Camilla’s Always Home

I like to think I had a pretty normal childhood.  I grew up in a small town in Southwest Georgia during what I call, “the greatest time to be a kid”.  The town was Camilla and the time was the 80’s.  I’m sure people who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s think that about their childhood as well but they didn’t have Transformers, He-Man and VHS tapes!  Aside from some of the mainstream items that were popular in the 80’s there were some other local fun that Camilla provided to the kids.  I plan to cover a lot of the fun I had as a kid in that small town of 5,000 but I’m sure my readers have some of their own favorite memories that may not be the same in my memory bank.

Mitchell County Courthouse
I moved away from Camilla when I was 20 but I still go back quite often as my family, and my wife’s family, still call it home.  I technically still call it home too but I haven’t lived there in 20 years.  But that’s why they are called “hometowns” to begin with, right?  Because I go back to Camilla periodically, I have been able to see it change over the years, all in the name of progress.  And because I don’t live there anymore, I haven’t embraced the changes like a local resident might.  So with that in mind, this piece is not meant as a slight in any way to the local businesses in town in 2017.  I’ll cover plenty of closed establishments that are now new stores.  But this is coming from an entirely nostalgic perspective and is not meant as an indictment on the businesses that have taken their place.  This is less about economy and more about memories.
Original Wal-Mart Building Then & Now
We went to Camilla this past weekend for our niece’s 1st birthday and we had to stop at Wal-Mart to pick something up on the way in.  I think about it often but this time, I really stopped to think about the placement of the new Wal-Mart and the history of the area as it dates back to my childhood.  For those of you who haven’t been back to Camilla over the last several years, the old Wal-Mart closed and a new building went up right next door to it behind the old Phillips 66.  To enter the Wal-Mart parking lot coming from US 19 N, you have to turn in on the access road that runs between Mitchell County Ford and the “new” Phillips 66.  As I rode through that specific area, certain memories flooded back into my mind.  That’s what initially triggered this post but as we went through Camilla, my senses were heightened and I rattled off all the “old stores” that used to be around.
Winn-Dixie Then & Now
Back to the new Wal-Mart, that is always the first place my mind goes because it’s the first location I get to when I come into town.  The old Wal-Mart used to be the anchor tenant of the most frequented strip center in Mitchell County.  When I was a kid, the strip center was also home to Winn-Dixie, Subway, Video Superstore and a couple of local clothing stores.  Subway is all that remains from that time, although Ming Yong opened up when I was a teen and is still there.  The old Wal-Mart is now a Marvin’s Home Improvement Store AND a Hibbett’s Sporting Goods.  The Winn-Dixie is a dark, empty space.  The Video Superstore is long gone and is now the home of a beauty supply.  VS is probably the most missed for my nostalgia and got its own post HERE.
I Still Love ’89 Donruss
This original Wal-Mart location was the first place I ever picked up baseball cards.  I remember that card cube like it was yesterday.  It was loaded with ’89 Donruss, ’89 Score, card supplies and Beckett magazines.  It was the first place I went every time I entered the store.  I didn’t care what our reason for being there was; this was the only business I needed to conduct.  I don’t miss “Wal-Mart” because it’s right next door.  But I do miss the old building because it’s what I grew up with if that makes any sense.  I don’t really like the new Wal-Mart and it’s probably just for sentimental reasons.  Not only did it move out of the building I was always familiar with, it completed the destruction of another spot that I frequented often as a kid, even though the memories of this place weren’t always warm and fuzzy.  But even those memories are a big part of my youth and I always hate to see them wiped out.
Nothing Original Remains Of Phillips 66
The gas station that now sits in the location in front of Wal-Mart used to be a full service gas station, Phillips 66.  The gas station I am referring to is the small 2 bay garage type that sat in the middle of a large dirt parking lot.  In the back of the station, there was a place to park a couple of semi trucks and that’s where my dad kept his truck when it wasn’t at the house.  It was that dirt parking lot where I spent many Saturdays helping him change tires or change oil or replace carburetors.  To be honest, I didn’t know what we were doing half the time; I just knew that I was hot, bored and working on a non-school day.  Worse than that was the 4:00 mornings that dad would need to go tarp a load to protect it from rain, which couldn’t be done alone very easily.  I still remember walking on top of a load of lumber trying to stretch a tarp out in a light drizzle, still half asleep.  I’d get back home just in time to fall asleep and have to wake back up for school.

