Williams Grocery, once located at the northeast corner of Unaka and Oakland opposite Stratton School, served neighborhood customers for 28 years. Bob and Myrtle Williams started the business in 1938, taking over the former site of (Elbert) Lowe’s Grocery and running it for 13 years.
Williams Food Market
When Bob passed away in March 1951, son and daughter-in-law, Lee and Dorothy Williams, assumed ownership and ran it another 15 years. Rosalie Odom, Lee’s sister, recently provided me with some old photographs of the store and arranged for me to talk to her brother about the business. Lee is particularly proud of the store’s reputation for high quality meats.
“We bought meat that had been grain fed for 6-8 weeks before slaughter,” said Lee. “We then trimmed the fat from it and aged it for another two weeks before selling it. We bought U.S. prime and choice beef from such suppliers as Rath, Hormel, Kingan and Swift. Lee recalled working at his father’s store each weekday after Junior High School and on Saturdays; stores were closed on Sundays then. He said that during the war years his father had difficulty getting enough workers because so many men were in military service.
The future storeowner initially delivered groceries on his bicycle that was fitted with two large baskets. He traveled up to about eight blocks from the store serving customers mainly on Fairview, Myrtle, Watauga, Unaka, Holston, the Gump Addition and adjoining streets. “I later began driving my Dad’s Studebaker to make deliveries,” said Lee. “At first, I drove it without a license. The store clerks filled the car full of groceries before I arrived there from school. My first job was to distribute them. “It was not uncommon for someone to order a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk or two RC Colas and two Moon Pies. We filled almost all requests. Those were simple and different days.”
Lee Standing by His Studebaker in Front of His Business
Gary Thomas worked at the store from 1959-1960 while attending Junior High School. “I had the privilege of doing a lot of different jobs,” said Gary, “such as sweeping floors, stocking, cashiering and cleaning up in the meat department. I have many good memories of my days there.”
Randy Taylor worked at Williams Grocery about 1964 and recalled something unique about the operation: “They extended credit, which to my knowledge was not offered by any other major grocery store. This dovetailed nicely with home delivery service. “The employees at that time were Mildred Berry and Wanda Cade, cashiers; Ralph Evans, butcher; George Minnis, produce manager; and Earl Smith, delivery truck driver. My mother, Mildred Taylor, and one of my aunts, Sue Goff, worked with Aunt Dorothy in the bakery from time to time. You would have to go a long way to find a better group of people to know and work with than those individuals.”
I quizzed Lee as to why they closed in 1966. He responded that large chain stores, such as the A&P at Chilhowie and Roan, were rapidly coming on the scene and offering cheaper prices to customers than smaller grocers could charge. They simply could not compete. Another factor that led to the store’s demise was that too many people were buying on credit and not paying their bills promptly.
Randy recalled something Lee once told him: “Son, one of these days you will look back at this time of your life and say ‘boy I had it made.’” I think many of us can reflect back to our special yesteryears and express that same cherished sentiment.