Going grocery shopping in the early 1940s, when Lebanon held a population of 6,000, was quite a different bag.
Nowhere on the cityscape would shoppers spy gigantic markets with sprawling parking lots like say Aldi, Walmart, Publix, Kroger, Dollar General Market or Dollar Tree, not even one as grand as Al’s Food Land, likely the Cedar City’s last locally-owned grocery store. (May Dick’s Food Mart, Moser’s Super Market and Lebanon Food Center rest in peace.)
The first super-duper grocery store to make the scene was the aptly-named Rodgers Bros. Super Market, which opened in the summer of 1939 with Loyed, Hobert and Howard, the sons of Foster Rodgers, as the brothers behind the enterprise.
“Their father was a farmer. I’m not sure if any of them graduated high school, but they were good businessmen,” said Howard’s daughter, Brenda Rodgers Price.
“My Uncle Loyed was in charge of the meat department, and my dad in charge of all the vegetables, fresh and canned, and fruit. My Uncle Hobert was in charge of canned goods, and he took care of the area at the front of the store where they had a candy counter and sold candy, soda pop, cigarettes, tobacco, snuff and freshly popped popcorn.
“They served a lot of people and it always seemed to be crowded. It was the place to go to get your groceries,” said Price, noting that Howard and Hobert had worked previously at the H.G. Hill Store on the square.
One of their business slogans went “every day is bargain day in food at Rodgers,” while the grocers also enticed shoppers with a line in their newspaper advertisements that read: “Fun to serve yourself with our convenient rubber tired carts.”
The original Rodgers Bros. Super Market sat behind the old post office facing North College Street. Years later, the siblings erected a new two-story building directly behind the first but facing East Main Street.
Loyed’s son, Van Rodgers, who went to work at the grocery store at the age of 10 in 1944, recalled, “I sacked groceries for Billy Hobbs in the old store. Billy was the checkout man at the first checkout. I was his sacker and worked there on Saturdays from the time they opened till they closed at night for 50 cents a day. I worked during the summers during high school. Then I went to work there fulltime and left to go to school one semester and then came back until the store was sold.
“The store was the first super market built in Lebanon, and the people went crazy because they had never had a buggy (shopping cart) before. Oh, man, you couldn’t walk for the people. My daddy and two uncles, we called them ‘the big three.’ When they was upstairs in that office for a meeting, nobody bothered them — period.”
Reminiscing about those early days when she would accompany her mother on a trip to the store, Price said, “It was always full of people. There were maybe four or five checkout lanes. You could go up and order your meat and see it freshly cut. The women loved that. That ended around 1950 when they started self-serve meat packaging. There was a conveyor belt that carried goods from upstairs to down below. Sometimes I would ride on it.
“Upstairs was where they stored rows and rows of canned goods, and they had a temperature-controlled area for bananas. There was another area upstairs for weighing and packaging candy.
“I had to work there around Christmas time and about got sick of candy,” she said.
A more pleasant memory was driving with her father to the farmers’ market in Nashville where he would fill the back of his truck with fresh veggies to transport back to Lebanon.
During her freshman year in high school she began working summers and holidays at the store.
“I worked at the candy counter with ‘Granny’ Lehew. She trained me. She was a wonderful person. Everybody loved her. She worked there forever. Somebody came to the counter once and asked how me, ‘How much are the bananas?’ I said, ‘Granny, how much are the rotten bananas?’ She said, ‘Honey, we do not call them rotten. We call them overripe.’ ”
Carolyn Garrett, the daughter of Beatrice “Granny” Lehew, like her mother, also was employed at Rodgers Bros. Super Market.
“I worked there every Saturday while I was in high school in the early 1950s. When you went in the store over to the right was where they dipped ice cream and sold tobacco. That was where I worked. I remember I made $5 a day, and they took out 10 cents for something, so I got a check for $4.90 a week,” Garrett said.
“It was busy. You could hardly find a parking place on Saturday. It was the only supermarket in Lebanon at that time. All you had everywhere else was just little corner family stores that sold the basics, like Eskew’s Market on West Main.
“Rodgers Brothers was just a big grocery store that sold so much more. It was just the place to go because of its size. You could go get everything, and it was not quite as expensive as the other little stores.”
About her bosses, Garrett said, “They were three good men, all of them.”
Leaving the grocery business
In late 1963, the Rodgers brothers decided to sell their business.
According to Van, “They just got tired of fooling with it and had made all the money they wanted to make, I guess. The main reason they sold out, we run out of parking, didn’t have a whole lot of room.”
Price recalled, “I graduated from Lebanon High School in 1961, and I had been out in Texas for a year. When I came home my mother told me that dad had gotten out of the store business, and I said, ‘Mother, why would he do that?’ I felt a loss there.
“She said, ‘Well, for one thing he wanted to get into something else, and he was tired of the long hours and making the long trips into Nashville for vegetables.’ I think farming was on his mind. He liked farming. He had a huge garden in the back of our property, plus he and Uncle Loyed had a farm, and they grew vegetables. My dad was always into vegetables, and he loved going to the Lebanon Farmers’ Market to sell them.”
As an auxiliary business, the trio had opened Rodgers Bros. Cocoanut Processing Plant in the mid-1950s on East Main Street. Hobert was the tinkerer among the three and developed a coconut-shredding machine to process coconuts. Then by using a quick-freeze method, he was able to preserve the flavor of fresh coconut.
The plant, which employed as many 10, received coconuts from the West Indies, South America and the Philippines. From the nuts they produced Rodgers Bros. Home-Style Fresh Grated Cocoanut, which proved to be the main ingredient in Driver Bakery’s (later Clayborn’s Bakery) famous coconut cakes. Hobert later sold the business to Birds Eye, a frozen foods company.
The “super men” behind Lebanon’s first super market cashed in their wonderful lives in the final decade of the 20th century. Howard died in 1990 at the age of 81; Loyed in 1994 at 89; and Hobert in 1995 at 88.