Harvey’s Pirate Drive-In, a South Pittsburg landmark, serves its last burgers

Staff photo by Stephen Hargis / The former Harvey's location is seen this week.
Staff photo by Stephen Hargis / The former Harvey's location is seen this week.

After more than four decades of serving up hamburgers in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, Harvey's Pirate Drive-In has closed up shop.

Owner Harvey Allison said health issues and a declining market led to his decision to close the place, which is named for the mascot of South Pittsburg High.

"I hope folks enjoyed stopping by and eating and seeing neighbors as much as I enjoyed seeing them," Allison told a reporter at his home Wednesday.

Ask Brandon "Fathead" Price about his memories of eating at Harvey's, and the school resource officer with the Marion County Sheriff's Department has several quick answers.

There was the time a high school football and baseball star thought he'd be funny and prevent a teammate from entering the eatery by holding the door handle. His teammate pushed through the glass door, shattering it and cutting his hand so badly he needed surgery.

There was also a childhood birthday party at Harvey's. Price still has the picture of himself, age 5 or 6, in a South Pittsburg High School orange jacket with a black-and-orange cape.

He also has many memories of sitting with his friends as a youngster while the older folks gathered around the "Liar's Bench," a collection of tables, benches and chairs, telling their tall tales of fishing, hunting and life in general.

And the time he drove to Harvey's with his mother, only to find an ambulance there and being told to wait outside. He later learned that his grandmother was inside and had nearly choked to death on a piece of food caught in her throat.

And the time he noticed that a South Pittsburg neighbor, Roy Thomas, was calmly eating lunch with a live rattlesnake he'd just caught rattling its beads in a box under the table.

  photo  Staff File Photo / In this photo from 2000, Harvey Allison, the owner of Harvey's Pirate Drive-In, busily serves customers before a South Pittsburg High School football game. Allison fed the team and cheerleaders for free after every Pirate victory. The community landmark has closed.

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But mostly, Price, a tackle on the 1994 state champion football team and a catcher for the '96 baseball champs, remembers the special bonding that took place at 111 Second St. each Friday night during football season. After a victory, the team would gather for the free hamburgers, fries and drinks that Allison, the owner, provided as an extra bounty for the Pirates.

"We knew after we won, we were going to get a burger," Price said by phone. "But it was really a place to be kids. It gave us another opportunity to be kids and become part of the Pirate family."

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To call Allison a Pirate booster shortchanges his contributions.

On football Fridays, Allison would close up the restaurant and make the four-block trip to the field where he would be the first person the players would greet as they exited the locker room and passed through the wooden pirate ship near the end zone on their way to the sideline.

He would then take up his position as head of the "Chain Gang." When games ended, usually in victory for the six-time state champions, Allison would get back to the restaurant to begin feeding the players and cheerleaders.

"There is no telling how many people he's fed," said Pirate head coach Wesley Stone.

Like Price, Stone is a South Pittsburg native who played for the Pirates in the '90s.

"From the time I was little, I dreamed of getting to play for the Pirates," Stone said by phone, adding that Harvey's and Allison are as much a part of the program as touchdowns and championship rings.

"It's a thing that is passed down. If we win, we get to go to Harvey's," he said. "There is no way we could ever repay him for what he's done for our program and for taking care of our kids."

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Stone said Allison didn't just take care of the football program but likely fed innumerable people down on their luck over the years as well.

"If you didn't have the money, people would say, 'I'll pay you when I can,'" Stone said. "Who knows how many ever did."

In addition to the food and the Friday night tradition, Harvey's was known for its atmosphere, which had not been updated since it opened in 1974.

A few years ago, Allison moved his operation to a new location a few miles away. Regulars didn't like it, Price recalled, because it was "too clean and the food didn't taste right."

Allison returned to the Second Street location.

Price said the only thing that changed over the years at Harvey's was that the walls became filled with more Pirate memorabilia and obituaries as the regulars died off.

Stephen Hargis contributed to this report.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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