Hardee’s California Raisin Table Ad 1987
Before we leave this northern corridor of Camilla, we have to remember what a big deal having Hardee’s open up was.  In the southwest parking area of the Wal-Mart strip center, Hardee’s broke ground and introduced me to my all time favorite breakfast, the chicken biscuit.  I still eat chicken biscuits at Pearly’s every Saturday but remember those Hardee’s days fondly.  This was where I collected the full set of California Raisins that came with kids meals and the cinnamon raisin biscuit, which Granddaddy (Grover) would often eat.  It was also where I would take my lunch breaks when I worked at Video Superstore.  The food at Hardee’s sustained me for a good 10-12 years before it eventually changed over to a Popeye’s.  Now, it’s a brand new looking Taco Bell and I have yet to eat there.

Former Camilla Playschool
We have to go back a few years before the Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie to get to the next memorable location on my list.  This spot has been gone for quite some time but my first experience as a student was at the Camilla Playschool.  This was my first taste of “school” and “classrooms” and I met a few friends there that would stay with me all the way through High School graduation.   I don’t remember a ton from those days but I remember what the class rooms looked like, the playground and some of the faces from there.  I have taken a ride by there more than a few times just to remember the area.  I don’t really know what the building is now but it hasn’t been a playschool for probably 30 years.
The Old Firehouse – 2017
Back when I was going to the playschool on Stephens Street, my grandfather was the fire chief in Camilla.  The fire department was a small 2 story building that is still there and operates as a pediatrician’s office if I am correct.  This was an old school fire department where the firemen slept upstairs and could look over a railing and see all the fire equipment.  There was the famous fireman’s pole that helped them move quickly to the trucks when the bell rang.  One of the most vivid memories I have from that old fire department was the wooden ramp that was behind it that had fire hoses stretched out on it.  It was as good as any playground equipment I had access to and I would run up and down it much to my grandfather’s chagrin.  A newer public safety complex was built within eyesight of the old fire department when I was 11 or 12 and was much more safety oriented and thus not kid friendly.

Oh How I Loved Optimus Prime
Around the time I was running up and down on the hose ramp (I don’t know what it’s official name was), there was a store out in front of the P&C bank that had a lot neat toys for us kids to go look at.  As far as toys were concerned, there weren’t many places to shop before Wal Mart opened in ’85-’86 so this was a hot spot if you wanted to pick up the sweet item that was running on Saturday morning commercials.  The store served a much greater purpose I’m sure but there is one memory that I have about Western Auto that makes it worthy of remembrance still today.  The memory is one of Optimus Prime.  The #1 cartoon on Saturday morning for me and my friends was Transformers.  The series has come a long way from its roots in 1984.  But when this cartoon hit the morning rotation, it was can’t miss TV.  The hero of the show was Optimus Prime, Leader of the Autobots.  This Western Auto is where I scored my first Optimus toy and I will forever have a soft spot for that semi truck that turned into a walking robot.  I wish I still had it.  Not only for the memory but a quick scan of eBay shows that these original toys sell for around $1,500 today.  I always used to mess with my dad about his old baseball cards being thrown out but I guess I did the same thing with ole Optimus Prime.

This TV Weighed 1,000 Pounds
Another retail hot spot before the chains and supercenters arrived was the Curtis Mathes TV Store on Broad Street.  As a matter of fact, I think I found a photo of the exact TV we owned when I was a kid.  You know, back in the days when the kids were the remote control.  I remember seeing the end of Friday the 13th on this TV and being scared of The Incredible Hulk.  Aside from the TV though, the big draw for me at Curtis Mathes was the VHS rental room they had in the back of the store.  This was the first place I found VHS tapes and likely began my lifelong obsession of watching corny horror movies.  I can close my eyes and still see the way the videos were all lined up.  Even though I went on to work at the epic Video Superstore and Movie Gallery when I was older, I cut my movie teeth in that Curtis Mathes.
Parking Lot of BC Moore’s Looks Much Like It Did In 1988
You can’t talk retail and 80’s without a mention of B.C. Moore’s on Scott Street.  I probably got 95% of my wardrobe from B.C. Moore’s when I was 12.  They had t-shirts, shorts, church clothes, ties and belts.  But what I remember most about the store was the shoe section.  I got many a Chuck Taylor at that store growing up.  When I was a kid, they were neon yellow and orange and were actually original.  We never parked in the front, instead opting for rear parking where the concrete ramp where merchandise was wheeled into the store from trucks was located.  If the firehouse hose ramp was fun, imagine this concrete ramp for an adventurous young boy.  It’s so weird the things that stick out in your mind when you think about some old memories.
Old Piggly Wiggly – Now Farmers Home Furniture
Before Winn-Dixie came to town, the grocery store that got all of our business was the great Piggly Wiggly.  I remember loading up on 1989 Topps baseball cards at Piggly Wiggly because I could get Donruss and Score at Wal-Mart.  But interestingly enough, that’s not the most vivid memory I have of the store.  That memory belongs to the old President’s card game that was an occasional promotion there.  I can’t find any information on it now but back then, you received a card with all of the president’s names.  If memory serves, you were given a couple of tags or tickets when you bought groceries and you peeled them back much like the McDonald’s Monopoly game of today.  You had to match up all the tags with the names on the card and you would win some extravagant prize.  Not surprisingly, we never completed the cards but I can always remember a couple of presidents that were rumored to be very rare.  For some reason, I remember pulling a ton of McKinley’s and Taft’s.  I learned more about our presidents playing that game than I ever did in school.  In the not so fun memory department, I remember flipping a grocery buggy with my baby brother in it one time.  I got a good whipping for that one.
Middle School – Front, 7th Grade Homeroom, 5th Grade Hall and Gym
Speaking of what I learned (or didn’t learn)  in school, there has been a complete restructuring of the public schools in Camilla.  Now, the Elementary, Middle and High School are all at the same location.  When I was young, they were in three different areas of the city.  I’ve written before about the Elementary School HERE and the High School HERE but one I haven’t written about in great detail (yet) is the Middle School.  The Middle School I went to was on South Harney Street and used to be the High School if I am not mistaken.  This school holds a ton of memories for me.  I played marbles, started collecting baseball cards, went to my first school dance and learned how to play basketball at this school.  While a lot of memories are vague and spotty before Middle School, there are many that come in to focus during those years.
Methodist Church & Office During Rebuild
The Middle School was centrally located for the places I went after school.  My mom worked at the Camilla United Methodist Church, before and after the lightning strike and I would go to her office most of the time after school.  Even when the church was being rebuilt and the office moved to one of the historic houses on Broad, I would still walk up by the hospital (where my grandmother worked) and Dr. Shiver’s office (where my aunt worked) to use the emergency room alley as a shortcut to my destination.  Whether it was the actual church or the temporary office, I could get there pretty quickly after school and those were the days when it was much safer to allow your 10 year old to make that trip on foot.

There was another destination I would head to on some school afternoons that was within walking distance.  That destination was the old Ambulance Service on East Stephens Street where my aunt worked.  As far back as I remember, my aunt was the director of the EMS in Camilla (until a recent retirement) and I would go to her office sometimes with my cousin Adam.  We would play basketball or hassle the EMT’s inside about mundane kid problems.  There was also a small wooden house across the road that was a storefront aptly named Shiver’s Store.  They had candy, drinks and any other snack a 10 year old could desire.  The big memory I have of that store was the huge jar of sour pickles they kept on the counter.  I bought one every time I went in there and still think about it when I see pickles in a convenience store today.

Old Stop N Shop Is Now Flash Foods
The other two convenience stores I would frequent in those days were the Stop N Shop at the fork of Scott and Butler and the Suwannee Swifty on Highway 97 at the exit of my neighborhood.  I went into the Stop N Shop almost daily either with my dad or granddaddy and would later use the parking lot as a “cut through” for when I was going uptown.  The Suwannee Swifty was my before and after school stop where I would get a breakfast hot dog or an occasional pack of ’89 Donruss.  Next door to the Suwannee Swifty was Big Boy Meats and next door to that was Cagles, at full operation before the new plant on US 19 was built.  That area has changed so much.  The old Cagles looks like a kudzu factory now and the Big Boy Meats building was leveled.
Nuk Nuk’s Is Now Kebo’s
Later in my teen years, I would go to Danny Newton’s store late at night with my buddies on the way to Huddle House for a midnight egg sandwich.  Newton’s was the only place in town you could get a Mountain Dew and a Fur Coat Care Kit in the same visit.  I remember him telling us that he bought about 50 of the fur care kits for $10 at a flea market and was then trying to sell them for $5 apiece.  I didn’t even know anybody with a fur coat.  I am certain that fur coat owners didn’t frequent that store.  You could also stumble in every now and then on a horror or adult movie playing on his black and white TV.  It was probably the oddest store in town but we would somehow end up there several times a week.  Probably because it was open later than most but the stories we picked up were also a driving force.  That location is Kebo’s BBQ now and is still a mighty fine stop on a trip through C-Town.
Big B Shopping Center 2017
As the chain stores and strip centers started to pop up in town, one that was a frequent visit for me was the Big B Drug’s shopping center.  Big B had a good selection of baseball cards which, if you haven’t guessed by now, is one of the selling points for me in regards to the value of a store.  Big B was also a smaller, quicker alternative to having to go to Wal-Mart for essentials.  A couple doors down from Big B was “The House of Music” which provided one of the greatest technological advancements ever, the cassette single.  I was going through a rap phase when I first started driving and I could buy one song on a cassette there for around $2.50.  I didn’t invest in full albums back then as I only wanted what was hot at the time.

