The last Carey Hilliard's Restaurant closed this week. There once were two, one on Sam Rittenburg Boulevard and one on Rivers Avenue, but the economy has taken its toll.

The family-style establishments were middle-of-the-road fare, somewhere between Shoney's and the old Robertson's Cafeteria.

But the story behind the story was always more interesting than the food.

Go back in time to 1982, just before Christmas, on a cold, rainy night outside Savannah. Just after midnight, a small private plane crashed on approach to the local airport, killing four people.

Among them were Carey Hilliard, 45, and his wife, Kathleen, 49, owners of a restaurant chain with stores in Savannah and Charleston. Also killed in the crash were C. Allan Parker, the pilot, and an accountant, Mary Thomas.

They had departed Charleston late that night, headed home for the holidays. After one failed attempt to land in bad weather, the pilot apparently circled for another try and crashed about two miles short of the runway.

News of the couple's deaths stunned both communities where the Hilliards did business. The time of year, December 12th, added to the sadness.

Best-kept secrets

It wasn't until later that the rumors started.

The stories, passed along in whispers, said the prosperous couple had hidden wads of money in their Savannah home.

Those in the restaurant business did not think it was implausible. Cash has a way of disappearing like dirty dishwater, out the back door, without a trace.

The only problem, the story said, was they didn't tell other family members about the stash. That they went to their deaths as the only ones who knew.

The family allegedly sold off the house, never knowing there was a cache of cash hidden under the floor.

The capper to the legend said the new owners found the money, and kept it. Amounts were as varied as the storytellers.

As rumors go, it was a good one. Complete with a moral. That the best-kept secrets never get told.

Unfortunate truth

Truth, however, often ruins a good story.

When asked this week about the oft-told yarn, a family member laughed and said it was "the oldest rumor in the world."

Officially, Tom Richardson is the corporate assistant to the president of Hilliard's Restaurants at the home office in Savannah.

Unofficially, he is the nephew of Carey and Kathleen Hilliard. His mother was Carey Hilliard's sister.

The house in question, he said, was in Thunderbolt, Ga., a fishing village just outside Savannah. He said he once lived in the house before it was sold.

He scoffs, however, at the notion that all this money was left behind by his aunt and uncle.

"There's that one and 1,500 other rumors floating around about that house," he said in an interview this week.

"But the house is still there, and the floor safe is still there."

Floor safe? That gives credence to the idea that something was hidden in the floor.

And, indeed, there was.

"The only thing they found when they opened that safe was a bunch of Las Vegas poker chips," Richardson said.

So, were they of any value?

"Not worth anything," he said.

Much, unfortunately, like the rumor itself.