Cafe on the Gainesville square fed residents here for 75 years
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story.
When Deb Garcia announced recently on her Facebook page that she and her husband, Lou, would not be reopening their cafe on the Gainesville square after closing it during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown order, many area residents felt their hearts (and stomachs) give a sad lurch.
With only a few short interruptions, Gainesville has had a restaurant on the west side of the square for 75 years – since the mid-1940s, when Fern Grisham Wallace and her husband, Ray, opened the Bonton Cafe in the building next door to the current site of Deb & Lou’s. The Wallaces also owned the Gainesville Sale Barn, and Fern’s parents, Frank and Cona Grisham, had built and operated the Central Hotel, which adjoined the cafe.
1946: Bonton Cafe becomes Skeeter’s
A few months after the Wallaces opened the Bonton, on July 7, 1946, Ozark County natives Frank “Skeeter” and Faye Blackburn Stevens bought the restaurant and renamed it Skeeter’s. Skeeter had served in the 44th Bomber Group of the Army Air Force and had flown 24 missions over Germany as a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator during World War II. The crew he served with was awarded the air medal with three oakleaf clusters and three battle stars.
In “A History of Ozark County, 1841-1991,” Faye Stevens wrote that the restaurant’s kitchen equipment “included a small stove and grill but no refrigerator and no water.” The water had to be carried from the adjacent Central Hotel, which had been purchased by Skeeter’s sister, Marie Hambelton and her husband, Paul.
Hamburgers were 15 cents, and coffee cost a nickel when Skeeter and Faye took over the cafe. Genevieve Grisham Looney, their first customer, spent 35 cents, Faye wrote.
The cafe was successful, but the challenges were sometimes frustrating. A 1947 Skeeter’s ad in the Times said, “Notice! This café hopes you will cooperate. Our electric power is so bad that we cannot operate our three ice boxes, ice cream cooler, nickelodeon, fans and other equipment. We have already burned out 2 motors in 9 days. We will give better service when the power company can give better service.”
Remodeling and modernizing through the years led to the cafe’s having Gainesville’s first air conditioning as well as the town’s first neon sign, Faye wrote.
For the cafe’s first 20 years, it operated from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week, she said. Faye and Skeeter’s son, David Stevens, said last week that he thinks for a short time the couple even kept the restaurant open 24 hours a day. Later, they reduced the cafe’s schedule to a more reasonable six days a week from 6 a.m. until late afternoon.
David remembers his dad leaving the family’s home on Harlin Drive about 4:30 each morning to open the cafe. When the cafe was closed on Sundays in later years and the family actually got to eat meals at home together, “it was usually with a houseful of friends who would come for dinner after church,” David said, mentioning the large families of Howard and Lou Anna Wade and Don and Dorcas Rackley, as well as Church of Christ pastor Cliff Stewart and his family.
David likes to note that there were some years in the mid-20th century when Gainesville residents wanting a restaurant meal could go to “Bug’s, Skeeter’s or Legs’.”
Bug’s Cafe, just off the square on what is now Third Street, was owned and operated by J. L. “Bug” Farel and his wife, Grace, from January 1948 until 1953 or 54. The Farels’ daughter, Dorcas Farel Rackley, now 90, worked in the cafe as a waitress. Asked last week about the history of Bug’s Cafe, Dorcas consulted her friend Lyndell Strong, 91, for help remembering. Lyndell, who had also waitressed at Bug’s, asked Sonja Luna Grisham for help, and it was decided that Bug and Grace sold the cafe to Bill and Alice Bonnell, who, a short time later, sold it to Raymond and Opal Fay Luna. While the business’s official name became Luna’s Cafe, many residents called it “Legs’” because that was Raymond’s nickname.
Beverly Stevens Darnell takes over
David Stevens and his sister, Beverly, grew up working in the cafe, and sometime in the 1980s, Beverly and her husband, Joe Darnell, assumed ownership. As their mother and uncle had done, the Darnells’ daughters, Jackie (Jones) and Jeri (Dotson) grew up in the cafe.
“Some of my biggest memories are washing dishes standing on a 5-gallon pickle bucket,” Jackie said recently. She also remembers thinking “all the old men sitting at the coffee table [in the back of the cafe] were there to cater to my whims. If I needed a ride to school, I’d get Billy Hambelton or T. J. Robbins or one of the other old guys to take me where I wanted to go,” she said.
Jackie and Jeri waited tables as they became teenagers. And in the later years, “when Mom and Dad started going to more horse shows, Jeri and I would run the restaurant over the weekends.” Their Grandpa Skeeter was still around quite a bit too, she said, and their Grandma Faye would also come down occasionally.
Any cafe photos from that era were lost when the Darnells’ home burned. Beverly died in 2004, Faye died in 2007 and Skeeter died in 2011.
Through the years, “some 500 individuals have worked at Skeeter’s,” Faye wrote in the 1991 history book article. David remembers seeing his dad’s long, handwritten list of the names of the cafe’s many former employees.
1991: Sherry Turner Dotson buys Skeeter’s
One of those employees was Sherry Dotson, who had been waiting tables at Skeeter’s a couple of years in the late 1980s when Beverly offered to sell the business to her. “I was only 23, 24 years old at the time,” Sherry said recently.
“I bought the restaurant in 1991, and a couple of days later, I’m like, ‘Who’s gonna cook for me?’ And Beverly said, ‘Uh, you are.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, me?’ But she and Skeeter taught me how. They were very instrumental in showing me how to cook and run a restaurant. I knew how to cook, but it’s different to cook for a restaurant than it is to cook at home.”
Skeeter not only taught her how to cook in the restaurant, he also shared a guiding principle that carried her through her first two decades of business ownership. “He said, ‘Sherry, always remember that the majority of your years are going to be good. Every now and then, you might have a few bad months, but just weather through it, and you’ll be fine.’ He said that’s what had kept him going all through the years, and he was right. All businesses have a down time. But if you can just weather through it, you’ll get by,” Sherry said.
She credited her 20-year success in running the restaurant to that advice, to the area residents who patronized the business, to Juanita Luna and other long-time employees and especially to her three daughters, who, like Faye and Skeeter’s children and grandchildren, grew up in the restaurant and “worked summers as well as many, many Saturdays,” Sherry said.
When she bought Skeeter’s (she kept the original name), Sherry had a 2-year-old daughter, Kalyn. Her daughter Katie was born in 1992, and Jamie was born in 1994. And all the time she was mothering three children under age 6, she was running the restaurant. After a few years, she took on another job after finishing college – working as a reading specialist at Lutie School.
“The hours varied. We were open six days a week, and we always opened at 6, which meant someone had to be there at 5 in the morning. At first, we closed at 6 p.m. and later changed it to 5 p.m. Occasionally we tried being open on Sundays,” she said.
At various times, Sherry’s girls worked in “every little part” of the restaurant, she said. “They waited tables and, through the years, did it all. When they were little, they couldn’t wait to get started. We had this little stool, and they would stand on it to rinse dishes or play in the water.”
Sherry updated the cafe’s kitchen equipment and dining-room furnishings, and things ran smoothly during the 1990s. Then, in either 2003 or 2004, a month before Hootin an Hollarin with its big, hot, hungry crowds seeking food and air conditioning, a fire swept through the restaurant, causing devastating damage.
Sherry had no insurance, but she wouldn’t give up. “At the time, I just felt like I couldn’t afford insurance, but of course, that was a matter of priorities,” she said. Still, the restaurant had done well, and “I trusted that everything would be OK.”
The original building, still owned by Marie Hambelton, was too badly damaged to make quick repairs. So Sherry bought the building next door, which had housed a dry goods business for several decades, beginning with Johnson’s Store, originally owned by the late Frank Johnson and then by his son, Rex. Frank had rebuilt the building after an earlier fire in 1940 destroyed the old hotel and the buildings that adjoined it on that part of the square, including the Johnson building.
“Everything was built of wood, and the fire burned through all of it until it came to the bank’s stone wall. The fire stopped there,” Rex recalled.
After the fire, Frank Grisham rebuilt the hotel and the adjoining building where his daughter, Fern Wallace, and husband Ray had opened the Bonton Cafe – which Skeeter Stevens had bought in 1946. At the same time, Frank Johnson rebuilt his building that would house his clothing store for another 55 years.
When Rex retired in 1995, he sold out to the Curtis Department Store owners, who operated the business until the Gainesville location closed sometime in the early 2000s.
That closure meant the building was empty when Sherry needed it for Skeeter’s new location. Converting a dry goods store into a restaurant in one month wasn’t easy, but Sherry managed to pull it off with the help of her parents, James and Sandie Farris. She reopened Skee-ter’s in its new location in time to serve the Hootin an Hollarin crowds.
“God is good,” Sherry said, remembering that difficult time.
Later, she bought that original Skeeter’s building from Marie Hambelton and operated her own clothing store there for a few years.
Sherry continued to run Skeeter’s Cafe in its next-door location until Nov-ember 2011, when she changed careers and became an insurance adjuster – and rented the business to Deb Smith and Lou Garcia.
Now that Deb & Lou’s has closed, Sherry says she’s hoping someone will step up to buy the fully equipped restaurant. Those interested may call her at 417-543-0217 or her husband, Jeff Dotson at 417-372-1002.
To be continued.
Next week: 2011 – A new name for Skeeter’s. The Deb & Lou’s era.