The story of what is now 166 Government Street is a Mobile story. The site is the new home of PMT Publishing, the regional media company, which counts among its titles Mobile Bay and Business Alabama magazines. In celebration of this relocation to Downtown, we delve into a few vignettes of prior occupants of this consequential piece of Port City real estate.
A New Baker in Town
Industrious Scotsman Gavin Yuille, born in 1786, immigrated with his large family to the New World in 1829, settling first in North Carolina. Yuille was a baker of some repute in Edinburgh in his earlier years, although it took some time for him to return to the profession upon coming to America.
The prospect of resurrecting his old trade may have propelled his relocation to the Port City. Yuille secured a loan from the Mobile branch of the Bank of Alabama for $1,512.50 and purchased a bakery at the corner of Dauphin and Jackson streets from an aged French baker named Alaire. Yuille named his concern the Mobile Steam Bakery, perhaps a nod to the emerging baking technique of adding steam to brick ovens to produce superior bread.
Yuille’s new enterprise catered to the needs of two diverse consumer groups. For the proverbial upper crust of society — those residents of Mobile living in well-appointed manors, their pockets full of cotton profits — the bakery offered a variety of cakes, rolls and long French bread baked twice daily.
At the same time, Yuille kept up a lively business supplying ships and steamboats with considerably tougher stuff designed for a longer shelf life, like pilot bread, a type of hardtack. Simply made from flour, water and salt, pounds of pilot bread could be packed in a barrel and stored in a ship’s hold for months, if needed. Yuille offered 20 pounds of the stuff, delivered to the dock “with correctness and dispatch,” for one dollar.
Tragedy came in October 1839, when a fire swept through Mobile, burning nearly one-third of the wooden buildings. As the flames crept closer, the baker attempted to save his flour by rolling the barrels into the street. His efforts failed; Yuille lost everything. He soon relocated to the address in question, which was a one-story wooden structure at the time. He then purchased the building in 1848, just a year before his death. His sons, and later grandsons, continued the business. Sometime between 1908 and 1916, the third generation of Yuille bakers constructed a new, two-story brick building, the bones of which are the new headquarters for this publication.
A surviving ledger of Yuille’s expenses reveals the ordered days of the Scottish-born baker: payments for repairs to an oven, $25.50; a yearlong advertisement in the local paper, $8; payments for gas-powered lights, $16.30; $40 for firewood.
Interspersed among these ledger entries are payments Yuille made for the hiring of enslaved laborers, payments made not to the individuals themselves, but to the Mobilians who held them as property. The “hiring out” of enslaved laborers was a common practice in Southern cities. On average, Yuille paid $15 a month for the hire of an enslaved person, roughly 50 cents a day. At the same time, records indicate his white employees were paid about $2 for their average daily wage.
Yuille purchased a number of enslaved laborers outright as well, including a young man named Sam. In 1843, after several years of making monthly payments for Sam’s labor, Yuille paid his owner a final $640.
In his waning years, Yuille began relying increasingly upon his two sons, Robert Lang and John C., to handle the operations of the bakery. From his Baldwin County estate, Gavin Yuille offered guidance on personnel and the collection of debts. He died on September 17, 1849, shortly before his 63rd birthday. The brothers Yuille made several enhancements to the business, including the purchase of a wheel-powered cracker cutting device. They also continued the practice of employing enslaved laborers. In 1853, they paid $1,100 for an enslaved man named Adam. The receipt noted that he was a “baker by trade.”
The Union blockade of Mobile during the Civil War brought with it rising costs and supply shortages. The price of flour, any baker’s most essential ingredient, became prohibitively high. In 1844, Gavin Yuille paid as little as $30 a barrel for fine, white flour. By 1863, his sons might be expected to pay nearly $400 for a barrel filled with a product of lesser quality, if they could find any at all.
The economic despair of blockaded Mobilians brought about a riot in September 1863. Under banners reading “Bread or Peace,” dozens of hungry citizens armed with brickbats, brooms and axes swept through downtown Mobile, breaking storefront windows and taking whatever foodstuffs they could find. If there were any scant loafs left upon the racks and shelves of Yuille’s bakery on that hot September day, they were all likely taken as well.
At war’s end, Federal troops briefly commandeered the bakery and pressed its ovens into service for several months. Though the facility was no worse for the wear, the brief occupation galled the Yuilles, both of whom were supporters of the Confederacy. They attempted in vain for two decades to receive remuneration from the government.
