Like most Eastern Shore kids of my era, I got my first job at age 14.
When I was 15 years old I worked at a Stuckey’s store, the only one ever located in Maryland.
I loved our Stuckey’s.
“Thank God the North won the war,” Williamson Sylvester Stuckey Sr. is supposed to have said. “It would have been awful if there hadn’t been any Yankees to sell to.”
Born in March, 1909, W.S. Stuckey Sr., started his business during the Great Depression buying and selling pecans in the region around his hometown of Eastman, Georgia, 145 southeast of Atlanta. At the height of his success, Stuckey told a reporter that in the beginning he went from orchard to orchard buying nuts during the day, sold them that night, and arrived at the bank each morning with money to cover the checks he’d written the day before. That first year, Stuckey sold about $4,500 worth of pecans
By 1936, he’d opened a roadside lean-to to sell pecans to the tourists traveling to Florida along U.S. Route 23, which ran from Jacksonville to Mackinaw City, Michigan.
He sold $150,000 worth of nuts that year.
With a taste of sweet success, Stuckey had the idea to expand upon the products he sold to tourists, so he drafted his wife Ethel, who had no experience, as his candy maker. Working with her cook, Ethel perfected her homemade candies, including the pecan divinity, a confection based on a Southland standard, and the pecan log roll, a “fluffy, cherry-laced nougat wrapped in fresh caramel and pecans.”
Stuckey opened his first real store in 1938. Like his former roadside lean-to, the new business focused at first on selling nuts and candies, but in time a restaurant was added, then a souvenir section, and then gas pumps. The final improvement, which would become one of the company’s trademarks, was a teal blue roof.
Before World War II, there were three Stuckey’s locations, all in Georgia, all accessible to Florida-bound travelers.
In the new book Stuckey’s, published by Arcadia Publishing, author Tim Hollis writes, “When the nation’s interstate highway system was in its infancy…Stuckey’s was a pioneer of building on the interstates, and until bigger fish such as McDonalds, Exxon, and Holiday Inn took the bait, often Stuckey’s was the only choice.”
As post World War II America flourished and families undertook more long-distance road trips, many lured to Florida’s growing tourist attractions, Stuckey’s grew even bigger by adding more franchises and building its own candy factory to supply their stores with their popular confections.
In 1950, in an arrangement that came to provide Stuckey’s with their biggest profits, the company made a deal with Texaco to be their only gasoline supplier. Three years later, there were 29 stores earning $4 million annually. By 1961, the chain included 100 locations across 22 states, selling 54 types of candies and nuts. Though W.S. Stuckey, Sr. had stopped brokering nuts in 1943. He was now purchasing 500 million pecans annually just to keep his stores supplied.
All this success despite the naysayers.
A Texas housewife is said to have once told Stuckey, “You must be crazy building a candy store in a cotton patch 10 miles from a dried-up town.”
Though some of his business strategies might have seemed odd in his day, looking back they make perfect sense.
According to a 1961 Associated Press story, Stuckey credited much of his company’s prosperity to “A combination of massive use of the firm’s yellow and red billboards and a knack for picking locations that pay off.”
Those billboards would begin appearing miles before a store’s actual location. By counting off the distance, anticipation was so ratcheted up that by the time the last sign announced that a Stuckey’s was only 200 yards away, bypassing was not an option.
It’s never really been confirmed, but part of the Stuckey’s legend contends that the founder would have his chauffer depart from some major starting point like Nashville, Tennessee or Montgomery, Alabama, and drive until the boss had to go to the bathroom.
And that’s where the next Stuckey’s would be built.
Preferably, on the northbound right-hand side of the highway. Stuckey knew tourists bought their souvenirs on their way home from Florida, not on their way down.
And according to Tim Hollis’ book, “Once inside a store, tourists were confronted by amazing arrangement of aisles and counters burdened with every type of souvenir, gift, candy, or other tempting treat. Quite deliberately, the restrooms were placed in the most remote back corner, ensuring that customers had to pass through all the displays in order to reach the most necessary convenience for anyone on a long road trip.”
Remarkably, from the very beginning, Stuckey’s bathrooms were not segregated as most Southern facilities were, and with their slogan “Eat and Get Gas” it was obvious Stuckey’s had a sense of humor about itself.
By now, W.S. Stuckey, Sr. had become a millionaire, and many of his employees had also prospered though investing in the business.
One notable misstep – In 1960, W. S. Stuckey attempted to create a hotel chain called Stuckey’s Carriage Inn, but the venture opened only four locations and closed soon thereafter.
In 1964, Pet, Inc, the American food company that first commercially produced canned evaporated milk purchased the rights to Stuckey’s trademarks and marketing techniques, along with 150 shops in 28 states and the candy factory in Eastman, for between $12 and $15 million. W.S. Stuckey, Sr. was still the boss, but he really was no longer in charge.
At its peak, there were 350 Stuckey’s across America. By the late 1970’s as the country’s demographics and vacation rituals changed, there were fewer than 75, including their only Maryland location.
W.S. Stuckey died in January, 1977.
In 1985, his company was repurchased by his son, a five term congressman from Georgia, Bill Stuckey.
Now, according to the company’s website, “with a Stuckey back at the helm and over 200 franchised locations…spanning 19 states from Pennsylvania to Florida in the east and to Arizona in the west, we’re going to be bigger and better than ever.”
Even though our Stuckey’s closed in 1990.
Unless otherwise noted all photos courtesy of: https://www.facebook.com/StuckeysCorporation/ or
Books by Brent Lewis are available on Amazon.com
Remembering Kent Island: Stories from the Chesapeake and A History of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department published by Arcadia Publishing & The History Press: