ROBERTA — In the shampoo room at LaSain’s Hair Clinic on the town square here Thursday morning, the discussion turned to the city’s past.
Yellow banners had gone up on lamp posts a few days earlier declaring that the Crawford County crossroad turns 100 this year — sort of — and folks promoting the centennial are out to make it known that things are, albeit leisurely, still on the move.
“We got a Dollar General and a Big Chic,” LaSain’s proprietor Meshandra Brown joked as she washed a woman’s hair.
In the corner of the salon, local Tanja Howard, sitting beneath a Purina calendar with a picture of cattle on it, said, “I love Roberta. I wouldn’t take nothing for Roberta. It’s slow. We ain’t got no high crime rate. I had moved to Florida. I came back.”
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Roberta, a 1.5-square-mile municipality, came into being in 1890. It took its name from the young daughter of the man who gave land for the Atlanta and Florida Railroad to push through.
Earlier that century, the area’s most historically heralded resident, Benjamin Hawkins, who, according to the 15-foot-tall stone obelisk memorializing him in the middle of town, died near the Flint River in 1816 after having “lived among the savage tribes for 16 years.”
In 1910, Roberta was elevated to “city” status.
“They did it to expand the city limits, and when they did it they increased the powers of the City Council and they added business-license fees,” Mona Lowe, president of the Crawford County Historical Society, said. “There used to be town charters and city charters. A town just didn’t have as many powers for taxation, and they didn’t have to provide services.”
Lowe kidded that locals were marking the centennial now because “somebody messed up and didn’t celebrate it in 1990.”
Roberta, 20 or so miles east of Macon at the junction of U.S. 80 and U.S. 341, was, in the days before interstates, a bustling way station. In the 1930s, Lowe said, the population was more than 400. (It’s 800 or so today.) There were five restaurants, twice that many gas stations and half a dozen motels or motor courts. In 1931, when they dedicated the Ben Hawkins memorial along Agency Street, Lowe said, “they had 2,000 people downtown.”
Today, the main highways intersect a few blocks north of downtown, there at the Bob’s convenience mart, the Roberta Inn — “Country Living At Old Time Prices ... $23.36 Weekdays ... Free HBO” — and a Subway sandwich shop, where, in verse, the message board out front salutes the local gridiron squad: “Ruffle Your Feathers; Sharpin (sic) Your Claws; Its (sic) Time For Eagle Football.”
Down in the town square, at Roberta Drug, which lies just across Agency Street from Hudson’s BBQ — “Eat Mo Pig” — pharmacist Bobby Bell joked that while he has been in business awhile, that, no, he wasn’t around when the town got its start.
“But I feel like I’m just about 99 and a half,” said Bell, who is 66.
His store dates back to at least the 1930s when it was City Pharmacy. Thursday morning, it was smelling its age. The air was tinged with the scent of Bengay. No one seemed to know why, though.
“It’s probably one of these women,” Bell quipped, referring to a couple of employees who were within earshot.
“Just because I have a goat doesn’t mean I come to work smelling like a goat,” replied a clerk at the cash register, before adding, “We actually love each other here.”
And that seems to be the community line here. As is the saying on a small sign atop the drug-store counter: “Business is slow in the morning ... but it slacks off in the afternoon.”
“You can’t beat it,” Bell said of the town. “Good folks make it so pleasant. I know everybody. Everybody knows me.”
In fact, when he opened up shop 38 years ago, one of his customers was quite the local celebrity.
Yep, none other than Miss Roberta herself — Mattie Roberta McCrary Champion, the town’s namesake, who died in 1977 at age 96.
Bell said she was “a little-bitty, dainty lady.”
He said she didn’t make much fuss about her claim to fame.
“She walked in every now and then,” Bell said. “She’d come get her medicine and go on about her business.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.