Former Midway grocery store transformed for film

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 9, 2006

It stood silent for many years, an old, tin-roofed wood-frame building turned silver with age, leafy vines trailing across its exterior. This former country store in the heart of the Midway community had closed its doors 30 years ago.

This fall Phelps Grocery got a new lease on life - and a chance at movie stardom.

The building, located approximately 10 miles east of Greenville, near Honoraville, was chosen to serve as location for the star Danny Glover's 1950s-era blues club in &#8220Honeydripper,” the movie being shot currently in Butler County and other Alabama locales.

For several weeks, carpenters, electricians, set designers, set dressers and sign makers have been hard at work transforming the 80-plus-year-old building for its new role.

&#8220This store was one type of community fixture, and now it's a totally different kind. This has been very exciting time for Midway,” store owner Allen Phelps said as he browsed through vintage photos of the grocery on his computer.

All in the family

The business, which was established in 1919, has always been a part of Phelps' family. &#8220My grandfather, Robert Phelps, and Tom Peterson were co-owners of the store. The property goes back to my great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War. It's always been a part of my life,” Phelps, owner of Greenville

Equipment Center, said.

In 1921, the original store burned early one early May morning in a mysterious fire. &#8220Nothing was saved, not even the checks and cash on hand. It was thought it was robbed and then set on fire. Some pennies, nickels, and dimes have been found, but no dollars were found in the ruins,” a community column in The Greenville Advocate reported.

Robert Phelps built a new store the following year and served as sole proprietor. In the early 1930s, he enlarged the building to its current size. Robert and wife Alma ran the store, one of at least five country stores that once operated in the little community, Phelps recalled.

&#8220Of course, they've all been closed a long time and some, like the Cumbie store, are torn down now.”

Country stores reigned supreme

Times were different in the first half of the 20th century, however, when community groceries still reigned supreme.

&#8220We still had dirt roads out here until the 1950s. A lot of folks earlier on didn't have cars and trucks, just horse or mule and wagon. They worked on their farms, not in town. So they shopped at their local general stores,” Phelps said.

And Phelps Grocery was a complete general store, the founder's grandson says.

&#8220They carried dry goods, groceries, clothing, shoes, livestock feed and had a meat department and a grist mill. They even carried toys around Christmas time,” Phelps recalled.

&#8220The building had an attic, and my grandmother would fill it up with toys for the kids. She was very active in running the store.”

In the 1940s, Pioneer Electric Cooperative brought electricity to Midway and Phelps Grocery. However, the store never had an electric gas pump.

&#8220Someone came around the corner one night and hit the old gas pump, knocking it down. My grandfather never replaced it. Selling gas was never his primary concern,” Phelps explained.

As times changed, bringing paved roads, city jobs and family cars, so did the nature of the country store, he said.

&#8220By the 1960s when I was growing up, I mostly remember the store carrying groceries. People were going to Greenville and Montgomery to buy clothing and shoes by then, and it just wasn't profitable anymore.”

The store closed in 1977, and the building has been used for storage for the past 20 years.  It passed into Allen's father, James (and Peggy) Phelps' hands. Allen and his dad later co-owned the property, until Allen bought him out in the mid-1990s.

&#8220My dad has been really interested in watching the progress (in the store transformation). He's been over there pretty regularly keeping an eye on things. We are all excited to see good things going on with that old building,” Phelps said with a smile.

Music returns to Midway

While the former grocery store has been transformed into a blues club for the movie, music was already a part of its history, Phelps said.

&#8220The store and the community itself actually have a musical background. My dad played steel guitar in a band. We have a lot of musicians and their relatives who live in the area.”

Phelps Grocery was once a meeting place for community musicians, Phelps said.

&#8220Folks used to bring guitars and sit and play under the front shed. They'd play blues and country music. There was even a guy who came and cut hair. The first night they got electricity, I'm told they played music and cut hair until late into the night.”

Now music is once again coming from the store, reincarnated as the &#8220Honeydripper Lounge,” complete with vintage Pepsi-Cola signs studding its exterior. Jim Purvis of Greenville's creation, a vertical blue and white sign outlined in lights (and appropriately weather-beaten), heralds you've arrived at the blues club.

The building was given a new floor, with a catwalk built in the attic to handle lighting and cameras. The former rear of the store became the front entrance, with a small porch added and new windows installed. All additions have been appropriately &#8220aged.”

Shooting began last Monday at the location, which also features the competitor's club, &#8220Ace of Spades,” a building that didn't even exist a few weeks ago.

Today a weather-beaten building with peeling blue paint and vintage Coca-Cola and Nehi signs stands nearby, looking like it's been there for decades.

&#8220They've done an amazing job getting this all ready. I never thought they'd have it ready in time, but they did. These guys worked really hard,” Phelps said.

He and wife Jan haven't made plans for the building once the movie shoot is completed. Phelps is hoping to keep a few of the props and memorabilia from the film as reminders of Midway's amazing moment in the spotlight.

&#8220This has been a great experience so far. Discovering all the family history we've unearthed, and the history of the store,” Phelps said.

&#8220We found an old wall-mounted fan that must date back to 1946 in there. We plugged it in - and it still runs, after all these years.”