Interview with Garland Brock in 1999 by Jeff Harvey
I got an e-mail request from Joy Brock, the daughter of the late Freeman and Letha Brock, to do a column on Brock's Restaurant on Mercer Street, which was operated by the Brocks. The information will largely come from an interview I did with the late Garland Brock, Freeman's brother, in 1999.
"My dad (Leston W. Brock) was paralyzed on the right side of his face and couldn't get a job. He started selling popcorn in Bluefield. He had a unique ability to butter popcorn so that it became salable. His father-in-law didn't like him (selling popcorn) at first, but, after his first day, he went home with $1.50 in sales. His father-in-law made 90 cents a day for 10 hours work on the railroad," Brock said. Leston W. Brock was born in 1875 in Franklin, N.H. In 1902, he married Roberta Ellen Epling of Goodwin's Ferry (Spruce Run), near Newport, Giles County, Va. Brock said, "He put an ad in the paper and my mother saw the ad. They got in touch and started corresponding. He visited Giles County and (soon) they moved to and got married in Bluefield. It took them a day here and back to the courthouse to get the marriage license."
Prior to coming to the area, L.W. Brock worked as a lumberman, went to business school and was offered, but didn't take, an apprenticeship as a doctor, his son said. "He always told me to take up business. He always kept up good business and kept his own books," he said. Brock related a humorous anecdote regarding his father's business, "He began his business there in a saloon. The saloon-keeper offered him a drink and he said he didn't drink and the saloon-keeper chased him out of the saloon. A day or two later, the saloon-keeper called him over and said, 'Mr. Brock, you can sell popcorn here, but put lots of salt on it.' They drank more beer and enjoyed the popcorn. From there, his business grew from a small machine that he made himself to a machine where he stayed beside." That machine, he added, was a complete novelty which could be pulled by a horse. It cost L.W. Brock $6,400 (comparable to $200,000 today) to purchase. It was kept inside a building at night and rolled out during the day.
"I don't know how he rolled it out there. He could stand inside of it and sell candy, popcorn and peanuts. He was very successful with it," he said. After John Epling died in 1911 as a result of an accident in the N & W shops that cost him both legs, the Brocks left Bluefield. After going to Danville and Norfolk, Va., the family moved to Princeton, where they eventually moved into a stone building that the older Brock purchased from Joe Hatcher on 316 Mercer Street in 1914. Brock recalled, "The walls in the basement were three feet thick and 18 inches thick above ground. There were flues built into the walls, with flues for each room. It had been built by four Italian brothers. (My father) owned two or three lots beside of it."
In an adjunct to the building, L.W. Brock opened up his confectionery shop, where, in addition to the candy, popcorn and peanuts he'd previously sold, he sold fruit and, eventually, 'Coney Island' hot dogs. The confectionery eventually became Brock's Restaurant and was operated by Freeman Brock and his wife, Letha, until 1975. Freeman Brock was best know for his pizza, which became the specialty of the restaurant. "It was the way he put the ingredients (chili, mustard and onions) together that made them so popular. He'd sell them for five cents with the buns selling for three-fourths of a cent. The wieners would come in brine kegs from Boston or Baltimore. He knew how to make chili right and he told me how he did it," he said.
A personal anecdote: My late father's (Roy Harvey) friends from his Princeton Rescue Squad days such as Charles Hutchens told me that Dad would get pizzas from Brock's and fold them over like a sandwich to eat them. -- Jeff Harvey (Princeton Times)
A Personal Anecdote
Some of my earliest memories include going to work with my dad. He was a general contractor who worked mostly in Athens, Princeton and Bluefield. I must have been only five or six years old at the time, so that would place the memories back to the early 1950s. I don't know why I went with him---perhaps because I wanted to, but more likely for some convenience for my mom when she had something to do and I couldn't be left alone. But it's not the work that I remember so well, it was lunch. Dad and I always went to Brock's and sat at the counter on the round stools. We ordered hot dogs, dad had coffee and I had pop, and we always followed up with Mrs. Brock's chocolate meringue pie. This was my dad's favorite, and no one could make it like Mrs. Brock. By "no one" I mean, for example, my mom. I can still remember Mrs. Brock picking the pie from the rack behind her, bringing it to the counter for inspection, and waiting for dad's approval before cutting a generous piece. He (and she) appeared to pre judge the quality of the pie by the number of sugar droplets that had formed on top of the meringue. I believe the basic assumption was that "more is better."
Later, as a teenager in the 1960s, and with a driver's license, I rediscovered Brock's. As you pointed out in the article, the attraction was pizza, and of course the cordial welcome from the Brocks family. From late high school through college Brock's Restaurant---the back room and not the front counter--was our favorite evening hang out. This was a good, safe place for those first dates, too.
During late high school and college I remember only one occasion when we didn't order pizza. One evening several of us gathered and the older brother of a friend--Howard, who did not typically hang around with us--met us a Brock's. He sat at our booth and asked whoever waited on our table to see a menu. A menu? What menu? Mr. Brock makes pizza! But a menu was provided and Howard ordered a T-bone steak dinner! Who would have thought? The dinner was delivered by Mr. Brock himself, who stayed around to see how Howard liked it. It was good, Howard said. Very good. There was room at the table so Mr. Brock joined us for the meal, quizzing Howard from time to time about how the rest of the meal tasted. I often wondered if that was the only steak dinner prepared there --- probably not, but maybe the first for a group of teenage boys who broke the pizza tradition for the first time. -- Garland Elmore, Jr.