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
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.
Sam Burnham, Curator
If you aren’t familiar with Cartersville, Georgia or if your familiarity is a recent development, you probably wouldn’t imagine a sleepy little town of mostly miners and farmers. In the 1980s Cartersville was still a quiet little town, so if we go back to the 1940s, mentally, it will help set the stage for this story. This one is a legend passed to us as fact. The source is reputable so we’ll take it as fact until convinced otherwise.
This story begins in 1931. Herbert Hoover was President. A man named Fred Garrison set up shop, slinging burgers at the corner of Main Street and Gilmer Street in Downtown Cartersville. It seems an unlikely time to be opening a small business in a sleepy small town of miners and farmers. But 89 years later, 4-Way Lunch is still slinging burgers. In all that time they’ve never had a telephone.
Sometime in the 1930s, 4-Way hired a young man named Butter Ross. I don’t think his mama named him “Butter” but I don’t ask Superman what his real name is so I’m not asking for Butter’s birth certificate either.
Shortly thereafter the entire world went to war and Butter Ross went went with it. He did his duty and served his country. He fought honorably against the Axis powers. He returned to Cartersville as a hero with a dream. He wanted to open his own diner, sling his own burgers, be his own man. He wanted to hang his own name over his own door. So he announced his intentions to open his own place just around the corner.
In 2020, Cartersville is becoming a happening place. They have two world class museums and a Kroger with a bar in it but it’s still a relatively small town. In 1946 Cartersville was barely on the map. The idea of two diners operating less than the length of Weinman Stadium apart was unthinkable. The competition would be brutal. This town just wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
The management at the 4-Way begged Butter not to do it. They even warned him, “you’re gonna start a war!” But Butter was determined. “It won’t be my first war. And I ain’t never lost.” True to his words, Butter didn’t lose. In fact, his diner is still open as well. For both places to survive 74 years in such proximity in a small town is astonishing. The biggest takeaway is that they both had to be on top of their game every day. A bad day for one could mean its demise.
Today you can find a dozen or so places to eat within walking distance of this metaphorical battlefield. Regionally recognized chains and excellent local choices have added serious competition for the lunch crowd. There are more comfortable options with much larger menus. Despite the added pressure, the original two belligerents are still going strong.
The 4-Way boasts 10 diner stools at the bar in the main room. The back room, a remnant of segregation days, can hold two or three customers. No one cares what color you are now, all seats are first come, first serve. The only color that matters is green, as in cash. Your card is worthless here. They don’t even have a phone, much less a card reader. With so few seats the menu is small. All meals are made to order, meaning they make it, you order it, they immediately place it in front of you. No waiting. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Enjoy it but get to eating because someone is probably waiting on your seat. A gravy burger with chili cheese fries and a sweet tea is a fine meal.
Over at Ross Diner the setting is a bit more relaxed. With at least twice the seating things aren’t quite as rushed. Everyone sits around a u-shaped bar while the waitresses work through the middle. There’s a full kitchen in the back as opposed to just cooking everything right behind the bar like they do at 4-Way. It takes longer to get your food but it is made fresh. A fried pie with ice cream is an excellent choice and give you a chance to eat at both diners on the same visit to town.
So ABG has now given you a tip on how to get lunch and desert at two places but only using one parking space. You can add in some great shopping as well as enjoying the fantastic architecture of historic downtown. You’ll also be doing your part, serving honorably in the Great Cartersville Diner War, 74 years and still going strong.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire