If you grew up in the ’60s or ’70s in the South, chances are you spent some time in a Stuckey’s along the route of your family’s vacation.
I am one of them. However, I had a distinct advantage over many vacationers, as I grew up 2 miles from one of the early iconic Stuckey’s in Cecil, Georgia.
Today, I had the opportunity to come full circle with my love for all things Stuckey’s. Today, I spoke with Mr. Bill Stuckey Jr. Yep, Mr. Stuckey himself. Well, not the original Mr. Stuckey, as he has long since passed, but his son, Bill Jr.
As a history buff, and someone who grew up with Stuckey’s, my conversation with Mr. Bill was indeed a highlight of my life. I found him to be a true southern gentleman in every sense of the word. He was witty and had a fantastic memory of growing up in the Stuckey family business.
But what I learned most from Mr. Bill is that his father, Mr. W. S. Stuckey, was a man ahead of his time.
Mr. Stuckey grew up in Eastman, Georgia “so darn poor” as Bill says, but wasn’t content to just “get by” during the Great Depression. W.S. wanted more for his young family.
“He really didn’t have any grand plan; he was really just trying to make a living,” said Bill.
During the depression, a young W.S and his family lived with his grandmother, as they owned a farm, and may have been considered by some, to be well off.
After a while of working on the farm, and “plowing with a mule,” W.S. soon grew tired of that and went into town to look for a job.
During the depression, not many jobs were to be had, but one business survived in Eastman, Georgia; Bennett Feed and Seed. It was here that W.S. got a real opportunity at making a better life for his family. No, Mr. Bennett didn’t give W.S. a job, but rather his first taste of entrepreneurship.
Back in those days most folks out in the country grew pecan trees. Pecan trees served two purposes; they provided shade for the homestead, and they gave the family an opportunity to make extra money for taxes by selling the nuts.
A Young Entrepreneur
Mr. Bennett suggested to young Stuckey that he would buy pecans from him if he would go out and buy them from the locals. Different varieties of pecans would bring different prices.
Not knowing one pecan from another, he set off to his grandmother for some advice. She helped him set up a system to identify and keep up with the different variety of pecans and how much profit he could make from each one.
“He didn’t have any money then, she (his grandmother) lent him $35 to get started’, says Bill.
So he and long-time friend, John King, took the rumble seat out of an old model A and crafted a place to hold their haul as they traveled through the countryside buying up pecans.
After a while, he started thinking he could cut out the middle man and do the job for himself, so he rented an old storefront right in the middle of Eastman. By this time, the bank was loaning him a little money along and along. He lined the walls of the building with bins to hold the different varieties of pecans.
Mr. Bill added, “then he got the big idea of going out on (highway) 341 and he built just a little lean-to stand, and he just hung bags of pecans up, they weren’t even shelled”.
But, not surprisingly to W.S. the tourists stopped and bought them. So, he just kept on selling them.
After a while, Ms. Ethel, W.S.’s wife, decided she would get in on the action and started baking pecan candies.
After much success at the little roadside stand the first Stuckey’s store was built, right there on 341 in Eastman, Georgia.
The Building Of An Empire
Working with Mr. M.M. Monroe, Sr., who lent him some money, he began opening more stores up and down the highway.
“All the first stores, the candy was made in the building,” says Bill.
After the war, as more families could afford to travel, Stuckey’s was a welcome respite along the journey.
Remember me saying that W.S. was a man ahead of his time? Well, his understanding of human nature begat him great success in marketing his business and increasing sales.
Generally, Stuckey locations were on the right side of the interstate going north as travelers were returning from their Florida vacations. This was not by chance. W.S. figured this would make for easy access to his stores as well as one last stop for souvenirs on the way home for returning vacationers.
Of course, advertising was a big part of W.S.’s business strategy.
“One of Daddy’s favorite sayings was, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise,” said Bill.
W.S. learned that the most visible color at that time from the highway was yellow, so all the billboards sported a bright yellow background. Today, many of those old billboards can still be found up and down Southern highways.
And W.S. was brilliant with his marketing strategies once they got IN the store as well.
Restrooms were located at the back of the store so that patrons would have to weave their way through shelves and shelves of candies and souvenirs.
Another strategy W.S. used was to place all the trinkets and toys on bottom shelves, because kids always got what they wanted on vacation right?
And as an interesting side note W.S., (as a southerner) was quite liberal for his generation, claiming himself to be an FDR Democrat. But during a time when segregation played a big part in the south, never would you have found separate bathrooms for blacks and whites in a Stuckey’s. It just wasn’t done in his stores.
All Good Things Must End
As the busy years passed, W.S.’s health was declining and he just couldn’t keep up the fast pace of a successful business owner.
“As my father got older his health wasn’t great and the handwriting was on the wall. He merged the company with, back then, Pet Milk.” Recalls Bill.
“And that worked great for a while.”
But the gentleman who managed the Stuckey’s franchise died unexpectedly. With very little leadership behind him, W.S. became unhappy with how things were being run and took his shares of stock out of the company.
Another company, Illinois Central Railroad, bought Pet Milk out and began selling off pieces of the company. They soon realized that the land that Stuckey’s sat on was more valuable to them than the stores were. So, they began to sell off Stuckey’s locations. By this time, Holiday Inn and other motels were coming along and it made more sense, from a business perspective, to sell the property. In addition, the billboards that had once advertised the tasty goodness of Stuckey’s could be put to better use.
“Basically, that was the demise of Stuckey’s,” said Bill.
There were some individual stores left, some that Illinois Central did not acquire, and they maintained a presence for a while. But, as Bill so accurately states, “people don’t live forever’, and most of those stores too, eventually closed.
Even though there are few standalone stores left, Stuckey’s still produces those famous pecan logs and other scrumptious pecan candies.
“We did keep manufacturing some candies, and today we will sell to individual outlets. The product still sells and you don’t really have to have it in a Stuckey’s store. However, the individual Stuckey Stores still do fantastic.”
Today, you can find all that yummy goodness in Pilot stores, truck stops and other travel plazas all over the south. Even though so many different brands have come along since the days of Stuckey’s, it’s just hard to beat the “World’s Finest Pecan Candies.”
As a child of the ’60s, growing up in the South, few things move me more than my memories of Stuckey’s. I don’t think it is so much the pecan goodness, or that amazing taffy, but rather what Stuckey’s represents.
Stuckey’s is reminiscent of a simpler, less complicated time. A time when families vacationed together year after year. When couples would stop at roadside parks for a picnic and kids rode in the back dash of an old 66 Plymouth just to watch the stars.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see my childhood playing out like a movie. And that movie always includes a shot of the iconic Stuckey’s, home of the World’s Finest Pecan Candies. Oh, and rubber plastic snakes, let’s not forget those.
Writers note: There were three significant people, involved in bringing this story to life, and I am so grateful to each of them. Many thanks to Jack Boucher of Stuckey’s Corporation, Tim Hollis, author of “Stuckey’s” and of course, Mr. Bill Stuckey, Jr.