Remembering Rutherford: Song tells of good food, hospitality at Miss Ann’s

Daily News Journal, Greg Tucker, February 7, 2015

A local “good time house” is immortalized in song.

Mrs. Lillie Ann McClellan owned her home at 535 Hancock St. in Murfreesboro. She lived there from the mid-1950s to at least the end of the 1980s. She was the widow of John B. McClellan Jr., who died young, and the daughter-in-law of Dr. John Baptist McClellan, who lived to be 96.

(When Dr. McClellan, an 1880 Meharry Medical College graduate, retired in 1938 at the age of 80, he was known to be the oldest practicing physician in Rutherford County. During his first two decades after graduation, Dr. McClellan taught in the Rutherford County public schools to supplement his physician income.)

To supplement her income as the “on call” cook for the Murfreesboro Moose Lodge, Mrs. Lillie Ann McClellan (known to most as “Miss Ann”) began serving food and drink to “cash customers” at 535 Hancock in the late 1960s and continued in business for more than two decades.

She also made a room available for overnight boarders. Her hours were more or less continuous through the weekend and she had a good number of late-night regulars. “When the late shift let out at the Chromalox plant,” according to Earl Lehew, “Ms. Ann’s place would often have a crowd.”

After she quit cooking at the Moose Lodge to devote full-time to her own business, Miss Ann often hosted late-night Moose gatherings, according to long-time Lodge member Roy Eakes.

The online Urban Dictionary defines a “good time house” as a residence where liquor could be purchased and consumed on or off the premises.

In addition to her cooking, Miss Ann sold pints and half-pints of bourbon, gin, vodka and scotch brought in from Nashville. (Rutherford was at the time a “dry” county.)

If the customer wanted a cold pint of liquor, she always had some in the freezer. One regular patron believes she also sold some local product because you could “bring your own bottle and she would fill it with what sure looked, smelled and tasted like white lightnin.'”

The food was whatever she fixed on a given night — often fried chicken and a couple of sides.

“Miss Ann made the best fried chicken and cornbread in the county,” insists William Crockett.

Eakes fondly remembers her beef stew. Her cooking was popular among those who worked night shifts.

“We often called in an order and Miss Ann would have our fried chicken delivered to Central (the fire hall on Vine Street),” recalls retired fireman Larry McDonald. “A fellow we called ‘Shag’ would bring it over.”

From the street Miss Ann’s place looked like a modest residence. Patrons would knock on the front door and, if known to Miss Ann or referred by someone she knew, they would be admitted.

The door opened into the living room where there were several small tables “like card tables,” remembers one frequent patron. A second room had a few more tables. On the wall just inside the front door hung a picture of John and Bobby Kennedy with Martin Luther King.

Lehew recalls that the place was dimly lit. “It was light enough that I could see George Ramsey sitting to one side and a shotgun propped in the corner next to him.” Ramsey had a record of multiple arrests and usually carried a pistol. He lived in the house, and acted like he was in charge. Miss Ann let him watch the customers and “manage” the rented jukebox.

When the young rental-company employee would come to service the jukebox, Ramsey would always insist that records he had purchased be included among the selections on the machine. Finally Miss Ann purchased her own jukebox, and Ramsey got to make up the entire playlist. (After Miss Ann retired, the jukebox was sold to one of her regular patrons.)

Despite the “good time” nature of her business, Miss Ann had no problems with discipline.

“She was a good judge of people,” recalls Crockett. “If she thought you might misbehave or get too loud, you didn’t get in. Once she tried to hire me as her bouncer, but I didn’t think it was needed. I was kinda on call if she needed any help. Maybe three times I went over there when she called, and all it took was a word of caution.”

“I never felt unsafe at Miss Ann’s,” recalls a regular “food only” patron. “I ate there with my wife. Back then it was about the only place where you could get a late-night meal.”

Miss Ann’s visitors remember that there was never any racial tension. “There was always a mixed crowd and often there would be more white than black,” says one former patron. “Miss Ann said she didn’t care whether a customer was black or white, just so long as his money was green.”

Most white patrons were apparently unaware of Miss Ann’s overnight accommodations, but black visitors were often referred to her.

“Back then there weren’t many places in the area where blacks could rent a room,” explains Crockett. “I remember that when Ike and Tina Turner were in town to perform at Elmo Gaines’ place, they stayed at Miss Ann’s.”

Some Alabama musicians stayed and ate with Miss Ann on one occasion and were so impressed they wrote and published a song titled “Miss Ann’s Café.” It was recorded at the Quicksilver Sound Studio in Sulligent, Alabama, and released on the Morrilou label.

Sound-mixed on an eight-track with a four-piece band, the lyrics reflect the racial equality found at Miss Ann’s (“…they treat you right…black and white”). “That record was on her jukebox,” recalls one loyal patron. “I played it every time I was there.”

When Ramsey developed cancer, Miss Ann cared for him at her place until he died, notes Crockett. Eakes remembers that Ramsey wanted to leave all he had to Miss Ann. “I got Wilkes Coffey to write his will,” recalls Eakes. “I signed as a witness.”

Miss Ann apparently prospered, for she cared not only for her own but provided help to many of her neighbors.

“Miss Ann’s place was one of several around the county where enforcement was informally ‘hands off’ unless there were noise complaints or reports of violence,” recalls a local law enforcement officer, now retired. If there was a complaint, Miss Ann would get a call advising when the “raid” would occur. When the officers arrived, they would find a few “brothers” enjoying some fine home cooking, explains Eakes.

Even after her retirement, Miss Ann welcomed visits by former customers.

“We would sit on her porch and talk. Despite her age and declining health, she always talked of possibly reopening her business,” says one who remembers. “She was one of the nicest ladies I have ever known.”

Mrs. Lillie Ann McClellan (Miss Ann) died at the Community Care nursing home in August 2006.

A special thanks for research assistance to former patrons of Miss Ann’s place.

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