Frank Holcombe Company founder died in 1955

1955 Downtown Oneonta

 

 

The Frank Holcombe Company operated at 319-321 on the southern side of that First Avenue, East, block. Its founder had retired in 1941 but lived another 14 years before his March 30, 1955, passing.

The store housed a variety of supplies. Employees could unload items from trains to its dock, as the tracks ran directly behind the store. It underwent a significant renovation in 1948 (pictured at right in a Nov. 11 photo from The Southern Democrat), perhaps replacing what some had recalled as a lingering dirt floor.

Holcombe’s lineage and personal history offer fascinating reading. A Bessemer historical marker for his obituary-credited paternal grandfather, Hosea (Lot or Lott) Holcombe, labels him Alabama’s first church historian. According to that marker, Hosea published his History of Rise and Progress of Baptists in Alabama in 1840.

A.O. (Auvie) Gilliland and Ollie Morton at G&M Furniture -courtesy Sandy Morton Nix

A.O. (Auvie) Gilliland and Ollie Morton at G&M Furniture -courtesy Sandy Morton Nix

A Wikipedia entry records Lot Holcombe’s birth in South Carolina in 1780 and his assumption of father Hosea’s name at his death in 1789. In 1818, at the encouragement of Luther Rice, he came to Alabama as a “Baptist evangelist and missionary.”

Settling in Jefferson County, Hosea joined Cannon Baptist Church and would soon serve as pastor (1819 – 1821) of Ruhama Baptist, which would emerge as one of the state’s largest and most influential churches. In 1833, he became president of the Alabama Baptist Convention which he had helped found ten years earlier. He would remain president until 1838, three years before his death.

Harriet Cornelius Dodd

Harriet Cornelius Dodd

(William) Frank Holcombe’s obituary in the March 31, 1955, Southern Democrat relates that at age four, he traveled by ox drawn cart from his Panola County, Mississippi, birthplace to Floresville, Texas. “Find a grave” website lists Panola County as the death location for one of Hosea’s sons, Alva Jackson Holcombe. Unfortunately, it also lists his death year as 1868, six years before the obituary date given for Frank’s birth.

Gordon Edwards ‘Country Boy Eddie’ Burns -birminghamrecord.com

Gordon Edwards ‘Country Boy Eddie’ Burns -birminghamrecord.com

William Henry and Eli Barger Holcombe, sons of Hosea’s son Darius John, have Floresville, Tex., cemetery listings and Darius’s date of death is listed as 1877. Those mysteries await further unraveling.

The Southern Democrat memorial continues of Frank, “He first came to Oneonta as a contractor to build the county jail.” He returned years later with his wife Eula Youngblood Holcombe and two daughters, the later Mae (Mrs. T. E. “Emery”) Lowery and Frances (Mrs. W. C.) McCarley.

Talmage and Grace Cornelius outside their store. Tal sports overalls for Blue Bell Day.

Talmage and Grace Cornelius outside their store. Tal sports overalls for Blue Bell Day.

“He established a successful retail business handling building materials, feed, groceries, and gasoline.” Ironically, this descendant of such an influential Baptist grandfather and uncles died “a member of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston,” according to that obituary.

In the 1976 edition of The Heritage of Blount County, Mae Holcombe Lowery’s entry details she “operated Frank Holcombe Company and Young Duds stores in Oneonta and Arab for a number of years.”

 

 

Adjacent the Frank Holcombe Company at 317 lay what appears in 1955 to have been a vacant building. Leto Curl, whose father W. E. had a grocery at 311, recalls that at one point Will Moore operated a shoe and shoe repair shop at that location. Curl left town before 1955 for his military service. Others say that by 1955, Moore had moved his shop to either Second Avenue, East, or Second Street, North.

At some point prior to 1955, Holcombe sold the corner service station which Ernest Bynum then held and from which he operated as Bynum Oil Distributor for Sinclair Oil at 323. By the 1959 Lions Club directory, Willie M. (Mac) Massey held the distributorship.

Ernest Tyra Bynum’s 1996 obituary contends he dressed “nattily” for his outings over the town while driving his “vintage 1950s Lincoln.” That memorial holds the former school teacher had some fame for “reams of poetry he could quote without faltering.” It also alludes to his piano talents demonstrated at Civitan Club meetings he attended. Not long before his demise, he and his wife, the former Wilma Murphree, moved to San Diego, California, to be near their children.

