Pitmaster Interviews

Interview: Bob and Francene Barton of Neely’s

by Daniel Vaughn · February 5, 2014
Neely's cake

Twins Francene and Geraldine Neely from the Neely’s Facebook page.

Owners: Neely’s, opened 1927

Age: 66

Smoker: Wood-fired steel offset smoker

Wood: Hickory

Neely’s in Marshall, Texas is famous for being very old and for serving a Brown Pig sandwich. It’s by far their most popular menu item, but of course Bill wants to remind you that people really like their burgers too. If you don’t know what a Brown Pig sandwich is, the Longview News Journal described it well in an article last year.

“The Brown Pig is made of choice pork that is hickory smoked, then ground to texture. The ground, smoked pork is served on a bun with a secret sauce and topped with lettuce and mayonnaise.”

They’ve been serving if for a long time considering that Neely’s first opened on Aug. 15, 1927. The granddaughter of the original founder is still running the place these days, and business is still good. Here’s hoping they can make it another thirteen years for their hundredth anniversary.

Daniel Vaughn: How did Neely’s start and who started it?

Francene Barton: My granddad, Lonnie Neely. He was from Alabama, and he always said his grandmother taught him how to barbecue. He came to Texas and met my grandmother. Her name was Mamie Downey Neely. They started selling sandwiches out of the gas station in Marshall. Of course all the kids pitched in. These days we don’t focus so much on granddad. There were nine kids, and ultimately he left them.

DV: Did he just disappear, or was there a divorce?

FB: He just left. My grandmother was a staunch Catholic and never divorced him. He did marry again quite a few years later.

DV: So, Mamie took over then? When was that?

FB: It was during the Depression, so in the thirties [1933 according to an old newspaper story]. My grandmother was really ahead of her time. She found the place on Highway 80. It was called the Tittle Building and belonged to (NFL legend) Y. A Tittle’s family. That’s were she opened the restaurant. The Tittles sold that building and we moved to our current location in 1960.

NEELY'S008

Neely Bros. in the old Tittle Building. Image supplied by Neely’s

DV: Is Y. A Tittle a Neely’s fan?

FB: Mr. Tittle was here three times this past summer. He’s in his late eighties now. He comes to have lunch with his old high school buddies. The customers love it. He comes in to sign everything, but he’s pretty frail now. Every time he comes in he asks for the nickel Brown Pig sandwich, so evidently they were a nickel at one point.

NEELY'S010 Y.A. TITTLE 1980

James Neely and Y. A. Tittle. Imaged supplied by Neely’s

DV: Does the Tittle building still exist?

Bill Barton: No. It was on the site where Pelz Jewelry is now.

DV: And the old gas station?

BB: That land was taken from the family by imminent domain. It was where Loop 390 crosses West Houston on the west side.

DV: Were there other locations of Neely’s in the state?

BB: After the war, the boys came back and worked at the Tittle Building. They called that Neely Brothers for a while. Over time they opened their own places.

FB: The biggest one was in Dallas. The building is still there. It’s at 5301 W. Davis out near Loop 12. They served the Brown Pig, but they also had shrimp and steaks. It was a big deal.

Neely's Dallas

The building that housed Neely’s in Dallas. Image from Google Maps

BB: That was owned by the oldest, Lon Neely. They lived above it.

DV: Where did the other brothers open theirs?

FB: The rest were around here. Uncle Dick had a Neely’s in Longview. Uncle Arvil opened one in Kilgore and another in Liberty.

BB: The one I went to in high school was owned by her Uncle Skeet out on Highway 80.

DV: How many locations were there at the height of it?

FB: At any one time there were six or seven.

NEELY'S001

Image from Neely’s

DV: Do you know why they all eventually closed?

FB: One of the brothers went into insurance and another went into furniture. Uncle Lon retired when his health prevented him from running the restaurant. My dad was the only one that worked there until his death. That was in 1988. There is a place in Daingerfield called Fran’s Pizza and BBQ. It is run by Dick’s children. They have a Brown Pig on the menu and they also serve Brown Pig pizza.

DV: That’s an interesting twist. When Neely’s first started, was there a relationship with the Pig Stands opening in Dallas at the same time?

FB: No. As far as I now there wasn’t any connection to the Pig Stands. The brothers were approached to franchise, but they just never did.

DV: There may not have been a connection, but the menus were very similar with the pig sandwich being the feature. Do you know if pork was just more popular in Marshall in that era?

FB: I really don’t know.

DV: Do you know what the menu looked like when it first opened?

FB: It was pretty simple. It was just sandwiches then. I know that growing up we served sliced beef and pork plates and rotisserie chickens. We never had printed menus. They were also posted on the wall. In 1965 the Brown Pig sandwich was $0.65.

DV: Has it always been just the dining room and the walk-up window, or has it ever had a drive-in element with car hops?

BB: I think they did have car hops. I remember them.

FB: By the time we graduated from high school in 1965 there weren’t any car hops, but I know they had them at the Tittle Building.

BB: James even used to come out to your car to deliver food.

DV: Was James your father?

FB: Yes, my father was James. He was the best. He was the one that stayed with the business in the same location. My mom was Francis.

DV: James is the one who took over from your grandmother and kept it going?

FB: Correct. He was at the Tittle building, and he moved with her in 1960 to the new location. She died in 1964.

BB: James was an amazing man. His father left them for another woman. They moved down to the Corpus Christi area. When they got feeble, James brought them up here and took care of them.  He paid for their care and for the nursing homes. He would bring them to family events like Christmas and Thanksgiving. Even after his dad died he took care of her just the same. Even now customers come in and tell us about all the things James did for them.

DV: That’s some powerful forgiveness.

FB: Yes indeed.

DV: At the restaurant, did James do the cooking?

FB: He did the cooking. My mom worked hand in hand with him running the inside and the registers. He did all the meat smoking. Have you seen the Youtube video about Neely’s?

DV: I did see that. What a great time capsule.

BB: That was part of a PBS special called Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas.

FB: It was a look at the two different Marshalls. The white Marshall and the black Marshall. It won some awards.

DV: Has Neely’s always stayed within the family?

FB: I have a twin sister Geraldine. She worked at Neely’s with my mom and dad over the lunch hour. When my mom died our good friend Pat Harris took over. He was our meat supplier, so he just started running both businesses. His daughter ran it after him, then two other ladies. When they were through, it was either let Neely’s die or do something about it, so that’s when we stepped in.

DV: When was that?

BB: Year before last.

DV: What were you doing before then?

BB: My day job is training for FEMA. I work for a company in Austin, but I can do it out here in the woods. We have twelve acres and my sister next door has ten acres.

DV: Have you always lived in Marshall?

BB: We lived in Annapolis and we moved back to Marshall in 2002. We came back after 9/11. It was pretty traumatic for me. My sister called me on a Thursday and said the property next to her was for sale. We closed on it over the phone the next day on Friday.

DV: Are you both originally from Marshall?

BB: We both graduated from Marshall High School in the class of ‘65.

DV: Were you high school sweethearts?

BB: No. We really didn’t know each other very well. Our grandmothers worked together at J. C. Penny. They figured out that Francene and I would be working together at the same school in Beaumont, so they brought it to our attention.

DV: What was your relationship with Neely’s when you got back to town?

FB: We were customers, but we weren’t involved in running or managing it until we took it over.

DV: I’m glad you were able to keep it going. Neely’s is a Texas treasure.

FB: So is everyone else. They’re glad to see a family member involved again.

BB: We’ve been told that it’s the longest running business in the same location in Marshall. Our main focus is to keep Neely’s long enough to make its hundred year anniversary. We’re in our sixties, so we need to make sure it gets to there.

DV: Those Brown Pig sandwiches keep you young, right?

Neely's brown pig sandwich

The Brown Pig Sandwich

BB: Yes. It’s just good to be there too. It’s good to hear people come in and tell you what they remember about eating at Neely’s.

DV: Are you aware of the other famous barbecue man named Jim Neely in Memphis?

BB: A man came here a year ago and told me a long story. His mother had always wanted to go to Memphis and find out if those Neelys were kin to his Neelys. He said he went up there and met Jim Neely. I’m just telling you what this man told me. He said Jim Neely took him into his office and showed him a picture of his grandfather who was white. Jim told him that he had been here and said he and James had talked and decided they were some kind of kin. I always meant to call Jim Neely, but I never have.

So I called Jim Neely in Memphis.

Daniel Vaughn: I’m calling to see if you know if you have any relation to the Neely’s barbecue folks in Marshall, Texas.

Jim Neely: I am almost certain of it.

DV: Have you been there?

JN: I have. I was driving through and saw the sign Neely’s BBQ so I stopped and went in to talk to the guy who was running the place. I’ll never forget he told the girl “Fix him a Brown Pig.” I’m almost sure we’re related. The fellow I met there looked just like my great grandfather Jim Neely, who I was named after.

DV: Do you know if it was James Neely that you spoke with?

JN: I don’t remember.

DV: He ran Neely’s for some time, but he passed away in 1988.

JN: I could imagine because he was an older gentleman. He called his barbecue sandwich a Brown Pig.

DV: Had you ever heard of that?

JN: Oh no, no, no. That was something I think they just had there in Marshall, Texas. I remember coming down from Texarkana and driving down what I think was Highway 79 [likely 59] I looked over and saw Neely’s BBQ, so I stopped. At the time I didn’t go into a long family conversation because I hadn’t done all the genealogy that I’ve done now. When the book on my family tree was originally written it was back in the days when you couldn’t have a black branch on that family tree. We redid it and added that branch to the tree. My Neelys came in through Philadelphia in 1734. My great grandfather, Jackson Jack Neely, was a colonel in the Civil War. His son was my grandfather Jim Neely.

DV: Were any of them barbecue men?

JN: No. I’m the first Neely in Memphis into barbecue.

DV: So, Jackson Jack was a white man, right?

JN: Yes. He moved to Memphis with his family. He was married and had kids. Then he went down to Marshall County and took up with a woman that he claimed was a mulatto. He started a family. He had sons and daughters. And one was my grandfather Jim Neely.

For more on Jim Neely’s life and career, you can read his Southern Foodways Alliance oral history from 2008.

Comments

  • Steven Bodiford

    Great article, love all the family history.

  • Trevor Ayers

    This place is excellent. Eat it every time I’m in East Texas.

More Stories

News

Collections