Each one of us great-grandsons got one every Christmas. Sealed inside a crisp white envelope. As predictable as turkey on the table or going to a Christmas Eve service. They were a $50 Savings Bond and they were a gift from my great-grandfather, Carl Hall, whom we all affectionately called, “Choo-Choo.”
By Mark Wallace Maguire
As a child, I wasn’t super enthused about the pink and green bonds. They weren’t shiny Star Wars toys or glossy Hot Rods, but I dutifully thanked him, gave him a hug and then entrusted that slip of paper to my parents for safe keeping. Twenty, then 30 years later, I cashed most of them in, once for a brief stint in graduate school and another time to help buy a car. Each time, I went to the bank and passed those bonds over the cool counter, my respect for Choo-Choo’s keen financial insight grew by leaps and bounds. I still have one left — now stained and crinkled by age — that I keep in a drawer for some special occasion one day.
Even with this said, I imagine the idea of doling out savings bonds to a parcel of great-grandchildren for Christmas gifts might sound odd, but coming from Choo-Choo’s business background it makes perfect sense.
He was born in 1893 in Blue Ridge, Ga. and like most of the folks in that area grew up living off what they could grow from the land, catch from the river or any work that could be found. Fortunately, all that changed in the early 1920s. The TVA began work on a dam to create Lake Blue Ridge. Seeing and seizing an opportunity, Choo-Choo opened a dry goods store, Hall’s Dry Goods, where he began selling merchandise to the workers from the dam.
He would open around 6 a.m. and close it as late as 10 p.m. to accommodate any and all customers. He possessed that almost-mythic American work ethic and zeal and, over time, it paid dividends and his business flourished for many decades. During the run of Hall’s Dry Goods, he hired a brother, friends and, even at one point, his own father to work at the store. (I can only imagine the odd and strange dynamics that went on and I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall then, if not to only witness the exchanges, but also to collect inspiration for some short stories.)
And Choo-Choo didn’t stop at the dry goods shop. He launched other businesses, including brief ‘one-off’ ventures, such as a sandwich shop that he and some friends opened once a year when the fair came to town.
His hard work and success apparently made an impression on his wife – my beloved Granny. In the 1930s, she opened The Little Shop to not only provide local women with up-to-date stylish clothing, but also to ensure that when her daughter attended UGA she would be clothed in the latest fashions.
However, all was not the perfect American Dream for our venerable family entrepreneur.
One venture, in particular, left a bad taste in his mouth. At some point, he opened a restaurant. Being a self-starter by nature, he made plans to not only run the front end, but be the cook as well. As my dad tells the story, the first morning, he got a complaint from a customer.
“Carl, these eggs are terrible.”
“Well, I’m sorry, what can I do to make it up for you?”
“Next time, take the shells off before you cook them. I also think you should get out of the restaurant business.”
Apparently, Choo-Choo had never scrambled eggs and figured it couldn’t be too hard.
Well, one point for effort.
Zero points for execution.
I don’t know if Choo-Choo ever tried to scramble eggs again, but according to my father, he quickly sold that business, thankfully didn’t lose any money and didn’t venture near the culinary business again.
Eventually, as the maxim goes, all good things must come to an end. While Hall’s Dry Goods and The Little Shop did well, poor health and age forced Choo-Choo and Granny to move south to be closer to family. In the late 1970s, they sold the shops and settled in Thomaston, Ga.
And while the Hall legacy for entrepreneurship did not continue to thrive in Blue Ridge, the desire for owning and operating a business was passed on. Currently, my brother, Jonathan Hall Maguire, owns a profitable foundation repair company. His wife occasionally works there. A cousin, Jon Maguire, owns a successful sports academy. And I’ve had other relatives own and operate family businesses, and, yes, I’ve worked for them too occasionally through the years when I needed the work probably more than they needed me (thanks, especially, Uncle Steve).
These days, family-owned businesses are rarer and rarer in this age of having to fight against the strength of corporate business mergers. And, never mind, having to fight the Internet. Of course, if I worked at a family business, my biggest fight would be with my family!
Bottom line: Owning and operating a family-owned business is no easy task and the pressure to not only live up to a legacy, but to leave one as well can be daunting.
For me, I am just glad to have inherited a small legacy from Choo-Choo. A legacy to remember the importance of hard work and drive. And, thankfully, if I ever need to be reminded, I can open my dresser drawer and get a reminder by looking at that last Savings Bond.