Fred#8217;s, times 90

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 29, 2007

FRANKLIN—The hardest part of writing a story about Fred Rabil — yes, that Fred, of Fred’s Restaurant on Main Street Franklin — might be knowing where to start.

One of nine children growing up during The Great Depression in Weldon, N.C., might be a start.

Or, coming to Franklin to “help” his uncles in their businesses along Main Street during the years before and after World War II might be a place to start.

Or, being a welder at a shipyard outside of Philadelphia during the war could be a stepping off place.

Or, in no particular deference to chronological events, Fred’s living the life of a hobo beginning in 1933, riding the rails across the county, stopping long enough to get a job to earn a few bucks to eat a meal before hopping the next freight train to god-knows-where might be a start.

Or, the fact that Fred’s three sons — Frank, John and David — are still in the area, and they and their families make sizeable contributions to the community — the Rabil name is a familiar one — could be a starting place.

Or, maybe, it’s Floyd’s flood of 1999 when downtown Franklin was immersed in five feet of water, and with it the uncertainty of downtown’s future. The flood closed Fred’s for eight months.

Or maybe it’s that damned shirt.

So, naturally, we won’t start at any of those places. We’ll start with today. A 90th birthday party at Fred’s Restaurant on Main Street, although today isn’t Fred’s birthday. His birthday is Dec. 25.

Fred still hoofs his way around the place, meeting and greeting people as he has for years, albeit walking a little slower, talking a little lower than before. He works the cash register at lunchtime and still maintains an office in the rear of the restaurant.

But the legacy of Fred’s has long been sealed.

“We like to say,” says David, the youngest son who has been managing the place for coming up on 30 years: “If you haven’t been to Fred’s, you haven’t been to Franklin.”

Fred Rabil was born in Weldon, N.C., the second boy in a nine-child family that consisted of six boys and three girls. An older boy, who would push the family total to 10 children, died early of disease about the time Fred was born. These days, one of Fred’s sisters is 93, he said. The youngest of the generation is 73.

Fred’s journey that landed him in Franklin is round-about trail, even though he took his first trip from Weldon when he was about 5.

“We had to come by ferry because there wasn’t a highway then,” he said this week.

One uncle operated a suit shop, and the other a bakery in the building next to what is now Fred’s.

But the period between that first trip and when he settled has a few distinct detours.

When he was 15, during the depth of The Great Depression, Fred took to the rails and lived, in his words, the life of a hobo, riding from town to town, maybe finding enough work for food.

“There were two, three hundred hobos on every freight train,” he said.

By the time World War II changed lives in this country, Fred went to work as a welder in Chester, Pa.

It wasn’t long after that when life changed again.

Another uncle “was killed in Cuba,” and the Franklin uncle who spoke fluent Spanish went to “settle the estate,” Fred said.

Fred came to Franklin to fill in.

“I was going to stay two months,” he said with a chuckle. “I stayed a little longer. But I stayed. I fell in love with the place.”

He also came to understand that his uncles weren’t just looking for help, but providing it.

“There were nine of us,” he said. “Things were tight.

“We didn’t realize it for years,” he said, “that what they were doing was looking after us.”

He was in the bakery business. But it soon became clear that the equipment in the bakery was obsolete but “we couldn’t get a loan” to replace it.

The business hung in there, making confectionaries.

Then life turned again. Union Paper and the Camp mill merged, and Fred “set up a little cafeteria line and gradually got into the food service business” in the early 50s.

The current location of the restaurant was a pool hall, but it soon became Fred’s around 1960, Fred said, and Fred’s grew into a full-service restaurant. The place also served as home: The family lived upstairs.

Compressing the story even tighter, there were the three boys who came along. All three still live in Franklin.

David, who with older brother John, ran a few Dairy Queen stores, mainly closer to the ocean.

After their mother died and Fred was running the restaurant pretty much by himself, David said, “I just thought it was a good idea to come on home, to go to work for pop.”

So all three bothers — Frank, John and David — were together again in their high school town.

It might sound like a storybook turn, but, as with most every stop along the journey that leads to today’s 90th birthday party, the bends in the storyline never seem to straighten.

Meet Hurricane Floyd. 1999. Five feet of standing water and all the damage it can carry played hell with downtown.

Inside Fred’s, water covered most everything. What it didn’t cover was still destroyed by water-related damage.

“I thought it was just a big mess,” said David, recalling the days following the flood. “I had no idea” that downtown could be cleaned enough to reopen.

“There was talk,” he said, “that we couldn’t come back downtown for a year or so.”

A bronze plaque bolted to the front of the restaurant is testament to the high-water mark.

In a strange way, though, the damage brought by Hurricane Floyd invited yet another a new chapter.

Maybe something was guiding this long and distinctive tale after all: The way Fred’s uncles came to Franklin in the 1920s; how they “looked after” the children of the Rabil family of Weldon, N.C.; how spending time on the rails might have taught Fred how to hone his skills to listen to people and understand their own stories which would benefit him greatly in being an ambassador of his own business; how to pick up a business after World War II; how to identify a business opportunity and move in with a lunch line at a growing factory when the market supported such a move.

Maybe Floyd, too, helped elbow Fred to another plane.

David, this week, spoke of how he remembered thinking, “God will let us” figure out a plan during those months of renovations.

What did happen, though, was a lot of hard work. The results, in no particular order, were these: Panel walls, destroyed by floodwaters, were removed to reveal layers of wallpaper. They were removed to reveal water-soaked plaster. That was removed to reveal brick walls. Perfect interior.

“That brick just looked so great,” David said.

“It took us eight months” to recover and reopen, said David. “We took the opportunity to do some things we might not have done if not for that.”

The floodwaters also took out an adjacent building, leading Fred’s to open an outdoor patio.

The floor inside Fred’s today looks like old timbers. Only it’s concrete. The bar was taken from an older exterior sign discovered during the flood renovation and worked on by Franklin High School art students to refinish. Local artwork went up on those brick walls.

The restaurant finally reopened.

Then a funny thing happened. Perhaps in the zeal to cover a good post-flood story, The Virginian Pilot in 2005 wrote about Fred’s 60th birthday party — 60th birthday of the place, not the man. A caricature was drawn — Fred said he’s not sure how or why that happened. It’s a depiction of Fred, which really looks very little like him. It’s many parts Groucho Marx, few parts Fred, some part someone’s imagination.

The caricature became a brand logo.

And this is where the shirts come back into play.

The phrase, “Where in the hell is Franklin, Va.?” which has been emblazoned on napkins, T-shirts and sweatshirts, has found its way “all over the world,” Fred said.

Ask three waitresses the origin of the phrase, and you’ll get three different theories. But the fact remains, the logo and the slogan work.

Just as the merger of Union Mills and Camp some 50 years ago provided a business opportunity for Fred to expand his business, International Paper provides that same Johnny Appleseed service today.

A former plant manager, John Mumford, who did considerable traveling, “took 10 or 15 shirts with him” to distribute on his business trips, Fred said.

And Fred cleary enjoys telling this story — which is saying something, because Fred likes telling stories, period: A fisherman dropped his line in the water near Nags Head, N.C., and felt a dead weight on that line. The end of the line felt sluggish. The fisherman reeled it the line, finally, only to find a piece of clothing on the hook. The article? A Fred’s T-shirt.

So choose your own beginning to a Fred’s story. As far as this one goes, it leads to today’s birthday party.