Hampton’s Daniels Grocery Store stands the test of time

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

The days of the Daniel Grocery Store in downtown Hampton – 1926 to 1971 – are a bygone time in many ways, said the man whose father served the town’s grocery needs for more than four decades.

Daniel’s Grocery Store anchored the food needs of Hampton from 1926 to 1971. Above, the original store at 16 E. Main St., circa 1948. Special photo

“That time has gone the way of the horse and buggy,” said John Daniel of Hampton, a sales consultant for Dade Paper. “It was a time of farming. Hampton was a community. Your customers were your friends. You went to church and school with them. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody grew up with discipline and good manners and people helped each other.”

Today, the pleasant and well-defined downtown area of tiny Hampton features a line of handsome shops along East Main Street, all facing the railroad that in years past was the lifeblood of west Henry County. At the address of 14 E. Main Street, Tierra Mia Mexican Cuisine serves up lunchtime and dinner meals, but a previous tenant of the space was a 45-year landmark.

Daniel’s Grocery Store served the food needs of the town for more than four decades, run by Marvin Emory Daniel, John Daniel’s father.

In the 1920s, John Daniel’s grandfather, John Emory Daniel, was a traveling salesman of textile machine parts. In 1926, “he bought the store, and pulled Daddy out of school in the 10th grade to run the store. So Daddy worked in that store all of his life.”

Marvin Daniel worked the store by himself at first, and John Daniel said his father and others described the first years of the store. “Back then there were very few items in a grocery store in a small farming community like Hampton. Everybody maintained their own gardens and animals. Your slaughter or your harvest needed to last all year long, so canning in jars and curing of meats was big then. They came to Daniels Grocery for the coffee, the sugar, the flour, the salt. They didn’t grocery shop for anything they could grow themselves.”

Bartering, rather than cash sales, was king in those days, he said. “For instance, a lady in town who’s a seamstress trades with a lady with laying hens, a number of sewing jobs in exchange for eggs.”

Store owner Marvin Daniel, an avid angler, shows his day’s catch in the late 1940s. Special photo

In the same way, “Daddy would always try to buy only local produce, as possible. Those with farms or big gardens were his customers, so he wanted to do business with them, too, and get the freshest produce right out of the ground. Daddy ran a charge account for every customer in town, and in exchange for the goods he bought he’d knock that amount off their account.”

Marvin Daniel worked the grocery store until the day he died, Oct. 5, 1971. John Daniel, who grew up working long shifts at the grocery store, was in college when his father died and had already told his father that while sales interested him, the grocery business did not. He said he and his mother sold Daniel Grocery in 1972. “We got rid of it. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t stay there. I couldn’t stand the confinement of that store. I’ve got to be out, moving around and seeing faces.”

The Daniel Grocery space was changed into another grocery store, but it lasted only four or five years, he said. “The man who bought it owned a grocery in Zebulon (Ga.). Hampton was funny then. You were an outsider if you weren’t from here. Plus, there were by the early 1950s through the early 70s four grocery stores in Hampton. All of them did well.”

Even though Hampton had a population of about only 1,000 to 1,500 during the early 1950s to early 70s, compared to over 7,000 today, the town had its heyday and felt much busier in those two decades than today, he said. “It had a functioning (train) depot for freight and passengers, a hotel, two restaurants, a hardware store, barber shop, pool room, dry goods store, clothing store, furniture/appliance store, and a drug store with a soda fountain at which you could get a chocolate malt. The Bank of Hampton and my Daddy’s store were in the middle of it all.”

Big employers brought changes to the town. Southern States, which produces components for the electric power industry, relocated from Birmingham, Ala., to Hampton in 1940, and quickly became the town’s largest employer. “So there was a switch from purely agricultural to some having industrial jobs, so there began to grow a need for farm-raised groceries and the grocery stores began stocking more and more items. When I worked there as a boy, there was never enough shelf space.”

In 1960, when the FAA opened the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center on Woolsey Road – today the world’s busiest such facility and employing more than 400 controllers around the clock – “that brought an influx of newcomers to Hampton. So the old guard had to accept outsiders, because a lot of the old guard worked there, too.”

In Hampton and throughout the nation, some of the changes John Daniels has seen have been for the better, he said. Many are not. “Take a vine ripe tomato for instance. When I was a kid, one slice was big enough to make a tomato sandwich. You don’t see those size tomatoes anymore. Why? To maximize profits, they tinkered with it, breeding it for higher yields. We have ‘hybrid’ this produce so many times away from the original that we have lost the mother seed.

“The fast-world, large-yield, quantity-instead-of-quality products that are sold today – and demanded today – are providing a plastic-junk echo of the steel-and-iron quality that used to be. Do we want to go on demanding everything be produced cheaper and faster and accepting it all without question? We vote with our dollars. If we demand better, we’ll eventually get better.”