Loud As The Rolling Sea: Marcus Johnson & Michelle Mason on Gabby's BBQ
Today we have the season premiere of Loud As The Rolling Sea–a series on WYSO that presents the stories of Black people's everyday lives, past and present, in Yellow Springs.
For this episode, we have a story about legendary barbeque master Gabby Mason, who served mouthwatering soul food from several locations in Yellow Springs for years.
At his largest location at Corry Street and Xenia Avenue, like many small businesses, Gabby's Barbecue relied on his family members, particularly his wife, Mary Mason. Two of their children, Michelle Mason and Marcus Johnson, recently shared their memories of growing up in the barbeque business.
(Transcript edited lightly for clarity and length)
Kevin McGruder: What did the Gabby's location at Corry and Xenia look like inside?
Michelle Mason: So if you were going into the door, you would go to the left, that was the counter where you paid for your food. And then in the back part was where the barbeque pit was.
Grandfather would come every morning around 6 a.m. and throw coals on and get the fire started so that my dad could come in and throw the ribs on right away.
All of us had our shifts and we would fight, trying to change shifts with one another. But it was fun. We all have really good memories of being there and making sure that we were supporting Mom and Dad in the effort to sell food.
Marcus Johnson: I didn't start really actually cooking in there until I was a Sophomore in high school.
Michelle: Mom wouldn't let you cook early. You did the menial tasks that she didn't have time to do but she needed it done.
Marcus: The busy-body stuff.
Michelle: With us being latchkey kids, because we really were, everybody in the circle made sure we weren't out being crazy.
So if we were outside in the neighborhood, someone would call and say "Gabby, Mary I just saw Marcus riding around doing blah, blah, blah."
And when Mom or Dad found us it was like "We're in trouble," because Mom was concerned about her reputation in the community. If your reputation is destroyed, no one will come to your restaurant. So she was always saying, "You guys are killing me. You cannot do what everybody else does because I run a business here...your friends may go steal something. You cannot. We have to uphold our brand in Yellow Springs, " She was always thinking about the reputation of Gabby's and us.
Marcus: I watched Mom teach herself how to do the books at Gabby's. She went to the library and got a book, and then asked here, and asked there in the community.
Michelle: The people with businesses were willing to help, and the banker was too. He said, "Mary, you need to talk to X, Y, and Z."
Mom managed the money because Dad would spend it—so she needed to keep up with what was being spent.
When my parents were here in the 60s, there were a lot of small businesses that were all doing different things. Everybody was inclusive and we never had any racial strife. People came in, they ate, they paid the bill and left.
Kevin: What was the customer profile like?
Michelle: It was primarily Antioch students, and then the town locals would support it. We had clientele from Dayton and Columbus that would come as well as Xenia and Fairborn. We had Central State and Wilberforce, you had all the HBCUs that supported us because Dad and Mom were known for the barbecue sauce, not just the ribs, but also the barbecue sauces. And then they made a couple of special sandwiches and stuff that became kind of the noteworthy pieces that they would create at the restaurant.
Kevin: How do you think your mother felt about closing the business?
Marcus: She was just tired of working so hard, that's what I felt.
Letting her close the business was the worst mistake we made.
Michelle: Yeah, we should have taken it up. But nobody wanted it. One of my sisters was getting a Ph.D., one was in Japan, one was working and had her own family, and so no one really could take it on.
We weren't in the right stage for her to just turn it over and for it to continue to thrive, which is dumb on our part. That's the missed opportunity.
So now when I reflect back, it's like one more business that just shut the doors. That's how generational wealth dies, right? Because we all said we don't want to do it, we don't want to be in Yellow Springs.
Loud As The Rolling Sea is produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO. The series is part of the larger Yellow Springs Civil Rights Oral History Project.