Joe Combs serves customers at The Fillin’ Station on Bradleyville’s main drag.
BRADLEYVILLE – When Bradleyville’s school superintendent and his teacher wife retired in 2016, the couple decided to save the tiny Taney County town.
Well, technically they opened the town’s only grocery-and-gas store — but for folks around Bradleyville, such things are synonymous.
“Bradleyville was as good as dead. They might as well have put up the tombstone,” says a local man with the name “Bill” embroidered on his button-up shirt. “They breathed life back into Bradleyville, there’s no doubt about that.”
When Joe and Paulette Combs opened The Fillin’ Station in April 2017, it became the only place in at least 15 miles where folks could fill their vehicles’ tanks with fuel and their pantries (and bellies) with food.
“They’ve got some of the best biscuits and gravy you’ll ever eat,” says Jake, another local who’s shooting the breeze with Bill in the store’s back room, which is dedicated to socializing. “I think this is the greatest thing that’s happened in Bradleyville in at least 10 years.”
The men’s presence shows that, in addition to selling its wares, the store gives something away: A sense of community.
“We had no place for people to stop and talk to each other, except the post office,” says store owner Paulette. “It just does my heart good. It’s going back to the way it was — just a little country place.”
Joe Combs serves a customer who came in to buy sandwiches.
Opening the store wasn’t the couple’s first foray into shopkeeping.
Joe grew up in the business with his parents, who owned a one-pump store in nearby Beaver Creek. Later, he and Paulette ran a grocery store in Bradleyville — located right next door to their current operation — from the late 1970s through the late ’90s.
For most of that time, they were also involved at schools, where they’d fill in if the teaching staff had any gaps.
Ultimately, Paulette taught music for 10 years at Bradleyville before transitioning to special education, which she did for the remainder of her career. After a few years spent teaching at Ava, Joe came back to Bradleyville when he was asked to become superintendent. It was a role he held for nearly 20 years.
Paulette Combs makes made-to-order sandwiches at the store.
That longtime community involvement allows both Joe and Paulette the privilege of knowing most of their customers personally.
Most are greeted by name at The Fillin’ Station, which seems like a small grocery store that happens to sell gas. A quick glance of its shelves shows milk, eggs, soda, canned goods, marshmallows, cookies, toaster pastries, car oil, washer fluid and tobacco, among other items. They also still rent movies at the store, and even sell baskets — pie baskets, strawberry baskets, lunch baskets and more — that are made by a local craftsman.
Nearby, a cooler displays meat and cheeses waiting to fill made-to-order sandwiches. Paulette takes each ingredient out of the cooler as it’s requested, cutting extra-thick slices of cheese and meat before assembling each sandwich and wrapping in tinfoil.
The Fillin’ Station’s shelves are filled with a wide variety of wares.
The tempting scent of pizza also fills the building, as pies slowly bake for customers who wait.
“It’s kind of funny, but for a small community, it’s a big deal to get fast food,” says Susan Mooney, the Combs’ daughter, who jumped in to help make pizzas during a rush on a recent Saturday.
Outside, local folks gather around gas pumps as their fill their trucks’ tanks. Making that possible, however, wasn’t an easy feat. Increased regulations in recent years have led many rural merchants to discontinue fuel sales. However, the Combses felt it so important to the community that they went through the effort of bringing fuel back.
And local folks are sure to partake. “People want to make sure it stays,” says Johnny, another customer.
“There are more cars here right now than there were in a week before,” notes one customer.
And even though he and Paulette don’t walk the school halls on a daily basis, they’re still avid supporters of its students, especially since their grandchildren attend classes.
A photograph of the high school basketball team adorns one of the store’s wall, its exuberant group pictured after winning districts last year — and two of its members are the Combs’ grandsons.
One of those young men is working at the store on a recent Saturday. Another is 13-year-old Natalie, who is building pizza boxes in the back and often comes after school to help her grandparents. All of the grandchildren do, in fact.
“It’s not too hard of a job, but they’re really kind about us working and give us lots of stuff back,” Natalie says, grateful for the treats she gets in return.
Around the corner, 10-year-old William diligently affixes stickers on other pizza boxes. His favorite part of the job? “That I get to spend time with my family,” he says.
For the Combses, though, that feeling extends to kids who aren’t even blood kin.
“We’re the type of store where, if people are going to be late, they’ll call us and ask (if their kids) can come here,” says Paulette.
The couple has even been asked to help ask dates to school dances. The most recent instance was when a young man asked his date to the prom via pizza: He wrote “I hope this ain’t too cheesy,” on the box, while Paulette spelled “prom” in pepperoni on the pizza inside.
“Of course she said yes,” says Paulette with a smile.
That support and family-like feeling extends to the community, proven by little things like a dollar bill waiting in the “take a penny” jar for someone in need. Other bigger things, however, also prove the Combs’ dedication.
Bill, in the back room, recounts when his mother died a few months ago. When members of the family came by the store to pick up some necessities, he said the Combses wouldn’t let them pay for anything. “They both have hearts bigger than Bradleyville,” he says.
But that’s what you do for folks you care about.
“It’s just like a family,” says Paulette. “That’s about all you can say.”
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