Panel votes to demolish Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, famed ‘Old South’ restaurant in Smyrna

Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, an iconic World War II-era restaurant that attracted countless diners to Smyrna over several decades, appears set to fade into history.

A city task force this week decided to demolish the 70-year-old cabin. It was decision partly based on the decaying state of the aging building, which has a number of structural issues. The cost to renovate the cabin would likely have eclipsed $500,000, according to city estimates.

Task force members were also unable to get past Aunt Fanny’s Cabin’s sordid history. The restaurant became world famous in the 1940s, hailed for its southern recipes and family-like atmosphere.

But it was notorious as a themed diner that used racially demeaning stereotypes from the “Old South” to entertain guests. Black boys hired as servers wore wooden menu boards around their necks. There were reports that framed slave advertisements decorated the walls. And city officials recovered some racially derogatory relics from the past inside the cabin.

“The story of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was so troublesome to me, I just think it was time for it to go,” said task force chairman Travis Lindley, a Smyrna city councilman.

The racially-mixed panel of city councilmen, citizens and a historian unanimously settled on the decision to tear the structure down during a meeting Monday night. Task force members slated one last remnant for preservation – the cabin’s fireplace and chimney. That will be used as the first piece of a monument that pays tribute to Fanny Williams, the unheralded Black woman after which Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was named.

“It really came down to do we want this to be a part of our community. And that, at the end of the day, was something that we all had to kind of wrestle with,” City Councilman Lewis Wheaton, the task force’s co-chairman, told the AJC on Wednesday. “My hope and expectation is that we will shift to having better conversations about what to do with that property to pay tribute to Fanny Williams herself. And that’s where I think we are headed now.”

A Smyrna committee that includes Mayor Derek Norton, city council members and administrative department heads is expected to meet at 6 p.m. Thursday to discuss the task force’s findings. They will brainstorm ideas for how to memorialize Williams.

The controversial restaurant came to mean different things for different people tied to its past and future. Wheaton, the only Black member of Smyrna’s City Council, said he was “emotionally shaken” when he toured the cabin for the first time years ago and saw images of Black boys his son’s age waiting on tables with boards on their necks.

“That has always been a hard part of it, and I cannot separate my identity from the conversation, although I still have to make a decision,” Wheaton said. “But I am pleased to know the discussion that we’ve had as a community. It really acknowledged the painful memories that were raised at that cabin, and how we want to move forward with telling the history of the people more than the history of a restaurant.”

Jane Farmer doesn’t remember Aunt Fanny’s as a hotbed of bigotry. When she thought back on the restaurant this week, she recalled a “happy place.”

Farmer grew up in the cabin, checking diners’ hats and coats for nickel and dime tips. Her grandmother, Marjorie Bowman, leased and eventually purchased the restaurant from its founder, Isoline Campbell. She and her business partner, Harvey Hester, owned Aunt Fanny’s until Bowman died in 1968.

Farmer remembered famed entertainers like Bing Crosby stopping by for a meal. She said it was not uncommon for Bowman to ask servers to dance for patrons or entertain them with an impromptu Negro spiritual. But she did not recall any of the more racially offensive gimmicks for which the restaurant became infamous.

“Aunt Fanny’s wasn’t just a place,” she wrote in a letter to the AJC. “It was much more … the countryside, gospel singing, the friendships, the laughter, the blaring loud kitchen radio, kids playing outside. It was the happiest time in my life.”

Farmer suggested the menu boards and slave ads were introduced after Aunt Fanny’s fell into the hands of its third owner George “Pongo” Poole, who ran the restaurant until 1988. The restaurant, opened in 1941 just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and closed its doors for good in 1992. But pieces of it were salvaged and added to a replica at the city’s welcome center on Atlanta Road.

“It changed,” she said. “My grandmother, she would never have had that stuff up there, for lots of reasons. It’s just not right.”

Farmer acknowledged that many people at the time were unaware how hurtful some symbols of the pre-Civil War south have historically been to Black people and members of other races. She got choked up at one point reminiscing about the formative childhood memories at the cabin and talking about its importance to her family.

When asked what she thought of the task force’s decision, she was unsure if the cabin should remain standing, but seemed content that there would finally be a tribute to Fanny Williams.

“It’s really important to us, those years and what happened back then,” she said of Aunt Fanny’s. “People were always so glad to see you ... It was such a beautiful thing and a great place to go. People loved it. But I’m so very sorry that it offended people, it should not do that. And if we could go back in time, we’d change it.”