Catfish Haven

There are many things that happens within your life that alters your ideals, and has you seeing the world for what it really is. You begin to understand that the good has you reminesent of how things used to be, and the bad sculpted your strength within. The memories I hold from my childhood are a combination of both as most individuals are. There are times that I look back and smile at how carefree life was with my innocence of a young girl. The knowledge of what was beginning to shape my world was irrelevant to me at the time. So I smiled when times were tough, and found joy just by being surrounded by family.

As I think back there are several people who shaped and inspired me to become who I am today. I feel that I have lived my life based on certain others who taught me, even at a young age to be my best self. Their strength, wisdom, and most of all passion for what they loved most has seeped into my soul, creating my identity for the world to see. Being one of many who were impacted by their selfless love while they walked this Earth makes me understand that each passing moment in time is something to be treasured.

One of those people was Wayne Sanford, my grandfather who not only showed me the best was always for the here and now, but also what hard work could accomplish. His story is one that I think of often, and I find myself constantly wondering if his and my grandmothers dream is one that will withstand the testament of time.

Life is all about taking chances, knowing that there are two ways to go. Failure was never an option for my grandmother who decided in the Winter of 1976 to take over Catfish Haven, a restaurant that specialized in seafood in the city of Russellville, Al. The thought was to come in and re-establish the business with hopes of creating a one of a kind customer atmosphere. In doing so they knew that “the customer is always right”mentality would gather business with a knowing that whoever ate there would indeed come back.

Two months after opening my grandfather left his job as a crane operator in Decatur Al, to be alongside my grandmother. The work ethic they shared was an addition to gather knowledge to run a successful business. Within a year the name Catfish Haven was known far and wide, not just in Alabama, but surrounding states as well. At the time there was no place selling Pond Raised Catfish that could hold a light to what they were creating. The food was delicious, but one would not only talk about the food more than the experience they offered.

My grandmother Sina Sanford was the one who kickstarted the restaurant. A legacy that has withstood time.

When talking to customers one thing that is always remembered is the pond that ran straight through the center of the dining hall. The fish would swim in and out allowing people to stand in awe, while showing their kids the fun to be had, while grabbing a bite to eat. My grandparents took pride in knowing that they had created a family atmosphere worthy of so many. All the while working togrow their own family within the walls of Catfish Haven.

With all things, there are times where darkness makes its presence known. In 1981 my grandmother was killed unexpectedly in a car accident. My grandfather was left to carry on with their dreams of keeping Catfish Haven thriving within the city. With my father now at his side, at age 16, they worked in a family dynamic to keep growing the business. With the will to keep improving, before long the customers were creating lines out the door waiting for tables to come open.

A dream is but a thought, a thought is but a memory, but a memory is a testament of time.


As the grandkids were being raised, even at a young age, we knew that the Catfish industry was in our future. We stood aside and watched and took note with every detail that went into the process of prepping food and customer appreciation. I was even taught how to count back change by my dad at the To-Go window . Seeing the drive and determination that my grandfather carried we began to grow into young adults capable of knowing that work didn’t have to be something you did, but something you loved. We soon took on the roles that my grandfather and father shaped us to hold.

My grandfather a.k.a”Papaw Monkey” was always the first ones there at 6a.m., with my dad not far behind. I never remember him missing a days work, and when asked why he would always tell me simply, because he wasn’t lazy. His long hours were to some overwhelming but watching him you would see that his smile was just that… happiness. There was never a time where we would see him otherwise. The customers would watch though an open window that separated the kitchen from the dining hall and talk to him as he worked, and he valued every moment.

He was more than business owner. He was a friend, an encourager, and most importantly a teacher. Through his eyes his two children were taught the value of giving back. He used his success to make donations within the community. Giving to schools, fundraisers, even helping those who were too afraid to ask. Even on his off days it wasn’t uncommon to see him on his tractor heading down the road to bush hog for those who needed a helping hand.

Standing in front of the infamous window that Wayne Sanford was known to rest against while greeting and talking to customers.

With everything he did, he did it with pride and hard work. He taught us so much that in 2003 when he left this world we were at a total loss. Nothing could have prepared us for a world without him in it, and knowing that Catfish Haven was no more within our family, held a void that we were uncertain how to replace. It took rebuilding our lives, without knowing if we were heading in the right direction. Everything we had known was created with my grandfather by our sides, and we now had to learn to live without him next to us.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it simply teaches us that the words that were meant to be understood at the time, is now our resounding wisdom for tomorrow.


My father at the age of 37 knew that his story was in the process of altering. The only profession he knew was running Catfish Haven, alongside his father, and now everything he had worked towards was tipping. With his own kids almost grown he had to make a decision to uproot everything he worked hard for and begin a new life in Morgan County. This decision was one that took heart and gut. There are no words to describe the feeling of leaving a life that had memories of love, hard work, and most importantly family. The feeling of uncertainty with starting over, without the knowing of whether his decisions were right, were always in his mind. One thing was for sure though like his parents, there was no room for failure.

The admiration I have for my father for stepping into the unknown, struggling but succeeding, is something that I not only admire but cherish. He did exactly what his mom and dad did by walking by faith and thriving. He is living the legacy his own dad left to him, the knowledge of knowing that hard work and love leads to success.

You see, life is always throwing hardships when you least expect it. There is no manual on how to avoid situations that come your way. We brace and fight to overcome obstacles that tend to try and tear us down. When I am driving down Hwy 43, I always look to see my home away from home…the original Catfish Haven. I rejoice in the memories that I was able to make with my family there. I remember the laughter as we all ate breakfast before the doors opened. I remember singing with my dad in the kitchen. I remember seeing my brother hustling making plates, as fast as my sister was taking orders. But most of all I remember a smile on my grandfathers face as I walked through the doors. His booming voice as he yelled “Shelley” and wrapped his arms around me.

I know that my grandmother and grandfathers time spent at Catfish Haven is something that will never be forgotten. How can it be forgotten when they are within our thoughts, our actions, and our love that we pass on from this generation to generations to come. With everything that we were taught, I guess you could say the most important thing we took away from the restaurant, is that success isn’t about the amount of money we make, but the journey we take, while laughing, loving, and creating memories with the ones we love.

Papaw: What time did you get up Shelley?

Me: 7A.M.

Papaw: You lazy thing…sleeping the day away

Wayne Sanford 1942-2003

Author: Mary Swinney

Growing up in the Tri-Cities the love I had for the area tilted more towards how Id love to leave, rather than to see what the area had to offer. I didn't want to see at the time just how enchanting my hometown was. As soon as the chance arose my family and I made our way to Rhode Island. Once there we made some amazing life long friends, who took us in, and showed us just how proud they were of their state. It may be the smallest of all the states, but it was packed with charm and adventure. Each week we were visiting new restraunts, meeting new people, and visiting so many areas that I had only dreamed of. The residents were so proud of what they all had built together that it made me realize just how much I had missed out on back home. I have always been proud of my Southern Roots and I vowed that if God ever brought me back to my hometown I would make it my mission to explore the best it had to offer. I have been back for two years and have fallen in love with so many places. It is my mission now to bring my small town back to life and spread the word on how charming the Tri-Cities truly is.

8 thoughts on “Legacy”

  1. Sweetie, Your Papaw-Monkey would be so proud of you. That is a beautifully written tribute to him and the rest of your family. Very special family, love to all.
    P.S. you need to write a book

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I worked at Moore’s Gas Mart in late 80’s. Wayne use to come in about every night after closing and drink coffee. He always brought me a small bag of hush puppies. Funny at the small things you remember people by after all those years. I was just a high school kid then and he was always so nice to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wayne was one of the finest men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing & becoming friends with. He absolutely had a heart of gold. Always the same person every time you would see him, smiling, laughing and friendly! I still think of him often, especially during football season. Every Saturday morning he loved to talk about his picks for the weekend. I sure miss him!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so happy that he touched so many lives while he was here on this Earth. He was an absolute inspiration, not just to me but tonso so many more. Thank you for the kind words.


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