published Monday, November 5th, 2012

Dairy Bar closure marks end of era in Section, Ala. (with video)

Pam and David Presley are the owners of Section Dairy Bar in Section, Ala. The Presleys have owned the Dairy Bar for 31 years, but the widening of state Highway 35 will take so much of the property around the restaurant that they decided to close on Dec. 1.
Pam and David Presley are the owners of Section Dairy Bar in Section, Ala. The Presleys have owned the Dairy Bar for 31 years, but the widening of state Highway 35 will take so much of the property around the restaurant that they decided to close on Dec. 1.
Photo by Patrick Smith.
Section Dairy Bar closing Dec. 1
Due the widening of Alabama Highway 35, the Section Dairy Bar will close on Dec. 1 after 31 years of ownership by David and Pam Presley.

SECTION, Ala. — There's a time capsule in a wall of the Section Dairy Bar — the wall that a car smashed through one night.

But the whole place, really, is a time capsule, mostly when people are there.

Section Dairy Bar's days are numbered. There are 25 left, in fact. And when those days are up, the small town in Jackson County, Ala., is losing its family dinner table.

On Dec. 1, the end of an era will leave behind only recollections, memories of teens cruising in their cars around and around the Dairy Bar, the occasional fight, a rehearsal dinner, a prom night, countless conversations among friends over good food -- including the soft-serve peanut butter milkshake -- that hasn't changed since the 1960s.

Paperwork shows a date of establishment as 1960, though the current owners, David and Pam Presley, think the restaurant actually started operating a year or two after that.

A four-laning project on Jackson County's leg of Alabama Highway 35 will carve away most of the Dairy Bar's property, leaving no room for its customers' cars or space to expand the little old building in the tiny town of about 770.

David, 58, and Pam, 62, can barely talk about it. But once they start, they can't stop.

The Presleys had been married about four years when they were laid off from Monsanto in Guntersville, Ala., according to David. Their 35th wedding anniversary was Oct. 29.

"We actually don't know no other life," David said Thursday in a room full of the Dairy Bar's regulars.

Pam's mother had suggested the young couple investigate the Section Dairy Bar in 1981, see if it had any jobs for them, during a short period when the eatery wasn't operating. So they did and started out by renting the place from then-owner Jerry Taylor. A few years later, they shelled out "30-something thousand dollars" to carry on an already beloved eatery as their own, David said.

Loyalty

David's sister, Tracy Yerby, has worked at the Dairy Bar since she was 15 years old.

"It's been my first and only job," said Yerby, 43, a bigger-than-life personality who knows what her regulars want before they get through the door.

Folks who come to the Dairy Bar have become a part of her life, her family.

"I know about his daughters and his girlfriends," Yerby said, pointing out two men sitting at the back.

On Thursday, Jackson County workers Barney Kay, Robert Dawson and Rickie Adkins teased and joked with Yerby as she delivered drinks and eats, all agreeing they'd miss their favorite burger joint.

Section native Kay, 55, said he's been a customer since he was a youngster and has seen -- and even participated in -- some "historic" moments. Most of them he recalls from the year he graduated from Section High School in 1976.

Back in the cruising days, sometimes 30 or more cars would be circling the restaurant, he said, and he once saw a motorcycle pushed off the top of the building.

The trio lamented the loss of the iconic restaurant.

"We ain't going to have a good place to eat," said Dawson, 44.

"As long as they're open, they'll have us as customers," the 52-year-old Adkins said.

Time gone by

Section Dairy Bar was built by the late Homer Stringer, serving steak sandwiches for 45 cents, double-decker burgers for 54 cents, a hamburger basket for 44 cents or a pit barbecue sandwich for 45 cents.

A black-and-white photo from 1968 hangs on the wall by the door, showing how little things have changed over the years, aside from the prices. Back then, the Dairy Bar had outdoor seating on one side, and each day a jukebox was scooted out of the building to provide dining music to customers at the covered picnic tables.

The Presleys enclosed the picnic table area as indoor seating, but the rest of the Dairy Bar is just as it was -- right down to the food.

Ollie Woods and Ruby Jones worked at the Dairy Bar when it was booming in the '60s and, when the Presleys bought the restaurant, they hired Woods and Jones to teach them how to cook the traditional mainstays.

"We wouldn't have survived without Ms. Woods and Ms. Jones," Pam laughed.

"They taught us what everything's supposed to have and the way it's supposed to have it," David said. "Today, the burger is made the very same way as it was when they opened."

Part of history

The Dairy Bar has been a part of special times for Section folks, Pam said.

One customer, Hershel Haas, had his own special coffee cup that was kept apart just for him, she recalled. When Haas passed away in 1997, the Dairy Bar crew asked the family if the cup could join the favored customer in eternity. The family was happy to give him a cup to go, Pam said.

Birmingham, Ala., dentist Josh Puckett once made the unusual request to cater his wedding rehearsal dinner with Dairy Bar hamburgers, cheeseburgers, onion rings, french fries and chicken fingers.

"He came by the other day and I hugged him and me and him both teared up," Pam said with a sad smile.

Still another time, young Dairy Bar employee Shannon Beam convinced the Presleys to do a prom night dinner for students from Section High, complete with "real dishes," tablecloths, prom decorations and candles.

"That's what makes this place different, these things," David said.

Some years back -- the Presleys can't put a year on it -- they received a phone call from the Dairy Bar crew, who told them that a man's brakes had failed and he had driven his car through the restaurant's front wall. When the wall was rebuilt, the crew and customers put together a time capsule and placed it inside.

Yerby said she couldn't remember what she put in there, but she remembered that a customer put a pack of cigarettes in it.

The Presleys will retrieve the time capsule on Dec. 1, though they seemed uncomfortable with such a final gesture.

The Section Dairy Bar "came along when we didn't have nothing else," David said. "When you just jump into something that you don't really realize what you're jumping into and it works out to be the best thing that ever happened to you, it means a lot to you."

The last day will be "a lot of tears," Yerby said, her voice tightening and her eyes welling above her ready smile.

"It's going to be hard."

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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