In the 1970s, local preservationists and authors Peggy Jemison and Virginia Dunaway embarked on a project for the
Metropolitan Interfaith Association (MIFA) to document the histories of eight historic Memphis neighborhoods, including Coo- per-Young. Published in 1980, their work was the first real history of the area, which at the time was in a state of decay.
Thirty years later, with the neighborhood having undergone a dramatic transformation, writers Lisa Lumb and Jim Kovarik updated the earlier work for the book Cooper-Young: A Community at Works: A History, published by the Cooper-Young Community Association.
In the latest in a series of excerpts from the book, this month we continue to explore some of the businesses that occupied Cooper-Young in the middle of the 20th century.
Though little remembered today, the Keathley family long factored in the business life of Cooper-Young. The family business began in 1930 in the 8-foot square kitchenette of M.F. and Ruby Keathley’s home at 997 South Cox. They started with $3.50, which was the money they had after he was laid off from the Ford Motor Plant during the Depression. However, Keathley, the 14th son of an Obion County farm family, had an idea. That last $3.50 was used to buy supplies. With a frying pan, a cook stove, muffin rings, and his mother’s recipes, the Keathley’s went to work.
The first pies sold, and stores wanted more. It was the first “nickel pie” in Tennessee. In 1939, they had a contract from Tom Peanut Company to make small pecan pies, which they started to mass produce. Along with increased sales came the demand for additional houses and buildings. Finally, they built the large building that covered the block of Young from Philadelphia to New York. Next to the factory they introduced Keathley’s Town and Country House, which began as a place for employees to eat, but the fame of its good home cooking spread and the public came, too. Next door to that, the family added another restaurant, Keathley Steak and Rib Room.
An inventive man, Keathley experimented with different machines to speed up production, and he patented parts of several machines. He created fried pie equipment, which could make 11,000 pies an hour. Long a source of employment in the neighborhood, Keathley Pie Company employed as many as 160 people at one time.
Fairmont Foods, a national concern, bought Keathley Pie Company in 1970, retaining the name and the formulas. M/F/ and two of his sons continued in the pie business under the name Progressive Food Company, operating out of 2151 York. They tried the big cake and pie businesses but were never as successful and always returned to the small pie. Fried pies under the label Cheryl-Lyn, named for two Keathley grandchildren, were sold all over the United States with a major purchaser being Kentucky Fried Chicken.
By the 1980s, Fairmont and the Keathelys’ successor companies closed shop for good. The original factory on Young was torn down a few years ago, but the name lives on in the Pie Factory and Keathley condos that stand there today. Another neighborhood Keathley pie factory at 768 Cooper still stands, home to a different kind of treat as the headquarters of Memphis Made Brewing.