Fork in the Road

Smashed patties, red dogs, and decades of history connect a community at Cooley’s

By John T. Edge

February/March 2023


photo: Michael Spitz

Order up: a Cooley’s sausage and egg sandwich, double cheeseburger with bacon, and double hot dog with egg and cheese.

Fredric McCann, an assistant football coach at Wayne County High, watches Rosebud Chaffin pull three burgers off the grill at Cooley’s Hamburgers, a hutch of a restaurant near the Alabama line in the small piney-woods town of Waynesboro, Mississippi. He wears gray sweats and a big smile. When McCann was a boy, his father bought him Cooley’s burgers after he chopped morning firewood or fed the cows and chickens.

Now McCann, who also teaches high school students to navigate the pulpwood-truck-clogged streets of Waynesboro, uses the alley and gravel parking lot here as a driver’s-ed course. When those students score well, parking in tight spaces, threading the narrow alley, he rewards them with burgers, crossed with crisp bacon strips, tucked into steamed buns, and dressed with mustard and ketchup and chopped onions. For copiloting young novices at the wheel of four-thousand-pound machines, McCann usually rewards himself, too.

This parking lot, which connects to the alley that runs parallel to Station Street, looks like a Jenga tower gone horizontal. Patchworked with gravel and sun-bleached asphalt, the drive-through lane stretches from the pickup window toward a rust-tattooed fire truck that squats on four flat tires at the back of the lot.

Since 1965 or thereabouts, locals have queued here for burgers that are crispy at their edges and creamy at their cores. Smashed flat and fried in a trough of vegetable oil seasoned with bacon strips, Cooley’s burgers connect families across generations. Mothers come for lunch hot dogs that turn bright red after basting in that bacon-y grease. Children come for breakfast pans, sandwiches of patty sausages and eggs. On first bite, those eggs pool on yellow tissue wrappers to make a luxurious dipping sauce.

Tenia Cooley, the widow of longtime proprietor Payton Cooley, often works the window. She pulls Tootsie Pops from a bucket for children. She hands bacon, wrapped in paper towels, to dogs who yelp in the beds of idling trucks. Most important, she backstops her cooks, who weave through this concrete-floored shebang like synchronized swimmers bound for Olympic trials. As I marvel at the efficiency of a system based on seeming chaos, Rosebud looks up to say, “Chick-fil-A got this whole drive-through thing from us.”

Inside, regulars stand in line at the far corner of that grill box, a deep-lipped flattop with a divot at the center, where that grease eddies and sputters. Men in brown coveralls sit at picnic tables, thumbing copies of the Wayne County News. Light plays off the plywood-paneled walls. Steam escapes from two stainless-steel boxes, filled with white-bread buns. As customers file in and out, overstuffed brown paper bags in hand, I track the eyes of men and women who pledge allegiance to this place. And I wish I had a Cooley’s in my life.

It’s easy to tell the visitors, says Tenia: “They stand by the register to try and order, when everyone knows we keep the book on the other corner. And they ask for fries.” Cooley’s may have served fries for a time. No one seems to agree on when that might have been, but those who remember say they were too much trouble. If you are many generations deep in this county like most of the restaurant’s customers, you also remember that the Cooley family once ran two locations here in Waynesboro and one in nearby Ellisville. Same as everyone remembers Tenia’s late husband, Payton, who became the third-generation family operator when he took over in 1992.

Payton worked the grill with a camo hat on his head and a bricklayer’s trowel in each hand, rocking back and forth, smashing burgers and basting hot dogs. Regulars called this the Cooley Shuffle. “I can see him now, wiping the sweat from his face with his forearms,” says Jerrell Powe, who played football at Coach McCann’s school before playing nose tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs. (Cooley’s added a window-unit air conditioner in 2000, central air in 2010.)

Payton fed kids who didn’t have houses, mothers who were hungry, fathers who were lost. When you got out of jail, he let you mop for a burger. When you needed a down payment on a used pickup, he fronted the money. On a Tuesday in 2016, Payton died of congestive heart failure. He knew what was coming but still cooked that previous Saturday.

An all-woman crew now works the grill Payton commanded. They are formidable: Rosebud began when she was fifteen. Marcie Jenkins has worked here on and off for decades. Hurricane Katrina blew in Tonya Stevinson in 2005. Peggy Greenhaw showed up soon after. Becky Shoemaker and Lisa Bonds count seven years between them. In a manner that broadcasts her plans to stick around, Alisha McDill, the newest crew member, now smashes burgers with a force that would make Payton proud.

Payton’s son, Timothy Lance Yawn, stands in line for a burger. He makes good money, working on an oil rig. But I can tell his heart is here. “My little boy will stand behind that grill one day,” he says to customer Leon Gandy, who played middle linebacker for Wayne County High with such ferocity that folks still call him Mr. Rattlesnake. Gandy nods and smiles. “I was raised up here,” he says. “Been coming since my daddy thought I was big enough to handle a good hamburger.”