Where did that running pig go? Everyone in Sylacauga loved the sign that said Old Hickory and the little pig that was always running. He had a lasting impact on this city in the days that Sylacauga was on the Florida Short Route. The old Birmingham Highway ran into Fort Williams Avenue at the viaduct across from the present McDonald’s. Interstates were not yet, and there was a steady stream of traffic turning left at the Forks Restaurant on S. Broadway, going through Goodwater and Alexander City and on to Auburn. A straight shot down South Broadway connected to Highway 231 through Rockford, Wetumpka, Montgomery and on to the beach. An alternate route was Highway 9, crooked and curvy though it was, it bypassed a lot of Montgomery traffic. Anyone who traveled regularly to the beach or to Auburn for a game made it a point to stop at the Old Hickory. If folk you met while traveling knew you were from Sylacauga, they asked about the place with the good barbecue and the running pig sign.
It was in 1949 that the Old Hickory Restaurant opened. According to information in Food and Folklore of the Coosa Valley, published by the Comer Museum and Arts Center, a restaurant called Home Plate Café was in that location in the 1930’s before Mr. Leon Bice bought the building and turned it into the Old Hickory. Earl Lewis remembers his mom picking up food from the Home Plate Café curb service when he was very small. Old Hickory offered curb service too, and at its max could seat probably about 100 people in two dining rooms.
Charles Wilmer Buckner, known by everyone as Buck was the barbecue man at the Old Hickory. He worked there for 34 years, and just the smell of that good barbecue drew the customers into the restaurant. That wonderful aroma stayed in your clothes; and if you ate dinner there, you could not deny it.
I was only seven years old when I met Mr. Leon and Ms. Esther Bice who were unforgettable people. My mother worked at the Jitney Jungle on the corner of Ft. Williams and Industrial Avenue, and my Dad worked at Jones Bakery. They often met at Old Hickory for a cup of coffee during Mother’s work break in the afternoon. I could sometimes tag along, and Mr. Bice became my friend. When Main Avenue School began raising money with a Halloween Queen jar to collect money for the candidate who was up for that honor, Mr. Bice really pushed for me to win for my class, and he collected quite a bit of money for me just leaving that jar by the cash register. I was once a queen, bought and paid for with change left over from Old Hickory coffee breakers.
Many of the people I talked with in anticipation of writing this article have childhood memories of eating at the Old Hickory with their families and of particular dishes they enjoyed: coconut cream and lemon pie, hamburgers, steaks, and of course, the signature barbecue. Many times, kindness and attention from the Bices and even the servers was remembered. I remember a wonderful server, old to me in those days of my childhood. She was as neat as a pin in her white uniform with a pleasant smile, and always in the same good mood. According to my description to him, Bobby Holmes, friend of the Bices, believes that the person I am thinking about was Thelma Reynolds from Hanover.
Bobby Holmes told me a great story about Mr. Bice helping him when as a young man he first opened a wholesale produce business here. Bobby asked Mr. Bice if he would consider buying his produce from him, assuring the restaurant owner that he could keep him regularly supplied with the freshest fruits and vegetables. Mr. Bice said he would do that and took me into the kitchen and showed me what he used. “Who will give me the order, and who will check me in?” were Bobby’s next questions.
“Nobody,” Mr. Bice replied. “If I have to check behind you, I don’t need you,” Mr. Bice said. Bobby related that he would come in every morning before daylight, get a cup of coffee, and check to see what he needed to bring in for the day. He would be back a couple of hours later with the order, and take the ticket to the register and get his money. “It worked well for him because storage space was short, and he provided me with lots of business: lettuce, potatoes, lemons, etc.” A friendship developed that was to endure throughout the years. “I never took his trust lightly,” Bobby said. “ I always tried to do my best to keep him supplied with the best produce possible.”
He remembers a story that Mr. Bice told him about the great food the Old Hickory served. “I operated a couple of bus station cafes before opening here,” he said. “When a man’s been riding on a bus all day or half the night, he’s hungry and most any food is good to him. Here, in a café like this, the food needs to be great and the service special. That’s what makes a place unique and keeps customers coming back.” That was the kind of man that Mr. Bice was, and that’s what Old Hickory was: a little, running pig that directed folks to good food, good service, and great people, year after year; and It was not so long ago at that.