LAUREL HILL — When Tammy Griggs bought an old building in a rural town of about 600 people, she never imagined all the history that would come with it.
The Laurel Hill Grill is located in the heart of the small town in what was once a general store. It’s the only restaurant for miles and has been serving the close-knit community since 2005.
Not much has changed since then, other than the normal ebbs and flows of business, Griggs said. And she doesn’t plan on making changes any time soon. Her customers like it the way it is.
A COMMUNITY HUB
“It’s a cool thing,” Griggs said of owning a building decades of history. “You have people constantly stopping in because they think because you own it, you know every thing that’s happened.”
She may not know everything about the building’s nearly century-long life, but she’s learned a lot over the past 14 years. Being one of the few businesses in town, locals stop to chat or browse the restaurant’s gift shop.
“This is kind of the hub for the community,” Griggs said. “When the farmers come in the morning and they have issues going on, you’ll find them sitting out front discussing what they’re doing about whatever weed has overtaken their crops.
“It’s neat. I’ve never realized what farmers go through until I bought this place.”
On weekends, doctors and lawyers from Panama City to Pensacola and beyond make their way through town to their hunting camps in the area. They often stop in for a bite to eat.
The walls are covered in antique signs evocative of its past life as a general store. The smell of traditional country cooking emits from the kitchen as the food is prepared for the day.
Sitting in her business before opening one morning, Griggs reminisces on the countless memories she has heard over her years at “the Grill,” as most locals call it.
“A lot of (the regulars) have passed,” Griggs said as she pointed to a small memorial plaque on a booth with a former customer’s name.
“We have a chair floating around in here with the old principal of (Laurel Hill School’s) name,” she continued. “We try to honor them by doing that.”
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
Around 1930, J.B. Steele — an ancestor of one of the first pioneer families in the area — bought a service station at the corner of Highway 85 and 3rd Street, which he later turned into a general store.
Stricken with grief from the death of his son during World War II, Steele could no longer run his business. He sold it to one of his other eight sons in the early ‘40s.
One of his youngest sons, Cortez, returned from war in 1946 and bought the business from his brother soon after. He had a new building built next door in 1949, and that’s where the Laurel Hill Grill is located today.
“There was a long counter, and Cortez would stand at his counter reading his Bible all day, everyday,” Griggs said with a smile as she set the scene described to her by local historians.
Cortez and his wife Eunice ran Steele’s Grocery for nearly 50 years. They lived upstairs where generations of children and grandchildren were raised.
Cortez died in 1996 and Eunice died two years later. Soon after, George Wittmer purchased the building and renovated it to be a restaurant.
LISTENING TO THE OLD TIMERS
Griggs, who grew up in Okaloosa County and moved to Laurel Hill in 2002, was looking to buy a business close to her home. When she saw the for sale sign on the building in 2005, she knew she had to have it. And by the next day, she was signing the papers to make it hers.
Although Griggs wasn’t around when Laurel Hill was thriving decades ago — with a cotton gin, railroad station, bank, and prosperous turpentine and blueberry industries — she appreciates the memories that have been shared with her and hopes to pass them along.
“I love listening to the old timers, because I’ll tell you what, those are some of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met,” Griggs said. “And we’re losing that. Our communities are not that anymore, unfortunately. So its nice to be a part of something that’s still keeping (the history) alive.”
PHOTOS: Reader-submitted photos of last year's prom at The Barn at Water Oaks Farm.