Dear Vance,Last month you posted an old ad for a barbecue joint on Summer called the Pig Pen. My friends in the Berclair area remember this place fondly. Can you tell us more about it?— T.F., Memphis.
Dear T.F.: Here’s something that has always intrigued me. If you go to a steak joint, it’s unlikely they will have photos on the walls of livestock cavorting in the fields, or prancing happily as they are led towards the slaughterhouse. It’s just something you don’t want to consider when you slice into that juicy t-bone.
But barbecue joints take a different approach. They have a curious tendency to remind you of the creature you’re gnawing on, and these animals are often portrayed having the time of their life (and death). Their signs and menus often carry illustrations of pigs smiling happily — sometimes dancing and even whistling — as flames from the pit consume them. In the case of the Pig Pen, their ads promised customers “a good fat pig.”
I really don’t want to know that the creature I’m eating was happy or sad, skinny or fat — look, I just don’t like to think about it.
But after I posted that particular ad for the Pig Pen, which came from an old Treadwell High School yearbook, I was surprised that so many people remembered this tiny establishment on Summer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, because I’ve recently discovered that the owner of the place, a fellow named Allen Crump, deserves credit for opening the first self-serve barbecue joint in town. Now by “self-serve” I don’t mean the customers slaughtered the hogs, sliced them up, and cooked them. Yikes! What I mean is that, unlike some of the older joints such as Leonard’s, which were sit-down restaurants even though they offered take-out and even drive-in service, the Pig Pen was apparently unique because it offered counter service only. You strolled into this tiny establishment at 3359 Summer, placed your order, and took it home.
And how do I know this? Because Alisa Houseal Botto, who is the granddaughter of Allen Crump, happens to be one of my 376,890 or so Facebook friends. When I contacted her for basic information about the Pig Pen, she provided all sorts of details and photographs, such as those you see here. In fact, since she already knew the whole story of the Pig Pen, I tried to persuade her to write this column for me, but she declined. After all, she admitted, “I’m not a Lauderdale, and never will be.”
But this is what I know. Allen Crump originally got into the food business by working as a butcher for his family’s grocery store, Crump Brothers Grocery, which was located at 2619 Jackson. Sometime in the late 1940s, while living in a house on Summer, he opened a tiny barbecue restaurant right next door, calling it (as you know by now) the Pig Pen. Now it so happens that the Crumps were one of the first families in Memphis to have a television; Alisa remembers it was a Philco with a tiny seven-inch screen, which would have been considered a marvel at the time. One of the reasons the Pig Pen became so popular so quickly was because the whole neighborhood would show up at their house to watch the newfangled TV, and “in true Southern tradition,” says Alisa, “we would go next door and bring Pig Pen barbecue to everyone in the room.”
Allen Crump shares a laugh with a salesman from Lay’s. The Pig Pen supposedly sold more chips than anyone else in the region.
Customers also had other reasons to go there. The photo here (above) shows Crump receiving what Alisa calls his “potato chip award” from a Lay’s company salesman, for selling more potato chips than anyone else in the region. Considering all the bags on display, it’s easy to see why he won.
I never met Allen Crump, but he must have been quite a character. Hand-painted signs inside the Pig Pen advised customers that “Bar-B-Q is delicious even if you are sober.” Another sign warned, “We will not be open after church service in the morning. Please cooperate. Thanks.” In case you stumbled into the Pig Pen in a less-than-sober condition, yet another huge sign reminded you why you came there: “Be sure to take home some Bar-B-Q.” Though it’s not visible here, my favorite sign was a twist on a well-known parable: “I cried when I had no shoes, but then I saw a man who had no BBQs.” That is a tragedy.
You’d think running the Pig Pen on Summer, and then opening a second location at 2656 Lamar, would take up most of your time, but Crump had other business interests. At one point, he and his three sons — Jack, Johnny, and Sam — ran the Magic Home Laundry. Located at 2594 Jackson, it was promoted as “the best place in town to do your washing without working.” He also opened a store nearby at 1460 National called the Trading Post, which offered Western wear, saddles, boots, shotguns, you name it. A sign outside announced that the proprietor would not only “buy, sell, or trade” but would also “swap, swap, and swap.”
Allen Crump put his name on other businesses in town, including the Trading Post on National. The tall “cowboy” by the door is his son, Johnny.
That store had only been open four months when Crump, working there on the afternoon of October 30, 1958, died of a heart attack at age 50. Crump’s sons carried on the various family businesses for a while. Jack Crump (Allen’s brother) was an accomplished artist who crafted sturdy coffee mugs carrying the Pig Pen logo, molded cute little ceramic pigs that decorated the countertop, and even provided a nice oil painting to decorate the walls that featured — what do you think? — lots of pigs; all these items are still in Alisa’s family.
Unfortunately, the Pig Pen isn’t. The Lamar location had already closed in 1957, before Crump died, and the original Pig Pen on Summer finally shut its doors in the early 1960s, after barely a decade in business. I guess Memphians found someplace else to buy all those potato chips.
For a few years, the family home next door housed a florist shop, but by the mid-1960s, both buildings had been demolished. In 1965, Tops Barbecue, which had opened its first location on Macon Road back in 1952, built a gleaming new building in the vacant lot just west of the Pig Pen. It’s still standing today, part of a chain of 15 Tops around Memphis. Many people think the Pig Pen became Tops, but no, they were separate businesses.
Samuel Crump, the youngest of Allen’s sons, remembers working at the Pig Pen when he was a youngster, back when a barbecue sandwich was only 20 cents. Among Sam’s duties was filling bottles with homemade barbecue sauce, a task that earned him one-fourth cent a bottle. He had to fill 400 bottles just to earn a buck. “I was only 13 years old, but I learned a lot of life’s lessons working there,” he says. “Probably the biggest one had to do with burning up a batch of barbecue sauce one time. I forgot to turn off the burner on the stove, and I learned a lot about my dad’s character that day.” The family, it seems, had suffered a personal tragedy when son Ben developed a brain tumor and another son died at an early age of a heart attack. “My dad knew to keep things in perspective,” says Sam. “What was important, and what wasn’t. So he didn’t get mad, like you’d expect, but just said, ‘Well, let’s start another batch.’”
The Trading Post stayed in business until 1965, when it finally closed. The little brick building is still standing, though it’s been vacant for years. Tops has taken over the original Pig Pen site on Summer, the Lamar location is now a vacant lot.
When Allen Crump died in 1958, The Commercial Appeal obituary eulogized him as “the founder of self-service barbecue in Memphis.” That claim to fame makes Alisa happy. “I’ve always felt like Memphis barbecue royalty,” she told me, “and not a lot of people remember that my grandfather did it first.”
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