Henderson’s Restaurant shuttered its doors in 2017 after lifting the spirits of its loyal customers for more than half a century. Gone but not forgotten, it lives on in the hearts of those who made it such an iconic place.
by Nat Harwell
My first encounter with Newton County was in the summer of 1957. I remember, as a 6-year-old, riding in the back seat of our family’s 1953 Chevrolet BelAir with my younger brother as our family moved from Decatur to the tiny hamlet of Greensboro. The Chevy had no air conditioning, and because there was not yet an Interstate 20, we found ourselves on what seemed to be an unending two-lane blacktop called Highway 278. Suddenly, however, that two-lane roadway opened into a wide, multi-lane road as we entered Covington. I had no way of knowing that Highway 278 used to follow Clark and Floyd streets through the historic town square and that the wide-open four-lane was a recent development. What I did know was that our BelAir was pulling into the one building in a forest of pine trees where Newton Plaza stands. That building then, as it remains today, was Dairy Queen.
Our dad had decided to give us all a break from the hot summer ride with an ice cream cone. Little did I realize that almost 20 years to that very day my wife and I would move to Newton County to put down roots and raise a family. As a 6-year-old, I had no idea that the four-lane with the Dairy Queen in the middle of a pine forest would one day be the major thoroughfare, populated with businesses ranging from fast food restaurants and automobile dealerships to shopping plazas. Nor did I realize that Clarence Reese Henderson Sr. and his wife, Frances Johnson Henderson, had made the momentous decision a year earlier to move their growing restaurant enterprise out to the country.
The Annex, as it was first known, had operated on Emory Street since 1948, across from what is now Covington City Hall. Open from 5 a.m. until midnight, it served three meals a day to four tables and six counter stools and even featured curbside service. However, the booming business had outgrown the location by 1956, and after much encouragement from friends and customers, Clarence took the plunge and moved to a little grocery store he and Frances had purchased from Bryant Steele in 1954. It was located where Steele Road intersected with Highway 36, and it was there that Frances’ father, Curtis Johnson, had been running a little grocery store known as Johnson’s Trading Post. I knew none of that as I slurped down my rapidly melting ice cream cone in the back of our 1953 Chevy on a hot summer day in 1957. I could not have surmised that the little grocery store would become the largest dining room at the newly christened Henderson’s Restaurant.
My dad’s parents lived near the Druid Hills Country Club on Clifton Road in Atlanta, and over the next three years, until their deaths in 1960, our family made frequent trips from Greensboro to visit them. I came to know every little bump and curve on Highway 278, traveling westward from Greensboro to Greshamville to Madison to Rutledge to where the road split off toward Social Circle. Finally, it reached Covington, where those magical four lanes allowed traffic to disperse and guided us past the all-important Dairy Queen.
“I sat in astonishment as that little girl who loved the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ went up and down each side of a fingerling catfish like a doggone typewriter carriage, then chewed off the crunchy tail, tossed the bare bones skeleton on a platter and dove into another one.”Nat Harwell
When my grandparents died, our frequent trips through Newton County diminished. That same year, a family I did not know from east Atlanta had purchased a 100-foot-wide lot on a reservoir known as Jackson Lake. There, Troy Drummond Sr. fashioned and erected a little fishing cabin to use for weekend getaways and family vacations. His daughter, Louise Drummond, relished the trips to Newton County, not only for the chance to learn to ski behind her dad’s 1959 Feathercraft Vagabond and the opportunity to listen to the “Grand Ole Opry” on Saturday nights but for the Saturday suppers at Henderson’s Restaurant. I could never have suspected then that my path would cross Louise Drummond’s years later at what was then Georgia Southern College in Statesboro. I had no idea that in the early 1970s, while visiting with her family at Jackson Lake, we would be eating supper at Henderson’s Restaurant. It was along about 1972 that the little boy who was sweating in the back seat of a 1953 Chevy and the little girl who loved weekends at Jackson Lake walked into what had once been Johnson’s Trading Post and were introduced to Clarence and his lovely wife, Frances. No sooner than we had been seated, bowls of the best hushpuppies ever made on planet Earth arrived, piping hot, along with the best sweet iced tea ever poured in a Georgia restaurant.
Shortly thereafter, I sat in astonishment as that little girl who loved the “Grand Ole Opry” went up and down each side of a fingerling catfish like a doggone typewriter carriage, then chewed off the crunchy tail, tossed the bare bones skeleton on a platter and dove into another one.
How could a 6-year-old in a ’53 BelAir have known that he and that little girl from Stoneybrook Drive off Moreland Avenue would raise three children in Covington? How could he have expected to meet the entire Henderson family over those years or to come to know David Henderson, who kept the restaurant going even as he practiced law after Clarence Jr. passed away in 2006? How could he have foreseen that he would become friends with Clarice Dozier, who taught math for many years, and Deborah Robertson, who rose up through the ranks to become Associate Superintendent of Newton County Schools, as well as their youngest sister, Mary Ann, all of whom worked at the family restaurant from time to time? How could that little boy have known that his own children would one day be friends with the fourth generation of Hendersons, all of whom worked in the family business during their high school and college years?
Henderson’s Restaurant—which was forced to close on May 16, 2017, when the Georgia Department of Transportation widened Highway 36 at that vital intersection and obliterated the parking lot—represented the best of Americana. The old-timers in these parts who came to love Sunday luncheons after church and the Wednesday night family dinners all will remember seeing familiar faces while “the salt of the earth” gathered in the dining room. Conversations ranged across what was once Johnson’s Trading Post with friends and pillars of society who remain the best folks you will ever meet. All the while, bowls of those amazing hushpuppies appeared and disappeared, and the secret recipe for Henderson’s coleslaw, coupled with the best fried catfish to be found, made for unforgettable times. In the latter years, one of the sweetest moments came at check-out time. There, poised on her chair behind the cash register, was Miss Frances, and she would always let you know how much they appreciated you personally and your coming to eat with them.
I wonder if Clarence Sr. ever imagined how meaningful a place in Newton County history his establishment—and his family—would occupy back when he opened The Annex on Emory Street. I wonder if all the folks connected with operating the restaurant, out front or behind the scenes, even suspect what an important role they played in countless people’s lives. Henderson’s Restaurant may be closed now, but in this old man’s heart and memory, it will be open forever.