Sam Burnham, Curator
We’ve got a lot of loves at ABG. Among them are locally owned businesses and long established institutions. I’ve got a perfect meshing of the two for you. For this one we’re going to Jacksonville...Alabama, not Florida. This review is of a gem of a place in Calhoun County. Let’s talk about The Rocket.
I first walked into this establishment in the fall of 1993. When I walked in earlier this year it looked just like it did 27 years ago. I’m pretty sure it lookedp the same when it opened in 1958. The only change I noticed since my first visit was some of the ladies working behind the counter hadn’t been born as of then. That made me feel kind of old.
But it made me feel better knowing that this local icon was holding up to the test of time. Same furniture, same decor, same everything.
The Rocket is a BBQ joint. Let me say this, you aren’t going to see The Rocket on TrueSouth or Chef’s Table BBQ. It’s not that kind of place. Their BBQ is solid, it’s good. But they don’t have a trophy case. In fact, I don’t typically eat the BBQ when I go there. Coach Drew does and speaks well of it.
There’s a backstory to what I order. Just around the corner from our childhood home was our own local spot. They had a twin burger basket that everyone on that side of town still raves about. A simple concept: two burgers and fries in a basket. But Peyton’s is gone and their baskets (and the Evel Knievel pinball machine) went with them. So when I saw the twin burger basket on the menu at The Rocket, I had to know. It was perfect. 27 years later, it’s still perfect.
One of the best things about The Rocket is just how local it is. I mentioned there’s no trophy case but there is a plethora of local articles framed on the wall. And you’ll see people who’ve been going there since 1998, 1988, 1968. Lord willing, they’ll be going in 2028. This isn’t gourmet. It’s not an oddball joint with a cult following. This is over six decades of sustained support by the locals. It’s 100% small town phenomenon.
The dining room is pretty small. They have a strong takeout business, partially because a table is a commodity during lunch rush. We got there on Georgia time so the place was pretty empty. But we watched the crowd roll in. All the tables filled up. Folks flowed in and out with takeout orders.
They have a pickup window. It’s not a drive thru. You can walk up and place orders as well as pickup call-in orders without going inside. There is currently shielding between the few booths as well as the counter. COVID precautions are in place. The strong takeout game got them through the lockdown. It will continue to help them thrive.
And the twin burger basket was on point, just like always.
So I leave you with this tip. That little stone BBQ joint on Pelham Road South is worth a stop. Dine in or take out, it’s highly recommended. If you find yourself anywhere near it, check it out.
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.
So I gave a quick overview of Ft. Monroe previously. With that much to see in one place you’re bound to get hungry during your visit. The good news is that you don’t have to wander far to fix that problem.
If I told you there was a great spot for seafood at a marina just outside the gates of a Civil War era fort, your mind might go to Fish Tales in Richmond Hill. And you would be right. But Fish Tales is a bit of a drive from Ft. Monroe, especially if you’re hungry.
So we’ll try another marina. Just outside the fort proper but still within the modern limits of the installation you’ll find the Old Point Clear Marina. If you arrive at the marina you can’t miss The Deadrise.
While this name sounds like something out of an evangelical eschatological thriller movie, the term is a reference to a way of measuring the depth of a boat’s hull. It’s a fitting moniker for a restaurant in a marina.
A marina is always a tempting sight. Rows of boats, particularly sailboats, tug at the heart strings and make me want to shove off in search of adventure or solitude...or perhaps both. The Old Point Clear Marina was no exception. From atop the stairs at the restaurant’s entrance you can see quite a varied collection of pleasure crafts.
With easy access to Hampton Roads, Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic, as well as numerous rivers, the boat traffic is abundant. A lot of vessels coming and going on a beautiful day. It adds to the overall ambiance of the location.
As of this visit, Virginia’s COVID-19 restrictions were pretty strict, perhaps draconian. Reduced seating capacity made for a bit of a wait but, again, the scenery was nice as was the weather and the company so it was only a mild inconvenience.
We were greeted and served by a friendly and helpful staff. The hostess was energetic and her work posture was quite kinetic. Our waitress was knowledgeable about the menu and was helpful as we made our selections.
Until someone puts warmouth in the menu, flounder will be the best actual fish you’ll get in a place such as this. Obviously shellfish are always going to be good but I saw a waitress carrying a flounder filet that belonged on a forklift so that’s what I went with. It was paired with fried oysters, and served with fries, hush puppies, and surprisingly good slaw.
They offer nachos as an entree. This is a delightfully fresh option. The components are plenteous. It’s where nachos, a seafood entree, and a salad come together. The ingredients combine nicely to form a cohesive dish.
With good food, great service, and that waterfront atmosphere, The Deadrise is a recommended part of a Ft. Monroe visit.
Oh, and one last thing, they have a posted sign down by the dock. It’s a warning to boaters, fishermen. This area has a long history. These waters have been fought over. An observer could have witnessed the first ironclad battle, the famous duel between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor from this location. That battle, along with plenty others, means that it’s not unheard of to find unexploded ordnance. It is intended to keep people safe but it also reminds us of the history of the area. It’s not just an abstract idea in a book. That history, the good and bad, still lives among us today.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire