The Ups and Downs of a Vacant Lot
It’s interesting and perhaps a bit ironic that the lot on Main Street that was cleared in 2017 so it could become the open space for parking and outdoor dining for Taco Bell was, until 1961, already a vacant lot. According to the Montevallo Times, the lot was used now and then as a place for fundamentalist preachers to pitch their revival tents and spend a week leading the lost to Christ at nightly meetings. The paper reported in 1938 that the Circus that came to town each year set up its attractions that year on the lot “Next to Elliott’s,” the adjacent grocery store we covered in last week’s installment. The rest of the year, the lot was allowed to grow up in weeds and become a breeding ground for field mice and a haven for other varmints.
But in 1961, that all changed. So-called “soft serve” ice cream had come to Alabama and new-style restaurants began to spring up everywhere, including Shelby County. First, there was a Dairy Queen on Highway 31 in Calera. Then another Dairy Queen opened in Alabaster. For awhile, college students and residents of Montevallo had to drive to one of these nearby towns to discover how this new way of dispensing ice cream was different from the methods used by the local drug store soda fountains they were accustomed to. To everyone’s relief, a Mr. Rhodes from Chilton County, soon opened a Dairy Queen imitator, known as Dari-Delite, on Main Street’s “circus and tent-revival” vacant lot.
Dari-Delite was an instant success, primarily due to the effectiveness of its “fast food” model, which was unknown in town up until then. There had been “drive-in’s” on highway 25 for years, but this was not a “drive-in” per se with the usual “curb-side – car hop” style of service. The big difference was that customers drove into the Dari-D’s lot, parked their cars, got out, and walked to either of two service windows at the front of the store to place their orders. The big attraction was the “soft-serve” vanilla ice cream dispensers that customers could see as their orders were prepared. Ice cream was offered in traditional sugar cones or paper cups and eaten with a plastic spoon. In addition, traditional milk shakes, sundaes, and banana splits were available, all made with the soft serve ice cream. Another innovation at restaurants of this type was the introduction of the “foot-long” hot dog and chili dog. French fries, burgers, and soft drinks completed what became a most popular menu.
Unlike the Dairy Queens in nearby towns, Montevallo’s Dari Delite offered a small lunch counter area inside the restaurant where customers could sit on stools and enjoy their orders.
It should be mentioned that the Montevallo Dari Delite opened at the end of the “Jim Crow” South era when segregation of the races was still the law of the land. African-American customers were served by the Dari Delite, but they were required to place their orders at a window on the side of the building, away from the two “whites-only” windows on the front. Black customers were also not allowed to enter the lunch counter section. Fortunately, this all became a thing of the past within just a few years.
Montevallo Main Street’s Dari Delite can’t be discussed without pointing out its role as a local cultural phenomenon in the 1960’s. Without a doubt, the Dari-D became much more than a place for local teens to buy ice cream or a hamburger, coke, and fries. The food was the main attraction, but the location and configuration of the business was ideally suited for it to become an “after-dark” hangout for young people. Traffic jams in and out were to be expected following a Montevallo Bulldogs football game in the fall, and every summer night found out-of-school teenagers congregating and socializing in the parking lot until closing time.
The Dari-Delight became something of an institution among Montevallo’s Main Street businesses and served the community for more than 20 years, well into the 1980’s. In recent years, the building housed a Chinese restaurant before it was demolished to accommodate the needs of the new Taco Bell.
Thank you Clay Nordan, Vice President of Montevallo Historical Society, for this information!