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Dan Conaway

Dan Conaway is in a relationship with his city. A communication strategist, freelance writer, and author of "I'm a Memphian," he can be reached at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.

Conaway: The quintessential Memphis story of Clarence Saunders

By Published: May 31, 2019 2:49 PM CT

As we look back and move forward in this, our bicentennial year, I’m re-telling stories about a couple of our own who were world-famous in their day, and worth remembering in ours.

This week, we’ll go to the grocery store ­– the very first one, in fact. Next week, we’ll ride our imagination around the world.

The difference between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and our own Clarence Saunders is that Gatsby is fiction. Both were fabulously wealthy, self-made, flamboyant masters of the 1920s. One is a famous literary work. The other is a famous piece of work who changed the way everyone lives.

<strong>Dan Conaway</strong>

Dan Conaway

Clarence Saunders invented – and patented – self-service grocery stores in 1916 with the first Piggly Wiggly at Jefferson and Main. That’s a fact. But facts don’t make stories; they are simply ingredients that inform the process. The flavor comes from how skillfully the dish is made. The smell of it is also based on that skill. Clarence Saunders was a spice rack.

Fact is – he built the Pink Palace from pink marble, put in a golf course, and never lived a single day or shanked a single wedge there.

Ah, but the story. Story I heard from old men around tables was he bought that property and built the most ostentatious house possible and his own golf course on it because it was across the street from the Memphis Country Club. They wouldn’t let this upstart who dropped out of school at 14, stumbled into town at 21, and stunned the world at 35 into their club or on their golf course. So he built one they couldn’t play on and a house they couldn’t miss when they played theirs.

Today the house is a museum and that golf course is Chickasaw Gardens. The lake in the middle originally served as water hazard for several of the holes.

Fact is – he lost all of that in a failed attempt to corner the stock market in 1923. Story I got across reputable bars was that he took on the New York Stock Exchange after they tried a bear raid to devalue Piggly Wiggly stock. By their own rules, he won, but they changed the rules after the fact and Saunders was ruined. He wasn’t a member of that club either.

Fact is – unable to use the Piggly Wiggly name, he started another chain with the snappy moniker of Clarence Saunders Sole Owner Of My Name Stores, recovered his fortune, and lost it again in the Great Depression.

He even started a pro football team, kicking off another story. Notable bookies say after Saunders’ Tigers beat the Green Bay Packers in 1929, a guy from the Decatur Staleys asked the team to join a league his buddies were starting. Saunders said no because he didn’t like to travel. The league was the National Football League, the guy was George Halas, and the Staleys became the Chicago Bears. Oh well.

Before Saunders died in 1953, he started two automated store concepts – Keedoozle and Foodelectric – forerunners of self-checkout that only failed because his vision was ahead of the technology to realize it.

His is a quintessential Memphis story, a roller coaster ride from rock bottom to dizzying height and back again, real genius mixed with hardheaded inflexibility and super-sized personality, flawed, certainly, but leaving an indelible mark on the world.

The next time you go to the grocery store, any grocery store, look around. He’s in there.

I’m a Memphian, and that’s a fact and a story.

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Clarence Saunders Dan Conaway Piggly Wiggly

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