When Willie McKenzie cranked his Lippincott’s “Blizzard” Counter Ice-Shaver, the best sherbet in town was just a minute away.
His granddaughter, Yvonne Adams, remembers how packed McKenzie’s Confectionary, on Southport’s Howe Street, could get on a summer Sunday, when the mood was perfect for the business’s syrupy, signature item. And the demand for McKenzie’s treats meant he kept the place open every day.
“He only closed shop to go to funerals,” said Adams, 69, who stirred melted sugar in the back as a high school job.
The confectionary was the oldest venture in the heart of what once was Southport’s district of black-owned, black-operated businesses, around the intersection of Howe and St. George streets, in the early 1900s.
Twenty-five of them — grocery stores, cafés, dance halls, dry cleaners, a mortuary and more — thrived into the mid-20th century or later with as much success as their white counterparts.
Today, each is listed by name on a marker the Southport Historical Society installed outside LeClerc’s Ladies Boutique, whose building is the former site of McKenzie’s Confectionary. The building — and the ice shaver — remains in Adams’s possession.
Her husband, Nelson Adams, a Southport alderman, also adored the confectionary in its day. “It was terrific. I mean, you know, you could get all the sweets and the sherbets and the ices and candies,” he recalled. “It was terrific.”
“Mr. Willie” was McKenzie’s name about town, Southport historian Musette Steck pointed out outside LeClerc’s during a recent tour around the district. The business bears a plaque commemorating the McKenzie name.
McKenzie’s business launched in 1910 after construction by Southport carpenter John Smith, before Southport was wired for electricity. A feature The State Port Pilot published about the business on September 22, 1962, stated McKenzie was by that date the city’s oldest merchant at 85, and that his refreshment parlor was the “oldest business in the same location and under the same management.”
“Here is a man who has kept shop through good times and bad, during the first half of the twentieth century and through two World Wars,” stated the Pilot feature, titled “The Oldest Business in Town.”
While McKenzie’s famous sherbets — grape and strawberry the most popular — were at the top of the menu, his wife, Anna McKenzie, gave him some delicious competition with her “brown dogs,” peanut candies made with two pounds of light brown sugar, three pounds of raw peanuts, a quarter-teaspoon of baking soda, a quarter-cup of butter, water and a teaspoon of vanilla flavoring, according to the Howe Street marker outside the former confectionary. It also details the cooking directions.
McKenzie’s was also one of the first in the district to try a dance hall, in the twin building next door to the confectionary, and though the idea picked up with other businesses, it didn’t fit with McKenzie.
“I never sold whiskey nor beer because I knew it would lead to trouble,” he is quoted as saying in the September 1962 Pilot. “I was the first man to start having dances, and I was the first man to cut them out. It didn’t fit in with my other business.”
Adams explained that the deal breaker was gunfire at a nighttime party held at the dance hall. It was too much for McKenzie.
“He was such a gentle, sweet-tempered man,” she said. “He never got upset. Well, if he did, you didn’t know it.”
He’d converted the dance hall to a two-table pool hall, but the rug-cutting endured at nearby spots like Elmer Davis’ Café (corner of St. George and Caswell streets), the Do Drop Inn (Caswell and 8th streets and later named the Red Carpet Inn) and the Bee Bop Inn (a block north).
“Davis’ Café, that was wonderful,” said Southport’s Carolyn Price. “And Herbert Brown’s Café on Leonard Street. That’s where all the teenagers hung out.”
Adams had fond memories of Brown’s as well. She said the fish sandwiches were the attraction, though its good-times stock was high, too.
“They would have dances at night, they would have a beer garden,” she said. “You know, a place for some recreation.”
The black businesses commemorated on the historical society’s sign spread north from Brown Street all the way near Robert Ruark Drive and Jabbertown Road.
“I just find it so interesting that there were 25 of these businesses all in this area,” Steck said as she pointed to the Howe Street marker that lists each by name next to a map that dots their former locations.
Dolly Evans’s store, dance hall and wood yard, one of the featured businesses, occupied the corner of St. George and Howe streets in a now-gone two-story building. According to the marker, it was one of the district’s largest structures, the first floor having housed a general store, the second accommodating the dance floor — and a lot of stove-ready wood slabs for sale somewhere in between.
Price’s great-grandfather, Oscar Galloway, owned a candy store in the core of the district, which for the most part sold homemade treats for which school kids reportedly went bonkers.
Service needs were also filled. Hi-Way Dry Cleaners, or “pressing club,” sat on the east side of Howe Street between St. George and Leonard streets under operation by Dexter Clemmons, who’d earned the name “Cookie Man” for the treats he handed children while out on deliveries. Farther north off Caswell Avenue was Sammy Davis Dry Cleaners.
Next door to Hi-Way Dry Cleaners was the McCoy-Green Mortuary Service. According to the historical society, E.E. (“Bud”) McCoy employed a horse-drawn hearse, built the pine coffins himself and was known for offering payment plans to some of his struggling customers for the services.
The district waned in the 1960s as proprietors like McKenzie nodded to their ages, but historical society efforts have preserved their sense of small-town spirit and service.
And so has Barbara McKenzie, Adams’s sister, who owns the former pool room her grandfather ran next to the confectionary. Word is, Adams said, McKenzie makes the best brown dogs around.
“She makes those goooood brown dogs,” touted Adams.