Oak Cliff History: Oak Cliff is the birthplace of 7-Eleven

Above: The early Tote’m stores had totem poles ordered from Alaska
The early Tote’m stores had totem poles ordered from Alaska

Ice, milk, eggs & bread

The story of 7-Eleven begins with an 8-year-old boy grooming the horses and mules that pulled ice-delivery wagons through Oak Cliff.

Young Joe C. Thompson Jr., known as “Jodie,” mucked stalls and otherwise cared for the animals that served Consumer Ice Co., which owned several ice plants and retail ice docks in Oak Cliff, including the ice house on Page at Polk. That building, constructed around 1915, once housed the predecessor of the Oak Cliff Cultural Center and is currently for sale.

Thompson’s family moved from Waxahachie to a house on Edgefield at Tenth when he was a baby in 1901. This Oak Cliff kid would go on to helm a multi-billion-dollar company and create one of the most recognizable American brands.

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The Thompson family lived next door to Mr. and Mrs. J.O. Jones, who owned Consumers Ice, according to the 1977 book “Oh Thank Heaven! The Story of the Southland Corporation,” by Allen Liles. The Joneses had no children, and J.O. Jones took young Jodie under his wing.

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A Southland employee stands in front of the ice dock on Edgefield at Twelfth, which would become the first 7-Eleven store. Photo courtesy of “Oh Thank Heaven! The Story of the Southland Corporation,” by Allen Liles

Thompson moved up from stable boy to loading ice onto wagons and other hard work during his summers as a student at Oak Cliff High School (now Adamson). After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a business degree, he was hired at Consumers Ice and suggested selling ice-cold watermelon from the Oak Cliff ice docks in the summer of 1924. The frozen fruit was all the rage in Oak Cliff that summer.

In 1927, Claude S. Dawley’s Southland Ice bought out Consumer Ice, with Thompson negotiating Consumer’s side of the deal. Thompson became director of the newly formed corporation, The Southland Ice Co., whose headquarters was at Beckley and Clarendon.

Ice was a necessity for preserving food in the days before refrigeration. Iceboxes held big blocks of ice that would keep groceries cool for a few days at a time. Back then, grocery stores closed by 6 p.m. Ice docks operated 16 hours a day, seven days a week and were virtually the only businesses open on Sundays.

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A Southland employee stands in front of the ice dock on Edgefield at Twelfth, which would become the first 7-Eleven store. Photo courtesy of “Oh Thank Heaven! The Story of the Southland Corporation,” by Allen Liles
Photo courtesy of “Oh Thank Heaven! The Story of the Southland Corporation,” by Allen Liles

One cunning ice-dock operator capitalized on that starting in 1927.

John Jefferson Green operated a Southland Ice Co.-owned ice dock on Edgefield at Twelfth. Customers often asked him to sell a few groceries — milk, eggs and bread. According to Liles’ book, it kept Green busy during winter, when demand for ice decreased. He brought the idea to Thompson, and he began selling milk, eggs, bread, cigarettes and canned goods.

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The Southland Ice Co., which had continued buying up icehouses all over Texas, ran with the grocery idea. The grocery business became Thompson’s main focus. Grocery shelves were added to ice docks, and as a marketing ploy, Southland ordered totem poles from Alaska, which were installed outside the newly named “Tote’m” stores in San Antonio and Oak Cliff.

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Above: The early Tote’m stores had totem poles ordered from Alaska

By 1936, Tote’m stores were the No. 1 retailer of dairy products in the Dallas area, so Southland grew vertically and started Oak Farm Dairies with headquarters at 1114 N. Lancaster. Developer Cienda Partners demolished the Oak Farm Dairy plant this past year to make way for high-end apartments.

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Photo courtesy of “Oh Thank Heaven! The Story of the Southland Corporation,” by Allen Liles

Tote’m continued to grow throughout the ’30s and ’40s, and Southland acquired a few more icehouses. All of them were converted to open-front, drive-through stores, offering curbside service to customers. They carried ice, drinks, groceries and sundry items, and they were open seven days a week from morning until late at night, according to Liles’ book. But they lacked a
unified name brand.

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In 1945, Southland hired the Tracy-Locke Co. to come up with advertising and marketing campaigns. They named it 7-Eleven. All of Southland’s stores were converted to the 7-Eleven brand in January 1946.

By 1950, there were 80 stores. Southland began building new stores and remodeling old ones throughout the ’50s. New stores were much larger, had wider aisles and bigger parking lots.

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Oak Farms Dairies’ first ad.

The company sank a ton of money into real estate and advertising on radio and TV. In the ’50s, Southland also began expanding into other states, starting with Florida.

Since then, 7-Eleven has gone on to world domination with more than 57,000 stores on four continents.

It was the first company to sell coffee in paper cups to go and the first to offer self-serve soda fountains. In 1959, Dean Sperry and Omar Knedlik of Dallas-based manufacturing company E. Mitchell Co. invented the Icee machine, which served frozen carbonated drinks. 7-Eleven bought three Icee machines in 1965, and they were such a hit that a few years later, nearly every store had one. The Stanford Agency named it the “Slurpee” for the sound it makes coming out of the straw, and 7-Eleven bought radio ads to promote that now iconic treat.

Two Japanese companies became the majority owners of the Southland Corp., now known as 7-Eleven Inc., in the early 1990s. The site of John Jefferson Green’s ice dock on Edgefield was a 7-Eleven store until about 25 years ago and now houses the LULAC National Education Service Centers. Jodie Thompson died in 1961, handing over the reins to son John (who died in 2003) but the Thompson family still owns about 5 percent of the Southland Corp.

And Oak Cliff still owns the title “birthplace of 7-Eleven.”

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