By Dave Moniz
Editor’s note: Oral history has become a popular literary genre. Oral historians say that it can document the past in a way that written history cannot.
Using some of the techniques of oral historians, staff writer Dave Moniz set out to find bits of Columbia’s history by talking with several older Columbians. One of his edited conversations is presented here. Others will appear in future editions of the Columbia Record.
Amelia “Mama” Siokos lives in a handsome apartment off North Main Street. She works two days a week at the Capitol Restaurant, a Columbia institution for a good part of this century. The restaurant owned by the Solos family for 67 years, has served as a meeting place and second home for several generation of politicians, lawyers and businessmen. Mrs. Siokos is 77.
My father came to America from Lebanon, after he worked long enough to accumulate passage for my mother. they were married overseas. I was born in Columbia in 1907.
All the children were born in the neighborhoods of Elmwood. Dr. Theodore DuBose delivered us all at home. My mother could not speak English. My father asked some country people – he had a store – if they knew of any colored people who had too many children, and if they wanted to send us one to help take care of the children. He told them we’d treat her like a member of the family.
We got somebody from Blaney. They call it Elgin now. She must have been ’bout 14. Her name was Maggie Tillman. She was revered till the end of her days. If we had anything that we didn’t’ want Mama to know, we went to Maggie. She was a buffer. A while later, my father opened a grocery store right next to our house.He always worked, except on Sundays, 12 and 14 hours a day.
Our excursion was on Sunday. We went to Trinity Episcopal Church. We were raised Episcopalian because there was no Greek church in Columbia. Walked there. Mammy (Maggie) would dress us up in our Sunday dresses. We all had a nickel apiece for the collection plate. We’d walk back in front of the State House. There’s two levels of steps, and on the side of them there’s a silky railing, and we’d slide down it and she’d dare us to do it again.
As I passed the restaurant one day, my future husband spied me with Mammy. I worked with my uncle, in the 700 block of Main Street. He had a meat market and grocery store. My future husband, having seen me on Sundays, inquired as to who I was and through maneuvering started calling the meat market to order things for the restaurant, the Capitol Restaurant. He wouldn’t give all of the order at once. He’d make another call a little later, then another a little later.
So, further events led us to seeing each other, and he came to my father’s house to ask for my hand in marriage. That was in March in 1925. I was eavesdropping, which naturally any girl would do, to see what was transpiring. The main question that my mother asked him – I though it would have been did he thing he could support me – was, “Do you stay in the pool rooms?” Naturally, he said no, through he did play pool. The end of the year we were married, in November 1925.
As the Depression came along, my hours were much longer. Jack (her husband) wanted some member of the family at the cash register (at the Capitol Restaurant), and that meant practically full time, but I had this very capable housekeeper, Maggie (the same woman who had take care of her in her childhood).
My husband was always in the kitchen. He’d prepare the meal, then get out of the kitchen about 11 o’clock in the morning. I’d type the menu, and they were all typed in this manner, (she demonstrates) with one finger, seven copies of paper and seven carbons.
In those days, people were anxious to work. You always had a list of people who wanted to work if somebody layed out. But nobody layed out ’cause they knew somebody would take their place.
In Columbia there were three or four large restaurants – The Metropolitan, The Sanitary, us and The Elite. It was not Epicurean in those days.
As for becomin’ involved in the political things, I was overprotected by my husband, and kept away from that.
Q: Did he have a good idea of what was happening in the city?
Yes. Occasionally somebody would come in, and I thought, you known, like a nice wife I should go and greet ’em. And I would say, “I’m glad you brought your wife along.” I did that one day to one of the politicians. my husband caught me coming over the counter, and whispered to me, “That’s not his wife.” I learned from that to be very wary. I’d say things like, “I’m glad to see you’re adding beauty to our restaurant.”
Q: What do you remember about Columbia before and after the Depression?
Columbia was one big, happy family. You knew everybody, they knew you. You always loaned the students who were short of funds. And when they go the check from home, they came up and paid it. They’d remember that. Throughout the years, I’ve got letters from their parents.
(See Siokos 10-B)
(Continued from 1-B)
Many years ago we had streetcars. We used to ride, my grandfather and I, down to the Congaree River bridge. It was a wooden bridge, and we walked down the side of it, down to where the water was, and he would sit on the rocks and smoke a cigarette with a long cigarette holder. He lived to be nearly 100, and he smoked all his life. Never had to wear glasses; never had to use a walking cane.
Now, I work two days a week at the restaurant, Sunday and Wednesday. Wednesday, the judges in session from the Supreme Court wanted me to come. Been my friends for years. Rembert Dennis used to come when he was a child. His father came in. Jimmy Byrnes, Strom Thrumond – all the notable people. James Edwards called me one day from his office and told me he wanted me to come up and take a picture with him. He heard I was gonna retire. I sold the restaurant and retired from full-time work in 1978.
We didn’t allow any bad language in the restaurant. I never used a bad word in my life. I always spelt it out. I even hesitate when we get to the creed in church – when we get to the point where it says H-E-double L. My son Johnny said, “Mama, it don’t sound right. It don’t have the same effect if you don’t say it.” I said, Johnny, I can’t help it. I had my mouth washed out with soap when I was a child for one D-A-M.” I haven’t used bad language since.
Q: What kind of upbringing did you have?
That kind (a strict one). Staying at home on Sunday afternoon. We had enough children so we could play with one another. We went to the playground at Logan School. If we had saved enough of our nickels during the week, there was a drugstore called Bruns and Little. You could get a banana split for 15 cents. By the way, we always got an extra nickel if we had a loose tooth. Our father would pull it. He’d say, “You let me pull it (He used a string.) or I’m gonna tie it to the door and shut the door.”
We were raised with home remedies. If somebody got a sore throat, Dr. DuBose said, well, you known, John had it last year. you got some more of that medicine in the cabinet. It’s brown, smells like licorice?
Mama and Daddy never had a tube of toothpaste in the house. We always washed our teeth with soda and salt. Got all my teeth at my age. (She smiles, showing her teeth).
Q: Social life, what was that like after you were married in 1925?
We celebrated the names of the saints instead of the birthdays of persons. On Jan 6 (St. John’s Days, the day John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ) we had to have open house, and all the Greeks who were close to the family would come over for wine, lamb, rolled grape leaves, baklava. It got so large, I got fed up one day. We used to have those little crochet pieces on the arms of the sofa. This Greek man was dancin’, and he sat down, took that crocheted piece and wiped the perspiration off his neck, and I said, “No more. Just close family friends from now on.”
Q: Was there a large Greek community in Columbia?
About like it is now, we have a good-size community. I never did know how many. On St. John’s Day, we’d go to the houses of all the people who had a John in the family. And at Christmas time, they’d celebrate the Christ child, all the families who had a Chris. We went to those, naturally. You were expected to.
Q: Are you sorry to see the old restaurants go?
The pace of the young people today, it’s so fast, they wouldn’t have patronized them, I don’t believe.
Archie Hardy – he was in the legislature last year – he use to come in with his father. Rembert Dennis did that. Every member of the Supreme Court, they know their seats, but before they sit down they come around the side of the counter and give me a hug and a kiss. They all call me Mama.
The justices like the front booth because it’s against the wall and nobody can eavesdrop on both sides of ’em. I used to have a little thing there reserved for ’em.
Q: Can you remember the times the legislators would meet to make important decisions?
Always, but I can’t tell you, you known, because anything they decided on is really off the cuff to reporters or family. We knew not to talk. We didn’t need to take sides. We were there for their comfort and convenience.
Q: Changing subjects, what do you remember about the World War II years?
We took care of so many soldiers. We treated them as if they were fightin’ our own personal grudge. Whatever we could do for ’em we did.
But I remember the Depression. I used to pray at night during the Depression. When war broke out, I guess it sounded comical, but I said, “Lord, I just wanted a reprieve, I didn’t want a war.”
Q: What do you do with your time now?
I go to church whenever I can. I go visit anybody I can. I look at that obituary column everyday and surely thing somebody’s passed away I know. Maybe I carry ’em a cake, some bread. The rest of the time I keep the house up.
Q: Was the restaurant the focal point of your life?
Oh, Yes. When my husband saw a customer with a little child, he’d give ’em some candy or a pack of gum. Now, those children are grown and bringin’ their children in, and we carry on the same tradition.
Q: Is there any secret to running a restaurant well?
The main secret is havin’ someone in the kitchen who had the interest of the restaurant at heart. You have to have somebody back there keeping an eye on the waste. To make the profit, you’ve got to save all the way around. We had a cook who used to whip up a batch of scrambled eggs like they do in some hotels, on the steam table then cover it. That’ll keep ’em moist enough. If somebody wants two eggs, all you do is uncover them and cut off what look like two eggs.
We don’t have those kinds of cooks anymore. Now, every chef wants a salad person right here on the side, wants another to do the breadin’ of the meats. Chef are a vanishing breed. One of our chefs stayed with us for 32 years.
We don’t have that many customer around here now unless the legislature is in session. During the summer, a lot of people are on their way to the beach in shorts, stopping at fast food – McDonald’s, Shoney’s.
I cook from scratch at home at night. I always have something on hand. I cooked those cookies (She has large tray a few feet away.) this mornin’ for the two grandsons at Clemson. I have casseroles already complete in the freezer in case I have some friends who has a relative who just passed away. If my children have unexpected company, I can contribute with a casserole. I usually bake something for the justices when they’re holding court.
Q: Have you done much traveling?
No. All these years I have wanted to go to Magnolia Gardens. A month after I retired my nephew took me. I don’t care for traveling. Never been on a plane. Been on a lot of trains. Years ago, my Daddy took me and my other sister to the beach. The Seaboard used to have an excursions. You get the train, used to have to stand up all the way to Savannah, Tybee Beach. You stayed Saturday night and Sunday and caught the train back Sunday night. We took it twice. I don’t remember a thing except that when he was goin’ to the ocean, he had me by the hand and I slipped and a big wave came up and floored me, and he grabbed me quickly.
But that moment of terror, with that wave over me, I was lost in that water. I been scared of it ever since. I been to Myrtle Beach once, when my son Johnny was 6 years old. Never wanted to go back. And then they didn’t undress like they undress now. Then, it was too shocking for me. Couldn’t stand it. I guess I was born 40 years too soon.