Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Boomin' Winn-Dixie

“Not much time for banjo strummin’
For the mills are busy hummin’
Pine tree crops – citrus, cattle –
And chemicals, too,
Cover Dixie like the dew!
Our food business, too, is zoomin’
‘Cause this NEW Southland’s
really boomin’!”

- advertising verse from 1955

Up until the mid-20th century, it would be accurate to say that the industrial production of the Southern states lagged behind other parts of the country. This was the era before the “rust belt” became rusty, and a majority of manufactured goods still came from above the Mason-Dixon Line. Take a look at most any mass produced item from that time, and if it lists a city of origin, it’s likely as not to read “Chicago”, “Rochester, N.Y.”, “Cinti, O. (Cincinnati)” or some other northern or upper Midwest location. Although many companies had established west coast branch factories to save on freight costs, the output of the South remained mostly agricultural in nature, with relatively few exceptions.

Around the mid-1940’s, this began to change rapidly. The lower operating costs of the largely non-union South formed a powerful enticement for companies to expand or relocate there. Civic leaders of towns large and small bent over backwards to offer low tax rates and cheap, plentiful, rail-accessible land on which sprawling single–story manufacturing plants (with acres of parking space) could be built. As a result, many major companies forsook their old, inefficient, multi-story urban factories in cold climes and built gleaming new facilities among the green-meadowed landscapes of places where winter coats wore out far less frequently.

Of course, all of this new development required a workforce, which came from a number of sources. First, many local area workers left the family farm to work in the new factories. Secondly, a large number of northern workers, of both blue and white collar persuasions, relocated to the South, where opportunity beckoned. By the mid-50’s, hundreds of companies had planted their flags there. The textile industry (clothing, carpet, towels, linens, etc.), which already had a significant presence there, moved south in near entirety during those years. Chemicals, aerospace and other forms of high technology would be welcomed into the mix as well. By the mid-50’s, the phrase “New South” had come into widespread use (which continued well into the 1970’s) to describe the new boomland.

Winn-Dixie, an enthusiastic corporate cheerleader for the New South, was eager to capitalize on this growth, continuing to expand aggressively both through acquisition and new store construction through the rest of the 1950’s. In June 1956, the company purchased Ketner-Milner Stores, a 24-unit chain of supermarkets in the Salisbury and Raleigh, North Carolina areas. Ketner-Milner had only been formed the previous year, with the merger of the 10-store Ketner’s Supermarkets and Milner’s Piggly Wiggly.

Interestingly, the Ketner-Milner transaction became the impetus behind what would eventually emerge as a formidable competitor to Winn-Dixie. While Glenn Ketner accepted a vice presidency at Winn-Dixie, his brother Ralph soon resigned, eager to control his own destiny in the food business. In 1957, Ralph Ketner, along with another brother, Brown, and Wilson Smith opened the first Food Town supermarket in Salisbury. Growing slowly at first, Food Town (later renamed Food Lion) would become a dominant player over time.

And Winn-Dixie was expanding in the other direction as well – just after the Ketner-Milner buyout, the company acquired H.G. Hill Stores, a 42-store chain that brought the company into New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other key Louisiana markets, as well as Hattiesburg, Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi.

All the while, the company continued to build new stores, averaging some 60 a year by the end of the decade. A 1959 Consumers Research magazine article featured a humorous quote from Winn-Dixie president A.D. Davis on the company’s “scientific” approach to determining ideal new store locations: “We have a radar detector device that picks up diapers on the line in the back yard, and when a great amount of diapers appear on the radar screen as we are driving through a certain area, we know this is the place where we ought to have a store”.

Obviously, whatever they were doing was paying off. In mid-1960, Winn-Dixie had over 500 stores, organized into the following divisions – Montgomery, Alabama – 55 stores, New Orleans – 43 stores, Greenville, S.C. – 110 stores, Raleigh, N.C. – 54 stores and Louisville – 33 stores. Then of course were the Florida divisions: Jacksonville – 83 stores, Miami – 76 stores and Tampa – 60 stores. If the benefits of the “New South” industrial boom may have been felt to a lesser extent in Florida, they were more than offset by the burgeoning tourist economy. In this regard, the best was yet to come.

In many areas, it must have seemed that new Winn-Dixies (and Kwik Cheks) were popping up all over. Those diapers flapping in the breeze were a sure sign one was on the way.

The photos above, from the Florida Photographic Collection, show an interesting variety of Winn-Dixie stores from the late 1950’s. The locations are as follows: (1) a brand new Tallahassee store, 1959, (2) Cedar Hills Shopping Center store, Jacksonville, also 1959, (3) Lakewood Shopping Center, pictured here previously, Jacksonville, 1959 again, (4) a downtown location in Deland, FL, 1956, and lastly, (5) from 1959, a close up of an older Tallahassee location, quaint with its oil-stained curbside parking spaces, “guess your weight” machine and wooden doorframes. The names of two well-known Winn-Dixie brands, Dixie Darling and Astor, are painted on the transom glass. More indicators (as if more are needed) that this scene is from a long-gone era can be found in the price of the Dixie Darling bread – the "...and a half-cent" price, along with the very fact that any price would be painted on glass. Definitely from a pre-inflationary era.


  1. When exactly did major supermarkets stop advertising price on windows? I know I have seen old Jewel and Dominick's photos that had their prices on windows (probably on this very site, Dave). I couldn't help but wonder about this the other day when I was visiting a neighborhood market (European chocolate run). A lot of these types of places, discount foods and fruit markets do advertise prices in their windows. Yet you would never catch Jewel or Dominick's doing so.

