[This marks the beginning of what is planned as a several-part series on Oneonta businesses in 1955. The reporter obtained a 1955 local telephone directory listing business addresses which provided the main factual basis for the project. Additionally, that year marks almost the halfway point between the founding of the city (64 years prior in 1891) and the 2017 series start (62 years). The author expects readers may have possible corrections to business existences or locations as shown or even stories of their own to share of the town at that time or another in addition to those already provided. He eagerly solicits such. The plan for the articles anticipates addressing one block a month, at least initially, starting with 1st Avenue E.]
Many long-time area residents refer to Oneonta’s First Avenue as “Main Street.” For some time, it served as the location for a majority of the city’s businesses. Octogenarian James Sims recounts that in the 1940s, “Everyone shopped on Main Street, and it was busy.” For those reasons this series begins with the 100 block of First Avenue in this frozen snapshot.
At 100, one would have found the Wiggins Brown-Service Funeral Home, across from the current senior citizen center. Long-time resident Charles “Charlie” Hendrix, son of former 1944-1956 Mayor John (Wesley) Hendrix, reports he and his dad worked for the business at various times. During Charlie’s high school years, he washed the hearse and ambulance housed there.
Charlie notes that prior to operating at that location, owner, George L. (Lester) Robinette, Sr., housed his business at 412 Second Street, N., presently home to Darlene Patton. Growing up a few houses from the second location, Charlie shares that builders used a mule and scraper to dig its basement.
Charlie recalls riding with ambulance drivers at times and of once collecting the body of an apparent hobo hit by a passing train in the Mattawana (Allgood) area. He notes that over the years several hobos suffered a similar fate in the county at a time when vagabonds jumped trains.
For a time, the business operated as Drinkard Funeral Home until its sale in 1949 to Grady H. Wiggins of Hanceville and the mayor. Ollen Ray Ratliff graduated from Nashville’s Gupton School of Mortuary Science in January of 1949 and began work there as an embalmer in January prior to that February sale. Charlie recalls that Brown-Service had asked his dad to manage the business until the company could find a licensed embalmer (Wiggins) as an owner.
The Southern Democrat records purchase of the business in 1951 by William Glennis Chambers, son of then local hardware store owner, William M. Chambers, with plans to operate as Chambers Brown-Service Funeral Home. Charlie reports that the Chambers ownership proved short-lived and Wiggins soon returned.
Few younger readers likely know of the prominence of Brown-Service. One of the earliest of its kind, Brown-Service rose to prominence as a funeral and burial-vault insurance company with agents who made weekly or monthly calls upon their clients to collect and record premiums. Acquired in 1944 by Liberty National Life Insurance Co., now a subsidiary of Torchmark Corporation, Brown-Service became the major burial insurance provider in much of the southeastern United States.
Until 1954, the company had often owned or co-owned funeral homes to service its policies. At one time, policies were only fully redeemable at those businesses or through others contracted with Brown-Service. After 1954 following “an antitrust suit brought by the United States against Liberty National” (Battle v. Liberty National Life Insurance Co. , 1991, footnote 9), the company’s ownerships ceased.
According to facts stated in the Battle federal district court case, by 1970, “50% of the persons who died each year in Alabama were covered by such policies, and the vast majority of Alabama funeral homes maintained contractual relationships with Brown-Service. By time of the 1977 judgment reducing the insurance and funeral servicing companies’ responsibilities, Liberty National had faced a $1.5 billion liability from those policies.
Brown-Service has less prominence with funeral home names today, though most Alabama locations still accept their policies. Business ended there later in the decade and the home became a private residence. The elder Hendrix worked at times for Brown-Service Insurance Company, which held its own 1955 office down and across the street from the funeral home at 119.
At 101 on First, Guy Malone’s Taxi operated. Hendrix says that at one time his father had a pressing shop in the old rock building that stood there for so long. The present senior citizens building replaced those and the Blount Service Station listed at 103. Charlie recalls that Levi Owens ran the station which had been constructed by local business and extensive property holder Noah Gilbreath.
Fendley Furniture lay at 107-111. As reported by Jack Sidney Fendley in a Nov. 9, 1977 issue of the Southern Democrat, his father John Sidney “Sid” Fendley, Jr., purchased the Oneonta Furniture Company and its inventory from Henry Franklin “Frank” Gill [father of Joanna McPherson and great-grandfather of former district attorney Scott McPherson] for $800. Completing the action on November 23, 1914, Sid renamed the store Fendley Furniture Company and continued operation at that 206 1st Ave. E address.
In time, he would move the store to what would later become V. J. Elmore at 230-236 1st Ave. E, and, in 1942, buy the Snow-Hendrix Garage at 107 1st Ave. E. He moved the business there with Jack joining his father in 1946. Jack’s son Charles began work with his dad at the store in 1961, joined by Jack’s sister Sibyl (Mrs. C. C.) Hampton in 1965 as a partner (Southern Democrat, Nov. 9, 1977 and Oct. 31, 1979).
Jack had previously worked with 1st National Bank of Oneonta (later State National and eventually the present BBVA Compass), in the probate office, and with L&N Railroad in Shelby, Alabama. A civic-minded businessman, Jack claimed he made a political campaign in the early 1940s which he said he “deservedly lost.” He would later serve on the city school board, the city council, and be appointed mayor to complete the term of James Chalmer “J. C.” Gibbs in 1962. He then made another political run and repeatedly won office as mayor until 1988.
Jack reported in the 1979 Southern Democrat article that he bought his first 35 millimeter camera for $18.95 from McPherson Jewelry Company in 1938. That event proves historic as Jack took what, his grandson Patrick estimates, may have been 100,000 photographs. Several of those appear here and in future serials.
These photographic treasures provide reminders of and verification for numerous stories recalled by those who lived through the period concluding with Jack’s death on January 5, 2000. His grave marker in Oak Hill Cemetery includes his years as mayor and has a small single engine plane depicted, another hobby which he greatly enjoyed, having obtained his pilot’s license in 1947.
The business continued to operate with Sibyl, who died in 2009, and Charles until his death in 2016. Charles’s sons, Steve and Patrick, felt unable to continue their dad’s business efforts and tackle the numerous mechanical appliance repair challenges. Fendley Furniture closed its doors in its 102nd year of operation.
According to Hendrix, H. K. (Hubert Kernieham) Majure built the Oneonta Locker Plant found at 108, which Stoy Kinzie “S.K.” Daily ran along with employee Eugene Tidwell. Real estate agent and former politician Bob Harvey explains customers would bring slaughtered livestock to the plant for dressing, cutting, and trimming. The plant would also lease refrigeration space monthly for customer storage.
Hull Grocery and Feed Store stood at 110. As noted in the related news column, owner Correll Hull enjoyed his seventeenth year of operation in 1955. Other details of that building appear in the article.
In 1955, Dr. James Len “J. L.” Wittmeier had his office at 112. Wittmeier, a World War II veteran, served in the U.S. Navy as a battalion surgeon with the Fifth Division of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Iwo Jima landing. After the war he returned to Blount County where he practiced medicine for more than thirty years. He graduated from Blount County High School, Howard College, and Louisiana State University School of Medicine.
Hendrix contends, that at an earlier point, city hall was located in that general area.
Garner Drug lay at 113. John H. Garner and Mattie Elizabeth Garner owned the pharmacy there which had at one time belonged to Dr. C. L. Stansberry. According to a 2009 booklet on the Garner Hotel prepared by Mark Sims, “Many people in town can still remember the great milkshakes and coke floats that were served by the ‘Soda Jerks’ over the counter there.
Sometime after “Doctor” Garner’s death in 1950, Lawrence Sellers, who had worked at the store during high school and obtained his pharmacy degree at API (Alabama Polytechnic Institute, later Auburn) returned to town and purchased the business. His daughter, Josephine Sellers Rouse, shares of the door connecting the store with the hotel and how she enjoyed being regaled by traveling salesmen sharing tall tales, when she worked there.
She relates that when Dr. N. C. “Nat” Denton, who had had his office nearby at 104 A Street N., would take his usual Thursday fishing trips, the drugstore became the first-aid station. She also notes that her dad was the first responder for train workers. Often when trains stopped behind at the depot, the workers would rush in not only to buy snacks but also to have errant cinders removed from their eyes.
Charlie notes that Dr. J. T. (James Tillman) Stone, father of former centenarian Etta Stone Moss, had held his office at that location earlier, but spent much of his time outside. He relates that Stone served as company doctor for Shook and Fletcher iron ore mining, run by Walt Linder’s grandfather, Edgar Newton Vandegrift.
He says most of Stone’s clients were TCI (Tennessee Coal and Iron) miners or L & N railroad workers and their families. He appeared to have a lot of free time. He often sat outside on the sidewalk on a cane-bottomed chair, smoking a little cigar and greeting passersby.
According to local pharmacist Tommy Morgan, Alaco took over operation at the Garner location. The building changed hands later before the city eventually bought the property and razed the building for anticipated future use.
The then Garner Hotel operated next door to Garner Drug at 115 with a connecting door.
According to Sims, present owner of the hotel building, A. T. Moses bought the hotel in 1954 from Mrs. John H. (Mattie) Garner and her daughter, following the death of Mr. Garner in 1950. Sims’s informational booklet on the structure notes many of his facts come from articles in the Southern Democrat.
Sims writes, “The hotel opened its doors in April 1927, and was managed by John and Mattie Garner.” Ninety-three year old Sand Valley resident William Wesley Aniton recalls that his father, Boston Lincoln, helped lay brick for the hotel as well as for many other Blount County businesses.
According to the Sims booklet, “The price of room rental was $2.50 a night for a single guest and $3.50 for a double. There were 22 total units; each floor having 11 units.”
He writes that only two of the hotel rooms had private baths with two rooms sharing each of the remaining baths. A parlor on the second floor offered guests an area to relax and visit. He contends that while the third floor had a few rooms available for rent, the Garners reserved most of it for their own living quarters.
Turning to the left upon entering the First Avenue hotel entrance, one would have found “the dining area and beyond that was the kitchen,” writes Sims. He continues, “From the information collected, it seems to have been quite a gathering place for dining and socializing. All three meals were served there. Breakfast and lunch were 50 cents and supper was 75 cents [in its earliest days].”
Retired local utilities board employee Alfred Johnson recalls working at the hotel for several years prior to his 1955 departure for military service. As a teenager, Johnson said he waited tables made beds and performed other duties. He made 50 cents an hour and tips. He notes he never received a raise during his years there.
Despite receiving no raises, Johnson claims Mrs. Garner treated him well. He reveals that he used the same facilities as white customers and even chuckles that while he was at work, “I thought I was white.”
He felt that had anyone disrespected him, Mrs. Garner would have intervened to end that.
He shares that he probably most hated his chicken prepping job. Mrs. Garner would drive out to the mountain, buy chickens, and bring them back to be hung on a line. She wanted the birds’ throats slit with the blood thoroughly draining out. He would then use hot water for the plucking and dressing.
Johnson says his first cousin, James Thomas Griffith, served as the cook and made the hotel’s famous yeast rolls. Johnson wore a white apron over his clothes as his only uniform and was expected to keep that “spic and span.”
Quoting from a 1940 newspaper article, Sims’s booklet continues, “the Garner Hotel ‘surprised its owners by showing a profit almost from the first day it opened.’ Despite the initial success of the hotel, it was not until 1948 that the Garners constructed a spacious new home on 3rd St,, N., in Oneonta and moved from the hotel.
“The Garner Hotel was once a popular gathering place especially for Sunday dinner. Guests would dine and then sit behind the hotel under the grape arbor and watch the afternoon L & N trail pull in from Gadsden on its way to Birmingham. The train provided a steady supply of business for the hotel [until passenger service ended, according to the Bicentennial edition of The Heritage of Blount County on January 27, 1951]. [Then the hotel’s] business began to suffer. This is evidenced by the numerous times the hotel changed ownership throughout the 60s. The train depot, which was once located behind the Garner Hotel, was relocated to the Oneonta City Park in 1977 for historical preservation. . . .
“Over the years the original dining room was sold as separate real estate and is now Doyle Daily’s Beauty Salon [D’s Hair Styling – shown presently as 113 1st Ave. E] next door to the hotel. The original barbershop that was part of the hotel was also sold separately and is now [at the booklet’s then 2009 publication] Daniel Warden’s Photography Studio. In 1973, Floyd J. Smith bought the hotel and turned it into a furniture warehouse and mini-warehouse property years later.
“From there Mark Sims and John Warden bought the hotel from Steve Smith in 2000 and leased the property to Martha Walker as an antique mall that became well-known as ‘The Lobby.’ In or about 2005 Mark Sims bought John Warden’s share of the old Garner Hotel building. In 2007, Mark Sims made the decision to completely renovate the structure and now in 2009, what is referred to as the ‘Old Garner Hotel’ has been tastefully completed and is a great asset to the city of Oneonta.”
The O.K. Pressing Shop operated at 114 with J. R. Davis and Grady Armstrong’s O. K. Barber Shop beside it. Davis, his brother-in-law Henry Grady Armstrong, and, at one time, Armstrong’s brother Fred shared duties there. A July 8, 1976, Southern Democrat shared of Armstrong and his completion of 50 years barbering at the same 116 1st Ave. E location.
Armstrong, son of P. G. and Mary Plott Armstrong, came from his native Etowah County in the 1920s to assist Davis, his sister Daisy’s husband. Some reports indicate that at some point, Daisy had operated a beauty salon there or adjacent.
Davis had reportedly mashed a finger and needed some temporary assistance so he sent for his brother-in-law. Armstrong would make Oneonta his home, marry longtime local resident Myrtle McGill, and father son Alan and daughter Mary Jean.
The article includes accounts of trading goods and services during the Great Depression. Armstrong built a reserve through shaves and haircuts with Dr. C. L. Stansberry. The newspaper piece reports Armstrong claimed that when son “Alan arrived, ‘he was all paid for’ thanks to credits” to the cooperative doctor.
Myrtle’s nephew, retired J. B. Pennington High School Principal Gary McGill, recalls Grady’s concerted effort to avoid public, partisan, political positions, fearing their detrimental effect on business. Opinionated, outspoken, Republican Myrtle often frustrated Grady’s best efforts. McGill believes the shop was the first air-conditioned business in the town, which in itself proved a drawing point.
The barbershop owners advertised frequently in the Democrat with small box-advertisements headed: “What is being said in the O. K. Barber Shop.” Often appearing on page two in the 1955 editions, the advertisements offered pithy quips or adages.
Particularly pertinent to this series, Armstrong observed in the 1976 piece, “I’ve lost track of the number of times businesses have come and gone and the number of times they’ve changed hands.” That observation holds true with the barbershop’s across street neighbor White’s Florist inside the Garner Hotel. According to her daughter-in-law Amanda, Ralphene Faust White operated her florist at the hotel until her doctor warned it was going to kill her. She closed that business, renovated, and opened The Children’s Shop at the same site in 1955.
With the hotel and nearby depot, many male guests and travelers sought to maintain the best grooming. That block provided still another such property across the street from the O.K. at Beason’s Barber Shop (117). One found Piggly Wiggly Grocery (118) opposite that and the aforementioned Brown-Service Insurance Company adjacent the shop at 119.
At opposite sides of the eastern end of the block lay two furniture stores: McCurry Furniture (120) and Brown Furniture Company (121).
One current local businessman relates how he discovered that the furniture business enjoyed a lot of revenue from financing. He says after he and his wife returned from college and looked for furniture, an owner of one of the stores offered kindly, “Pick what you like, and we’ll arrange payments you can afford.” He says he had not realized then for how long he would be making those convenient monthly payments.
While Claude Berry McCurry ran the store bearing his family name in 1955, the company had begun in 1917 in Birmingham, added a location in Warrior in 1919, and eventually had stores in Garden City, Trussville, Demopolis, and Oneonta. McCurry’s only presently remaining Warrior store continues operation under family ownership and won recognition last month as a Centennial Retailer by The Alabama Retail Association.
According to memorial information on McCurry, he received the Distinguished Flyer Cross as a lieutenant commander for his service during World War II. He reportedly flew missions from the USS Bataan in the Pacific Theatre.
In prior times, the Brown Furniture building housed Kelley Drugs. Floyd William Smith would buy the building in the early 1970s, selling used furniture from the location. In 2000 or so John Warden obtained and renovated it for his present Creative Frame and Trophy shop.