PAULS VALLEY — For 20 years, Johnny Ballard has told folks he'd retire when he got old enough.
Turns out, 91 is old enough. That's how old Ballard said he will be in a week and a half.
When the Pauls Valley native turns off the open sign at his Ballard's Drive-In on Friday night, it'll never be turned on again.
“It's taken me a little while longer than everybody else, but I think it's about time to retire,” Ballard said. “I had an opportunity to retire at 65, but I just wasn't ready.”
In the 25 years since Ballard's first flirtation with retirement, thousands of restaurants have come and gone, phones have become computers, and the Internet has connected the world. But things have stayed pretty much the same at Ballard's Drive-In.
“I usually come in between 9:30 and 10 in the morning and leave in the late afternoon,” Ballard said. “But I only do it seven days a week.”
The little drive-in on the east side of Interstate 35 is usually abuzz — literally. Each booth is equipped with a wall-mounted menu and red phone, which is connected to the kitchen. When patrons are ready to order, they pick up the phone, and the kitchen phone begins to buzz. Ballard is usually the voice on the end of that line who politely prompts you to, “Order please.”
This keeps the dull moments at bay during Ballard's 50 to 60 work hours per week. So, when he's asked to come out of the kitchen for an interview, he acquiesces, but his head is on a swivel. Each time the kitchen phone buzzes, he pauses long enough to make sure someone is ready to answer.
Travelers up and down Interstate 35 have learned through the decades what all of Pauls Valley already knew: The place to fulfill the desire for charburgers, french fries, Rex chicken bites, tacos, hot dogs, shrimp, ham, cherry limeades and the signature peanut butter milkshake is just off Exit 72.
Ballard's career behind the counter began at Reavis Drug Store in Pauls Valley when he was “15 or 16.” He left Reavis for a soda fountain job that doubled his salary to $7.50 a week. By the time he was a junior in high school, Ballard was assistant manager of a Fairmont Ice Cream Parlor. In the summer, he worked 14- to 22-hour days for a weekly salary of $15, living in a back room in the shop and eating lunch delivered by his mother.
After graduating from Pauls Valley High School in 1940, Ballard took a football scholarship at Oklahoma City University.
“They still had football back in those days,” he said.
Sensing the start of World War II, Ballard left school after one year and moved to San Diego, where he took a job in a B-24 production plant. After Pearl Harbor, Ballard enlisted and would spend the next six years flying the planes he'd spent time building.
Ballard returned to his hometown and settled into a job at the family business, Ballard's Food Store.
“My brother and I worked at Daddy's grocery store,” Ballard said. “But I never much cared for the grocery business.”
When Ballard heard the local Dairy Queen was for sale, he pounced on it. That was 1951. He opened Dairy Queens in Purcell, Davis and Lindsay in the 1950s, which he operated for 30 years.
Ballard built his circular drive-in on I-35 in 1974, changing the name from Dairy Queen to Ballard's Drive-In two years later.
“We got crossways with Dairy Queen, so we put our own sign up,” Ballard said.
Ballard leaned on the drive-in to support his family for many years, but the friendships he's developed along the way are what he'll miss most.
“I think of the people that come in here more as friends than customers,” he said. “It will be very hard to say goodbye to them.”
Pieces of history
If you decide to visit before the closing, you can dine in or at one of 24 curbside spots via low-fi Order-Matic speakers. Your carhop might not be fleet of foot, but he will likely be the oldest carhop in the universe — at least that's what his wife, Ouida, thinks.
If Ballard isn't delivering to cars, he's answering the order phone and running a register that looks like it might've been delivered in a brand-new Edsel. The kitchen boasts equipment destined for “Antiques Roadshow.”
The soda fountain, as Ballard still refers to it, is pushing midlife crisis.
“It's the last of its kind in captivity,” he said.
All the items will be auctioned by Dakil Auctioneers July 27. A full list of the items is available online at dakil.com under the Upcoming Auction tab or by calling 751-6179.
“We're selling a piece of Oklahoma history,” said Louis Dakil. “It's a sad day but at the same time happy as we'll be helping some great folks out.”
The property will be converted into a tractor supply outlet.
Ballard said if you plan to visit the drive-in this week, you might call ahead, as he will be running out of ingredients.
“We already ran out of strawberries, and I can't really justify ordering more because I won't have anywhere to store them after Friday.”
But Ballard can rest assured his many friends will store memories of peanut butter shakes and cherry limeades from Ballard's Drive-In far beyond the end of the week.