60 years ago, hamburgers were 15¢. Now owner of beloved Mississippi dairy bar says its time to close.
Published 6:06 am Sunday, July 31, 2022
In 1962, E.D. and Georgia Mae Smith opened Smith’s Dairy Bar in Shannon.
After school, Robert Smith – then a junior at Siggers High, which is now Shannon Elementary – and his siblings would go straight to the restaurant to help their folks serve customers.
“We looked forward to coming to work,” said Smith, now 77.
After high school, Smith went on to what is now Alcorn State University, where he got a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts. From there, he headed into the U.S. Army.
“I was stationed in Germany when my daddy died, and I got a hardship discharge,” he said. “My sister was a nurse in Memphis, and my brother was in college, so that left me to come home and help Mama with the restaurant.”
Smith and his wife, Flora, pretty much started running the restaurant in June 1970. On Saturday, July 23, 2022, Smith closed those doors for the final time.
“I’ve been running Smith’s Dairy Bar for 52 years and one month – don’t leave my one month out,” Smith said.
When his parents first opened the dairy bar, a hamburger was 15 cents and an ice cream cone was a dime.
“My dad has his fish sandwich at 25 cents, and then he raised the price to 35 cents,” Smith said. “A man got so mad he threw his sandwich upside the wall and said he wasn’t paying 35 cents for a fish sandwich.”
Smith’s Dairy Bar started in one location in Shannon, and after five years, his parents moved it next door, where it stands today.
“When Mama and Daddy moved to the second location, he put in three pool tables and some video games,” Smith said. “The rule was, kids couldn’t come in to play pool or video games during school hours. They couldn’t even come in to use the bathroom. Daddy said he didn’t get an education, and he wasn’t going to be the reason some child didn’t get one.”
The restaurant started out offering burgers, barbecue, fish sandwiches, bologna sandwiches and hotdogs. In the 1980s, they put in a hot bar, where customers could get a meat and two vegetables.
“We’d serve 250 plate lunches in an hour and a half,” Smith said. “And if we had anything leftover – and we always cooked to have leftovers – we didn’t put it in the freezer. We took plates to senior citizens in the community.”
In the late 1990s, the Smiths closed the hot bar, and went back to offering burgers, sandwiches and fish plates.
Smith’s son, Curtis, who is visiting this week from Atlanta, said the dairy bar wasn’t just a restaurant – it was part of the community.
“You can’t talk to anybody who doesn’t have a story about it,” he said. “It was a community gathering place. Parents would bring their kids to hang out.”
Smith and his wife, who died in October 2021, often acted as surrogate parents to the kids in Shannon and the surrounding area.
“Flora and I had a policy,” Smith said “If she saw a girl showing out, she’d take her off to the side and have a talk with her. And if I saw the boys starting something, I’d take care of it.”
Smith said there was one young man, a pre-teen named Danny Long, who started acting out and cursing one day.
“I tore his tail up,” Smith recalled. “He wasn’t used to nobody chastising him. He still will tell that story in a heartbeat. You see, the children who were our customers, we treated like our own children.”
Ballgame nights were always popular at Smith’s Dairy Bar.
“Can you imagine, when Nettleton had a basketball game, when Shannon had a basketball game, when Okolona had a basketball game, when Pontotoc had a basketball game – we had them all,” Smith said. “You couldn’t get in the parking lot. Somebody had to leave before somebody else could pull in.”
Smith said his wife, Flora, was the life of the dairy bar.
“She was the most dedicated person I’d ever seen in my life,” he said. “She was the type of person who never took credit for herself, but always made me shine.”
Curtis Smith said his mother had an extraordinary memory.
“She remembered customers’ names, their kids’ names and birthdays, and big events that happened in their lives,” he said.
Now that Smith has closed the restaurant – he and Flora tried to retire seven years ago, but they couldn’t find anybody who wanted to buy the business – he won’t be sitting home idle.
He’s been driving a bus for Lee County Multipurpose for the Elderly for the past 18 or 19 years, and he regularly cuts the grounds at two cemeteries in Shannon.
In fact, he’s never been able to sit still. He was the first Black alderman in Shannon, serving at least four terms, he drove a school bus for several years, he taught karate for a while and then golf.
“The whole reason I taught karate and golf was to be able to talk to kids,” he said. “When I was a kid coming up, that’s how old men did me. That’s what I do. I don’t keep it in my head. I pass it on. Kids today, they’re not bad. They just don’t have anybody interested in them.”