I don't know if it was a blessing or a curse when, upon learning that a beloved establishment was about to close, a former Brewton resident planted this thought in my mind (playing on the title of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a song made famous by the rock group, The Band I began to write this story, The Night They Closed Ole Willies Down.
To give the reader some insight, Ole Willies has been a landmark in the sleepy little town of Brewton, Alabama for nigh onto thirty years. It is located a stones throw away from the railroad tracks in the very heart of Brewton. It is a restaurant, one of the finer ones in this sleepy little hamlet. Years ago the building was a drugstore - Masons Drugstore - which housed a pharmacy, top-notch soda fountain, as well as cosmetics, perfumes, and various other sundries. In those days a body could come in after a visit to the doctor, give his prescription to Mr. Reddit through either Mrs. Virginia Salter (her husband, David Salter, was the head coach at the East Brewton school of W. S. Neal H.S.), or Mrs. Louis Hammond, another East Brewton citizen and long time pharmacy clerk at Masons. While you were waiting for your prescription to be filled, you could saunter over to the soda fountain portion of the drugstore and have yourself a grilled cheeseburger with a good cup of Joe or a toasted BLT with a root-beer float, compliments of Mrs. Ruth Salter, another East Brewton woman and a long-term Mason's worker.
Masons Drug Store closed the doors to their familiar mint-green building in 1975. Ole Willies debuted shortly thereafter. The pharmaceutical-themed interior was replaced with rough-cut pine panels. Even the smell of the place changed. Instead of a permeating medical/grill-grease smell, a rugged smell, river cypress and cedar filled the air. It was the perfect atmosphere for this logging town-population 12,000. The soda fountain evolved into a bar, which served whiskey and other alcoholic drinks- no more cherry sodas. Willies menu included a variety of specialty sandwiches-my personal favorite being the Kentucky Special-an open-faced turkey/parmesan cheese/bacon sandwich. The menu also featured an array of steaks with all the trimmings, and fresh seafood from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, oysters on the half shell being one of the most requested items. Willies capable crew of oyster shuckers was colorful in their own right.. One of them was recently immortalized in a Lions Gate film, entitled A Love Song for Bobby Long thanks to another East Brewton man, Ronnie Capps-on whose novel, Off Magazine Street, the movie was based. Indeed, Bobby worked out his bar-tab by shucking oysters at Ole Willies.
As you sat in the pinewood booths waiting on your order to make its way to your table, you had time to peruse the many black and white photos, which adorned the walls. Pictures of the many floods, which had swallowed up downtown Brewton and Ole Willies, pictures of the movers and shakers in this small town, you also could gaze on the homes depicting styles of Southern architecture. It was akin to taking a step back in time. A simpler time, a time when Christ was still in Christmas and prayer was still in our public schools. However, alas I digress. I want to pontificate a moment, if I can, about the Oaks Hamburgers that Ole Willies served in its latter years.
The Oaks Café was a decades old little hole in-the-wall burger/beer joint that sat across from the A & P Grocery store in a shady grove of Oak trees, on Douglas Street in Brewton. The Oaks sold two items, hamburgers and beer. It was a tiny joint, no bigger than a decent size walk-in closet in a deluxe doublewide trailer. Ahh, those Oaks Burgers so mouth-watering delicious! The pickles, the aroma of the burgers-with melted cheese if you wanted it - the smell (I cannot mention the smell enough if you ever were fortunate enough to have experienced an Oaks Burger, then you know what I mean). To bite down on an Oaks Burger, was to taste heaven on your palate. Judges, lawyers, merchants, and doctors rubbed elbows and broke bread with mechanics, laborers, and loggers in the greasy smelling, beer quaffing, and dimly lighted café. A steady stream of cars were parking at the Oaks or picking up call-in orders that were handed to the customer through the screen door in the rear.
All the locals have their theories about just what went into the Oaks Burger. Some say it was a special secret ingredient; some say, you don't want to know. Small southern town cafés like in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes keep what goes into their specialty a close guarded secret. The most plausible story is that the Oaks cook used a blend of ground beef and sausage to give their burgers that spectacular taste. No matter how the burger became famous, it did end up on Ole Willies menu.
On a cold and wet winters night I took a ride. I wanted to ride by the place, which had held so many memories for me. As my windshield wipers slapped back and forth in front of my eyes erasing the mist on my windshield, my only thought was, if only I could have some windshield wipers in my which would wipe away the memories I had of Ole Willies. I wanted to wipe away the memories of cherry sodas, various sundries, bar flies, old friends and of course the smell and taste of that famous Oaks hamburger. As I passed the old restaurant and turned onto the main street heading home, a song came on the radio, this night it was the right song at the right time. The song was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. I sang along with that song but every time I heard the chorus, I injected my own words: The night they closed Ole Willies down and all the people were singing - but that night I was the only one singing.