It really is a crossroads, except instead of being a four-way intersection, it’s a five-way intersection.
For more than 60 years, Henderson’s Restaurant at the corner of Steele Road and State Route 36 has been serving catfish, fried chicken and other Southern favorites. Across the street, where Flat Shoals Road intersects State Route 36, is Henderson’s grocery and gas station.
It’s an awkward intersection. On one side of State Route 36 is Flat Shoals Road. On the other, Henderson Mill Road runs into Steele Road just about where Steele Road intersects State Route 36.
“We realize it’s an unsafe intersection,” said Cassandra Henderson.
And for the last decade, she said, the county, and most recently the state, have wanted to make the intersection safer.
Originally, the county worked to make the changes needed to the intersection, Henderson said. “We tried to get them to come up with other alternatives,” she said. “The county finally turned it over to the state.
“We know them [the county personnel and commissioners],” she said. “It was tough on them.
Keith Ellis, Chair of the Newton County Board of Commissioners agrees. “For years, the county has tried not to upset the store and restaurant,” he said. “They’ve been a big part of our community. They’re important to the community.
“It’s always a concern that business will not be affected,” he said. But the realignment “will make the intersection safer.”
Henderson said the family did understand. “It’s just one of those things,” she said. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
GDOT to begin construction this summer
The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) will begin work on improving the safety of the intersection this year. A $1.9 million construction project was awarded to Knight and Associates and work is expected to be completed by Aug. 31, 2017.
The plans call for the realignment of Henderson Mill Road approximately .19 miles south of the existing intersection. Its entrance onto Steele Road will be closed off, and a traffic signal will be installed where it intersects with State Route 36.
Steele Road and Flat Shoals Road will be realigned. State Route 36 will be widened and will have two 12-foot travel lanes in each direction with 12-foot left and right turn lanes onto Flat Shoals/Steel Road and Henderson Mill Road. A traffic light will also be installed at that intersection. Ten-foot wide shoulders will line all roads.
The widening of the highway will eat up the current parking area in front of Henderson’s Restaurant. The road curb will almost align with the sidewalk under the eaves that leads to the front door. With the realignment of Steel Road, the loading area on the south side of the restaurant will also give way to roadway.
Once construction on the realignment and widening of the roads begins, Cassandra Henderson said, Henderson’s Restaurant will close its doors.
“We’re going to lose a substantial amount of parking,” she said. “We’re going to lose half our parking and our loading dock. We have an elderly clientele at the restaurant. We’ve been around so long and it’s an inconvenience for them to walk very far.
“Having the road on the front porch [on State Route 36] is not a good thing either,” she said.
Though the Hendersons have property behind the restaurant, there are sewer and drain lines that make putting parking there unrealistic. All that will be left is a small patch of gravel that has room for an estimated 12 parking spaces, Henderson said.
GDOT purchased the right of way, Henderson said. “As far as they’re concerned if they don’t touch the building, we’re not out of business, even though the road is going to be all the way up to the building.”
A family tradition
Long before she married Frances’ son, David, Cassandra began working at the restaurant. She was 14.
Owned by Frances Henderson, 87, the restaurant and store is still staffed by family. According to Cassandra Henderson, family members still work at both the store and restaurant. She works at the grocery and gas station, while her sisters-in-law Clarice Dozier, Deborah Robertson and Mary Anne Darby all work at the restaurant.
“It’s just been a family thing and we’ve just been keeping it going,” she said.
For years, she said, there weren’t many restaurants in Covington. “Henderson’s was some place people would drive out to. Our clientele is mostly elderly, but they are bringing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
The family does not expect the realignment to have a long-term impact on the grocery store or gas station, though they do think business will drop off during construction, she said. Currently, the family is asking that both entrances off of State Route 36 be left open, but the plans call for closing the southern entrance on State Route 36, leaving the northern entrance alone and cutting a new entrance into the store off of Flat Shoals Road.
Henderson said the restaurant will be closed when construction on the intersection starts. Because of the loss of parking, the proximity of the highway to the front door and the age of the existing restaurant, Henderson said, the family considered building a new restaurant. Henderson said the half-million dollar cost wasn’t feasible.
“We’re not going to do anything until the construction starts,” Henderson said. But eventually, the restaurant will close.
“We’re going to miss it,” she said. “We’re going to miss the customers. We’re very appreciative of them and their patronage over the years.”
Though actual road construction has not yet begun, the contractor has completed about 85 percent of required clearing and nearly 50 percent the removal of trees, shrubs, stumps and rubbish from the road corridors, according to GDOT. Also, there is ongoing surveying marking the centerline and right-of-ways and erosion control devices, such as a silt fence, have been put in place around the perimeter of the project.
Traffic will be maintained on existing roadways during construction, GDOT said. The traffic impact will vary throughout construction stages. GDOT will provide advance notice for major traffic shifts when applicable.
GDOT has also awarded an $8 million contract to E. R. Snell Contractor, Inc., to build a new bridge and approach on State Route 36 over the Yellow River. Funds for the projects come from bridge bonds authorized by the Georgia Legislature, GDOT said.
Traffic will be rerouted to use State Route 162 and State Route 212 as a detour until the bridge in completed. Local traffic will be allowed along State Route 36 up to the construction zone. The project is expected to be completed on May 31, 2018.