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By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County Historian

April 9, 1920: Folkston’s population had just reached a thousand, and the little town was beginning to move out of its economic doldrums. That year women would, for the first time, be able to vote nation-wide. One of the finest, Willie Mae Stegall Banks, was busily putting the finishing touches on Folkston’s newest restaurant. She would name it Banks’ Café -- a name that became a household word in the small South Georgia town for a quarter-century.

Only 31 years old at the time, Willie Mae Banks and her family had been in Folkston for only 18 months. Her husband, 39 year old W.E. Banks was the new pharmacist at Pearce Drug Store near the railroad tracks on Main Street. The drug store was owned by Donald Pearce and his brother-in-law, E.B. Stapleton, Sr.

Mrs. Banks’ first restaurant was in a remodeled building on Folkston’s Main Street known as the “old garage”. The Charlton County Herald’s front page story on that Friday, April 20, 1920 described the interior as having light green walls and being “up-to-date and sanitary.” It was apparently the town’s only restaurant at that time, and welcomed by everyone in town.

Mrs. Banks’ husband and his brother John B. Banks were listed as owners of the business, but soon the whole town would call it “Mrs. Banks’ restaurant.” Folkston, with just over a thousand people in its city limits was just beginning to grow. The county’s population was just over 7,000. A new dentist, Dr. J.S. Taylor had just opened an office in town, and more and more automobiles were seen on the town’s dirt streets.

Mr. and Mrs. Banks had four young children. Two, Mary and Whit W., were Mr. Banks’ children by a previous wife who died. The other two, Crawford and Raymond were children of Willie Mae and Whit E. Banks. Mrs. Banks had come from a prominent family in Decatur County. Her husband was a native of Randolph County.

While Dr. Banks, as the pharmacist was called, worked at the drug store, Mrs. Banks operated her restaurant. She put all of her energy into the business and soon it became the most popular place in town. Only her love of God and of the First Baptist Church came ahead of her restaurant.

In March of 1922, Mrs. Banks sold the restaurant to a Mrs. Wright and her son. But, her respite from the restaurant business was to be for less than a year. Within twelve months she had opened another Banks’ Café in Folkston in a different location.

Perhaps her best known and most popular restaurant was located in the brick building now occupied by Johnson Brothers Hardware as a farm and garden department. It was built for her in the mid-twenties by four local businessmen led by E.B. Stapleton and William Mizell, Jr. She ran her restaurant there until she sold it to Richard and Martha Grace Bragg on September 16, 1944. She had operated restaurants on the town’s Main Street for 24 years.

Mrs. Banks soon became known as the town’s Good Samaritan. Her reputation for generosity and kindness spread throughout the region. Panhandlers painted distinguishing marks on the outside of her restaurant building to alert other free-loaders of a free meal for the asking. Her son, Whit, finally discovered the strange markings and painted them out, effectively reducing the free handouts measurably. Her restaurant tables were always covered with tablecloths. The wholesome home cooked meals were sumptuous and delicious. It became the in place to eat.

Mrs. Banks’ mother, Mrs. Claude Stegall, of Thomasville, visited her daughter in Folkston often. Mrs. Stegall’s husband, Claude, a former sheriff of Decatur County, was killed in the line of duty.

Mrs. Banks’ acts of kindness became legend. On one occasion, one of Folkston’s rural mail carriers, Henry Gibson, was badly injured when his automobile was struck by a train on the Main Street crossing. He was finally freed from the wreckage and carried to the office of Dr. Albert Fleming on First Street.

In shock, and nearly freezing, and before Dr. Fleming arrived at his office, Gibson credited Mrs. Banks with saving his life as she gathered up all the hot water bottles in a three-block area, filled them with hot water from her nearby restaurant and packed them around him while waiting for Dr. Fleming. Without considering her restaurant, she shuffled back and forth between the doctor’s office and her place of business, keeping the bottles filled with hot water.

The kindly Mrs. Banks often seemed to have more than her share of problems. An adventurous stepson brought her many hours of anxiety. Her religion and faith always bridged the troubles waters and she was never heard to complain.

Dr. Banks, who graduated from a Macon, Georgia pharmacy school in 1906, was elected as Justice of the Peace from the Folkston District in 1928. He soon began to tire of his job at the drug store, and wanted to spend his full time at his J.P. duties. In 1936, when Pearce Stapleton, the drug store owner’s son became a registered pharmacist, Banks was able to go to his J.P. job full time. From his home on Cypress Street he filled that office until his death, at age 69 on October 29, 1950.

Mrs. Banks ran the restaurant every day. In the dark days of World War Two, she also began to tire. In July 1943 she took a two-month break. Her mother, Mrs. Stegall had died four months earlier.

Hilda Jones and her daughter, Jane, ran Banks’ Café while Mr. and Mrs. Banks visited relatives near Thomasville. The Banks saw their son Crawford promoted from Warrant Officer to Ensign in Coast Guard ceremonies at Norfolk, Virginia.

The Banks’ restaurant business prospered, but the years of anxiety and seven-day workweeks had taken their toll. Her smile came less often, her voice weakened. She began to look around for a buyer for the restaurant. On September 16, 1944 it sold to Richard H. Bragg, Sr. Mrs. Banks had been in the same building since 1926. It marked the end of an era.

Following her husband’s death in 1950, Mrs. Banks lived alone in her home on Cypress Street. Within a few years she left Folkston to live with a sister near Thomasville.

On Tuesday, May 14, 1974, Willie Mae Stegall Banks died in Bartow, Florida where she was living with her two sons, Crawford and Raymond.

The kind and generous Willie Mae Banks and her husband, Dr. Banks, came to Folkston in November, 1918 while the town was celebrating the end of World War One. The couple, after that, shared the good times and the bad times with their neighbors in Folkston. They loved the town, and the town loved them.

A son, Whit W. died in 1940. The daughter, Mary Banks Vickery, died later. The two sons, Crawford and Raymond, who survived their mother’s death, are now both deceased. Little is left in Folkston except fond memories to remind one of these kind and gentle people, who meant so much to their friends and neighbors, and to the history of Folkston and Charlton County.

Charlton County Herald

November 19, 1986

from DeBrahm's Report
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