John S. Tyson's Store Was a Folkston Institution
By Lois Barefoot Mays
The first day of the year seemed like a good time for the beginning point of a business career and January 1, 1916 was just that for young John S. Tyson, Jr. He began a fifty-year undertaking when he opened a small grocery and feed store in the little town of Folkston that day and he remained a storekeeper furnishing local families with food, general merchandise and stock feed for the next half century. He began his retail business in a building that still stands behind the McDonald House and faced the railroad tracks, on the corner of McDonald and Love Streets. Realizing the value of advertising in the county weekly newspaper, Tyson encouraged new customers to trade with him by placing large ads reading:
Fancy Groceries and All Kinds of Feed
At John S. Tyson, Jr.
Located in McDonald’s Old Stand
Prices are Right.
The store building has changed little in outward appearances. There was no wooden front porch then, only dirt for a floor under the porch shelter, and a long bench for the convenience of customers who wanted to linger and talk before going home. Wooden shutters were opened each morning revealing glass windows which brought the eastern sunlight into the neatly kept store. A large sign proudly proclaimed that this was the store of John S. Tyson, Jr.
Events claiming attention in the weekly Charlton County Herald while Tyson was preparing to open his new business depicted a panorama of life in the county: nine automobiles passed over the Dixie Short Route in one day; J.C. Allen had purchased a car and “would soon be among those who have autoed somewhere.”; the sheriff was receiving unsigned notes in the mail concerning booze being sold in The Bend; the St. George Post Office was robbed of twenty dollars and a C.O.D. package. [It was supposed that a stranger did the work as “one was there that day looking like a sharper.”]; neighbors of H.D. Strickland in Winokur formed a bucket brigade and put out a fire that nearly destroyed his house; and J.V. Gowen was arranging to place a sawmill at Traders Hill.
Tyson was a very young man, only eighteen years old, when he stocked and opened his store, astonishing the older merchants of the town who thought he was a bit young for such responsibility. But the retail trade was his calling and he began making the grocery and feed business into a profitable one immediately. He had moved to Folkston with his family from Jacksonville in 1912 and attended the Folkston school before entering the business world. His father, John S. Tyson, Sr., was a salesman for a Jacksonville wholesale grocer and undoubtedly influenced his son’s decision to begin a new business in Folkston. The Arnold Hotel was home for the Tyson family when they first arrived in Folkston.
It wasn’t long before Tyson began considering owning a store on Main Street, where most of the trading in Folkston was taking place. After a disastrous fire destroyed the Central Hotel, the property on which it was situated was offered for sale. Tyson purchased it from D.F. Pearce in 1921.
Several years later, in 1925, a new school teacher, Miss Catherine Turner, moved to Folkston and within a few months a courtship developed between Tyson and the attractive instructor. They married about a year later. Their children were Betty (Mrs. Robert Wilson) and John S. (Johnny) Tyson III. Much later the four grandchildren were to become a source of genuine pleasure for the Tysons.
Tyson’s dream of owning his store became a reality in 1926 when he constructed a brick building on the Central Hotel lot and moved his stock of goods to Main Street. The South Georgia Timber Company is now located in this building. The grocery special advertised that week in the county newspaper was the sale of an eight-pound bucket of lard for ninety-five cents.
Tyson was noted for his conservative business views and once told a friend that he made it a rule to never do more than twenty-five percent of his business on credit. This philosophy carried him through the economic depression of the 1930s when many small businesses, dealing heavily on credit terms, collapsed.
Tyson’s grocery store soon became a general mercantile establishment selling items such as hardware, dry goods, patent medicines, shoes and dishes, and when area farmers had a surplus of summer vegetables, he bought those to sell to his customers. The most popular counter over the years was the penny candy case near the front door. One of Tyson’s greatest pleasures of being a storekeeper for fifty years was watching the children decide how to spend their money. The long glass case, always filled with brightly colored candy treasures, lured several generations of happy youngsters to “Tyson’s Candy Store” to point out a penny’s worth of licorice sticks, silver-bells, gumdrops or chocolate cigars while Tyson, leaning against the shelves and puffing his favorite pipe, enjoyed every minute of the difficult decisions. He couldn’t have made much profit on the candy business for many times he gave sweets to children who had no money.
Many Folkston housewives through the years acquired colorful enamel canister sets, bread boxes, etc. for their kitchens by participating in Tyson’s frequent advertising promotions. When they had bought several dollars worth of groceries from Tyson, they received a kitchen item of their choice.
Burglars found the store on Main Street, which was also the Dixie Highway, quite a temptation and the business was broken into regularly. Thieves even broke in before the building was completed, which prompted Tyson to put iron bars over the windows. One enterprising set of burglars sawed a hole in the back door, took suitcases from the top shelf, packed them with merchandise and fled. Tyson never sold luggage after that – he said he didn’t intend to accommodate any more thieves.
John S. Tyson, Sr. helped in the store as an extra clerk for several years. Other clerks included Betty Jo Taylor, Kathleen Wildes Jones, Ruth Jones, Virginia Nemeth and Lillie Pearl Allen. Mrs. Allen recalled “Mr. Tyson was a wonderful man and a joy to work for. He was always kind to everyone and I think that was why everyone liked him so much. Most of our customers were adults but we always looked forward to afternoons, for when school was out the children came in and bought candies. A dime’s worth of suckers or jaw breakers or taffy would fill their pockets!”
When Tyson’s health began to fail, in the late 1960s, he gave up such chores as arranging the merchandise in pleasing displays, sweeping the wooden floor twice a day and greeting old friends as they came in for shoe laces or a tine of Prince Albert smoking tobacco. He retired and sold the stock in the store until the shelves were bare and then closed the big front doors for the last time. In the fall of 1972 both Mr. and Mrs. Tyson died and they were buried in the Folkston Pineview Cemetery.
It’s been several years since John S. Tyson, Jr. gave up his work on Main Street but many people of Charlton County can remember seeing him greet friends as he swept the sand from the sidewalk in front of the store, or as he patiently helped a child try on a new pair of leather shoes. He was a good friend to many people and his kindness was like a benediction to the little town he loved.