They must have enjoyed the experience, because they soon did it again. And again. But none of them likely could have imagined that their chance meet-ups would develop into one of the city’s longest-standing social institutions, still meeting today almost three-fourths of a century later. The morning-coffee group is so perennial, in fact, that it’s already outlived four meeting venues — possibly, a record in itself — and is still going strong in its fifth home: Ladybug’s Bakery and Deli, at 1805 Alabama Avenue.
After Vance’s Drug went out of business, the group moved their meetings to Woolworth’s, then to Elegante Bakery, and then to Hickoryland Barbecue. “I hope we’re not jinxing all these shops,” quips member Ed Herr, a Michigan transplant who moved to Jasper to run a medical supply company and has been in the group about five years. “All of the other places closed, and one burned.”
“We have a really good mix of personalities,” says relative newcomer Shane Weber, on a recent Friday morning. He started attending in 2010 when he retired and moved with his wife from Wisconsin back to her hometown. Weber is a forest entomologist and silviculturalist by profession, which boils down to “the ardent science of growing trees,” he says, “though it’s more an art than a science.” His route to becoming a Jasper-ite? “I figured if my wife survived 25 winters with me in Wisconsin, the least I could do was move here with her.”
One of his favorite features of the mix, Weber says, is “a few guys who are the Southern equivalent of Yogi Berra and come out with some wonderful expressions.”
Those Berra-esque personas aren’t limited to one-liners, says member Jim Cannon, who started attending the group after his retirement in 2003. “Their encyclopedic knowledge of baseball — and trivia in general — is amazing,” Cannon says. “A group of eight people from our table won the Rotary Club’s trivia contest this year.”
“I joke with the guys that whenever my IQ starts getting low, I can come down here and get it filled up,” says Dr. Jeremiah Alexander, who’s been with the group since 2011. “Since I work, I don’t get to come as often as I’d like. It’s a really good mix of personalities.”
Though the group has counted judges, lawyers and bank presidents among its members, the historic coffee group is so egalitarian that it doesn’t technically even have a name. There are no membership cards, no dues and the occasional walk-in is welcome to join whatever discussion is underway. Members refer to the gathering as “The Table.”
“We figured since there was a club in Birmingham just named ‘The Club,’ our club could be ‘The Table,’” says member Jeff Grice, an insurance agent whose father was a member. “I started coming to the group not long after my father died, which would have been 1988 or so.
The literal table itself is all that remains of the group’s many previous incarnations. It was seriously damaged in the 2013 Hickoryland blaze. ”Several of us went over there the day after the fire,” Cannon recalls,” and pulled the table out to see if we could salvage it. There were two tables, actually, and they were originally made by Murphy Furniture. One of them was burned too badly. But we salvaged the main one, even though the roof had caved in on it, and it looked totally charred and black.
The most distinctive feature of the historic roundtable is a wooden Lazy Susan at the center, covered with small metal plaques that are engraved with the names of members who have passed on: at last count, some 120 of them.
Leaving a reminder
“Four of the plaques were too far gone and had to be remade,” says member Randy Johnson, who also refinished the burned table. Deli owner Toka Harris says that when she first opens the shop in the morning, the table holds a very faint scent of smoke from its ordeal. There are two large burn marks on the shiny tabletop. “We left those on purpose, as a reminder,” says Johnson.
“It’s impressive, to think about being a part of something that’s been going on since right after World War II,” he says. “Seeing the plaques is sad in a way, but it’s good to know the folks are still remembered.”
The two oldest plaques on the rotating board are dated 1954, and honor T.R. Simmons and Hosmer Scott. Banker Joe Graham holds the current title of “new kid on the block”; he’s only been coming about two months. “But I already knew almost everybody here, so it’s a lot of fun,” Graham says. “Sometimes there are three or four conversations going on at once, and I try to listen to at least two of them so I can jump in at the right time. The caffeine helps.”
O.H. Brown, by contrast, is currently the oldest regular attendee. And his late father was a member from the 1940s until his death in 2000. Another of the oldest members, Paul Blalock, only gets to visit occasionally these days.
Though member Bill Roberts is a state legislator, he says politics is not a main topic of conversation at the roundtable. “I’d say maybe five percent,” he guesses. “Most of the people here are businessmen, so it’s a good way to hear the history of this town.” The group has an off-premises meeting once a year at the lake house of Sam Murphy, and the coffee and breakfast menu is traded for one of “barbecue, beer, soft drinks, and Moon Pies,” says Murphy. His father started the gathering in the 1960s, but over the years word of the festivities got around and attendance swelled (”Actually it ‘swole up,’ as we say in the South,” Murphy adds with a laugh) to some 300 people. “Which sort of defeated the purpose,” he says, “so since about 2005 it’s been for only the members from the table.”
“One of the best things about meeting with these guys is getting to relive the history of Walker County,” says Alexander. “It’s such a unique group. You’d think that with the same people, the stories would get old. But there’s always something new.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is email@example.com; his web page is www.carrolldaleshort.com)