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Stirring up memories


How Margaret Alice became "Gracie"
April 24, 2007

For 42 years, out in the countryside around Graceville, Fla., no man was more important and more admired than Thad Grace.

In those days of unpaved roads and, often, no telephone, he brought the world to farming families—he brought the mail. But he brought more than that. He would bring out prescriptions from the pharmacy when someone was ailing; sometimes he'd bring along the whole shopping list.

Since many families didn't have phones, distant children would call the Grace household and ask Thad to take the news of a new baby. If one of his patrons had trouble reading, he'd take that opened letter and read it for them, and then, more often than not, he'd write a reply on a postcard.

Thad didn't always travel those rough country roads alone. Often he had a companion, his young daughter Margaret Alice. Always both names, please, in real southern style. Named for both of her grandmothers, she was proud of both of her names.

As much as Margaret Alice loved riding the route with her dad, she looked forward to adventures with her mother, Leo Crumley Grace, especially when they went up to Dothan to take the train to Atlanta. The reason was to buy special shoes for the girl, but the fun was going to the Frances Virginia Tearoom across the street from the Winecoff Hotel for a ladies' lunch.

"Rich's had the Magnolia Room, which maybe was fancier, but the Frances Virginia was just fun."

That's what brought me to Margaret Alice's living room. But until that day, I hadn't known about the Margaret Alice part, I know Margaret Alice as Gracie Pettyjohn—so does everyone else in town.

Gracie saw me one day when we were both lunching out in Bainbridge, and told me about her Frances Virginia memories and offered to share her Frances Virginia Cookbook.

The tearoom was the sort of place where "ladies wore their hats and gloves—and didn't cross their legs!" Gracie told me.

Wait. I stopped the conversation to find out when and how Margaret Alice became Gracie. It was when she went away to college at Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville.

"Only we called it 'Georgia's Sweetest College Women,'" she said. Her classmates quickly shortened her last name into the name she still answers to—Gracie.

Another change in name
And how did she become Gracie Pettyjohn?

The summer after her freshman year, Gracie went back to spend the summer in Graceville. Over in Jacksonville a young agricultural student at the University of Florida, Sam Pettyjohn, needed a job. He thought he'd found one in Graceville working in soil conservation. To get to Graceville by train, he'd have to take a train to Montgomery, and then backtrack south to Graceville. Someone told him that he could take a bus to Hamilton and "some farmer will drive you to Graceville, and you can get a room."

It worked exactly that way. Except when the friendly farmer let him out in Graceville it was Saturday afternoon and everything was closed.

So, resourceful young Sam headed to the town cafe. Sure enough, the owner knew someone with a room and got Sam set up. Come Monday morning, he was in for a big disappointment. The job had not been approved. Here he was, a long way from home, no job and in the middle of the Great Depression. Once again resourceful young Sam figured out what to do. He found the local WPA (Works Progress Authority) and went right to work earning a premium 25 cents an hour because he could read and write!

Sam did more than work that summer. He met young Margaret Alice, who was home from her first year of college. They lit a fire that's still burning more than 70 years later.

Soon after Gracie finished college in 1939, the wedding bells chimed. The couple lived in Marianna, Quincy and Madison, Florida in the early years, but as soon as World War II broke out, Sam joined the Navy.

During the war
The war years were hard for the Pettyjohns as they were for so many families. When Sam was in training, Gracie went as often as she could to be near him. She said people everywhere were great, but she loves the story of when she took their young son, Jack, to Cornell, N.Y., to visit Sam. She had no place to stay with the baby and could only see Sam an hour a day.

Sam (still resourceful) put on his uniform and started knocking on doors in what looked like a friendly neighborhood. It wasn't long until he was welcomed in, and for the next 10 days Gracie and young Jack had a new home.

"Jack became their grandchild." Then, when it was time to leave they didn't want to charge them. Gracie told them, "You talk about southern hospitality, but we can't touch this."

At war's end the young couple was visiting Sam's family on Amelia Island where they met G.G. Gerbing, a famous camellia expert. He told them about a nursery for sale in Bainbridge. They moved quickly and made it their own—the family has graced Bainbridge ever since. There are enough of these Bainbridge stories for another day.

I asked Gracie for a favorite recipe. She shared this, telling me it is everyone's favorite whatever the occasion.

Gracie's Baked Custard
4 eggs, well beaten
1 cup sugar
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla, almond or other flavoring

Put a small amount of butter in Pyrex custard cups. Fill each cup with the custard mixture. Place in a large Pyrex casserole and add hot water about halfway up the cups. Bake at 400 degrees in a pre-heated oven for 15 or 20 minutes, until the custard is set. The butter rises to the top and gives it a lovely brown topping.

Gracie likes to use 1 cup water and 1 cup canned evaporated (not sweetened) milk. She says it makes it richer. This recipe should make six or seven custards depending on the size of the cup.

Finally we got back to talking about the Frances Virginia Tearoom and the cookbook her niece, Mildred Huff Coleman, compiled from Tearoom favorites. I can just imagine young Margaret Alice and her mom chatting over an elegant meal.

Frances Virginia Seafood Gratin
Individual Casseroles
(adapted from the Frances Virginia Tea Room Cookbook)

¼ cup crab meat
¼ cup shrimp, cut in pieces
¼ cup cooked, flaked fish
¼ cup cooked egg noodles
½ cup medium white sauce
(or substitute undiluted mushroom soup)
¼ cup grated cheese
2 tablespoons butter

For each casserole layer the seafoods and noodles. Cover with white sauce and cheese. Top with bread crumbs and melted butter. Dust with paprika. Bake until brown.

Makes me want to find my hat and gloves.

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network