As Robert and John grew older, they turned to the third generation to keep the business going. In 1892, Robert’s eldest son and namesake took his father’s place in the company. Born in 1863, Robert Lewis Yuille was a loyal son, but also a successful commercial merchant with interests beyond the business of bread. After his uncle John died in 1905, Robert Yuille brought on the bakery’s first external partner, a German immigrant named Louis Schettler, who labored against hard odds to keep the bakery solvent.
All too often, multigenerational family businesses merely fade into history, victims of divided attentions, probate squabbles or the cruel vagaries of bad luck. The end of Yuille’s Bakery comes with a touch of poetic symmetry, however.
In 1834, Scotsman Gavin Yuille purchased his Mobile bakery from a French immigrant. Nine decades later, a Greek immigrant named Jason Malbis purchased the Yuille bakery for an undisclosed sum.
A successful restauranteur, Malbis was in the midst of an expansion of his commercial interests. After one year of operations at the site of the old Mobile Steam Bakery, Malbis closed the location and moved the remaining equipment to his larger facility a few blocks westward.
From Bread to Gizmos & Gadgets
For generations, the Government Street storefront housed a family-owned business in the steady, mostly unchanging business of bread. The new occupant was altogether different, among the first Alabama locations of Auto-Lec Stores, Inc., a department store specializing in automotive supplies, radios and other electronic devices. Auto-Lec incorporated in New Orleans in May 1928 with initial locations in several Louisiana locales. The expansion into Mobile came later that summer. “We have come here to be a part of Mobile and Mobile progress,” manager Edwin Eicholz said. “The Auto-Lec Stores are sold on Mobile and we are going to do everything within our power to sell Mobile on us.”
Early advertisements for the store proclaimed “Real Radio Values.” In the late 1920s, consumer radio sales were on the rise. Auto-Lec offered in-home demonstrations for several higher-end models, like the Freed Eisemann “Great Eighty,” a tabletop radio with eight tubes. The price in 1928 was $152.75 (roughly $2,500 today). A more economical five-tube model sold for under $60.
Beyond radios, automotive equipment was the store’s main offering. A full-page advertisement in December 1928 offered a glimpse of the store’s inventory: tires, “the best that can be built,” ranging in price from $6.75 to $15, all with a 16,000-mile guarantee; replacement rearview mirrors for 29 cents; an electric toaster on sale for $1.69; toy trains, planes and boats ranging in price from 25 cents to $3. For manager Edwin Eicholz, Christmas 1928 was a turning point. Electronics were “the modern gift” for Mobilians entering the holiday season. “The day of giving useless knickknacks has passed,” he boasted, incorrectly.
Mobilians eager for new gadgets the following Christmas season would have likely been more circumspect. With the onset of the Great Depression, advertisements for the Auto-Lec Store largely fell from the pages of Mobile newspapers. Still, the company weathered the economic storm and survived while others did not. In May 1933, executives announced a relocation to larger quarters a few blocks westward along Government Street to the site formerly occupied by Dixie Paper Company.
Greer’s on Government
A familiar family concern then moved into 162 Government Street and occupied it for some 16 years. (The street number changed to 166 in the mid-1940s.) Two decades earlier, Autrey Greer opened his first grocery store at the corner of St. Michael and Water streets. Greer’s was a “cash and carry” business, a model which defied many conventions of the grocery trade, principally the extension of credit and the practice of home delivery (which the Yuille Bakery also abandoned in its later years at the site.) Greer felt this was not a model for a modern, increasingly itinerant consumer. He foresaw a rapidly approaching time when customers would make a quick stop at the corner grocery store on their drive home from work and peruse for themselves wide self-service aisles. Removing the oftentimes precarious credit system and expensive home delivery helped to keep Greer’s prices low, so low that the stores were among the first to list them in local newspapers. One full-page ad from 1936 — the year the store at 166 Government Street opened — listed tomatoes at 10 cents per pound, shoulder pork roast for 20 cents, and Greer’s Hobby Coffee, “a smile in every sip,” for 23 cents a bag.
The Government Street location was among the company’s earliest branch stores. At its peak, there were 50 Greer’s Groceries throughout Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. So ubiquitous was Greer’s in Mobile that most ads did not bother listing addresses for the various locations. Emblazoned atop these ads was typically some iteration of the “Greer’s Got It!” slogan. But occasionally, a more apt turn of phrase appeared below the company’s logo: “Economy Tells the Story.” For a city emerging from the Great Depression, still a few years away from the human storm of wartime mobilization, the economy, indeed, told much of the story of both a small grocery store along Government Street and the city proper. In lean times, Greer’s sponsored food drives and offered free paper covers for the well-worn textbooks of area schoolchildren. Greer’s was among more than a dozen Mobile businesses to support an annual free cooking school for Mobilians at the Old Shell Road auditorium. And they sponsored a short radio program three times a week over the WALA airwaves. Perhaps some of the loyal listeners tuned into the program on a radio purchased at the Auto-Lec Store that once occupied the same building.
