Walking toward the Inked Pig on Main Street in Gainesville, Garland Reynolds Jr. smiled as he remembered the days when steam-operated locomotives stopped in Gainesville to fill up on water.
Passengers took this short break as an opportunity to grab some grub at Big Bear Cafe, which opened in 1936, shortly after the infamous tornado swept through the city killing at least 200 and decimating downtown.
Heyward Hosch, who used to own the building on the industrial side of town, said he remembers visiting Big Bear growing up. The now 93-year-old said what struck him the most during the ’40s was the clientele who frequented the railroad cafe. He recounts Sen. Dick Russell, who was chairman of the Armed Services Committee at the time, and Sen. Walter George, former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, eating at Big Bear. Hosch said oftentimes the atmosphere felt emotional as soldiers stopped by the cafe before and after going to war.
“You met all strata of society there, from the richest to the poorest, to the meanest to the religious, and everything else,” Hosch recounted. “It happened there in the cafe. That’s what made it so colorful and enjoyable for me.”
In 1936, Hosch said the building that housed Big Bear was erected by Chambers Lumber Co. and made of high-quality bricks and scraps of lumber left by the tornado. The structure was built in the same parallelogram fashion, identical to the facility next door, which is now occupied by Gainesville’s Fraternal Order of Eagles.
Unlike Big Bear, Hosch said that building was made in 1898 out of Gainesville brick — which was of poor quality — and painted in red, white and blue to honor the Gainesville cavalry unit in the Spanish-American War.
Chad Vaughan, former owner of Big Bear, said he learned from the late Cecil Boswell that the walls were six red bricks thick, made to withstand tornadoes.
“Boswell was 19 years old when Big Bear was built,” Vaughan said. “He lived on Georgia Avenue behind Montgomery Memorial Church. I fed him breakfast and lunch for free for 15 years.”
Vaughan said the original owner of the cafe, G.C. Dago Barron, didn’t necessarily want to call the restaurant “Big Bear” at first. The man had a black bear living in a large cage behind the building, and the name just stuck.
Back in the ’40s, Reynolds said his father — nicknamed “Butch” — ran a meat market inside the building. Divided by a wall, Big Bear occupied the structure’s left side, while Reynolds’ shop took up the right side.
As a child, Reynolds said he remembers seeing the bear, and even eating some of the animal after it died.
“I’ll never forget that bear; it was a big part of my growing up,” he said.
Vaughan said he was told the local sheriff shot and killed the bear after it became frantic when Chambers Lumber Co. caught on fire.
During the ’40s, Vaughan said a pool hall was in the facility next to the cafe, and an older man sold chili in the alley between the two buildings.
After World War II, Vaughan said Barron installed the first drive-thru in Gainesville.
Hosch explained that the end of the steam locomotive era prompted this new service because trains no longer needed to stop in Gainesville to fill up on water.
“After diesel came, you didn’t have the same circumstance,” Hosch said. “You didn’t have time to go and have lunch like you did with the steam locomotive.”
Vaughan said the drive-thru didn’t help much with business, and Barron moved the restaurant to Cleveland Highway.
“Anybody alive today, they remember that one,” he said.
The name of the original Big Bear location has changed over the years, at one point it was called T and C Cafe. And in the 1950s, it was known as Pirkle’s Cafe.
Around 25 years ago, Hosch bought the building. It was reopened with the name, Big Bear Cafe.
Vaughan said he started running the restaurant in the early 2000s, taking care to revive the 1936 menu to its full glory with fried chicken, barbecue sandwiches and hamburgers.
Today, the smell of cooked meats from the Inked Pig permeates the building, breathing another wave of life into its walls. The restaurant’s owners had planned to expand into the other building and add a bar and lounge but withdrew the plans after Hosch raised concerns about the alterations causing the building to “lose its landmark designation.” But it will continue as a barbecue joint.
“It’s being reborn in a way,” Hosch said. “Really, that world has changed. Gone with the wind is the best way to think of it. It doesn’t exist anymore, the Big Bear society of the war time.”