Stephanie Stuckey is bringing her family’s iconic stores back to the Great American Road Trip experience.
On an early morning in May of 2020, I found myself both nervously and excitedly waiting for customers to walk through the door of Stuckey’s in Perry, Georgia. While I was waiting, I also went around the store making sure that the boxes of our world-famous pecan log rolls and pecan divinity bars were at eye-level for adults and the rubber alligators and tomahawks and wooden pop guns would be at eye level for their children.
This was special for me because this would be the first Stuckey’s to be opened in years. It was also our first store opening since I first brought the Stuckey’s brand back into the family fold and became its CEO in November 2019. It was special because my sister’s son, William Putnam, was manager of the store and co-owner along with my mother, Ethelynn Stuckey.
As I milled about checking on the nostalgic candy display — a virtual trip through my childhood past with candy cigarettes, ZotZ fizzies, pop rocks, and Nik-L-Nip wax candy bottle drinks — I wondered if this is how my grandfather felt as he put the final nails into that first lean-to shack and piled up those burlap sacks of pecans leftover from an exceptionally good season his first year of business. Was he a little nervous and excited when that first car pulled up and bought that first burlap sack of pecans?
After all, there were a lot of things for my grandfather, 29-year-old William Sylvester Stuckey (or just “Stuckey” to everybody who was his friend — and my grandfather had a lot of them) to be nervous and excited about when he first put together that lean-to and that first car pulled up in 1937.
My grandfather was born on May 26, 1909, in Dodge County, Georgia. Like most people living in rural Georgia back in those days, the Stuckeys were a family of farmers who earned a modest living working the land and growing cotton. Nonetheless, the family did manage to scrape together enough to send young Sylvester to the University of Georgia, where he studied law. When the Great Depression finally caught up with him and the price of cotton hit rock bottom in 1931, however, Sylvester dropped out of law school in his third year and went back to Dodge County to help his father on the family farm.
Things were pretty bad when he got back home. So bad, in fact, that there wasn’t enough feed for the mules that often got so weak, my grandfather would have to lift them back up on their feet and get them going again. He knew there had to be something else he could do to help out.
Desperate, he went to a family friend, Mr. Fred E. Bennett, Sr., asking him for a job, telling the respected feed and seed fertilizer dealer he was willing to do anything for work.
“Well,” Mr. Bennett said, “why don’t you ride around the country and buy up some of these pecans these fellas are growing ’round here and I’ll try to market them for you?”
Asking his grandmother (and my great-great-grandmother), Cora Lee Williamson, for a loan, she gave him $35 — all the money she had. He took the money and started driving his Model A Ford Coupe around the pecan farms outside of Eastman, Georgia, and with the help of John King, a black man who worked on the family farm, W.S. Stuckey officially got into the pecan business, selling $4,500 worth of them that first year. By 1936, he was selling over $150,000 worth of pecans that he bought himself and sold to a processor. The next year he opened his little lean-to shack on Highway 23 in Eastman selling pecans, sugar cane juice, syrup, homemade quilts, and all-you-can-drink-for-five-cents cherry cider. It was then and there that Stuckey’s was born.
However, my grandfather didn’t do it alone.
You know how they always say, “Behind every successful man, there’s a woman”? Well, that saying could have been born right in our family.
One day, Sylvester was sitting in his lean-to waiting for customers to start showing up. Looking around at all of those pecans and wondering what else he could do with them besides sell them by the sackful, he suddenly got an idea: He would turn some of them into candy and start selling them out of his little shack, too! He immediately closed up his shop, ran back to the house real quick, pulled my grandmother, Ethel, out of her weekly bridge game, and asked her to whip up some pecan pralines.
Though she’d never made candy before in her life, Ethel gave it her best shot, and what a shot it was! Soon, she and her sisters, Hazel and Pearl, were making other pecan candies, like pecan divinity and fudge, and delivering them three or four miles to the little shack there on the side of the road. Sylvester also changed his sign that read “Pecans for Sale,” adding “Fresh Homemade Candy, Made Today!” underneath. Soon the candy started outselling the pecans themselves and Aunt Hazel, Aunt Pearl, and Ethel were sometimes making three or four trips a day out to that little shack.
That year, they made enough money to build the first Stuckey’s store right there in Eastman. And that little lean-to? Well, my grandfather, being the ever-frugal businessman that he was, sold that lean-to to a farmer who used the very first Stuckey’s as a hen house.
Ethel and her sisters still made the candy, though they were now making it right there in the store itself, and as the business was expanding, so was Ethel’s pecan candy repertoire. One day, as she was experimenting with a recipe that called for white molasses, powdered sugar, and roasted pecans, she mixed some maraschino cherries into the nougat and rolled it in caramel and roasted pecans, and the world-famous Stuckey’s pecan log roll was born.
