July 25, 2009 8:57:00 PM
Anyone who lived in Columbus between 1922 and 1992 probably has some story or memory of Bob''s Place, quintessential drive-in of Columbus and thought to be Mississippi''s first drive-in.
Bob Thweatt opened the first place in Catfish Alley, later moving across the Tombigbee to the Y-shaped intersection off old Highway 82 and the old Macon Road. In time it was moved close to the old river bridge.
That structure burned in 1936 and was rebuilt about 50 yards away. It remained in the hands of the Thweatt family, passing finally to Barbara Thweatt Williams, who sold it to Syd Thweatt and Richard Ferguson. It was torn down in 1992. That last structure became the one visited by countless teenagers (and others), almost like an ongoing rite of passage to growing up.
"Uncle Bunky" Williams, Bob and Eva Thweatt''s grandson and Barbara Williams'' son -- a celebrity in his own right, former TV host of a popular local children''s show, cartoonist and law-enforcement officer -- kindly agreed to meet with Fayette Burns, C. A. Dodson (once a car-hop at Bob''s) and me to talk about some of those good old days. Bunky, who appropriately got his nickname from a well-known cartoon character when he was a baby, is the only person I have ever heard claim "hated the place." He quickly explained to the rest of us, who were shocked he would say that about such a shrine, why.
"I never got any home-cooked meals," he said. "I ate breakfast, dinner and supper at Bob''s. Even our family Christmas dinners were there, where there was plenty of room for everybody. There were nice, spacious living quarters below, very comfortable, but at night the noise above could get pretty bad."
Coming of age
For decades stopping by Bob''s was just about de rigueur as soon as teens got wheels, usually somebody''s daddy''s car in my day. It was part of every movie date, football game, high school homecoming holiday, or just car cruising.
Fayette remembered it best as being a very friendly place, where you knew just about everybody and felt very comfortable.
"I fell in love several times out there," he recalled.
After high school many of the boys dated W girls, when dormitory students were not supposed to go across the river. The girls also had an early curfew, so after taking their dates back to the campus, fellas would congregate at Bob''s. Occasionally a fight would break out, Fayette admitted reluctantly.
No mention of Bob''s would be complete without remembering Mrs. Eva Thweatt, Mr. Bob''s wife and supreme ruler at Bob''s. She took no flack from anyone and had the gun to ensure that. She must have felt it was necessary, because folks that age can get pretty obstreperous sometimes.
One time a prankster threw a homemade bomb in the building''s restroom commode. The fixture exploded in all directions, and Miss Eva came running with her gun. The perpetrator got away, but he came back the next day with money to buy a new fixture -- said he''d install it himself if she''d just let him come back.
One time a former employee was caught stealing money from his new boss. Miss Eva hit the ceiling, wondering if he''d gotten anything from her and how much.
In spite of the occasional "incident," Bob''s was a good place to be.
C. A. recalled the jukebox outside where you could play all the current hits; sometimes you could hear the music across the river. Bunky added that they would roll the jukebox outside and leave it all night. They did not have robbers or vandals.
"You couldn''t do that today," he observed.
During World War II Coca-Colas were rationed. Bob''s received a midweek delivery, but Miss Eva would not allow them to be sold until the weekend. Then, Columbians would flock to Bob''s for their Cokes.
Bob''s food was always good, especially the barbecue, which had a special sauce no one has been able to duplicate, though many have tried. Miss Eva had a secret recipe which she would not share. Someone once unsuccessfully tried to have it analyzed at Mississippi State University. The recipe does still exist, but that''s all I''ll say about that.
James Brown was one of the very good cooks the men recalled. He had lost one arm in an accident, but "there was nothing he couldn''t do." Jimmy Barry was another; he "could go to sleep standing up and cooking hamburgers."
C.A. remembers car-hopping at Bob''s after school and in the summers, when he was young. He would work from 11 a.m. to midnight -- 13 hours -- for $11 a week.
One of his favorite customers was Mr. Lusk, who would buy a beer for 20 cents and tip him 30 cents. In 1942 the young car hops "went on a strike" for a raise. They never got it.
Fayette said Mr. Bob had built a rotisserie for the first building across the river. Many people had never seen one and would come out to watch it cook. He also remembers a service station nearby with a sign advertising "free air." Just a little pre-school boy, he couldn''t understand why they were offering "free air" when they were freely breathing it all the time.
His wife, Theo, had told him about sitting in the family car with her mother while her father went in Bob''s. The lights attracted bugs, and while they were there, they watched the many frogs that came to feast on them. Food for everybody.
All of us recalled summers when the Mayflies swarmed around the neon lights in thick clouds. These ephemera lived only 24 hours in the fly state, but they were a big, if brief, nuisance. Occasionally, they might even cut short our stay out at Bob''s.
Those good ole days
Bunky grew up across the river. He remembers seeing people living under the bridge and the gypsies who camped nearby, behind the Southernaire Club. He was scared of the gypsies, and he hated the possums he often saw, but he loved the floods that so often plagued so many other people. When the river flooded, he could not get to school. Instead, he could scamper all over the place and splash in the flood water, things boys like to do. He could enjoy being young.
And that''s what many of us did on all those days and evenings sitting in cars outside Bob''s, sipping Cokes, the boys eating hamburgers, all served from a metal tray that clamped onto the driver''s window.
We, too, could enjoy being young.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.
Syd Thweatt Jr commented at 7/27/2009 9:40:00 PM:
Enjoyed your article on Bob's Place. My cousin "Bunky" is a bit older than I and his memories reflect his age. I graduated in 1964 from Stephen D Lee HS and for most of us (family for me)a lot of time was spent there (Bob's). Your article stated the food was good. It was terrific. The french fries, the hamburger steaks with onions and gravy, and the bar b que with the homemade sauce (vinegar based) was the best.
My grandmother was a character to say the least; however, Aunt Barb spent almost her life there. You see she was my real Aunt and it seems everyone picked up on that.
Thanks for remembering.