Sam Burnham, Curator
If you’re of a certain age and spent any time at all traveling when you were young, you’ve seen that teal blue roof, those angled covers above the gas pumps, that trade mark red script against a school-bus-yellow sign. I know that on the Coastal plains of Georgia and Florida, you could see a Stuckey’s from at least a mile away. Billboards up and down I-75 announced pecan log rolls, souvenirs, food, gas, and more. Stuckey’s is one of the great stories from the American South.
The story begins like the best Southern stories. W.S. Stuckey, Sr. was born on Dodge County farm in 1909. He was just getting his start in adulthood when the Great Depression hit and the bottom fell out of the cotton prices. So in 1931 Stuckey left UGA, right in the middle of his third year of law school to do what he could to help keep his family’s farm going.
With food scarce, Stuckey often had to hoist his starving mules back to their feet to plow the fields. There were too few jobs and times were tough. But middle Georgia had an ace in the hole. There was an indigenous crop that was mostly untapped. It was a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened.
Stuckey begged a local fertilizer dealer for a job doing anything. He was hired to go out and buy pecans. So with $35 borrowed from his grandmother, every dime she had, he set out in a Ford Model A coupe which was unreliable at best. He traveled the countryside John King, a black man who worked on the family farm. On many nights Stuckey and King were so exhausted from work that they slept soundly on the pecan bags. King would eventually own his own Stuckey’s store.
From his pecan sales he started his own pecan wholesale business. He bought a pickup truck and started buying his own pecans to sell for processing His philosophy was simple: “You’ve got to be honest with the public. And you’ve got to work. Of course good luck won’t hurt.” It was a philosophy that worked.
In 1937, Stuckey decided to make the most of the winter lull. He used some of his pecan sales profits and open a roadside tourist stand. In this lean-to shack he sold pecans, cane juice, homemade quilts, syrup, cane juice, and cherry cider - all you can drink for a nickel. A Texas housewife once told him “You must be crazy building a candy store in a cotton patch 10 miles from a dried-up town.”
The idea hits him. He decided to start a candy store. He busted up in the middle of his wife Ethel’s bridge game and asked her to whip up a batch of pralines...something she had never done before. Inexperience was no deterrent. You can’t sell pralines you don’t have. so Ethel and her sisters Hazel and Pearl worked some magic. Soon they’re turning out candy four times a day in their home kitchen and would walk it 2-3 miles out to the roadside stand where Stuckey had signs posted for marketing and selling the fresh goods. “CANDY MADE FRESH TODAY.”
Once Stuckey made enough to open his first real store in Eastman he sold his roadside shack to a farmer and the first ever Stuckey’s became a hen house. Humble beginnings.
The company thrives on the concept that “every traveler is a friend.” During the post World War II economic boom, travel became a big part of American culture. Stuckey’s strategically placed their stores along US highways 17, 301, and 1. These were main arteries for the annual snowbird migration. And northerners headed for Florida they were met by those famous teal sloped roofs. Marketing brought them in. Southern hospitality brought them back.
We’ve already mentioned that John King came to own his own Stuckey’s store. During segregation Stuckey’s was listed in the now historic “Green Book.” The stores were listed in the publication informing black travelers that they were welcome at Stuckey’s for food, gas, and other road trip necessities. While many locations chose to turn black customers away, Stuckey’s welcomed them.
So the company was on the cutting edge socially. But W.S. Stuckey was also a pioneer in the use of data. He did his own traffic studies on the highways observing the amount of local and out of town travelers. He would drink several cups of coffee and then drive until he needed to make a pit stop. That’s where he would build the next store. Everything from the slope of the roof to which side of the road the store was built on was determined with marketing in mind. He had a plan for everything.
His planning was so effective that in less than 20 years, the company had expanded from a lean-to shed in a cotton field to 29 modern stores. The company’s influence began the spread out further and further from Eastman.Stuckey believed in people. He rewarded executives and employees with interest in stores rather than raises. They built stock in the company that way. For example, a secretary making $75 a week would gross $16,000 a year due to her interest in the company. His business model was brilliant: “taking a bunch of good country boys and training them, giving them interest in the store, and having them do the finest job you’ve ever seen.”
By 1960 the company based in Eastman, Georgia had 160 stores. Only 10 of those were company owned. Franchisees pulled the wagon and Stuckey saw to it they were looked after. And that is how a man started with a shed in a cotton field and used some innovation and some good old fashioned Southern hospitality to build a roadside mainstay. I won’t steal all of present CEO Stephanie Stuckey’s thunder. She has done extensive research into her family’s business, her heritage, and was kind enough to share some notes from a book she hopes to publish. Perhaps we’ll do a review of it when the time comes. What I’ll definitely do is discuss her new role and the company’s future in the second part of this story.
Sam Burnham, Curator
At ABG our perspective is Southern. That’s because most of the people who have contributed here are Southerners. We take our stand among the live oaks, the peanut fields, and meandering rivers of The South. But the ideas we love and support aren’t always uniquely Southern.
In their Statement of Principles, the 12 Southerners of I’ll Take My Stand added this thought:
”But there are many other minority communities opposed to industriaism, and wanting a much simpler economy to live by. The communities and private persons sharing the agrarian tastes are to be found widely within the Union. Proper living is a matter of the intelligence and the will, does not depend on the local climate or geography, and is capable of a definition which is general and not Southern at all. Southerners have a filial duty to discharge to their own section. But their cause is precarious and they must seek alliances with sympathetic communities everywhere. The members of the present group would be happy to be counted as members of a national agrarian movement.”
