If I hadn’t stopped to chat with Jeffrey Casten as he loaded soybeans into his semi, or been drawn into the woodworking shop by the aroma of fresh sawdust, or taken time to wander the field behind the abandoned school, I might have been a little farther down the road. But three o’clock had come and gone, and I was hungry.
Dropping south from Osage City, traveling through country rich in scenery but poor in amenties, it occurred to me that lessons learned about keeping my gas tank full might also apply to my cooler. I’d grown accustomed to convenience stores every few miles in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Their absence in rural Kansas surprised me. I began to suspect I’d have to wait until Emporia to find a meal.
Then, I came to Reading. A tiny town, it seemed remarkably fresh and neat, as though a movie set of a midwestern town had been required, and Reading was the result.
Turning off the highway, I wandered past a grain elevator; a post office; a few scattered trucks. A pretty white Methodist church with a bright red metal roof shimmered in the afternoon light. Across from the church, a long, low building that could have passed for any small-town Texas barbeque joint drew my attention. When I saw its sign, I had to smile. I’d found The Miracle Cafe.
Things were so quiet I wasn’t sure the place was open, but I parked and went in anyway, reasoning that three in the afternoon hardly is peak time for a cafe. Apart from the woman behind the counter, the place was empty.
“You have a good name,” I said. “It seems like a miracle that I found you. I thought I’d have to go to Emporia to find something to eat.” “It’s a miracle you found me, for sure,” the woman said. “On a nomal day, I close at three so I can pick up my grandkids at school, but they’re having tests today, so I stuck around. The grill’s shut down, but I can make you a sandwich. How does chicken salad sound?”
It sounded just fine. While she pulled out a loaf of bread and the chicken salad, I looked around, and noticed a wall filled with angels. “They’re nice,” I said. “Are they your angels?” “They sure are,” she said, adding a little extra lettuce to my sandwich. “You want chips with this?” “No,” I said, “just the sandwich will do. But I’d love to know about your angels.”
The story of the angels actually began in 2001, after Reading’s only restaurant burned down. When the town’s citizens formed Reading Community Development, Inc. to encourage Reading’s economic growth, one of their first goals was to reestablish a restaurant.
Cynthia Price Wilson, a former Reading resident who moved back from Massachusetts, chose the oldest building in town as the restaurant’s new site.
Built in 1870, the house recalled Reading’s beginnings as a railroad town. A tract of land deeded to John McManus in 1867 later was divided, with portions being sold first to Seyfert, McManus & Company, of Brooklyn, New York, and then to the Reading (Pennsylvania) Iron Works. Reading Iron Works owned the land in 1870 when the Santa Fe railroad established a Reading Station between Osage City and Emporia, and the house which eventually would become the Miracle Cafe was built.
Once completed, no one could have confused the cafe with a cookie-cutter franchise. Townspeople had calculated, hammered, and painted. Vintage tables and chairs, tablecloths, kitchenware, and dishes were donated by neighbors. Cheryl Unruh, a delightful chronicler of Kansas’s “flyover people” writes:
A man built the front counter. A woman made the curtains. When it was finished, the Miracle Cafe had a thank-you dinner for the people who helped bring the cafe to life. And they held a cake-and-coffee event for the community at large.
The Miracle Cafe opened in the oldest home of Reading, Kansas in June of 2007.
The Miracle Cafe, 2007 ~ Cheryl Unruh
Eventually, the color of the building changed, and so did the ownership. Reta Jackson, the woman who made my chicken salad sandwich, took over management of the small restaurant in early 2010.
The Miracle Cafe, 2010 ~ Exploring kansas back roads by bike
Unfortunately, the well-loved cafe’s life was about to be cut short. On May 21, 2011 — precisely seven years ago — an EF3 tornado devastated Reading. Don Chesmore, a maintenance supervisor at a senior center in Osage city, was killed; five others were seriously injured.
Over two hundred homes were damaged, and thirty-seven destroyed. The grain elevator, the post office, the senior center, and The Miracle Cafe were hardest hit.
The Miracle Cafe, May 22, 2011 ~ John Sleezer, Kansas City Star
The loss of the cafe resonated far beyond the city limits of Reading. It had become more than the hub of town life, packed every Friday night and every day at noon. It was a destination, even for people from Wichita, Emporia, and Great Bend. After the tornado, Willie Prescott, a Kansas State Representative from Osage City, said, “When I hear from people who aren’t from Reading, their first question is, ‘How is the cafe?'”
Reta Jackson at her Miracle Cafe, May 22, 2011 ~ John Sleezer, Kansas City Star
As the days passed, Reta salvaged what she could to help feed workers: bringing in bottled water and bread, and putting what meat she had in the freezer.
Eventually — no doubt after some shock and denial had worn off — she decided to demolish the building. Not long after, she began considering how to begin again.
The Miracle Cafe, ready for rebirth ~ photo by Kansastravel.org
That, of course, is where the angels — townspeople and volunteers from surrounding counties — came in. They’d already accomplished some significant tasks, including a clean-up of the town’s T-ball field. The team’s June 2nd game had been scheduled before the storm, and no one wanted it to be cancelled or postponed. So, they went to work: hauling away twisted sheet metal, cutting up limbs, and combing the grass for bits of debris that might harm a child. On game night, Coach J.T. Crawford put it well:
It’s a symbol of how the storm hasn’t got the last word. Tonight is for the kids. It’s their recovery, too. We’re going to rebuild and come back stronger than ever.
And so they did. The post office is back, and the bank. The churches have their roofs, the grain elevator gleams, and at The Miracle Cafe, a group of angels on the wall offer mute testimony to the dedication of a town that refused to die.
The Miracle Cafe, Redivivus ~ photo by Kansastravel.org
Reading’s story might be better known had the town’s destruction not taken place only a day before the massive EF-5 tornado swept through Joplin, Missouri. Still, it wasn’t media publicity The Miracle Cafe needed: it was dedicated, optimistic supporters, and the town provided those in abundance.
Some of those supporters put together the Reading Community Development, Inc. cookbook: a small collection of hometown recipes designed to raise funds for local projects.
Thumbing through it at the cash register, I noticed some differences from the fund-raising cookbooks I grew up with: better printing; a spiral binding; a more attractive cover; heart-healthy recipe substitutions.
Still, the recipes were familiar: many of them midwestern to the core. There was the ham loaf with pineapple slices and maraschino cherries. There was a recipe for dumplings-done-right: mixed in a bowl and dropped into hot broth, not rolled and cut like noodles. There were the butterhorns, the Jello salads, and the French Silk chocolate pie.
Best of all were traditional “recipes” that have filled cookbooks for generations: recipes for “friendship soup,” “husband preservation,” and “warming the kitchen.” Looking at the names, the ages — from great-great-grandmothers to grade-school graduates — and the contributors’ histories, I felt strangely warmed, myself.
“Add one of those cookbooks to my tab, if you would.” Reta looked at me. “You want one?”
“Of course I do,” I said. “I want to remember your miracle.”
Comments always are welcome.