Southern Scribe


The Fabulous 4-Way
By Mae Frances Barrena
1997, all rights reserved


Step inside Carterville, Georgia's landmark 4-Way to discover almost a century of history and lore.  From its enigmatic past to its phoenix-like rise from the ashes, the little red diner has earned its reputation as a "favorite place" among southern eateries.

One of the most popular places in Cartersville is the 4-Way Lunch. A favorite with many folks, the diner has always been a meeting place, and a popular subject for artist's drawings. Newcomers to Bartow County are shown the Indian Mounds, Young Brother's famous outdoor Coca-Cola wall sign, and the 4-Way. Commanding the prominent corner of Main and Gilmer streets, the diner has been called the "heart of our town."

Customers usually begin arriving around 6 a.m., and by eight, it's standing room only. Glance in the window the next time you walk or drive by. Had a Native American named the restaurant, it might have been called "Place Of Many Backs In Window".

The informality of the 4-Way lends itself to many regulars who have become accustomed, and even look forward, to the kidding that goes on daily. It's as though the silent agreement is to sit, eat, and free up a stool for the guy standing behind you. The relaxed atmosphere is one reason for its popularity. Meeting "Pete" Starnes and her sister Sue Brockman for the first time, I was greeted as if they had known me for years. Noticing that neither of the ladies recorded customer's orders, I asked them how they kept track.

"I go by their faces, not their names," Starnes said, lifting my elbow to wipe the counter. "A customer can stay away for years, but when he or she walks back through that door, I almost always know what the order will be."

"We have customers who don't mind the drive up here from Atlanta who need to sink their teeth into a 4-Way burger," Brockman said, then added, "Did I say 'need?' Well, yeah. That's just the way it is here."

Starnes says the "celebrity status" she's received from working at the 4-Way has been fun. While rafting down the Nantahala River in North Carolina, a woman called to her, "Aren't you the one who works at the 4-Way?"

Starnes and Brockman have definitely set the stage for women diners. When the restaurant's floors were covered in sawdust--reminiscent of bars--women wouldn't even step through the doors, probably having a notion the 4-Way was for men only because it sold beer. Once the ladies started working there, things changed. Women came to enjoy the food, and many still do.

In 1912 the building housed a drink stand featuring "Coca-Cola." A frequent sight at that time was a horse and wagon parked outside loaded with cases of the familiar bottles. Joe Head, dean of enrollment at Kennesaw State University and Bartow County native, remembers the stories his father told about working at the drink stand as a young boy. Robert Head had to pull a rope with a counter weight on it to get the heavy lid off the oak box where soft drinks were kept on blocks of ice. That wasbefore Coca-Cola was kept in metal boxes with its name on the sides. Hamburgers were 20c apiece in 1968 when Joe Head was employed at the 4-Way on what was called "the beverage side." Head recalls that women didn't come in very often at that time, but began visiting the 4-Way more frequently in the early seventies. Head Also recalls that paper sacks used for take-out orders were pulled from a stack nailed to the wall. "They were good days, that summer," Head said. "I'm glad to be a part of the legacy."

In 1931, Fred Garrison bought the building and named it the 4-Way. Garrison's son Ernest remembers, "My father took a sack full of meat and a couple packages of buns, and came down and started cooking." As a young boy, Garrison stood on a Coca-Cola crate to wash dishes at the 4-Way. Today, Ernest Garrison is still behind the counter, after taking over the business from his father twenty-five years ago.

For many years the 4-Way has been surrounded by an enigma. Local legend says that in 1883 the building that houses the 4-Way was a saloon. Its proprietor, Alfred Payne, advertised it as "The Best Little Place in Town." However, DiAnne Monroe, Payne's great-granddaughter says that is incorrect. Her extensive research shows that no building existed on the corner of Main & Gilmer at that time. Monroe asserts that Payne did run a hamburger stand through the 1920s at the 4-Way's present location, but it was not a saloon. Payne's saloon was at the corner of Cherokee and Wall Street. Prior to his death in 1929, Payne moved his operation to the corner of Erwin and West Main, across from the old Stein building, to run a restaurant called the Broadway.

"To me, it is the history of this place," Monroe said. "The most marvelous part is that the 4-Way's owners, the Garrison family, have cared enough--for more years than most people can count--to have maintained a place that is so special to our community."

Cartersville almost lost its favorite place when it caught fire on June 29, 1993. Though it may have been a short circuit that caused the fire, it was providence that at 3 a.m. a passerby spotted it and called 911. Firefighters subdued the blaze, but the outer structure had already lost its integrity to the heat. Along with appliances, the original red counter and the circa 50s Coca-Cola menu sign perished.

At dawn, the wooden frame of the 4-way remained bolted to its corner. Inside, suffering a worse fate, were the stools--stools that had at one time supported generations of families, government officials, and actors Harrison Ford, Ricky Schroeder, Robert Duvall, and our own Benji Wilhoite. But mostly, just plain folks.

Once word got out, a crowd gathered at the site. People stood and stared at the charred remains. Many shook their heads while some turned away teary-eyed. For all, in that moment, there came a stillness. To many, it seemed to be the end of an icon. One onlooker remarked, "This is too much to bear. Our 4-Way is a tradition. My grandparents took my parents here, they took me, and, now I take my kids."

Jane Hobbs, of Cartersville, remembered, "About 45 years ago, I had to come to the 4-Way everyday to get a hamburger for my father, and when I brought it to him, he'd say to my mother, 'Myrtle, I wish you could make a hamburger like ole Ernest.'"