  2. The photos evoke a slower more innocent era for "The Beef People". The stores have a small town slow paced feel, even the ones in Jacksonville-of the Florida cities of the 1950's were barely large enough to considered cities.

    In addition to Ketner-Milner leading to the formation of Food Lion, Frank Outlaw of Dixie-Home Stores would start BiLo supermarkets. And Sam Walton sat on the WD Board of Directors in the 80's. WD was something of a proving ground for its future competitors in times to come.

    Didi, Jewel(SuperValu) and Dominick's(Safeway) probably shouldn't post their prices these days, they might be taken as warnings to avoid these stores.

  3. LOL! Good point, Ken. But I was thinking it must go way back than recently. I don't recall them doing that twenty years ago either. Though I could be wrong.

  4. Didi - That's a great question, one I've thought about many times. If I remember right, it seems that Jewel, Dominick's and most major chains across the country did this until around the very early 1980's. Jewel used to change them nearly every week (to correspond with the Thursday newspaper ads) and sometimes more frequently than that. I think one of the biggest reasons had to be the huge cost involved in printing up the signs. Most chains had their own sign shops, where these were screen printed in-house. Paper costs have gone up astronomically in the last 30 years, and these posters also required a great amount of color ink. When you consider the cost of printing 8 to 12 of these giant posters every week for 200 stores (in Jewel's case), it's easy to see why they dropped them.

    I’m sure the labor cost of hanging and taking down the signs factored in as well. Also, the trend in store design, both grocery and discount, has been toward fewer windows in the stores (maybe in response to the decline in use of the posters). To me, they’re another part of the great nostalgic supermarket past.

    And I’m with you on the European chocolate thing. We have some friends in France who send us a big stack of chocolate bars, mostly from Belgium, a couple times a year. Makes you not even want to eat the American-made stuff!

    Ken – Small-town feel, for sure. I knew Sam Walton was a director of WD (back when he had time for such things), but didn’t know about the Dixie-Home/Bi-Lo connection. Very cool!

    And your point is well-taken on the major chains not wanting to emphasize price. I don’t think the modern buying public would respond to price specials on posters anymore, but newspaper ads seem to still resonate.

  5. Store windows began to disappear in the mid-1960s. The Fazio's prototype of that era had celestory windows, which continued to be used for signs, but far less than in the past. National Tea's late 1960s super store prototype had a similar design. The early Kroger super stores were notable for the diminished use of glass compared with previous designs and signs advertising specials and promotions gradually disappeared. The urban riots of the late 1960s probably sped the disappearance of large plate glass windows, as chains wanted designs they could use in city or suburb and there was widespread paranoia about what might happen next in terms of destruction of property. Revco (and probably other retailers) began phasing out plate glass windows even sooner at the beginning of the 60s.

    My guess is that large plate glass windows originally were used because of their value in providing light in supers and elsewhere. I can recall very old super markets, dating from the late 30s or 1940s, which were very dark in the evening or on a cloudy day, once you got far from the front. There was a late 50s Kroger near us that was like this, it was oddly shaped in that was relatively narrow, but deep and always darker than the competing store of another chain nearby, that had opened several years before it, but which had a wider facade, filled with windows. There was a Neisner in the East 185th St business district in Cleveland that had been a Woolworth into the early 60s, yet had retained incandescent lighting that probably dated to the 1920s. Improvements in lighting paralleled all of this. Modern fluorescents were developed in the 30s, but really were perfected and used on a wide basis after WWII. Plate glass windows were commonly used for display and to show activity in stores, so their demise would have lagged their usefulness in providing natural light for stores.

  6. The loss of store windows itself still has me in a tailspin. Wouldn't it be more environmentally friendly to ad some airy light instead of relying on flourscents and such? I say, return back to the days of windows please. I'm tired of windowless buildings. I work in one.

    As for the chocolate, Dave, usually the ethnic fruit markets have a good variety like stuff from Poland and Yugoslavia and of course my favorite and the taste I had for the other night Lindt.

  7. Also, I never even thought about the cost if paper and printing being atronomical. That thought never even occured to me. Thanks for that great explanation, Dave.

  8. I doubt that windows are more environmentally friendly, esp. in warm climates, where sun is a drag on a/c. Display windows disappeared quickly through the oil shock years at the same time that stores added energy saving measures like heating systems that recycled heat generated by refrigeration equipment. This also was an era where vestibules, always common in cold climates, also began to appear in warm ones. Lighting is cheaper than things like HVAC, so any loss of light is probably made up in other ways.

  9. I'm not a big fan of Winn-Dixie, as the local ones closed years ago and were never well loved, as their quality on things (like produce) were not up to standards. Is there a continuation to the story of Montgomery Ward?

  10. Sorry for getting off topic, but I, too, would like to read/see more about Montgomery Ward's history. Especially from the 1970s forward, an era that produced some questionable architecture for the chain.

  11. Anonymous - A very good point about the cost of heating and air vs. lighting. Retail stores of nearly all stripes (with a few eceptions such as conveniemce stores) seemed to move away from large glass expanse around the same time.

    Jonah - W-D never seemed to develop the same type of following in Texas that they had in the Southeast. I do plan to finish the Wards story soon, after the remaning couple of WD posts and one other series. Thanks for asking.

    DewN Nitek - Please see the above. I appreciate your interest and look forward to "the rest of the (Wards) story", so to speak.