Tri-City Ledger -

By Earline Smith Crews
Guest Writer 

Powell's moonlight tourist camp, part 1

 

February 13, 2020

Courtesy Photo

Powell's Cafe circa 1946

Tony Powell, son of Marvin and Grace Powell, shared his history of Powell's Café & Cabins for this story.

In 1943, Tony's Dad purchased some land where the first Powell's Café sat. Marvin met Grace when he was working at the shipyard in Mobile during WWII. The two got married and moved to the Flomaton area to build a home and shortly afterward built the first Café. Grace had experience running a Café as she had worked in Mobile at a Greek restaurant for several years.

In July 1946 Marvin and Grace opened Powell's Café. The Café sat close beside Highway 31. The major highway ran North/South from Mobile to Chicago. This lent itself to being a prime location for allowing business travelers, freight carriers, bus riders and people of all stripes to have access to a good meal. Truckers were a main source of success for the Café. Marvin and Grace were forward-thinking when they added Tourist Cabins that produced a good income.

The 1950's brought an oil boom to Escambia County. Many out-of-state workers came to work in the industry and needed a place to live while in the area. The cabins stayed occupied constantly. The 10 units were rented out daily, weekly or to anyone who needed a home away from home. The earliest cafe was named, "POWELL'S MOONLIGHT TOURIST CAMP."

The original café was replaced in the late '40's/early '50's with a bigger building that was situated farther back from Highway 31. The name was changed to Powell's Café, replete with a huge neon sign atop the building. The old gas pumps from in front of the original Café were removed. A few years later a separate service station was built next door to compliment the business. Powell's Café became well known in the Southeast for its fried catfish. Marvin and Grace believed Powell's Café was the first to serve fried catfish in a restaurant setting. Tony remembers Powell's Café had "All You Can Eat Catfish" for 95 cents. Marvin installed some tin signs in the shape of a fish to be placed all over the region advertising the catfish served at Powell's Café. Tony's brother still has one of the signs.

People made Powell's Café a destination stop to eat catfish. Marvin and Grace caught lightning in a bottle on that genius move. Powell's Café didn't serve liquor, but did serve beer. More than a few times Marvin and Grace had to remove someone who had imbibed too heavily. Marvin kept a slapjack under the counter as an encourager. Marvin made weekly trips to Stockton, Alabama to buy his catfish for the busy weekends. Marvin skinned and cleaned the fish out behind the Café. Marvin also made weekly trips to Baldwin County to buy potatoes for the café.

The Café was growing, the business was expanding, little Powell's were being born and growing to the age for helping in the work. Life got busy for all of them. Potatoes were peeled and sliced by hand. Tony remembers spending weekends sorting thousands of potatoes, of which he remembers leaving him smelling like potatoes. When he protested the job and the smell, his dad told him the after-scent was much like cologne. Tony never bought that.

The Powell family had five kids. All worked in the business except the baby boy Kenny, who was too young at the time. Saturdays were for potato peeling. Tony liked to watch baseball on TV. He watched Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner along with his favorite player, Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees. Tony tried to stay out of sight from Marvin so as to watch baseball games. Marvin would catch him loafing and put him to peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Tony shared,

"That is how it went." Everybody worked.

Mickey was head of the cleanup detail. He mopped and cleaned the café every morning before opening time. He was also responsible for keeping the cabins clean each day. Larry had the job of cutting the grass and keeping the yard clean around the business. According to Tony, his sister Dianne mostly spent her time looking cute for the customers. Marvin did put in a gift shop and named it "Dianne's Gift Shop." That action tells the readers that Dianne was her daddy's little darling. The only girl, cute as all get out and Marvin knew to put the pretty ones out front, not to use her, but to show the customers his pride and joy.

Even the pretty one worked.

The gift shop specialized in custom plaster of paris lamps with tropical scenes. Tony and Dianne wish they had one of those gifts. These days they both scour the internet looking for one made by the Powell's. In the '40's, the Café stayed open 24/7. A hand painted sign at the entrance stated, "The key to our place is lost."

In the '50's, the Café hours were changed to basically 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., and closed on Sunday. Marvin and Grace alternated working in the Café as much as possible but normally both were there at the same time. Marvin mostly stayed out front at the counter visiting and holding court with the customers while Grace made sure the cooks knew how to prepare the food correctly and followed up on serving and making sure the customers were happy.

Powell's Café was run by Marvin and Grace from July 1946 until 1962 when it was leased to another couple. They were tired and Marvin wanted to do other work. The Café, being located at the bend of a curve and at the top of a hill, lent the location for several vehicle accidents over the years including a couple of deaths. The worst accident at the Café for all the family was when Marvin was critically injured while working on a hot water heater that supplied the café. The unit developed too high a pressure reading. As he was trying to relieve the pressure from the tank, it exploded. Marvin was severely injured. After a year of recovery, he came back strong to continue working. Tony shared that it was a scary event for a little boy of seven years old.

