Department stores dominated the 200 block of First Avenue in 1955

1955 Downtown Oneonta

The interior of Watson’s Hammer’s and Cosa Bella -courtesy Sybil Patterson via Hammer’s Department Store

The interior of Watson’s Hammer’s and Cosa Bella -courtesy Sybil Patterson via Hammer’s Department Store

[The series on 1955 downtown Oneonta continues as this article addresses businesses in the eastern half of the 200 block of Oneonta’s First Ave. E.]

In addition to Bentley’s, N.C. Prickett, J. H. Lowry, and The Dollar Store noted last week on the western end of First Avenue’s 200 block, the eastern end added Watson’s, The Fair Store, and V.J. Elmore’s to make that the major center for department store businesses in 1955.

 

 

According to lifetime resident Charlie Hendrix, a barber shop stood at 220 adjacent to The Dollar Store, with at least one barber named Ira Floyd. Watson’s lay just east of the shop at 222.

According to an article from The Southern Democrat on May 20, 1948, J.H. Hyde had recently opened a store in that building which had been the site of the old Ellis Hotel. In a Nov. 11 article that same year, the paper reported Knoxville-based Watson & Company had bought Hyde’s.

A summarized Wikipedia entry reveals: Ira A. Watson Co., commonly known as Watson’s, operated as a department store chain primarily in the southeastern United States. Expanding from an original 1907 Knoxville store and headquartering its operations and distribution from that city, the company opened a series of downtown stores in county seat towns. As shopping centers and malls developed, Watson’s opened substantially larger stores in those locations in Ala., Ky., N.C., S.C., Tenn., Va., W.Va., Mo., Ill., and Ind.

Cosa Bella owner Renee Clemons’ nephews enjoy playing in the old bank vault though she warns them to NEVER shut the door.

Cosa Bella owner Renee Clemons’ nephews enjoy playing in the old bank vault though she warns them to NEVER shut the door.

After hitting hard times in the 1980s, the company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection in 1992 but emerged from that in half the time of its proposed six-year restructuring. In 1998, South Hill, Va-based Peebles department stores purchased the weakened Watson’s chain, which had been challenged by Goody’s and Walmart expansions into the smaller towns in which it had once thrived. Houston-based Specialty Retailers bought Peebles in 2003.

Inset: Names and dates written on the cement door jamb of the vault range from the 1940s to 1990.

Inset: Names and dates written on the cement door jamb of the vault range from the 1940s to 1990.

The Thursday, Aug. 4, 1955, edition of The Southern Democrat headlined, “New Manager Joins Watson’s Store.” An excised portion of that article notes: “F.E. Cavender, of Newnan, Ga., arrived Monday as permanent manager of Watson’s Department Store in Oneonta. He replaces the temporary manager, Bob Turley, who has been here the past three weeks following D. D. Coppock’s transfer.”

Tiles spelling Elmore’s retain some of the building’s historic past. Clemons purchased the buildings with intentions of preserving them as well as using them for retail space.

Tiles spelling Elmore’s retain some of the building’s historic past. Clemons purchased the buildings with intentions of preserving them as well as using them for retail space.

Gorden Bennett, a retired Watson’s employee, purchased the local Watson’s fixtures and moved from West Virginia to open his own department store, Bennett’s, at the site in September 1980, a month before Walmart opened. He closed his store around 2011 and the building later became the relocated site of Hammer’s Department Store in November 2012.

 

 

Opposite the unnamed barber shop at 221 was the Anniston Production Credit Association under Jim (James H.) Strickland and Betty Seales. Congress authorized the creation of production credit associations through the Depression-inspired Farm Credit Act of 1933. It made lower-interest and shorter-term loans available to farmers, ranchers, and rural residents. (Investopedia)

Jonah and Kate Price operated several restaurants during their over 44-year career in Oneonta. An account of the couple in Heritage of Blount County (1999 edition) details that Jonah opened his first restaurant, The Deluxe, in 1939 at 202 First Avenue. He and Kate married a few months later, and in the next year, he relocated his second restaurant, The Gold Star, in the former Wright’s Drug Store building at 223.

That building had housed a Masonic lodge in its upper floor, which the Prices converted into a banquet room. They relocated from there to 201 Second Avenue East in 1957 and for several years operated that as well as another down-the-avenue enterprise. Jonah’s, that second restaurant, gained some recognition for its distinctive cutout whale atop the building on its very visible U.S. 231 and Ala 75 northern corner.

The Margie-Lu Dress Shop and Corrina’s Shoes shared the 225 address. Joanne Wilson, in-law of original sister owners Margie Dailey and Lula Belle Wilson, believes Margie-Lu began operation around 1953. She notes a third sister, Wilma Decker, did alterations.

A Southern Democrat article from May 15, 1985, noted that year’s transfer of ownership (on April 3) from Dailey and Joanne, who in 1972 had bought her mother’s in-law interest, to Betty Armstrong and her daughter, Darlene Sullivan It quotes Dailey on the business’s model, “We tried to cater to every age, selling junior sizes through 24 1/2.”

Wilson claims the store’s plate glass mirror sold a lot of dresses. She says its full-length made women look slimmer. Customers would say, “I want to see it (the apparel) in that mirror.” The store changed locations along First Avenue and eventually elsewhere, but the owners always took the mirror along.

As for Corina’s Shoes, Wilson says the buildings were separate despite the shared address in the 1955 telephone directory. Hendrix and Lollie Massey identify the owner as Corrina Horton. Wilson says Horton sold to Jane Faust of Rosa, who then operated the business for some time.

Hill Grocery operated much of that year at 227, until replaced by Kiddie’s Haven in August 1955. The Aug. 4 edition of The Southern Democrat identified Mrs. W.B. Walker Jr. (Ollie Marie Gilbreath Walker), and Mrs. (Cecil?) Odus Hackleman as owners of the business “designed to meet the clothing needs of children from infants through age 14 . . .” and set to open the next day.

At 229 one would have found the City Cafe. City councilman Danny Robinson reports his Uncle “Jimmy” (James William Robison – the military respelled Danny’s dad’s name) and Aunt “Myrt” (Mary Ruth Tolbert Robison) ran the cafe. “Myrt” served for many years as the elementary school lunchroom manager. They and “Jimmy’s” mother, Inez, had previously operated Farmers’ Cafe, established by Inez and her husband, Grady.

The Allen-Corene Beauty Shop, one of whose owner operators Hendrix and Massey identify as Corene Gregory, held the shortened space at 224 and The Fair Store listed 226 and 228 as its address. Hendrix explains that John Hyde owned The Fair Store.

Betty Mullins Thomas, who worked there in 1959 and 1960, recalls the regular Easter promotion. Those buying new shoes for the season could select a free, pastel-dyed chicken. Some have indicated that many of those roosters, which some other stores offered as well, came from the Faust Hatchery operating near the Blue Bell plant.

Evidently, between The Fair Store and corner-ending V. J. Elmore lay a hallway entrance to a pool hall owned by Verbon Harvey and Fenton Ryan. Harvey’s son Chris offers a hesitant guess of the name as Pastime Billiards.

Despite his mother’s opposition, Harvey recounts times he and friend Jimbo Cary walk from the elementary school to enter an alley entrance. He says they were too short to reach the tables and stood on empty cola crates to shoot at the very back table, if vacant. He believes the hall had eight or 10 tables.

To the best of his memory, Harvey thinks his dad quit that business around 1956 or 1957. YellowHammer Photography occupies that site currently.

Some relate that V. J. Elmore’s existed at other locations before its 1955 listing at 230-236. An article attributed to The Demopolis Time provides a history of that company.

Corrected for spelling, pertinent parts of that city’s 1967 Sesquicentennial Celebration report: “Mr. Virgil Jackson Elmore, founder of the V.J. Elmore Company, was a native Alabamian. He was born on a farm near Gordo, Alabama, in 1887. In November 1925, he opened the first variety store in Clanton, and continued to open additional stores until, at the time of his death in 1942, there were 44 stores in operation.

“The company originally operated a warehouse in Clanton, Alabama, as a distribution point until 1941. Due to continued growth, the Executive office and warehouse was moved to Birmingham, where it is today [1967].

“During the early 1960s, General Shoe Company (Genesco) purchased the V.J. Elmore Company, acquiring S. H. Kress Inc. in the same transaction. Under separate operation, both variety stores have continued to grow and expand. V. J. Elmore Inc. now [1967] owns and operates 103 stores in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia.”

Despite resident references to the store, none have provided details. Renee Clemons, owner of Cosa Bella Boutique (store two), refinished Elmore’s wooden floors to maintain those and kept the inlaid tile designations at the entrances. At some point, Elmore’s relocated to the Daniel Shopping Center, before ending its Oneonta operation in 1980, after Walmart arrived in town.

As covered in the first article series, Fendley Furniture Company operated at that corner building until its 1942 move to its final location in the 100 block. Clemons opened shop at the site in 2014.

On the corner opposite Elmore’s at 239 stood the Western Auto Associate Store. Betty Jo Ashley, whose husband “Jack” (William H. Ashley) operated the store, notes it sold primarily automobile parts, rather than the wide variety later added. She says their one employee, Earl Burnett, mainly installed batteries. Ashley believes they owned the store from around 1953 until the late 50s, before they sold to Glen Whited.

The building to the west at 237 housed Brice Insurance and Real Estate. Hendrix contends that insurance served as Clarence Brice’s main profession but that he had considerable success with his development of the Eastwood section of town.

State National Bank lay at 235. Entries in The Heritage of Blount County (1976 and 1999 editions) trace the bank’s history from its founding in June 1911, as the Farmers Savings Bank in Cleveland, Ala., through its 1914 move to Oneonta and later purchases.

The accounts contend a 1913 Christmas Eve fire in Cleveland damaged the bank, post office, and Head Brothers’ Store, contributing to the decision to move. In 1921, the bank changed its name to First National Bank of Oneonta and then, through a purchase on Dec. 31, 1940, became Oneonta Branch, State National Bank of Decatur.

Through other purchases, mergers, and name changes, the institution became Central Bank and presently BBVA Compass. In March 1957, known locally as State National, the bank relocated to its present Second Avenue East and Third Street North corner.

Raconteur Jimmy Buckner tells of elementary school experiences he had at the bank, when it was on First Avenue. As he recalls, he, Jackie Harmon, Jerry Price, and Lyman Tidwell took the weekly elementary school lunchroom money to the bank each Monday.

Buckner notes they would rush from the school, located then at the present Cadence Bank site, to State National to make the deposit and then leisurely return by way of down-the-street City Cafe or the block-above Little Joe’s Restaurant, owned by Tidwell’s parents. At the restaurants, they were treated to sodas (Buckner uses the popular trademarked Southern term) before returning to school. He reports they knew how much time they had before their expected return and made the most of it.

He also relates that, on one occasion, banker Grady NeSmith let the boys hold $5,000. He said they had not thought there was that much money in the world.

Once the bank vacated the building, The Bentley Store moved there. After Bentley’s, Thelma Elrod operated a shoe store there, later owned by Harvey Frachiseur and then bought by his niece, Renee Clemmons. Clemmons opened her first Cosa Bella Boutique location there in 2006.

In an apparent error, the 1955 telephone directory lists Martha’s Beauty Shoppe also at the bank’s address at 235.

Sources list The Bains Company at 231. While that business initially sold furniture and appliances, Brenda Bains Neal reports that at the time of her purchasing it from Al and Meta Bains, it had expanded offerings to include something of an art gallery. Meta sold some of her acclaimed water colors from the store.

Neal says she purchased the business in 1981 and opened her own as Trends and Traditions. Of Al, Neal relates stories of his loading furniture on a truck and driving through rural areas of the county. She understands he would stop at houses and peddle furnishings from the truck.

She lists Sue Gilliland and a “Mr. Wester” as long-time employees at the company. Hendrix recalls both Donald Elrod and Lyvoye Galbreath as one-time salesmen. She and Hendrix report the Bains’s used a cotton warehouse behind the store and railroad to hold furniture and maintained a bit of an office in that warehouse.

Conflicting sources have created confusion which readers may be able to alleviate. Some have shown Bess Bains Alabama Farm Bureau in the block but with conflicting addresses (221 or 237). It may well be possible that the business was there and moved during the year or that the sources or researcher are wrong.

In the block, Hoyt Murphree and his wife, Hallie Gay (Bynum), operated Protective Life Insurance reportedly across from Miller Drug. It appears there may have been additional businesses operating in the sometimes named Lowry Building, which may have included addresses 209-217 or above. He received the “Million Dollar Club Award,” and the couple were parents of Dr. Roland E. Murphree and Nancy Carol Murphree Cobb.

Hendrix asserts that Alabama Power held its offices somewhere on the block at one time. Local power company manager Kelly Stone has “corporate” researching to determine the office’s exact locations prior to its present site.