So when we speak about a need for unity in this country we have to look for common ground. We have to find things that unite us rather than divide us. That’s something that has come up in our travels and stories. I’d like to take a look at some.
In 2014 I traveled to Maine. My goal was to visit the bedside of my Grandpa, to say goodbye. But my experience there shed light on the plight of non-coastal Mainers. Maine, like Georgia, is two states. The cities, which are coastal, hold political sway over the rest of the state, which is mountainous.
The political issue at that moment was a ballot initiative that would put an end to hunting and trapping practices regarding black bears. The city people found the practices “cruel.” The state wildlife biologists (read: “settled science”) argued that the practices were essential for maintaining healthy populations of bears and for minimizing human-bear interactions. The rural people, whose values, practices, and beliefs belong in the articles of this website, fought to preserve hunting and trapping. The proposal was defeated by about 40,000 votes but the threat of coastal tyranny remains in Maine.
Out in Oregon I have a friend who recently discovered he has a gift in the visual arts. His family has deep roots in those woods.
His father was a logging road inspector who started in forestry at the age of 16. He put in 42 years of service before retiring. Now his son has a pile of stories from riding shotgun in the forestry truck with dad. Deep in those woods stands the memory of a burned train trestle that spanned a huge canyon. “ It’s something nobody else but someone that drove back that deep would ever see or knew existed.”
He also has the stories from his great-grandmother who went out on the Oregon Trail. “ She lived to 105 and used to tell us kids about coming over on the wagon train as a little girl and the history of that area.”
”My family is tied to the woods here. Sadly, they’re burning now.”
That sorrow isn’t just from the environmental or economic damage the fires are creating. It’s from a real attachment to the land. It’s the knowledge that those trees, mountains, rivers, that land is where generations of his family took their stand. That love comes through in some of his art which appears here, linked to his artist page.
We could tell these stories forever. They could come from every region of the country. Those proud Texans, Kansas Jayhawks, and Indiana Hoosiers could all make an argument on why their plot of dirt is the best place on Earth, whether you agree or not. We even see this phenomenon in the troubled communities deep in our cities. For a person of this mentality, home is home. It’s not just where you hang your hat, it’s where you take your stand.
For a man or woman this connected to home, they’ll fight to protect that spot. They’ll work to make it better. They’ll ward off gentrification, they’ll support local businesses, they’ll look out for their neighbors.
The problems we face as a country aren’t going to be solved in Washington. It does not matter which party has control. It will only get better when this mindset takes root in all the little places no one thinks about. When folks love a place enough to make it better, that’s when we’ll see true greatness return. Mentoring school kids, picking up litter, just loving a place - thinking local, acting local - that’s where the difference is made. That’s where, although divided by space, we become united in mission.
Where’s your spot? What do you love?
Sam Burnham, Curator
A few years ago I stumbled across a shuttered old roadhouse on the shores of Lake Allatoona in Cherokee County. As I looked at the old building and admired the signage, I wondered what all might have gone on at the Blue Cat Lodge.
I posted a picture of the place on the ABG Instagram page to document such a place existed. One of our followers there commented that the site was a filming location for the Netflix original series “Ozark.” Since that moment I’ve learned that the signage is the impressive work of a set design team who made use of the old roadhouse. I published my thoughts on this incredible show here.
While the Blue Cat Lodge, that happening spot where Marty Byrde laundered drug cartel money to keep his family alive, is a work of fiction, you can visit the location today. The roadside sign with its majestic blue catfish are gone. In its place you’ll find a sign for JD’s on the Lake, the current restaurant and bar that occupies the building.
The business is working off a limited menu during all of this *:gestures into the void:*. The good news is you can still get fried catfish and fries with hush puppies and slaw. Honestly I was expecting something colossally mediocre making a living off the building’s fame and notoriety. I was pleasantly surprised that the food was quite good.
The service is excellent and you can dine or drink inside or out. There is an inside dining room, screened in decks, and open air tables. Out back is a great location to sit on a comfortable evening to watch the sun set behind the Allatoona Mountains.
Remember that this location is reality. The dining room and bar are not decorated the same as the Blue Cat in the show. Most of the props are gone and the real place remains. The old sign that hung above the front porch now hangs over the bar but you won’t hear Bob Segar’s “Still the Same” on repeat. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter Marty or Wendy but Ruth gets some love in the form of a cocktail on the menu. And no, middle aged gentlemen, Rachel Garrison is not working the bar.
While a lot is different, there’s plenty around that you’ll recognize. The floating fuel pumps where Marty stood, cooking the books, are updated, in use, and quite busy on the holiday weekend. If you’re a fan of the show, it feels like Ozark.
There’s a nice balance here. JD’s is it’s own place and it’s enjoyable on its own. It isn’t some campy place where the waitresses ask you Ozark trivia questions or dress in costume. They give some hat tips to Ozark and the Blue Cat while maintaining their own identity.
To see this for yourself, take Bells Ferry Rd south from GA 20 near Canton. Stay on Bells Ferry until the Blue Cat is dead ahead in the curve. If you cross the Ronnie Clay Chastain Memorial Bridge, you went too far. If you’re headed north from Woodstock, look on the left past the bridge.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire