From a small wooden shed in Salemburg, a group of friends have entertained a growing audience around the world each week through down-home Southern cooking, fellowship and humor, all while helping their community.
Known as the Grateful Shed, it is the gathering spot for “Shed Heads” Norman McPhail, Bruce Butler, Woodrow Smith, Terry Lee and Alton Goodrich, a cast of characters that would be up to their antics even if McPhail’s wife Bonnie wasn’t recording them cooking up hot dogs, slaw, barbecue, pork loin, grits — whatever happens to be on the menu that night.
They didn’t think much of it the first time they uploaded a video to Facebook. It was just for laughs. They quickly found people gravitated toward it.
“Men used to gather at the country store, and that was the original Facebook,” said McPhail. “That’s where they got together, told stories, talked about their weeks, their families … that’s what we do here. The original church in the Book of Acts, like-minded people came together, they ate and they helped one another. They didn’t have buildings, stained-glass windows or pews. They just gathered and helped one another.”
He said the Grateful Shed serves as that kind of sanctuary in many ways and, through the short videos, they are able to reach out to others.
“We thought about doing a live video at first, because everyone was sitting around laughing, but we thought maybe we ought not do that,” Butler said with a laugh. “Then we did the first video, and it kind of snowballed.”
Of the 20-plus weekly videos put up since the spring, the best ones are those that receive the least, if any, discussion beforehand, McPhail said. “We try to keep it to the length of a song,” Butler noted of the videos. “Four minutes or less.”
There are words of wisdom and recipe videos in addition to those Saturday night episodes, and the Shed Heads — most often Butler and McPhail — are constantly replying to messages on the Grateful Shed page, thanking supporters and offering up Scriptures or a thoughtful phrase.
The Facebook page has amassed a large following in a short time, recently eclipsing 4,000 followers. People from Australia, Canada and across the United States have left comments.
In Texas, a special needs child and his mother watch the videos regularly.
“I have a special needs child, so it kind of touched me,” said Butler. “I was able to talk with her and she told me how much he enjoyed the videos. So we decided to give him a shout-out and she said that just tickled him to death. We’re going to send him a shirt just as soon as we get one.”
Smith said he got a check recently from someone in Wichita, Kansas, wanting to buy a Grateful Shed T-shirt.
Proceeds from T-shirts will benefit Bread of Life Outreach Ministries, a sister to the Christian Food Bank of Salemburg. While the food bank helps those who need to eat, Bread of Life was started to help with light bills, rent and other needs. The men helped start both organizations and now direct much of the outreach.
“Every penny of the proceeds goes to help somebody in need, whether it’s food, clothing or shelter,” said Lee.
McPhail said the outpouring for the Grateful Shed has been tremendous, something he couldn’t have foreseen just a few years ago.
The shed stands in McPhail’s backyard, where a swimming pool once did. His daughter Emili went off to college a few years back and the pool slowly transformed into a green, murky mess. McPhail got rid of it in favor of building an outdoor kitchen. A builder of furniture by trade, notably church pews, McPhail dismantled a house that was more than 100 years old, bringing the pieces back to his property.
“I wanted the facade of an old front porch, where people used to sit out and talk,” he said. “This was before TV, when people used to sit out and talk and share their lives.”
The shed took four months to build and was completed in 2015. Since that time, the interior has come to life with many similarly reclaimed pieces that now dress the walls.
“There’s just so much history in this,” said McPhail, pointing to an old clothes washing stand now being used as a sink. There are various other items hanging around the shed, from the chair out of McPhail’s old Sunday School class, the scales his family used to weigh sausage and the tools his grandfather used. There is also a stained glass hog, fabricated and flown in from Alabama by a friend of McPhail’s.
“And a lot of the other artifacts here are stuff that my neighbors gave me to put on display,” he pointed out, “so somebody could actually see it.”
This past Friday, the Shed Heads gathered for their latest video — on grits. As McPhail took viewers through the rest of the menu, to include country ham, red hots, sausage, eggs, bacon, hash brown casserole and liver pudding, family members and friends sat nearby waiting to eat. After a few minutes, the video is done and uploaded and everyone is eating and talking, while McPhail and Butler keep a close eye on Facebook.
By the end of the night, 15,000 people have seen the grits video, which will rack up close to 40,000 views in the days that follow, while the Grateful Shed page welcomes several hundred more followers.
“We gather and we tell stories, but we also keep the old stories alive,” said McPhail. “And we’re able to pass them on through social media.”
He then uses the setup to throw a verbal jab at Smith, a former military man who grew up with the parents of McPhail and Butler and met Lee almost 30 years ago. McPhail said Smith has great stories from growing up in the late 1800s.
It’s like the camera never stopped recording.
“He’s lost part of his hearing due to Yankee cannon fire,” said McPhail.
“He said dinosaur meat tastes like chicken,” Butler piles on, as the room continues to erupt in hearty laughter.
Smith, the poised veteran, quickly snaps back.
“Every one of them wishes they had my memory,” he said.
“Now that’s the truth,” McPhail conceded. “He remembers some things I’d wish he’d forget.”
Smith operated his own restaurant Woody’s Coffee House and Sandwich Shop in the early 1980s, before returning to Sampson in 1983, serving as food manager at the N.C. Department of Corrections and leading the cafeteria at Sampson Community College.
“It’s not the fancy kind,” said Smith, when asked about his culinary experience. “Like Norman said, if it’s complicated, we don’t cook it.”
Recipe videos on hot dogs, cornbread and slaw have been popular, as well as “toe food” — a spin on tofu where the guys offered their thoughts on pig and chicken feet. In the hot dog video, McPhail takes viewers through the “dos and don’ts” of cooking a hot dog in North Carolina (hint: it doesn’t involve a microwave or boiling water) while Butler offers homemade illustrations.
“It’s a bunch of men playing in the backyard and everyone watches,” said Emili.
Even with all the laughter, nearly every video ends with McPhail expressing his genuine gratitude to those who join them through social media and share their videos. He and his fellow Shed Heads truly are grateful for the kind words.
“We love you,” he says in closing, “and God loves you.”
You can find Grateful Shed on Facebook @thegratefulshed1. Videos were also recently uploaded to YouTube.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.