Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Buena Vista Obscura: Johnny's Corner

"Kissimmee (pron. Kiss-SIMM-ee) is the cow capital of Florida. To get there one has to pass miles of cattle ranches. Stores in town have that false-front look, familiar in Western movies, and the natives wear aging, outsize Stetsons. The most popular hangout for old-timers is Brown's Cafe on Broadway, a modest dining room, in the back of which, through swinging doors, is a poolroom with eight tables. Women are not welcome. If the hot pork is ready, a waitress bangs on a shelf, calls out a name and passes the plate through a small window.

Oren Brown, a thin, weather-beaten man in his middle fifties, scion of one of Kissimmee's first families, presides here with inconspicuous authority. He and his friends reminisce about the old days, when the streets were all dirt and there was a livery stable on the corner, and when, if someone got married, you knew the names of all the guests in the paper. His eye wanders around the room, and every so often, he slides out of the conversation to collect a fee: 15 cents for a game with two people, 20 cents for a game with three or more, 60 cents an hour. This is the same Oren Brown who recently turned down $4,200,000 (somewhat less when he tells it) for his 6,750 acres abutting Disney. "What's money?" he asks. "It's only paper, most of it." He scans the room. "Excuse me", he says, and he slips off to collect 15 cents at table number four. He picks up where he left off: "I never could keep money. The land, it won't run off. Lots of people like money, but I don't care so much for it. I reckon I'm peculiar that way."

Time was when rangeland in Kissimmee went for $2 an acre. But new people have come to town. Taxes are already out of hand, and the retired elderly, no longer able to afford it, have moved away. Meanwhile, church attendance has skyrocketed."
That is the April 6, 1971 issue of Look Magazine, describing a March 1971 preview trip to Walt Disney World. The article everyone remembers is the one describing the upcoming sights at Walt Disney World, but the valuable one comes right after it, describing what life is like in the communities ringing Walt Disney World as the October opening looms overhead like a doom cloud. The start of Walt Disney World will be the end of "Old Florida", as it's called around here.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nobody talks much about central Florida before Walt Disney World, possibly because there wasn't much to it. Reading the above description it's easy to imagine Walt Disney circling in his helicopter in November 1963, passing miles and miles of flat scrub and rangeland, until the gleaming intersection of two brand new, high tech highways - The Florida Turnpike and Interstate 4 - shot out of the low, flat land like a rocket. "Build it there", he said, and when his helicopter landed in New Orleans some time later, Walt found out that President Kennedy had been shot. Walt Disney World always was a project with an atmosphere of predestination in the balance.

They built it there, and the nearest thing to Walt Disney World besides retirees and the interstate itself was a little old Country Store called Johnny's Corner. It was at the intersection of State Road 535, which borders the Disney lot to the north and east.

Johnny's Corner appears to have gotten its start as Jock's Happy Corner, opening in 1949 owned by a Mr. Jock Lowery and Fern Lowery. In an April 23, 2010 Orlando Sentinel article commemorating Fern Lowery (who lived to be 96), her daughter remembers:
"But it was nothing but orange groves back then," said Lowery's daughter, Audrey Arnold of Orlando. "Our house was built onto the back of the store, so if people needed gas or something at any hour of the night, Momma or Daddy would wake up to help them."

For nearly two decades, the family store barely broke even, but Lowery would extend credit to families struggling to make ends meet, daughter Susan Wagner of Orlando said. "Momma kept a little notebook and just marked it down if someone needed eggs, butter or milk. And they could pay what they could later."


"I came home from school one day, and Momma said, ‘You'll never guess who we waited on today — Walt Disney,'" Wagner said. "We couldn't believe it. We'd see him on TV every week, and Momma was starstruck."
Edward Prizer, a transplanted New York journalist who had bought out a local tourist magazine called The Orlando-Winter Park Attraction and made it over into Orlando-land Magazine (now Orlando Magazine), drove out to Apopka-Vineland in search of a scoop, recounted in this October 1976 article:
"Down at Jock's Corner, a run-down general store at the point where Route 535 hooks around the eastern edge of what is now Lake Buena Vista, there is an unusual amount of coming and going. It isn't just the chickens strutting around the place. Seems like the strangers are all from Southern California. On the trail of rumors, I stop in for a Coke. Jock Lowery looks harried. He can't rightly figure what it's all about, be he ain't got time to puzzle over it.

"Awful lot of nosey people comin' in here askin' questions," he snaps at a guy who's pulled up for gas.

Mrs. Lowery is less perturbed. Her egg business has picked up right nicely in the past few weeks."
 When the announcement came in 1965, it set off a land speculation in Orlando frankly only comparable to a gold rush. Local politicians and businesses celebrated, then panicked - crime would rise, their yearly budget for law and order would triple. They'd need to build a jail and courthouse on Disney's front door. Unwanted pregnancies would quadruple. Hippies were already lounging around in Lake Eola Park.

The Orlando Sentinel incorrectly claims that the land was bought by Disney, but the 535-Vineland corner has never been part of the Disney property package. Instead, Jock and Fern sent themselves off to an early retirement by selling the land to Johnny Speakman in 1967, who rechristened the old store Johnny's Corner.

Johnny's Corner was a local landmark, and it was especially important in that it was the nearest place to cash a paycheck and buy beer. Dick Nunis drove here on his fabled efforts to guilt the Union construction crews to build God-knows-how-many things at The Magic Kingdom. He, and thousands of others, probably stopped here to get one for themselves, too.

Jock's Happy Corner, January 28, 1957, taken by the USGS - found by Michael Crawford
It was quite a place. That's actually an understatement, as the November 17, 1970 issue of Palm Beach Daily News attests, here for your reading amusement:
"Close To But Not In Disney World -
Johnny's Corner, Everything From Snuff to Eggs

ORLANDO, Fla (UPI) - At Johnny's Corner a man can get pig knuckles with his beer, a fan belt for his car, a can of snuff, a pair of used socks, a Barlow knife, or a Hong Kong suit "made to measure" for $49.

He can cuss loud, peel eggs, play pin ball, argue about the Union, eat sardines out of the can and hand wrestle by the gas pumps.

If the late Walt Disney didn't stop by Johnny's Corner when he was staking out land for his vacation resort, he should have. You get the feeling that the old master of folk lore would have liked this dirty old country store.

It's thriving as a satellite to Walt Disney World, but it appears doomed by the same force that made it boom.

Things haven't changed much at Johnny's Corner since the old man, Johnny Speakman, got fed up with all the extra work and sold out. That was last winter.

But they put a new sign out front. Last month they washed the windows and today, a traffic spotter for an Orlando radio station uses Johnny's Corner as a check point.

"If we tried to fix this place up they'd quit coming." says Bill Waring, one of the new co-owners. "These construction workers come in here dirty and they want the place dirty."

Except for a few orange pickers in season, the customers at Johnny's Corner are brawny men with Mickey Mouse decals on their hard hats. They are the working men who are not allowed in the executive cafeteria at the Disney site about a "country mile" away.

At noon they bring their lunch boxes and sit at two big wooden tables. They buy milk in half-quart cartons, Gatorade in pop top cans, pies, hot sausages, potato chips and bean dip.

But at quitting time it's beer they're after. Lots of beer.

"On a pay day we'll such as much as 50 cases." said Bob Morgan, Waring's partner. "You can safely say it's one of the best beer accounts in Orange County."

That's of little surprise. More than 2,500 workers are already on the job at the "Magic Kingdom", a short distance down state road 535, and the number is growing. It's the largest private construction project underway in the United States.

John Speakman, November 1969
Waren, 40, and Morgan, 55, sleep during the week at the rear of the store. They get up at 4 a.m. to start the coffee and after closing they boil and pickle eggs - "about 20 dozen a week."

"We spice them up with hot pepper and garlic sauce or anything else that we can find and man, you can't keep them on the counter, Waring says.

Straw hats, radiator hoses, flit guns, pocket combs, motor oil, watch bands, staple groceries and advertisements for mail order clothes clutter the walls.

"I sold a man a pair of my own pants last week." Waring said, "A man came in here not long ago who had forgot his socks. I don't know how he managed to do that but I went and got an old pair I had and sold that to him for a dollar."

Johnny's Corner also serves as a bank and filling station.

"We cash their checks for them." Waring says, "and the other day one guy came in here with his eye all busted up and I patched him up."

But the old Country Store, which has occupied the same spot on Vineland Road for three decades, is likely to vanish when Walt Disney World opens next October. With fancy new motels going up everywhere it's expected that a major oil company will replace it with a slick new service station.

You wonder if Walt Disney would have approved of that."

Of course Look also profiled Johnny's Corner in their article:
"In the next five years, 150 more service stations will be needed in the neighborhood - 330 by 1985 - and the number of restaurants should increase from 54 to 400. In February, an oil company bought a one-acre lot for a gas station near the entrance to Disney World for $300,000.

Already comfortably prosperous are Bill Waring and Bob Morgan, owners of Johnny's Corner, closest general store to Disney and a stop for construction workers on their way home. The previous owner, who used to take in $10 a day, sold out because business was getting too good - he couldn't keep up. The store carries frozen sandwiches, hats, garden hose, jars of pickled eggs and snuff. But Waring and Morgan have increased their take 40 times, mainly because they sell more beer than anyone else in Orange County."
This is the atmosphere Disney was dropping the Vacation Kingdom of the World into. Later in the same article, author Henry Ehrlich describes Windermere, currently home of everyone from Tiger Woods to Dick Nunis, circa 1970 as a high priced retirement club with eight roads, one of them paved. He writes: "'We have a nice sort of antebellum atmosphere," says Win Pendleton, a former newspaperman, a lecturer and the author of 2121 Funny Stories and How To Tell Them."

Walt Disney World was like a bomb going off in the fabric of the sleepy little hamlets south of Orlando, and it tore a lot of them down with it. There's no way Jock Lowery could have foreseen his tiny country store being remembered sixty years later when he opened it in the first years of the 1950s, but it became a focal point for the earliest years of Walt Disney World, before it was even really a thing that existed - piles of concrete, dirt, cement and steel framing. The prehistory, if you like. But Jock's/Johnny's Corner is so well remembered that the intersection of 535 and Vineland is still called Johnny's Corner - even if it barely made it to opening day. The June 1971 issue of "News From Walt Disney World", the company's official newsletter for the families of construction crews, simply stated:
"What happened to Johnny's Corner? Progress took its toll and that historic landmark was demolished to make way for a modern service station."
Which is true and also -- not.

Mike Lee, of Widen Your World, remembers going to Johnny's Corner to buy Star Wars trading cards, so it can't have closed in 1971 as News From Walt Disney World claims. I've also spoken to a number of people who remember it well into the 1980s, as the comments below attest. But it actually did close in June 1971 - and moved, 300 feet across the street.

The Second Coming of Johnny's
Reopening in October 1971 as Johnny's Country Store in a new structure, Bill and Bob continued their boom business. Bob sold out his interest to Bill in 1978, and in 1981 Bill sold to Abdulah Moten in 1981. The public notice of transfer appeared in the Orlando Sentinel in August 12, 1981.

Bill Waring, 1981
William Waring, brother in law of Robert Morgan, didn't make out too bad in the end. Turning a business from a $10-a-day operation to a $400 one was just one of the first - and nearest - economic miracles Disney worked in the local economy.

So what happened to the second Johnny's? In the 1980s, before the real building boom in Florida began, Johnny's was a popular hangout for construction workers - still the nearest place to buy a beer or cash a check. There was even a murder onsite in August 1981 during the construction of EPCOT Center. The article, in the Gainesville Sun, paints an ugly picture of construction workers with nowhere to go but argue behind an old country store.

In June 1992, Johnny's filed a leaking underground storage tank. With an aged underground gas tank in need of repair in a crowded local market, this may have been the beginning of the end for Johnny's.

In 1996, Johnny's Country Store asked Orange County to transfer their liquor license up the street, to 8570 Palm Parkway, which was denied and placed in escrow. Interestingly enough, "Johnny's Country Store of Central Florida, Inc" claimed that between December 1, 1995, and December 30, 1996, no business activity had occurred under their license - meaning that Johnny's was closed by at latest December 1995.

Johnny's Corner, November 1969
Instead of paying the escrow, Johnny's asked that their liquor license be transferred to ABC Liquors, a regional chain of stores, which it was - in January 1997. By all appearances, Johnny's was finally demolished and turned into an ABC Liquors in 1997.

ABC moved their license a few hundred feet up the road to 11951 Apopka Vineland Rd in 1999, and an ABC Liquor still operates in that spot today... a few feet away from the Lake Buena Vista Twistee Treat.  Today Johnny's Corner is occupied by a modern Circle K gas station and a strip mall which includes the Dragon Court Super Buffet, a favorite of Cast Members and Imagineers alike.

John Speakman, by the way, may have packed it in on 535 and Vineland, but there is a good deal of evidence that he relocated his operation to Reams Road, on the north side of property. His second little corner store, Johnny's Oasis, vanished sometime in the last decade and the space has recently been converted into a church.

But, really, who cares? A dirty little corner shop outlived its usefulness. It's hard to be too upset about all of this. But Johnny's Corner is just one of those things that keeps popping up over and over again in old materials, because it wasn't just a little store, it was their corner store back when a castle was rising out of a swamp surrounded by lots of nothing.  It is a minor mile marker on the map of Walt Disney World history, the last reminder before the dream state sinks in. It's also an obscure and strange delight. It's a bit of authentic weirdness in a history of manufactured and pre-measured charm.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same and it may only be a twist of fate that exactly where construction crews once drove to buy beer and eat lunch and drink that today, young employees of Walt Disney World flock to an Orlando Ale House. In nearly exactly the same spot, a forty-plus year tradition. I think Bill and Bob, and Jock and Johnny too, would've gotten a smile out of that.

Thanks to Michael Crawford and Jackie Steele for helping me gather material for this article. This article was updated on December 11, 2012, with new images and information. It was updated again on March 16, 2013, with new information about Jock and Fern Lowery, and again on July 19, 2016, adding information about the 1981 murder and 1996 liquor license transfer, and AGAIN in April 2019, adding a photo of J. Speakman and clarifying information of the second location. Whew!