1940's - 1970's
by: Russ Lancaster
The Grab... Just one of the names this place was called. It's official name was Fitzgerald's but most everyone called it "The Grab". It was the company store for the old Seaboard Airline Railroad. And, almost everyone in Hamlet worked for the Railroad back in the forties.
It was located at the corner of Raleigh Street and West Avenue across from the old Hamlet freight agency and near the old railroad roundhouse where the steam engines were serviced and turned.
There were stories that preceded my memories of an "old" Grab at that same spot that had been destroyed when the adjacent railroad water tank burst and the pressure had demolished the old wooden building. I tend to believe those stories since when I first was introduced to the Grab there was still a water tank there. I believe the old Grab was a wooden structure while the Grab of my memory is a concrete structure.
My first memories of the Grab go back to about 1947 when my father would take me there and sit outside talking with other railroaders as they told their tales and whittled and compared their beautiful railroad approved Hamilton pocket watches. I kept quiet but enjoyed the sounds and smells of the old place.
Being a company store, you could buy anything they had and sign for it. Whatever you owed for the last two weeks would be deducted from your paycheck. Sounds ok, but, their prices were much higher than the other stores in town. You could buy groceries, household supplies and even more expensive items such as clothes, shoes, jewelry and things. Lots of folks used the Grab for lots of different reasons.
I think the reason it was called "The Grab" is that you could go in quickly, pick up whatever you needed and simply sign something for it. There were no credit cards back then and money was scarce.
There were even folks who found a way to put money in their pockets, but at a tremendous loss. You could see them every payday, the same old folks, getting their paycheck at the passenger station from the paymaster, then the walk up Raleigh Street to the Grab. These folks held their heads down low and with good reason. Most of their paycheck had been deducted by money owed to the Grab. Their solution to the problem was bad. They would dart in the Grab, buy cartons of cigarettes, sign for them, then take them next door to a little bar called "The Midget" and sell them to the owner for much less than what they had just paid. It was a way of getting some "pocket money" but drove them deeper in debt and next payday would be no better. I always felt sorry for those folks.
Then there were the folks who actually depended on the Grab for groceries, my family being one of them. They actually had a very good selection of groceries, comparable to the local A&P and Colonial Store. They even had their own meat market and butchers. You could depend on them for fresh meat and all the staples. As I said, money being short in those days meant a lot of families like mine depended on the Grab for food and even clothing.
From about 1950 through 1954, there were many days when my mother would send me on my bicycle to the Grab to buy whatever we lacked for our evening meal. I was even allowed to sign my father's name to the ticket. I always asked if I could buy a treat for myself and was given permission to spend a nickel for a candy bar, raisin cake or moon pie. I would eat that treat along the bike ride back home and really enjoyed this little chore of buying groceries. After a year or so, I became bolder and started buying a dime ice cream sandwich instead. I'm sure the dimes would show up coming out of my Dad's paycheck but no one every said anything to me about it.
There were two clerks in that store that always greeted me and made me feel important. I can't remember their last names. Too many years have passed. But, I will never forget Bill and Barney. Both were meat cutters as well as checkout clerks and they always treated me with respect as I did them. They were two fine gentlemen. **note** since writing this story, Bruce Osburn has let me know that "Barney" was Barney Patrick and has provided the photo to the right.
Later, in the sixties, the Grab added a service station across the street where you could gas your car if you had no money. The same rule applied, gas your car or have it serviced and sign the little piece of paper. The railroad would then deduct the amount from your paycheck.
After graduating Hamlet High School in 1959, I went into the Air Force and never came back to Hamlet until 1965. I didn't work for the railroad and didn't have much contact with the Grab. Then, in 1968, it was my turn to visit there. I had changed jobs, going to work for the railroad and it would be an entire month before receiving my first paycheck. It was going to be rough. Yes, I remembered how it had been as a kid and made my little trip to the Grab for the first time in years. The rules had not changed. Even Barney and Bill were still there friendly as ever and they even remembered me. Yep, I provided groceries for my own family for that month and fell into the trap of depending on them ever so often. I was just thankful for the food on our table.
With the railroad expanding and merging, things changed. Sometime in the seventies, the Grab closed its doors forever. First the service station, then the store itself. There were a lot of panicked railroaders at first. After all, what would they do in an emergency for food and stuff? Well, it turned out not to be such a big thing after all. We found out in a hurry that having the company take money out of our paychecks rather than paying cash at a lesser price to begin with had been a bad idea for a long time.
Its true. The Grab played a part in a lot of families lives, including mine. But, we found that it, like most other things, is not forever. I'm glad the railroad closed it down, but I'm also glad that it existed. Without it, there would be no memory of those bike rides to the grocery store and no story here for me to remember and you to read.
Yes... I remember the Grab..... and.... I remember Hamlet. **note** see comments from Charlie McKee below:
Those who worked in the Grab were:
Mrs. Ritter (She lived on Charlotte Street and had 3 daughters, the youngest Ann married to Stanford Honeycut.
John Williams - Mgr.
The cigarettes was called "Gining." There were several who competed for these cigarettes. The ones who came to the Midget was some loyal customers but generally they had to pass several standing between the Midget and the Grab who were offering different sums to get the cartons, If an employee took up all his paycheck at the Grab, the railroad had to issue a check for him for one dollar to show all the deductions.
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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