Memory of eccentric entrepreneur still remains

Gloria Shacklett Christy, The Murfreesboro Post, January 27, 2013

In this undated photo, residents stand outside the old Murfreesboro City Hall building that John Valley “Poor Boy” White later turned into a popular restaurant during the early 1930s in Murfreesboro, TN. (Photo submitted)

Almost 75 years ago, downtown Murfreesboro was the center of the region’s economic activity. 

Every Saturday, folks from surrounding Middle Tennessee counties would come to shop, visit with neighbors and trade. 

On the corner of South Maple and Vine streets, which is now the Boro Barber Academy, there was a vacant lot used during the weekdays for hitching horses, buggies and wagons. 

On Saturdays, the lot was filled with fur-traders and farmers who augmented their income by trapping. Trading would occur all day with knives, guns, horses and mules, as well as the furs. 

Today for that reason, this area is known as the “Mink Slide.”

Minkslide to Main Street by C.B. Arnette is available at the Ransom School House for only $20 ($10 for RCHS members)

In 1928, a tall, slender fellow with a steel-gray mustache came into town. 

John Valley White had been operating a concession with a traveling carnival for several years. 

White was a true entrepreneur. He rented the northeast corner of Vine and Maple streets, where he stretched a 30- by 25-foot tent right in the center of the fur-trading activity. 

He wasn’t interested in a fancy atmosphere; he covered the dirt floor with red cedar sawdust obtained from the local Cedar Bucket Factory. He installed a wooden counter, two wooden half-barrels for drinks and ice, and a cooking stove. There were no benches or chairs. White was mainly interested in hustling his customers in and out quickly.

At noon every day, the tantalizing aroma of the hamburgers and onions would drift all over the Square. 

Soon there would be folks standing shoulder to shoulder lined up to grab one of his delicious hamburgers. 

According to those who remembered, the burgers were enormous. 

White – or “Poor Boy” as he came to be called – had hotdogs, sausage, hamburgers, ham, eggs and cold drinks, all for one price – a nickel.

On fur trading day, customers would spill out into the streets. Eventually, Poor Boy’s set a record for the most customers served at any restaurant in Murfreesboro in his time. 

Word went out that White might be mixing sawdust in his patties or worse. 

Eurel Sauls recalled, “I’ve heard he’d mix dog meat into his burgers. In those days, it didn’t seem to matter, he still had plenty of customers.” 

C.B. Arnette once suggested, “Folks just didn’t give the guy credit. He was just very generous with his portions. I’d think you’d probably taste something like sawdust, don’t you? But those burgers were just delicious.”

Even though the Great Depression brought an economic blight over most of Murfreesboro, this didn’t stop Poor Boy’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

Officials had vacated the Murfreesboro City Hall and Fire Department on the corner of Vine and Church streets. 

Poor Boy promptly leased the newly vacated building for use as a restaurant on the spacious lower floor of City Hall. 

This was right across the street from the Sunshine Hosiery Mill, now the site of Regions Bank. The mill was the largest industry in town and paid the best wages. White knew this would be an ideal location to draw a substantial lunchtime crowd from the factory. 

White took his “everything for a nickel” concept with him when he moved to the old City Hall. 

My late uncle Dr. William Shacklett remembered hearing folks say Poor Boy would feed almost anyone. 

Arnette also agreed, “While in those days a black person could not enter the establishment from the front door, an order could be placed from the side door on Vine Street to a black patron.” 

While most restaurant owners would not even serve blacks, they could always count on receiving the same quality food and generous portions from Poor Boy’s kitchen.

Poor Boy had a real flair for publicity and often used innovative ideas to promote his business. 

During the economic turmoil of the 1930s, people were captivated by a variety of diversions and money-making schemes. Dancing, rocking chair, staying awake, flying and kissing marathons became popular all across the nation.

Poor Boy constructed a flagpole outside his restaurant and hired a sitter to perch high aloft on its tiny seat. He had hoped to attract national attention to his restaurant and Murfreesboro for setting the pole-sitting record. 

After five days, however, adverse public sentiment intervened, and the young man was encouraged to come down. 

But this tenacious entrepreneur would not be deterred. 

In those days, public address systems that could play music were a relatively new invention and still a novelty. 

White mounted four huge horn-shaped speakers in the belfry of the old City Hall. This idea was an immediate success. Folks knew when they heard the music from several blocks away that the Poor Boy Restaurant was open for business.

The idea worked well – for a while – until one Sunday morning when White, by the way not a church goer, thought to start the music a bit earlier to attract the church-going crowd. 

Unwittingly, he turned up his strident brass band music at the precise moment when most pastors were either concluding their sermons or leading their congregations in prayer. 

Suddenly, the town’s contemplative souls were startled by crackling military trumpets and scratchy drums marching through the rooftops and walls of the Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Church of Christ, and Presbyterian churches. 

By Monday afternoon, it seems White had been advised – in no uncertain terms – to remove the loudspeakers from the belfry. 

Even though many of his promotional ideas ended abruptly, 75 years have not dimmed the memory of Poor Boy and his delectable, affordable cuisine.

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