Bill Hall bought the Ranch House Restaurant and El Rancho Motel (shown here in this undated photograph) sometime in the late 1940s after serving in the Army during World War II. With the help of his sister, Margie Hall, and wife, Pauline, Hall ran the businesses until his death in 1991. The motel is now rented for long-term stays. Jim and Bethany Plowman own the restaurant. Photo by: Courtesy photo
November 4, 2017 11:47:39 PM
Margie Hall is talking about the Ranch House, the restaurant that has been part of her life since she moved to Columbus from Gordo in the early 50s to carhop for her brother, Bill Hall, who owned the place.
Like the countless slices of apple pie she served diners over the years, the memories are sweet and rich.
"I remember being there at 2 o'clock in the morning cooking for the Alabama football team," Margie said. She is 82, in failing health; her voice is barely audible.
"In those days, we sawed our steaks with a handsaw."
Bill had been discharged from the Army in 1945 after serving as a cook during World War II. A few years later, he bought the El Rancho motel and Ranch House restaurant. While working for her big brother -- Bill was 16 years older -- Margie attended and graduated from Lee High, Class of 1955. Almost 40 years later, she would marry a Lee classmate, another Hall, Fred.
Margie has a black and white photograph of her late brother sitting on a stool in the Ranch House restaurant dressed like a cowboy. Bill faces the camera in full cowboy regalia: hat, boots, western shirt, even a bushy beard. Were it not for his clean clothes, you might think he had a horse tied up out front, a trail-worn bounty hunter who had stopped for steak and eggs.
It is often said pictures can be deceiving. That is emphatically not the case here. Bill Hall, or "Wild Man" Bill Hall, as he came to be known, earned a reputation as a man quick to shoot first and ask questions later.
The "Wild Man" moniker may have come from one William Lee Edwards, who in 1987 court documents, alleged Hall "impregnated" him with shattered glass when Hall shot into the Mercury Marquis Edwards was trying to crank during a foiled robbery at the El Rancho Motel in 1984. In those same documents, Edwards claims he had nothing to do with the robbery, that he had been drinking alcohol and was sleeping in the back seat of the car when all hell broke loose.
Edwards wrote he had been afraid to jump out of the car and run, "as he feared being 'shot' in the back by 'Wild Man' William E. 'Bill' Hall, who was shooting at everything and body that moved ..."
In the 1950s, Bill expanded the motel, rebuilt the restaurant after it was destroyed by fire, opened a package store and created a trailer park behind the motel. Margie continued to work at the restaurant and motel with Bill and his wife, Pauline, while attending M.S.C.W. The businesses flourished.
Another thing about Bill: He didn't trust banks. During the Great Depression, he'd seen his father lose $2,000 -- a staggering sum in those days -- in a bank failure. He kept cash in a safe in the motel, and when he ran out of space there, he started burying it.
The first wad of money -- a six-figure number, Fred Hall estimates -- Bill wrapped in plastic, covered in tar and buried on property he owned outside Gordo. He would bury at least two more bundles around the motel.
Years later, when he dug up the Gordo cache, he found a handful of green and white confetti. Subterranean varmints had helped themselves to Hall's treasure. Years later, his brother-in-law, Fred Hall, with the help of banker Bill Brigham, bundled up the Wild Man's shredded currency and mailed it to the Department of the Treasury. Months later, Hall received by mail a check for $12,000.
Another stash was pilfered and another chopped up by the backhoe the Wild Man was using to excavate his treasure.
After Bill died in 1991, the businesses were left to Margie -- Bill was divorced. First thing she did was close the liquor store.
"I'd had a knife pulled on me about two weeks before Bill died," Margie said. "I couldn't make myself stay there."
Margie married Fred the year after Bill died, and the next year they opened Hall's Western Wear in the Ranch House building. In the early 2000s, Margie and Fred leased the building to a succession of restaurant tenants, none of whom have made a go of it.
Earlier this year, newlyweds Jim and Bethany Plowman bought the Ranch House. The two met while working together at a local car dealership.
Bethany knew Margie when they both attended Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. "I love it," Bethany says about their new undertaking. Jim has run restaurants. This is Bethany's first go in the business. "I've never even been a waitress," she said.
Midday Friday the Ranch House Diner was buzzing with the sound of happy diners. A large, friendly waitstaff darted to and fro tending to the needs of what looked to be a packed house. As for decor, the place hasn't changed much over the years: linoleum-topped tables, vinyl-covered booths, glass windows along the front offering a view of the passing highway.
As is the case with most family-run restaurants, there is a photo gallery, a small grouping of pictures and mementos celebrating the restaurant's long, colorful history.
There's the photograph of the Wild Man in his cowboy get-up, a menu from the early days when you could get breakfast for less than a dollar, and there framed, hanging over a vinyl booth, is an item sure to confound diners. Framed and mounted on a felt background is a well-worn handsaw, its wooden handle burnished from years of use.
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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