Good-bye, Marshall

The recent passing of Marshall Smith, Jr. truly marked the end of a Hub City era.   Marshall, like his father before him, was one of the unofficial Mayors of downtown Hattiesburg and, together, they owned and operated the Owl Drug Store downtown for many years prior to its move to the Hattiesburg Clinic in 1985, where it remains today.marshall01

The Owl opened at the prominent corner of Main and Front streets in 1907, in the space now occupied by McKenzie’s on Main, and Marshall, Sr. purchased it in 1927. Marshall, Jr. purchased it in 1952 when he finished pharmacy school and returned to Hattiesburg.

But, no matter who owned it, or when, the Owl was always a downtown landmark, meeting place and information hub, which was integral to the lives of most downtowners.  For instance, Charner McLelland conducted some of his popular television business from next door at the Owl, where he was often paged in person by “Mrs. Mac,” while assorted Tatums drifted up Main Street from the gas company on a daily basis.  Quarters were flipped on the counter to see who paid for the coffee, and some people actually thought you could pay your gas bill at the Owl.

And of course, the local Bench and Bar were always in evidence.  It was said that one colorful local attorney tried his cases at Lea’s Café, and appealed them to the Owl Drug Store.  Or, more precisely, to the Blue Room of the Owl Drug Store, a special division of the operation.

 

   The Blue Room

 

Factitiously named after its somewhat better known namesake at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, Hattiesburg’s Blue Room was a venue of great renown in its own right.  After all, it was the all-male private dining room of the Owl’s excellent and well patronized lunch counter out front.

It was somewhat by invitation only, although no one was really sure how the invitations were extended or accepted, or rescinded. It seemed to be sort of by osmosis.  You just sort of knew when it was your time to be welcome in the back room (or that that time had passed).

The room was about ten by twelve feet, with a single oilcloth covered table in the middle, surrounded by an assortment of six or eight wooden chairs from various times and places, some painted, some not.  A large picture window looked out onto Main Street for the diner’s enjoyment and edification.

And this sumptuous ensemble shared the space with the firm’s huge and ancient steel safe in the corner.  It was so massive and heavy that I had always assumed the building had been built around it, since I saw no way to have brought it in.  Occasionally, Marshall opened the ponderous doors of the great safe for some   extraordinary transaction, and the floor actually moved slightly. You wondered what business required this special procedure.
The diners were surrounded by shelves holding all the drugs, potions, elixirs, chemicals, photography supplies, walking canes and braces, and other supplies kept in the back of a multi-generational downtown drug store.  It was a fascinating environment with an atmosphere entirely its own.

Marshall or the other pharmacist, Hinds Blackwell, would occasionally ask a diner to hand him some strange old brown or green bottle located behind his head, with which to fill a prescription.  Sort of made you feel part of the enterprise.

But, in addition to its more obvious functions, the Blue Room was also the true Athenaeum of downtown, a marketplace of ideas, where the great issues of the day were fully and critically examined and debated.  The patrons were never shy, and opinions were never in short supply.  And if no answer was apparent to the question at hand, one would eventually arise from the heat of the arena.  No issue was left unattended.

 

   The Food

 

For the very regular customers, admission to the Owl was available from about 7:00 AM, by way of the back door on the alley (the front door on the corner opening at 8:00).  The first coffee was served about 7:30, and, with apologies to my wife and mother, the most delicious biscuits I have ever tasted came out of the oven about 7:45, piping hot, usually enjoyed at the lunch counter.

The food at the Owl’s lunch counter, and therefore in the Blue Room, was really first rate lunch counter fare, always fresh, expertly prepared, and truly delicious.  The culinary geniuses in charge for many years were Sarah Warren and Margaret Williamson, who evermore knew how to fix groceries.

Hazel Pickett managed the food service for Marshall, including the counter, the Blue Room, and the complete old-fashioned soda fountain service which featured all the classic old soda concoctions that you had heard about from your parents and grandparents.  They could make anything.

But my favorite desert was Sarah’s heavenly rice pudding, which she only made occasionally and which was usually still warm and could support a scoop of ice cream if you liked (I liked).  Someone was usually kind enough to let me know in advance when it was on the day’s menu.

 

The Business

 

But the Owl was much more than a pharmacy with a lunch counter.  It had fine chocolates, upscale cosmetics, fine cameras and photographic supplies and services, gifts and gift wrapping, cards, electrical appliances, and on and on.
It was essentially a 20th Century general store that served many daily needs, which were seen to by an experienced and loyal staff (family, really), some of whom were there on that last day downtown in 1985, a sad but well memorialized occasion.
Sue Brown looked after the front of the house, along with Ardelle Kellum and Clara Ross, while the steady hand of book keeper Helen Chestang had kept everything in balance since 1948.
Anything could be charged at the Owl and, for many years, delivered by Lee Worsham, the genteel older black man who always reminded me of Louis Armstrong.
In short, the Owl was the heartbeat of downtown for many years and, for a good number of those years, Marshall was at the helm.
   The Rest of the Story
But apart from his own successful business, and again like his father before him, Marshall also labored in the civic vineyards of Hattiesburg, always keen on improving his hometwon.  He was a past president of the local Rotary Club, and was named the Young Man of the Year by the state Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1962.  Marshall helped establish the Hattiesburg Downtown Business Development District, a self-taxing district set up to help start the redevelopment of downtown after retail started moving west in the late 1960s.  Its early efforts were the precursors of all the great effort which followed over the years, which is today bearing such significant fruit downtown.
So, in addition to his own landmark business, Marshall was the kind of civic servant of whom no town ever has enough, or can ever afford to be without, and he will be sorely missed by all those who care deeply about Hattiesburg.
Farewell, Marshall, and Godspeed!

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