VHS Expert
At the end of the strip center was the Movie Gallery.  When my days ended at the Video Superstore, I moved over to the Movie Gallery to continue my development as a VHS expert.  Movie Gallery was a larger corporation and more structured than Video Superstore, which ultimately led to my dissatisfaction with the job.  But I was known in my circles as the video store guy for several years of my teen life.  I don’t know if that was really good or bad but I still wear it as a badge of honor and have a strong connection with Randall from Clerks every time I watch that classic.
Legion Entrance – Courtesy of Shaun Hall
While all of these places have special memories for me, there is one place that is as bold and vivid in my mind as any memory I have from my Camilla youth.  Unfortunately, it has deteriorated beyond belief and is no longer a place of joy and laughter.  The American Legion Pool was THE spot to be on a summer afternoon in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  The legion was a huge spring fed pool that had a high dive, springboard and the locally famous Super Slide.  The water was freezing cold and perfect for the 100 degree South Georgia heat.  The pool would open around 1:00 and close at 6:00 if memory serves and those 5 hours were never enough for one day.  The Legion is where I mastered the art of being shot down by pretty girls in bathing suits.  I was no Rico Suave like Jason Lee or BJ Harris.
Snack Bar and Volleyball Court – Courtesy of Shaun Hall
Aside from swimming, you could spend the day playing a couple of video games (1942 is one I remember), playing ping pong and of course, playing volleyball.  Volleyball was where you went to get noticed.  There and at the top platform of the Super Slide, where you would stand until the lifeguard blew the whistle to get you down.  The worst part about volleyball was that one of the out of bounds lines was the bathroom building and if you hit the ball on the roof, it was slanted away from the volleyball court.  You would have to exit the facility altogether and walk in the stickers to go get the ball.  The rule was that if you hit it over, you had to go get it, unless you were the young kid that could be forced to go get it.  The last time I went to the Legion was for my 10 year High School reunion and I believe I am one of the only ones that swam and tackled  the Super Slide.  I still have a hard time growing up and I’m 40.
Pool Images – Courtesy of Shaun Hall
Alas, like many of these other locations from my youth, the Legion is just a memory kept alive through pictures.  I don’t know why it fell apart like it did.  Maybe the spring stopped feeding the pool and the cost was too high to maintain otherwise.  Maybe interest waned but that is hard to believe.  Alicia and I both wish it was still open if for no other reason than to take our daughter to experience a fun place we experienced growing up.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I could drop her off and pick her up 5 hours later like our parents used to.  Things were different in 1988 in more ways than one but I sure do miss those days.

Times change and I understand that as much as anybody.  Stores come and go and economies evolve.  But that’s not what this was about for me.  I truly miss walking into the old Wal-Mart and knowing exactly where I needed to go.  I miss Friday Nights at the Video Superstore, where every 17 year old wanted to be.  I miss going to see my Papa at the fire department and then riding over to Curtis Mathes to have my mom rent Ghostbusters.  I miss hiding from my parents in the dressing room at B.C. Moore’s because I didn’t want dress pants to wear to church.  I still wonder about what my life would be like today if I had hit that big prize in the Piggly Wiggly President’s Game.

There are places I didn’t even touch on that are long gone in my hometown.  The old wood yard across from Centennial Stadium is now part of the rec department and is cleaned up for soccer fields.  The Huddle House closed, AC’s Steakhouse is history, Estelle’s is no more and my high school isn’t even Mitchell-Baker anymore as Baker went back to their county and we are left with just Mitchell County.  Many of my friends have moved away, neighbors have changed and I see more people I don’t know than familiar faces when I visit.  But some of the faces have remained the same and some of the stores are still open.  And every time I go “home”, I see something that reminds me of another time in my life and it takes me back to that familiar place where life was a little easier.  And regardless of the modifications to the landscape, that will never change.

Now, if Krispy Chik ever closes, we are going to have some serious problems at the Shiver house.

J-Dub

7 thoughts on “Camilla’s Always Home”

  1. Although I was 6 years later, a lot of these places are vivid childhood memories for me as well. The legion was the staple of my teenage summers and breakfast at Hardee’s with granddaddy will always be one of my cherished memories.

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