By Joanne Hill
The heirs of Thomas O. Alexander sold the property where the once bustling and successful Alexander’s Food Market operated. Situated at the lower end of N. Main Street in Stuart, the building has not been an operative business since Farmer’s Foods sold the property to Food Lion, which had opened a new store in Stuart. Before that Alexander’s, an IGA (Independent Grocers Alliance) grocery store, had operated in the location since 1966.
The first Alexander’s Food Market opened on the east side of Main Street in the 1950s and later moved into the new facility.
According to Alexander (1916-1980), who established the business in 1957, the new store was the first business established in Patrick County to have automatic entry doors and many other modern and up to date improvements. The new building was built by local contractor, Clark Brothers Co., Inc.
Alexander, who was known for using the phrase “fine and dandy,” was not new to the grocery business even then.
Having grown up in Walhalla, S.C., he moved to Danville with his family when he was a teenager and started working for Kroger. He always seemed to regret that he was unable to finish his schooling and only went to the eighth grade. However, the many letters he wrote to his family during WWII shows an admirable use of grammar, spelling and composition. He was inducted into the US Army in 1943 and became a medical technician.
While working for Kroger in Danville, he met Lucille Hylton from Stuart, who had moved to Danville to attend Averett University and seek pre-war employment. The two were married in her parents’ home in Stuart on Christmas Day, 1939. Thomas Alexander was inducted at Camp Lee on May 7, 1943. He was transferred to Camp Pickett for basic training and then shuffled around to several others bases before he was shipped out of Port of Embarkation in New York.
His many letters were carefully saved and stored by his parents, L. Wade and Fannie Hylton. The letters have each been copied and bound in a book by his granddaughter Pamela Alexander Hylton. All were endorsed by the Army before they were mailed from an anonymous address to a single address in New York and each gives a detailed and revealing account of his daily activities during his service.
While stationed in several European locations, Alexander wrote that the food was not so good. He described sleeping on cots in tents and sometimes on the ground, of having to be moved because of bed bugs, riding in the truck bed for hours in the rain, boiling socks to get them clean and how much he wanted the war to end so that he could return home to his wife, family and to be a grocer man. He also told of bombs exploding nearby and his unit receiving shrapnel. He reported that he was trained to set up tents for a field hospital in six hours. Most of his duties involved treating injured and sick soldiers.
He was discharged on November 8, 1945 and received a bronze star for meritorious achievement. He resumed his employment at Kroger in Danville and also worked in Kroger stores in Martinsville, Winston-Salem and Mount Airy, N.C.
Eventually, the Alexanders returned to Stuart and he began working at W.L. Ashby’s Store, which was a grocery store but also sold everything from nails to men’s suits. The Ashby store was originally located in downtown Stuart but had moved to uptown to Main Street and was located in the one-story building which is now flanks Blue Ridge Furniture on the left. In 1947, Alexander became owner and manager of Ashby’s and began to concentrate mostly on groceries.
During his time there, he saw a need for a larger and more up-scale grocery store, so he bought property on the eastside of Main Street, built a new grocery store there and started Alexander’s Food Market. Alexander sold it in 1966, and built his new store on the west side of Main Street, after deciding more shelf space and parking were essential to meet the needs of customers.
The new store also opened in 1966, it served many customers from throughout the area. Alexander, who always felt he was lacking due to his poor educational achievement, was happy when for the first time his stores gross income exceeded $1 million — a goal he had always wanted to achieve.
Being an active member of Virginia Food Dealers Association, and serving as president and on the board of directors, he was always learning and applying the latest business methods. He attended meetings throughout Virginia and often enjoyed national grocers’ meetings held across the U.S.
Another of his goals was learning to fly an airplane. He received his flying license in 1946, then purchased a plane and often flew to his many meeting destinations. He hangered his plane at the Blue Ridge Regional Airport.
Not only did he own a Cessna 172, which was a 4-seater for his trips, he also owned a two-seater Piper J-3 Cub in which he could do loops and spins. Nothing pleased him more than flying low in his bright yellow plane and yelling out the window to Stuart residents who were watching him from the ground.
He often landed and tied up his little pleasure plane in the bottom area of what is now DeHart Park.
Alexander had a pleasant outgoing personality and always wanted to please his customers.
Bag boys carried groceries to cars, meat market workers cut meat to order and gave customers leftover scraps for their dogs. He worked hard, 10 to 12 hour, six days a week, except for on Wednesdays, when the store closed at 1 p.m.
He used what spare time he had for flying and spending time with his family. Cooking steaks on a built-in indoor grill twice a week was his joy, along with buying the first lace-up leather shoes for his grandchildren. Nothing made him happier than having the grandchildren hanging out of the back of his station wagon as they rode home from church on Sundays. He served as deacon and superintendent of Sunday School at Stuart Baptist Church, where he and Lucille usually wore color-coordinated Sunday outfits. He was also active in civic organizations including being a charter member of the Patrick County Jaysees, president of the Rotary Club, a member of the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce and the local fire department.
In 1983, at the age of 65, he decided it was time to slow down and retired. He sold the business to his son, William Alexander, Sr. (1947-2014). Sadly, later that year, William Alexander had a cerebral hemorrhage working at the store and passed away a few days later. He was survived by his wife, son, a daughter, Linda A. Lawson, and five grandchildren.
A church rented the building for several months, but their plan to buy it did not work out, and it was empty for some time.
The new owners, Hop Co., LLC, purchased the property and took over in July 1918. Many improvements have been made and the future is bright. Whatever happens, anyone who knew Alexander can hear him say, it will be “fine and dandy.” Another of the greatest generation touched the lives of many and left a legacy that will forever live on Main Street in Patrick County.
(Hill is a retired educator and frequent contributor to The Enterprise.)