PLANT CITY — Felton Williams started his business in 1955, a roadside vegetable stand on U.S. 92 befitting east Hillsborough County and the country-boy persona of the owner.
Thirty-one years later, the store changed its name and moved closer to the heart of Plant City. Today, Felton's Market takes up a block still rural enough for oak trees on either side, where it commands a loyal following as a supplier of fresh produce, meat packages available for pickup in 24 hours and its own smokehouse.
With a menu offering everything from fresh chicken gizzards to whole smoked hogs and turkeys, Felton's caters to particular local tastes, the Plant City equivalent of a Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Petersburg or the Tampa's former Castellano & Pizzo, which closed last week.
In an age of dwindling mom-and-pop businesses, Felton's is still holding its own despite a Walmart, a Publix and two Sweetbay stores all within 3 miles.
Mr. Williams gave everything to it, typically working from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. His idea of indulgence was marinating and grilling the perfect steaks. He served them to his family after Sunday services at Eastside Baptist Church
Mr. Williams, who ran a large business on the small-town principles of trust and familiarity, died Thursday. He was 87.
"If you wanted something and he didn't have it, he went and got it," said Plant City Mayor Michael Sparkman. "If something wasn't right that his customers bought from him, he'd make it right."
He greeted customers with a mischievous smile and could pull off pranks with deadpan seriousness. He once kept a friend engaged in conversation, all the while filling up the man's shopping cart.
"He gets to the checkout line and he says, 'Where did this stuff come from?' " recalled Lee Williams, 60, his son.
Customers kept Mr. Williams abreast of their grandchildren's accomplishments or their own health problems. Some quietly asked for a little food for survival, and got it.
"He probably loaned more money on credit he never got back or gave it away than anybody ever heard of," Sparkman said.
Felton Williams was born in Perrine in 1924. He spent most of his life in Plant City, at first working for his father, grocer "Shorty" Williams.
Mr. Williams served in Europe during World War II, where he solidified a relationship with God, his family said. In 1944, he married Lucille Bone, a shopper at Shorty's store. After the war, he worked for the railroad, then opened Felton's Highway Market on U.S. 92 in 1955.
In 1986, he opened Felton's Market at 617 N Maryland Ave. Since then, the store continued to grow.
"He did a lot of advertising, but most of it really and truly was word of mouth and quality," the mayor said. "He was somebody you know, and you could go and get something there that probably you couldn't get anywhere else."
None of the area chain stores, for example, sell freshly smoked turkeys, meat bundles from $45 to $99 or Bad Byron's Butt Rub.
Some seasonal visitors who have returned North rely on the U.S. mail and Felton's for their grits and their fruitcake mix.
Mr. Williams had not been able to visit the store much since 2005, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Lee Williams and his sister, Karen Davis, have run their father's business for years.
Davis also had managed the finances for Eastside Baptist Church since 1946. Even after his death, however, the church continues to list Mr. Williams as its treasurer.
Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.