The Powells employed many people over the years...from locals to strangers down on their luck who were traveling through and needed a place to actually live and work. Having been in operation for so long, many dignitaries and celebrities stopped for meals during their travels through Alabama. Politicians, actors, singers and one memorable well-known character, the "Goat Man" made Powell's Café a must stop. Everyone in this region of Alabama knew of him and most made him a "Must See" as he came through. The goats, the smell and the Goat Man left a lingering impression. This writer is one that saw him in the newspaper as he passed through somewhere here in Escambia County. My memory wants to tell me I saw him in the flesh, but it may have only been in the newspaper. To be sure that event and that man were news worthy.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were scheduled to eat at Powell's café after a performance in Mobile. Their manager had called Marvin to speak about having a dinner without anyone knowing. Word leaked out and Roy's entourage didn't want to fight the crowds that had gathered to see Roy and Dale. The manager did come in to express his apologies to the Powell's. This writer, on thinking about that cancellation understands the need to see some real Hollywood personalities that came through Flomaton, Alabama. My guess is, the "leak" was from inside Powell's Café. The most well-known cowboy and his lady Dale Evans couldn't be left alone to eat a plate of catfish.

Lloyd Price ("Stagger Lee", (You got) "Personality"), the great 50's/60's Rock and Roll singer, stopped with his band to eat, but back in those days the rule for public establishments had separate dining rooms. It was Whites only in the main dining area and Blacks in a separate area located in another part of the business. Marvin apologized to Lloyd as he told him the group would be served in a room off the kitchen. Marvin explained it wasn't anything personal, but, allowing them in the main dining area would ruin his business. Lloyd understood and gracefully declined.

In the '50's, "Professional Wrestling" was a major attraction. Just about every wrestler who was with the Gulf Coast Wrestling out of Mobile made Powell's Café a scheduled stop when they traveled east to upcoming matches in, Opp, Brewton and other venues. Mario Galento was a steady customer as were the Fargo Brothers, Ray Stevens, and the Fields Brothers. They made Powell's Café a scheduled stop to gather and eat after the matches. Those wrestlers pretended to try and kill each other in the ring, but gathered afterward to break hushpuppies and eat catfish together at Powell's Café. One well-remembered man called, "The Snake Man" stayed in the cabins. He had a hoard of snakes that he kept and that became a sight to see. Eventually he was told to leave as the smell became too overbearing for everyone.

Each spring Marvin made trips into Georgia for buying peaches and to South Florida to purchase watermelons to peddle next door to the Café. Tony shared that his dad would always bring back a 'gopher' for him. Once, Marvin bought a couple of monkeys, built them a cage and that was quite the attraction for customers. He bought a half-grown alligator to put into a concrete pond built off to the side of the Café for people to view. Marvin had a keen sense of marketing for drawing business.

That vision is one we older folks remember about those days when the Great American family road trips begged to be taken. The ones lucky enough to travel out of town sent postcards to the others back home showing their pride of seeing those exotic destinations;

i.e. SEE ROCK CITY, BOK TOWER, NIAGARA FALLS, PENSACOLA BEACH CASINO. WWII was done with, the economy was booming, Jim Walter and S. S. Steele Homes were being built to house the babies being born to returning war veterans. All those "Rosie the Riveter's" daughters were getting married and hiring on to Bell Telephone, Vanity Fair and Chemstrand.

Husbands got shiftwork jobs there also and at the paper mills in Cantonment and Brewton. Farms and kitchens were being emptied out for a guaranteed income. Weekly paychecks afforded them to take the kids to see the All-American pastime, monkeys in cages and alligators in swimming holes. One might as well go to Powell's Café to see the monkeys and let the kids eat burgers while Mom and Dad ate platters of catfish. America was on the move. Marvin and Grace worked to stay ahead of the curve. Business was good and growing.

Marvin saw the opportunity to turn a buck by building a large dance hall on the property. Bands came to play music as the crowds swayed and stomped the planks. Like all juke joints back then, the rowdiness was pervasive. Changing directions, Marvin and Grace converted the large juke joint into four large apartment units. Several families lived there over time.

Even though the Powell kids could eat all they wanted in the Café, Grace made a point to cook and feed the kids properly in their home each night. One busy night, Tony remembers wanting some fried chicken. While at the café, he put in an order with the cooks, Marvin found out his plan and scolded him thoroughly because the cooks were busy preparing meals for the customers. Customers' loyalty paid the bills, fried chicken was good, but customers were served first.

Customer service was important in those days to Marvin and Grace. Marvin ran a tight ship and nobody got slack cut. Tony shares that he didn't realize it then, but they enjoyed a luxury few others had at that time. Marvin had a huge air-conditioning unit installed that cooled the entire dining area in the new and larger café. There were always jukeboxes and pinball machines that ran constantly at all hours. The jukeboxes and records were supplied by "Doc" Sutton of Atmore. Marvin purchased the machines from him and "Doc" made weekly trips to replenish the records.

"This is obviously where I got my love of music and the dabbling in records collecting business," recalls Tony.

At one time there was a small sawmill located across the highway that was in operation for several years. Those in charge and the employees provided a steady income for the Café. The two managers spent more time in the Café playing the shuffleboard machine than at the sawmill working.

TO BE CONTINUED...

 
 

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