According to Sandy Morton Nix, her grandparents, Rev. A. O. (Auvie) Gilliland and Ollie Morton began G&M Furniture housed in 1955 at 326 First Avenue, East. At some point after his return from military service in Korea, her dad, Ralph Morton, bought the store from his father and father-in-law. He would eventually purchase the buildings on either side and prepare wall passages to each for ready access throughout.

According to the youngest Morton brother, Steve, Ralph operated from the “Main Street” store until relocating to the present New Street site during the 1960s. That metal building replaced the Bailey Mule Barn.

Steve relates stories of his work at the store during high school and college. One he shares entails transporting dressers from behind the store to its front. He says Ralph told him to tie the dressers securely to the truck, but he thought he could make the 100-yard move without that effort. The dressers slid off, splintering at least one. Steve says this was the day before Christmas Eve and Ralph did sell all of them — to Steve. Steve laughs as he reports he actually had one of the less damaged in his bedroom for a time.

Evidently, the brothers enjoyed playing pranks. Steve declines publication of some but does share one. He says he enjoyed frustrating then handyman and television repairer (John) Wendell Rogers by rearranging his tools. One day his brother, Ralph, tired of those antics, asked him to get a specific set of pliers. When Steve reached for the pliers, he got a jolt of electricity as his older brother had connected a “hot” wire to the metal handle.

Nix, Morton, and Ralph caregiver, Rachel Redman, share another humorous re-worked “bull in the China shop” story. New Street separates G&M from the Blount County – Oneonta Agri-Business Center. In one of the first rodeos, a bull escaped the center and broke through a plate glass window at the store. The niece and uncle share that customer Willene Fortenberry, wife of long-time Oneonta police chief Earl Fortenberry, scampered for safety atop the counter as the bull took a stroll though the store and out the back door.

Before Ralph purchased the 328 building, Cornelius’s Super Market Food Center occupied that site. Tal (Talmage) and Grace Cornelius had begun the business, which by 1955 included son Jerry as an operator.

Jerry’s widow, the now remarried Harriet Dodd, notes the store always seemed to have the most popular high school boys as their grocery sackers, an attraction for many. She can recall some customers purchasing a month’s worth of supplies at a time.

She also laughs a bit nervously when sharing of customers who took advantage of southern manners and their loss leader promotions. Loss leader items sell below cost. Owners do this anticipating customers lured by those will purchase enough other items to cover that loss. Harriet says some would see the advertised items and telephone their order for just those. She proclaims she or other employees would bag those items and even deliver them to the customer, waiting outside.

She shares some events which occurred at the 328 address with others from the later 410 location. She recalls placing 25-pound bags of flour in a sack, hefting it over a shoulder, and delivering it to customer vehicles which sometimes included wagons. She chuckles that one man proposed marriage, evidently impressed with her prowess.

She and Leto Curl relate that Cornelius employee Wes (Wesley M.) Daily built a ladder he placed behind the store (likely the 410 location) to traverse the steep hill between there and Second Avenue where he lived. She also recalls television icon and Blount County native, “Country Boy Eddie,” visiting town with crowds surrounding him and making access to their store nearly impossible.

According to BHAM WIKI, Gordon Edwards Burns reached fame through his Birmingham based television “Country Boy Eddie Show” which ran for 38 years. He had begun his own show there in 1953. In 1961 and 1962 he drove to Nashville each Monday and Tuesday to tape a week’s worth of broadcasts for that market. That website reports he introduced a young Dolly Parton to audiences in the “Music City.”

The BHAM WIKI site asserts 120 regional cable channels eventually ran his syndicated program. His “braying” mule imitation became a well known trademark. As of this 2018 writing, Burns reportedly continues living on his Blount County farm.

During 1955, the town celebrated the eighth anniversary of its largest employer, Blue Bell. That observance included several Birmingham media personalities and specially ordered Blue Bell overalls for purchase. Tal and Grace posed outside the store with Tal in his Blue Bell duds.

In 2014, Harriet authored Finding Joy in Grief: Unspeakable Tragedy and the Power of God’s Love. There she recounts experiences surrounding the early deaths of three of her four adult sons and the passing of her beloved husband. She relates how, as the town clerk, she had endured a harrowing kidnapping at the hands of convicts on day release working at Highland Lake. The book underscores God’s faithfulness.

The building at 324, which Morton would also later purchase, housed Fendley’s Grist Mill. Millard “Bull” Fendley, a World War II Army Air Corps private, operated that. Near nonagenarian Raymond Lowry recalls riding his bicycle to the store to get meal for his mother. He recounts sacks with a peck of meal often remained warm from the fresh grinding.

He details that “Bull,” as most knew him, ground both yellow and white corn on the premises. Some customers paid for his services while others, as Lowry’s family, bought the milled grain from Fendley’s own supply.

Skipping for the moment to 320, one would find City Barber Shop. Retired Cleveland principal Ben Hays offers that his dad, Jim, had the largest shop in town with four chairs. He also advises “my mother (teacher Elvie Bailey Hays) never liked my hanging out there. She said if I were there too long, I would get more education than I needed.”

He shares of a woman entering one day with just Ben and a barber named Standridge there. He notes women seldom came to barber shops. She asked could anyone give her a haircut. Standridge offered and seemed to please the woman. With her cut completed, the woman asked to have her hair sprayed. By Ben’s account, Standridge reached behind his back, took a can, and misted the coif. When the lady complained of its horrible smell, Standridge read the label, announcing, “Oh, bug spray.”

Car salesman Jimmy Buckner has a favorite account of another mishap at the shop. He says one barber (named by Buckner but omitted here) trimmed a customer’s hair while he read The Southern Democrat. At a critical moment, the client flipped his paper over and the barber gapped a spot. Thinking quickly, the barber touched up the spot with black shoe polish. Sometime after his initial departure, the customer returned, complaining, “What sort of haircut is this?” Buckner claims the barber answered, “It’s my newspaper cut.”

Ben also speaks of Mason’s Cafe next to the shop at 322, currently the site of Oneonta Coin Exchange. Ben claims the cook, whom he believed the proprietor, could make the “absolute best hamburgers.” He says he spent many school afternoons there having a burger and a “tall” bottled Coca-Cola® for about 34¢. The cook would jab his ticket on a metal spike, holding it for later payment by his dad. Lowry recalls (Lawrence??) “Pop” Mason as the cafe owner at least at some point. He says Pop’s son Larry, until his recent retirement, managed the Red Lobster restaurant in Gadsden.

Trios Dress Shop (330) occupied the next to last of the buildings in the 300 block. Lollie Massey Julian believes Rosebud Robertson and her twin daughters Gilla (Robertson Morton) and Glenda (Robertson Tolbert) comprised the trio. She recalls the shop moved to the 200 block sometime after its 1955 location.

Putman’s Refrigeration (332) held the last spot on the block. Curl confirms A. R. Putman owned the business, but almost all knew him as “Put.” He worked as an air conditioning specialist but would later leave that field for propane gas sales operating from a building on U.S. 231 South.

Curl contends Putman had one of the first houses in the Eastwood section of town. He recalls visiting it, which today seems rather nondescript, and thinking what a showplace it was then.

Behind Putman’s, moving up that side street lay Blount Ice Company (103 Fourth Street, North). Curl says he and friend Billy Ray Dumas would go with Dumas’s dad (Albert Alvin) to Gadsden to buy, transport, and deliver ice to owner J. W. (John William, Sr.) Mitchell.

Curl expands on that experience revealing the purchased ice came in huge blocks. He admonishes that despite the care the boys took in loading and unloading, they at times smashed fingers between the blocks. He reports Dumas paid the guys what was for the time a handsome wage.

On the southern side of Fourth Street, behind Bynum Oil lay E. H. Horton Gin Company (111 Fourth Street, South). Engineer, builder, farmer, and cotton ginner Eris Harris Horton and his father Pentie both operated cotton gins within 200 yards or so of each other.

When asked if the father and son competed for business, Lowry asserts that once cotton crops came in, there was plenty of work for both gins. He recalls wagons and trucks lined several blocks awaiting ginning and bailing. In the adjacent areas, lay several warehouses for cotton storage. Dealers would watch the markets to determine just when to ship the valuable commodity.