Laurens, South Carolina – Tommy Senn of Senn Farm was busy selling his summer greens, beets, yellow squash and zucchini next to the large Welcome to Laurens Mural on Saturday as Main Street Laurens’ Downtown Laurens Farmers Market welcomed its newest vendor, Laurens’ Matt Strange and his Melford’s Classic sandwich spreads.
By 11 a.m., Strange had sold almost every carton of his grandfather Melford Strange’s famous sandwich spreads, and most of the sales had included chats with those who remember his grandfather or remembered having snacks from the “Dope Wagons,” the rolling canteens in the locals mills.
“I talked to my dad and my aunt and they agreed that it was called the ‘Dope Wagon’ because it was sponsored by Coca-Cola Company, and everyone knew that originally Coca-Cola had a little bit of cocaine and the term stuck,” Strange said. “They had what they called ‘live lunches,’ fresh sandwiches and Cokes and other soft drinks.”
It wasn’t expertise in cooking which brought Melford Strange, still a teenager, to work for Laurens Mill, however, but rather his proficiency as a player in the local textile baseball lßeague. After a short stint in Woodruff, Laurens Mill requested he come play ball for Laurens. The baseball players were required to do work for the mill when they weren’t playing games, and the young centerfielder was tasked with pushing the Dope Wagon through the halls of Laurens Mill.
After only about a year, though, an accident in the mill elevator ended his baseball career. He was only 18 years old.
“He had the cart on the mill elevator and it shifted and fell on his leg and crushed it,” Strange said. “He couldn’t play ball again, and he stayed at his mother’s house until he could recuperate enough to go back to work.”
That was close to two years, and Melford spent the time making and perfecting sandwich spread recipes and soon won the contracts to supply the Laurens Mill Dope Wagons and vending machines with fresh sandwiches.
“This was the 1930s and he could make everything in his mother’s kitchen,” Strange said. “The corned beef and cabbage was served on buns, ham and cheese were on wheat bread and everything else was on white bread. He kept everything standard.”
By 1940 he opened Eastside Sandwich Shop and hired staff to make sandwiches at a location on Holmes Street near the Second Baptist Church. He also started Strange’s Vending Co., maintaining and supplying the mill vending machines for second and third shift workers in the local mills. Eventually he held food supply contracts for Laurens Mill, Watts Mill, Bonnie Industries, BF Shaw and Laurens Glass. He even supplied concession stands at Laurens and Clinton high football games and Laurens Speedway.
By this time Melford had married, and in later years many family members, including his dad Wayne and his aunt, Judy Kinnie, and his Uncle Roger, were taking part in aspects of the family business.
“Then when I was 14, my aunt, Francis Mitchell, taught me how to make all the sandwich spreads,” Strange said. “We would do it on Saturdays and nothing was written down but she made sure someone knew how to make them.”
The entrepreneur passed away in 1983 at the age of 67, and four years later Matt’s dad, Wayne, sold the business.
“I’ve made them off and on over the years for friends but I decided to go through DHEC and the Department of Agriculture so I could do some direct sales,” Strange said.
Right now he’s sharing commercial kitchen space and treating it as a hobby, which is why he’s focusing on the Downtown Laurens Farmers Market as his primary location.
As he nears retirement, he’ll decide if he wants to go beyond that.
“Right now I’ll try and keep up with what people want,” Strange said. “I’m keeping the recipes just like my grandfather made them. They’re old fashioned but high quality.”
Barring bad weather, the Downtown Laurens Farmers Market will continue meeting at its new location in the Laurens Food Truck Court, in the parking area above Verdin’s Too.
Market manager Gary Pierre said anyone is welcome who has extra produce to sell, breads or fruit from their own gardens. Artisans with handcrafted items are also welcome.
For information email Pierre at email@example.com.
Main Street Laurens’ Downtown Farmers Market is from 8 a.m. to noon each Saturday during the summer months.
Story originally ran on Page 1 of the Wednesday, June 21, 2023 issue of The Laurens County Advertiser.