The nearby construction of the Bankhead Tunnel likely caused the occasional disturbance of business. One wonders if the tremors from the heavy equipment rattled the shelves. Were eggs broken in the name of progress? During the war, Mobilians old and new no doubt filtered through the aisles, enticed by low prices and the convenience of location. Filling the stomachs of shipyard workers and soldiers was war work, too. Food wins wars, after all. And there was Greer’s.
Que the Palace
A poolhall occupied the site for several years in the 1950s. Palace Billiards, nestled between the large YMCA building and an Arthur Murray Dance Studio, was appropriately placed. In 1953, Palace was operated by Ed Fernandy, who lived in rural Belle Fontaine. He faced quite a bit of competition. Sportsman’s Billiard Parlor was located on the opposite side of Government Street and there were 10 other establishments Downtown.
Understandably, fewer newspaper advertisements exist for Palace Billiards than for Yuille’s, Auto-Lec or Greer’s. Poolhalls are a different sort of business. A small 1955 ad in the Mobile Journal, offered simple “best wishes to labor.” Located so close to the waterfront, dockworkers perhaps comprised a large portion of Palace’s clientele. By 1956, Charles Hindman was manager of the poolhall. A native of Georgia, he had been an ironworker in the late 1940s. He lived at Macy Court with his wife Marjorie, who worked as a secretary.
The Moose Move In (Briefly)
Once Palace Billiards was shuttered in the late 1950s, the site entered a long period of vacancy. The 1959 Mobile City Directory indicates that 166 Government Street was briefly occupied by National Wholesale Distributors, a general mercantile company. For a few years in the mid-1960s, the site was used by local members of the Loyal Order of Moose.
The fraternal service organization, founded in Mooseheart, Illinois, in 1888, first came to the Port City in 1910. The inaugural class of the Mobile Lodge included 81 members. By year’s end, the number had grown to 300. Membership in the group carried certain benefits, including access to medical attention and weekly sick benefits of $7 (roughly $200 today). The editor of the Mobile Daily Item pronounced the order’s initiation ceremony as “the best thing that has ever been seen in this city,” which was quite the statement, indeed. Mobile notables among the early ranks of the Loyal Order of Moose included Bart Chamberlain and Mayor Pat J. Lyons.
In 1913, the Mobile Lodge erected a $16,000 clubhouse at 203 Government Street. After four decades in Downtown, the Lodge sold its property in 1952 and relocated to a new facility on Highway 90 outside the city. Certain members objected to the prospect of traveling to such a far-flung spot for their meetings and formed their own lodge. In 1965, these travel-averse Moose brothers found their way to 166 Government Street, where they remained through 1966. Although the breakaway lodge has since disbanded, the Order of Moose remains active in Mobile.
Blood Donors and Legal Beagles
The next long-term tenant was a blood and plasma donation center, which occupied the site for more than a decade beginning in 1968. Advertisements offered up to $20 cash per week for blood donations. A dance studio occupied the second floor. Community Blood and Plasma likely altered the first-floor interior of the building in more profound ways than any other occupant, constructing therein a series of small rooms. Dropped acoustic tile ceilings, vinyl floors and cheap wood paneling underscored the fact that the building was a place of work, nothing too fancy. The latter occupants of 166 Government — Horn James in the 1980s and Perry & Perry in the 1990s, lawyers all — undid some of those sins of construction committed to accommodate the building to its tenants.
So much of the built environment around 166 Government has changed over the years. Early occupants could look upon the La Clede Hotel across South Conception or the striking Rudolph Benz-designed courthouse opposite Government Street. Architectural fidelity in downtown Mobile is regrettably the exception, not the rule.
The many businesses and people who occupied the property witnessed a great deal of the history that made modern Mobile: new industries and residents brought to the Port City by wartime mobilization, the rises and falls of economic fortunes, heady days and lean years for Downtown, innumerable construction projects, as well as Mardi Gras parades and storms of the meteorological and political varieties. It seems altogether fitting, then, that PMT Publishing, which tells so many important stories about Mobile’s present and past, should come to occupy this consequential location. At the place where a Scottish-born baker and his descendants plied their trade, where Mobilians purchased radios connecting them to a broader world and where grocers, doctors and lawyers once hung their shingles, PMT will write a new chapter in this Government Street story.
Writer and historian Scotty E. Kirkland is the author of a forthcoming book entitled, “Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Politics and Race in Twentieth-Century Mobile” and is a regular contributor to Business Alabama Magazine.