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News Story
Updated: 10/04/2013 06:38:40PM

Electric eyes and Green Stamps

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S.L. Frisbie

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If you or your family shopped in air conditioned comfort at a Florida grocery store in the 1930s and 1940s, chances are you were an early Publix shopper.

If your family’s groceries were once bagged in paper (not plastic) bags large enough to hold a small kindergartener, chances are you were an early Publix shopper.

If your family collected S&H Green Stamps on grocery shopping day (one stamp for every dime spent), chances are you were … well, you’re getting the idea.

And if you used to swing your arm or leg between the two sensors of an electric eye-operated door, you engaged in what was then a significant act of mischief that today wouldn’t even draw a tsk-tsk from your Sunday school teacher, and you did it at a Publix store.

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Earlier this week, Publix execs, county officials, and history enthusiasts celebrated the opening of a Publix exhibit at the Polk County History Center, still known to us unReconstructed traditionalists as the Old Courthouse.

Despite my lack of interest in history in my high school and college days (and I have the grades to prove it) I am now a member of both the Polk County Historical Commission and the board of directors of the Polk County Historical Association.

I suspect my parents observe that fact from the Great Beyond with both pride and disbelief, probably not in that order.

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George Jenkins, founder of Publix, opened his first Publix Food Store in Winter Haven in 1930, and his second store, the first to be called a Publix Super Market, in the same city in 1940.

The 1930 store is reported to have been the first air conditioned grocery store in the state. (Back then, air conditioned stores had signs in their windows proclaiming that fact, lest shoppers assume they were closed, because the doors were not open.)

Mr. George, as he is affectionately remembered in Publix circles, was one of the first grocers to provide customers with new-fangled “grocery carts” in the place of hand-held baskets.

Since groceries were the largest weekly purchase for most families, Publix was the family’s primary source for S&H Green Stamps.

But it was the electric eye door openers that held the greatest fascination for teens in an America in which automatic transmissions were still a relatively rare automotive luxury.

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Not mentioned at the History Center display, Bartow’s Publix store was the third in the chain. It opened in the late 1940s, I’m pretty sure, in the building that now is home to the tax collector’s office. That building is probably better known as the former (though not the first) location of Citrus & Chemical Bank.

I attended the grand opening of Publix Store No. 3 with my parents, an event that I remember with remarkable clarity, given that I probably was not yet 10 years old.

As I got out of our 1939 Ford, I stood momentarily on the running board, and my next memory was landing face down on the parking lot. To this day, I do not know if I fainted or lost my balance, neither of which seems likely.

But in the six-plus decades since that fall, my parents and I have put the children of three dentists through college with the root canals and caps on the front tooth that were busted in that fall.

Somehow, that incident is not memorialized in the History Center display.

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(S. L. Frisbie is retired. Every now and then, he is dispatched to Publix by his friend Mary to purchase a single essential food item for the evening’s dinner. He takes delight in handing his purchase to a bagger and asking him to carry it to his car. Every one of them has responded with a straight face that he will be glad to. Mr. George would be proud. And no, S. L. doesn’t really let him carry it out.)


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