Ernest Garrison walked among the rubble, and though outwardly he seemed to be holding up, he had reason to worry; no insurance, and, worse, no money to rebuild.

News of Garrison's predicament spread almost as fast as the flames that consumed the 4-Way. Atlanta and Birmingham papers picked up the story. Local television ran continuous footage of the gutted landmark. Comments and questions poured in to the local newspaper and radio. Will the ruins of our treasured landmark remain until the rubble is cleared for a new building? Will the people of Cartersville allow a place, that for over 60 years has been a second home for many, be leveled?

After the initial shock wore off, the community pulled together to save the 4-Way. Sue Brockman began an appeal to local businesses, then went door to door requesting donations. Pete Starnes displayed T-shirts, caps, and mementos, which quickly sold out. Food suppliers donated food, and a local electrician re-wired the 4-Way free of charge. Congratulating the community on its united effort to save the landmark, Garrison declared, "We did this!"

To the absolute delight of townsfolk, with only a two-month wait, the 4-Way was back in business. People from Mississippi, Virginia and North Carolina who had made eating at the 4-way a ritual over the years, came to the re-opening celebration. Not only did they want mementos of their "favorite place," they wanted to once again enjoy the food and friendliness that is the 4-Way's hallmark.

Jubilant customers, nearly 500 that day, took turns occupying stools. They ate. They laughed. They told stories and shared experiences. "As a little boy, my daddy would pick me up and put me on the stool," one customer began. "I remember holding on to the red counter real tight with both hands, then I'd swing from side to side while waiting for my cheeseburger and Ne-Hi grape soda."

Cartersville resident, Loraine Fourine, fondly remembered the stool that wobbled. "Maybe they could fix one to wobble," Fourine said.

"I never will forget my father and grandfather's favorite--burgers with steak gravy," another customer said, adding, "As a kid, I would not eat hot dogs from anywhere but the 4-Way."

Still another diner put his cheeseburger down long enough to say, "This here is a nice, friendly place to eat, where folks don't mind rubbing elbows with those next to them. Lawyers and ditch-diggers sit side by side."

One diner boasted that he couldn't start the day without breakfast at the 4-Way.

Clifford Puryear, 77, first ate in the 4-way when he was 21 years old, and has been coming to Cartersville, from Powder Springs, no less than twice a week, ever since. "Back then, I would have borrowed money to get here," he said.

Patron, Bill Gore, said, "Eating at the 4-way is an experience. My family and I get together and drive from Floyd County to eat at the place that I've been going to since I was a kid. I've eaten my share of cheeseburgers. " Gore wondered why, after the fire, Garrison didn't replace the soft ice cream machine. "I looked forward to that treat."

Among those relishing the 4-Way fare at its reopening, was a man wearing a finely tailored business suit, a napkin tucked into his shirt collar. Looking up from his plate, he asked, "Who covers fries with gravy besides the 4-Way?"

For years, the menu at the 4-way has remained unchanged. Garrison only recently added iced tea and biscuits. "Hoppy" Edwards, the head cook for twenty years, is famous for turning out some of the sloppiest burgers this side of Atlanta--gravy covers the whole plate.

Also unchanged, is the diner's lack of a telephone. In its 68 years at the same location, the 4-Way has never had a phone. Customers and employees wanting to make a call have to walk across the street to the service station. Ask Sue Brockman and Pete Starnes why they don't have one, and they will probably tell you there is hardly enough room for them and the cook, let alone a phone. Even after renovating, Garrison chose not to install a phone.

Shortly after the grand reopening, I returned to the 4-Way. At the end of the brand new red counter, cluttered with salt and pepper shakers from the lunch crowd, an elderly gentleman sat with a cane resting against his leg. His hand shook as he brought a cup of coke to his lips.

The clatter Sue and Pete made didn't seem to bother him, nor did the loud voices of the two teenagers bouncing up and down on stools, waiting for their hamburgers "all the way." When he brought that hamburger dripping gravy up to his lips, I knew he must be in hamburger heaven.

In 1995, Senator Nathan Dean passed a senate resolution commending the 4-Way Lunch for over fifty years of continuous service. "The terrific reputation and rich history of this classic local diner, where the smell of onion gravy is as much a part of the place as the tattered bar stools or the wooden clock with a picture of the restaurant on it, continues to lure new patrons along with the old, and its long standing success as an excellent eatery deserves recognition and praise."

In the same year the 4-Way burned, Cartersville was chosen 54th out of the 100 best small towns in America., a fitting tribute to the idea that to live in a small town is to stay in touch with what we humans are really all about--the nucleus of a common bond. The people of Cartersville never thought twice about saving the 4-Way. Today, a plaque honoring those who helped rebuild it hangs on the wall of the diner, a daily reminder that when people put their hearts together for a cause, there are no boundaries that can not be overcome.

This article was originally published in the Cartersville Magazine.

Mae Frances Barrena--she who dances with words--lives in Cartersville, Georgia with her husband.  They have two sons and two grandsons.  Mae is a former New Yorker.  She came south 19 years ago, loves it here and intends to stay.  

Her words have appeared in a variety of publications.
Regional: Georgia, North Georgia Journal, Etowah Valley Historical Society Newsletter.  National: Guideposts/Angels on Earth, Massage, Grit and others.  She has a short piece slated for an upcoming issue of Senior Golfer. 

A few months ago Mae asked her words for a dance: a book about her life as a professional dancer tentatively titled "Glitter". Come on over and enjoy the show!


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