Doug Meeks scraped together $500, pooled it with another $500 from a partner and established a Hall County restaurant that developed into an institution for more than half a century.
He could see the ground through cracks in the floors of the original wooden building he leased to start Doug's Drive-In on the Atlanta Highway in October 1951. His partner opted out after a while, a new brick building replaced the original one, and Doug persevered with his wife Martha and other kinfolk.
It quickly became a popular hangout for surrounding business employees, politicians and cruising teen-agers.
The restaurant started out with just hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecue. But in a short time Meeks became known for his flat-grilled steaks and deep fried chicken. His wife, Martha, was just as popular for her biscuits, which she started cooking at 5 a.m., along with preparing lunch for later in the day.
Doug's became a true family enterprise entailing long hours for its owners. They would work past midnight and even on Sundays. "If anybody was open, Doug's would be open," Meeks said.
He remembers an ice storm one Christmas Day when electric power was out all over town. Because the restaurant cooked with gas, people came to him for their Christmas dinners, including former legislator Joe T. Wood, who brought his turkey to be cooked.
The Meekses' daughter, Nancy Gravitt, helped in the restaurant as early as age 7. "I would bring in more tips than anybody," she said. She not only waited tables, but could run the cash register and help in the kitchen.
Years later that's how she met her future husband, Bobby. He was a curb hop, but on Fridays they would peel potatoes out of a 100-pound bag for Doug Meeks to make French fries.
Early on, you could get a meat and three vegetables for 88 cents, Meeks said. Hot dogs were two for a quarter. "Daddy's chili dogs rivaled the Varsity's," Nancy said, referring to the popular Atlanta drive-in eatery.
Doug's was packed inside and out Saturday nights. "When the crowd let out at the square dance at the Civic Building," Meeks said, "they would all come over there."
Wood was among politicians who gathered to talk politics. Former governors Lester Maddox and Herman Talmadge were among the many making campaign stops. "I grew up listening to politics in that restaurant," Gravitt said. Doug's father, Roy Meeks, who managed Doug's for a while, became known as "governor" because it became such a popular political place.
Textile mills would call in orders to be delivered late at night. Doug's had a black 1958 Ford station wagon with a hamburger painted on its side to make large deliveries. "That station wagon would be loaded down with hamburgers, hot dogs, BLTs and whatever," Meeks said.
The Meekses would buy fresh-ground hamburger meat at Kroger every day and use about 700 pounds a week. They remember buying sausage from Milton Robson when he was just starting out in the food distribution business with one truck. Robson's PFG Milton's at Oakwood now is part of a nationwide food distribution network.
Doug's was a must-stop among cruisers in the 1950s and '60s, said Nancy Gravitt. They might leave Gainesville's downtown square, go out what was then Broad Street, now Jesse Jewell Parkway, and drive through the Snack Shack, Chow Time, Shawnee's, Nicholson's and the Burger Chef on Atlanta Highway.
When work was finally done on Saturday nights, despite fooling with food all day, Doug would load up curb hops and other employees and drive them to the Krystal in Atlanta. He would order 50 to 100 Krystal burgers for them at a dime apiece.
Both Meeks and his wife have suffered strokes in recent years. Though totally disabled at age 79, he is unable to get some Veterans Administration assistance because of his service as a rural mail carrier in Hall County for 21 years.
Meeks served in the Army during the Korean Conflict. He was stationed in Japan when his unit got an alert at 6 p.m. one day, and by 7 a.m. the next day, he was on a boat bound for Korea. He served 14 months, including Thanksgiving Day 1950 when he was just 12 miles from the North Korean border.
A pawn shop now occupies the location of Doug's Drive-In, which closed after 54 years.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesville times.com.