In October, 2020, Helen NeSmith suffered a very serious fall while at home. The fall resulted in five broken ribs but that was only the beginning for the owner of the oldest continuously run business in Moulton. Her doctor discovered that her gallbladder was diseased and needed to come out, which led to complications and more surgery. At times, it was touch and go for the lady who has served more hamburgers than anyone in the county since taking over NeSmith’s Hamburgers from her in-laws, Ruby and Hollis NeSmith, who bought the restaurant in 1966. It has been an institution in Moulton ever since, and was sorely missed for the eight months that Helen NeSmith was hospitalized and later recovered at home.
She turned 80 while in the hospital. It was a long hard road. While recuperating Mrs. Helen, as she is affectionately called by everyone, had some tough decisions to make. Her granddaughter, Katie Beth Wilkerson, says that at one point her grandmother instructed the family to put a ‘For Sale’ sign on the business and be done, thinking that she would never recover enough to run the popular restaurant again.
But, Mrs. Helen is tougher than even she knew at the time and she is once again sitting in her window seat, like the captain of a ship, and she even still cooks when business is brisk, which it has been ever since she unlocked the door again on Saturday, June 12. “We got there at 7:15 a.m., and we encouraged her to come in a little later, but she wanted to be the one to unlock the door,” Katie Beth explained.
Mrs. Helen is quick to tell everyone that she is retiring but helping Katie Beth and her husband, Cody Wilkerson, get started. Actually, Katie Beth has been coming to NeSmith’s since she was a baby. Her first memory of the family business is playing charades there with Kylie Proctor at the age of six. “Later when I was about 12, they let me start taking orders and serving drinks,” Katie Beth recalls.
Katie Beth had always dreamed of teaching. In high school at East Lawrence she worked with the special education students, even helping to host a prom for them in her senior year. After graduating in 2014, she went on to UNA to attain her BA in Collaborative Education in 2018, and while the ink was barely dry on her diploma she had already been hired at her old alma mater in East Lawrence as a part of the Autism Unit. She enjoyed every minute of her time there.
“I loved my students, they were like family,” she recalls. But, when the time came for her to choose between staying there or taking over the family business she struggled for months with the decision. “It was hard, but in the end, I handed in my resignation last week,” she said. She admits that change doesn’t come easily for her and her heart has been in her classroom for the past couple of years. “Like all things in life, though, things change and opportunities arise – even if those things changing were never in my original plans, but last year when Mamaw got so sick, I realized how quickly things can change, and also how important time with family is.”
Her husband, Cody, has been right there with her every step of the way. The couple has a new baby, Tillie, who arrived while Mrs. Helen was hospitalized.
Cody will help in the restaurant when possible, but will continue to teach English at the new Signature School. He received his BA in English from UNA in 2017, then went on to attain his Masters degree in English Education and is now working on his Masters in Administration.
He and Katie Beth were high school sweethearts. They met when she needed help with an eighth grade project and enlisted him to help since he’d had the subject the year before. The rest is history.
They both finished college and went to work. Cody loves teaching but is pretty handy around the grill. He first met his future grandmother-in-law when he came in to ask her for a donation for his baseball team.
Mrs. Helen had no qualms about turning the business to these energetic young people.
When she knew that her granddaughter was torn between her vocation and the family business, Mrs. Helen assured Katie Beth that her only desire was to see her happy, whatever she decided.
At first, the young couple, still coping with the quandary of making a choice, decided to open up during the summer and that way they would be able to make a more realistic decision on something that would have such an impact on their family. So, with that thought in mind, they decided to reopen on June 12.
When the day came, after Mrs. Helen had officially unlocked the door and then posed for a picture of her with her granddaughter, about 7:30 a.m., they just had a few minutes to prepare for work. The first customer, Scott Jones, arrived around 8:00, when the doors opened for business.
They knew it was going to be busy, but nothing prepared any of them for the day ahead. Before that day, the busiest time had historically been the evening of the Christmas parade when NeSmith’s was always open until after the parade. But this day eclipsed that by a landslide.
Customers came in to visit and to satisfy the craving for a double, all the way, with a dash of red pepper, and it lasted all day long, until an hour after when they were supposed to have closed. “Mostly it wasn’t about the food so much as the welcoming us back,” said Katie Beth. “Everyone kept saying how much they’d missed us.”
Some customers waited in a line that stretched down Court St. both ways for most of the block. A few of them waited as long as two hours. It was a good thing that Katie Beth’s mom and dad, Beth and Jeff Turner, Beth’s brother, Mark, and his wife, Nancy, and their daughter, Ellie, came in from out of state to help, their nephew Carson, and longtime employee, Chyln Mayfield, help wait on customers and cook.
About 11:00 they realized that they were going to need to replenish their supply of buns. Before the day was done, they’d used about 1300 hamburger buns.
At the end of the day, they were shocked at the totals and exhausted, their feet hurt, but they were on cloud nine. Cody estimates that there were approximately 2,000 people that first day, some just dropping by to welcome them back and some to speak to Mrs. NeSmith. It was an overwhelming success and they were thrilled at the response to their reopening. And it hasn’t let up on Saturdays, although the week days are somewhat back to normal.
It has been humbling and gratifying to hear all of the customers comments about being so happy that they were back. It’s also been a little like walking onto the set of Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Mrs. NeSmith seems to be able to remember everyone, their children and their grandchildren, all of whom she has served over the years. “She always asks after everyone’s family,” Katie Beth said.
“There was one man who was here from Texas visiting his family and when he heard that we would be reopening on the 12th, he delayed his return trip just so he could come in and say ‘Hi” and eat,” said Katie Beth.
If you looked at the tags on the cars parked wall to wall outside you’d see tags from Georgia and all over Alabama. “We’ve had a lot of people to come from Tuscumbia,” Katie Beth remarked.
“This is a legacy that my grandmother has built over the past 55 years,” she wrote recently. “She will always have a seat in the window, just for her!”
Longtime friend and customer, Denny Goodlett, didn’t get in that day, it was the following Wednesday before he got to taste that much appreciated first bite of the famous hamburger after a long dry spell in which he had lamented to Facebook, “I wanna NeSmith’s!” when it didn’t look like the restaurant would ever reopen. “It was like a part of our community was missing and there was an importance of hearing they would return,” said Goodlett. “They are more than a burger; they are memories.”
Scott Jones feels much like Goodlett, and several hundred others who came in over the past few weeks, “I have been going to NeSmith’s for as long as I can remember,” said Jones, “Aside from having the best burgers around, the people are what make it my favorite place in town. The amount of people that showed up for the reopening just goes to show you the impact Mrs. Helen has had on our community. I am sure a lot of people would agree that Mrs. Helen is one of the best around. I love that woman!”