campers and buying rental campers as well to complement Lake Lincoln’s facilities and provide a fourth income stream that assures a viable full-year business without a late fall and winter slow season.
Previous owners of the lake store, Fortson believes, focused too narrowly on the kind of business they operated and had to close. He thinks he is on the right track there, and even fantasizes that the business model he is developing could be the basis of a franchise.
As well as a man of many trades, Fortson is also the father of four daughters – Kayla – the mother of his two granddaughters; and Carley, Nikki and Asia
What are your hobbies? I still enjoy carpentry – making small wood crafts; and farm stuff – hunting, fishing, growing cucumbers, tomatoes and okra.
Are you a reader? I read the Bible every day because I know I need to do so, but otherwise I really don’t like to read. I was a Gideon for ten years, and spoke before groups.
Do you enjoy movies or theater?
I like movie houses. The popcorn and coke, as well as sci-fi, westerns, thrillers and comedies. I am a Harry Bronson, Clint Eastwood and Don Knots fan. I recently enjoyed Where the Crawdads Sing and like Pink Panther and Abbot and Costello films.
Do you enjoy any music beyond your own?
I can’t sing or play, although I can sing in tune with someone next to me who does. I likes gospel, jazz and blues.
What would you do with lottery winnings if you were so lucky?
I would invest it, give to the church, help my family. I would set myself up for an enjoyable retirement with travel.
How would you change the world? I try to be a good neighbor one person at a time and try to live the Gospel.