The Eastman store became so successful after that first year that a second store was opened in Unadilla, Georgia, on Highway 41, which, like Highway 23, was another famous Florida tourist route.
More franchises would follow as Sylvester had a rather innovative way of finding new store locations; he would start each journey with a cup of coffee and drive until he heard nature’s call, and that’s where the new Stuckey’s would be built. By the early 1960s, there would be 368 locations across nearly all of the 48 contiguous states.
My grandfather was also one of the earliest purveyors of the highway billboard, and Stuckey’s billboards became a ubiquitous part of the American landscape. In fact, he often joked that there were 50 billboards for each Stuckey’s location in the nation.
By 1964, the Stuckey’s brand grew too big for my grandfather, who many people say was exactly the same guy who sold pecans out of his little lean-to shack 27 years before. In other words, he was still a good ol’ country boy from central Georgia and success hadn’t spoiled him. However, trying to handle all of those franchises was a bit much for Sylvester, so he decided to sell the brand to Pet, Inc. At the time, Pet not only made milk, but they also made Whitman candies, and Sylvester thought, “Well, they make candy, and we make candy…”
Unfortunately, it seems that Pet didn’t know what to do with Stuckey’s, either, and simply neglected the franchise. At the same time, the 1970s Arab oil embargo was taking place, raising fuel prices so high that most Americans simply couldn’t take road trips as often as they were back in Stuckey’s heyday. Add to that that it was often cheaper and faster to get where you were going by plane, and Stuckey’s just started disappearing off the highway maps of America.
Some of Stuckey’s buildings were turned into other convenience stores. Others became adult entertainment stores for lonely truckers who were still traveling up and down the country’s highways. Many were simply abandoned, and their empty shells still line American roads today. By the time of my grandfather’s death in January 1977, Stuckey’s had lost about a hundred stores.
Eventually, however, Stuckey’s ended up back in the hands of my dad, W.S. Stuckey, Jr. Dad learned a few things while working for my grandfather before he was elected to Congress in 1967. In fact, after he retired from Congress in 1977, he founded the Interstate Dairy Queen Corporation and led their franchising program along America’s highways in much the same way he had helped my grandfather franchise Stuckey’s back in the day.
In 1985, Dad found himself President and CEO of Stuckey’s and came up with the novel idea (because the pecan doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to innovative ideas in the Stuckey family) of “a store within a store.” Stuckey’s started showing up again along America’s highways; however, this time its name was attached to the building alongside Dairy Queen’s name. Nevertheless, my dad did such a good job with Dairy Queen that investor and business tycoon Warren Buffett bought out the franchise in 2012. Unfortunately, however, Stuckey’s was lost in the shuffle and left without strong leadership after my father and his business partners retired.
I have worn many hats in my lifetime. I have been a public defender and litigator before serving in the Georgia House of Representatives for 14 years. I have been the executive director of an environmentally focused law resource center and Director of Sustainability for the City of Atlanta.
As a lot of my work involved traveling around Georgia and much of the South, I would often stop in a Stuckey’s. Like many of you, we also spent our family vacations on road trips; however, where your parents might have not stopped at Stuckey’s no matter how much you begged, our family stopped at every single Stuckey’s on the way.
As I’m sure you can imagine, though, for me, a Stuckey’s stop has always been more than just the nostalgia of the American road and pecan log rolls; after all, it’s my name and my family’s legacy up there on the billboards, so it’s more personal. That’s why, when I saw Stuckey’s being neglected again, I bought the majority of stock in the company and became the third-generation CEO of Stuckey’s.
From the start, I vowed to bring back Stuckey’s by bringing back the road trip and tried to visit every single Stuckey’s store still standing in America. I will be talking more about those road trips — ones that I took before the global pandemic put a speed bump in the way, and ones that I’ve made more recently — in future articles.
I’ll not only be talking about what it’s like to be an over-50 CEO traveling the highways and byways of America while bringing back the family brand, but I’ll also be talking about the people I’ve met on those trips and the things that I’ve seen along the way. I’ll be reminiscing with people like you who remember the thrill of counting down the miles on the Stuckey’s billboards until Dad finally stopped, too.
In the meantime, I’ll also be opening new Stuckey’s for you to visit, like the one in Perry, Georgia, just 45 minutes from where my grandfather opened the first Stuckey’s in Eastman. Then there’s also another recently opened Stuckey’s a little further west in Marietta, Oklahoma. So, fasten your seat belts and unwrap that Stuckey’s Pecan Roll — it’s going to be a fun ride!