Back when I was a kid, one of the highlights of summer was getting to spend the night at my uncle’s place in Colbert, the tiny Northeast Georgia town where my father and his brothers grew up.
Uncle Larry, my dad’s kid brother, was always up for a game of catch, or telling us wild stories about Indians and bears and other imaginary denizens of Colbert’s forests.
Still, the best part of staying over was getting treated to some of the best hot dogs I ever ate, served up at a roadside gas station.
As the years went by, though, the steamed weenies, dubbed “Bill’s waterlogged dogs” by some locals, were consigned to my childhood memories. I thought the station, which had been pumping gas and serving dogs since 1945, had been lost to “progress” after a road-widening saw the old building demolished.
Then, I discovered it was still in operation, minus the gas pumps, in a new location a mile or so up the road from the original. So, my daughter Olivia and I decided to make the trek to Colbert (pronounced Call-bert), a tiny railroad hamlet about a dozen miles from my hometown of Athens.
The trip doesn’t take nearly as long as when Dad drove it, and Ga. 72 no longer is lined with cotton fields stinking of insecticide, but it’s still like a trip to a very different place and time.
A piece of the past greeted us as we pulled into the parking lot: Signs from the original place (“Billy Meadow’s Station, Best Dogs in Town”) adorn the simple plank building where the restaurant moved in 1999.
From the outside it doesn’t look like a place you’d want to visit, but it lived up to my daughter’s rule about rural restaurants: “The more it looks like a shack, the better it tends to be.”
Inside, you’ll find a counter with a few stools in front of it and a couple of picnic tables. The décor consists mostly of wild-game hunting trophies on the wood-paneled wall, a Willy Nelson concert poster and some Georgia Bulldogs knickknacks. There’s also a picture of the original location with its Gulf gas pumps.
You want down-home? A roll of paper towels sits on each table, and the hot dogs and sandwiches are served on a sheet of wax paper. On the tables sit shakers of Sweet Will’s Seasoning Salt, which also is available for sale. “Mr. Bill makes that,” manager Jean Hancock said of the semi-retired owner, Bill Farris, son-in-law of Billy Meadow’s Station’s namesake. It’s meant for grilling meats, “but we say it’s good on everything except chocolate pudding and ice cream. Some people put it on their hot dogs.”
The menu doesn’t stray far from the place’s post-war gas station roots: hot dogs, with the traditional mustard, ketchup and onions, if you want them, plus your choice of slaw, chili, cheese or, if you’re really living large, slaw, chili and cheese. Plus, sandwiches (ham and cheese, “corn beef,” chicken salad, ham salad, grilled cheese and pimento cheese).
You place your order and take a seat; you pay when you leave (they’ll figure up your tab on a calculator; the 1910 cash register, salvaged from an Athens five-and-dime, can’t handle any amount over $3.99.)
With the exception of adding a couple of sandwiches in the past five years, it’s pretty much like it always was. “We try and keep it simple,” Hancock said.
Hot dogs still rule over sandwiches, she said. The chili and slaw dogs run neck and neck, “though the chili dog is probably our No. 1.”
Hancock, who went to high school in Athens and lives up the road in Hull, has worked at Meadow’s almost 17 years. “I love working here,” she said. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I love the people.”
The clientele is mostly locals, she said, but folks do make the drive from Athens and surrounding towns, such as Danielsville and Carlton. “We’ve had people from Florida stop in who grew up here,” she added.
There are lots of regulars. “We know their name and what they eat and start getting it ready when we see them coming.”
I asked her why people keep coming back after all these years. Hancock turned to a couple at the other table. “Why do y’all keep coming back here?”
“Tradition,” said Colbert resident Jason Arrendale. He said he has been coming to Meadow’s for hot dogs ever since he was able to walk. “My daddy and granddaddy brought me.”
Of course, there aren’t a lot of dining options in Colbert, a town of about 600 people, with only the Bread Basket food store and a pizza place for competition. But, just down the road in Athens is an array of restaurant chains.
“They ain’t got the best hot dog,” Hancock said.
Keith Parnell of Carlton started coming to Billy Meadow’s Station with his mother when he was a boy in Athens. Even after he’d moved away from home, and was using a wheelchair, his mom would come get him. “And she and I would go to eat at Billy’s. We’d always buy double the order, to eat there, and some to take home for later.” (His favorite: “Just a straight chili dog with mustard.”)
The dogs do indeed taste as good as I remembered from my boyhood, especially the slaw dog. “We don’t ever boil them,” Hancock said. “They are steamed. And the buns are toasted.”
Our day in Colbert was a regular homefest. After our hot dog lunch, my daughter and I spent an afternoon exploring the 1-square-mile town, known for its roadside red canna lilies and annual Fourth of July parade and festival. We looked up family landmarks, including the spot at the end of a somewhat dilapidated row of stores across from the former train station “downtown,” where my grandfather, Grady King, once ran his own little corner burger joint.
Papa King — who also owned and drove the school bus, kept books for a local businessman, and served as town clerk and a City Council member — cooked up Brunswick stew and fried salmon, my uncle remembers. “This one old woman told him, ‘Mr. Grady, you get more salmon out of a can than anyone I’ve ever seen!’ He put a lot of flour in it.”
But, Grady’s Place (as my uncle thinks it was called) was known mainly for its battered hamburgers, served “with a lot of onion in them.”
Standing there with my daughter on a hot summer day, after a tasty lunch of Bill’s waterlogged dogs, I almost could smell my grandfather’s burgers cooking.
I don’t know if time travel really is possible, but I’d say we came close that day.
Billy Meadow’s Station. Open 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. 6729 Highway 72, Colbert. 706-788-3517. facebook.com/pages/Meadows-Billy-Station/169797736367189.
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