Lunch At The Miracle Cafe

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.

 

Unwriting The Unwritten Rules

With a set of jacks, a hopscotch marker, and a jump rope in hand, entire afternoons could pass before anyone thought to say, “I’m bored.”

While we envied the skill of the Double-Dutching older girls, we took our turns at the single rope and were content. Pigtails and ponytails flying, we jumped to rhymes still known today: “Teddy Bear,” “Spanish Dancer,” “Cinderella.”

We giggled at verses filled with favorite beaus, kissing, marriage, and baby carriages, but the rhymes weren’t freighted with adult meaning. Their short, easily memorized lines were nothing more than markers for the entrance and exit of jumpers from the ropes. Continue reading

Still Rolling, After All These Years

Union Pacific Steam Engine 844 Passing Castle Rock  ~  Green River, Wyoming
Photo courtesy of Eric Nielsen

For three years, Union Pacific’s magnificent Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming while undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. Returned to service in 2016, it traveled first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis.

Today, UP 844 is traveling again. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day round trip run to Idaho to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, will have taken the historic steam engine over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track: through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. Brief stops in communities along the way have allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.
Continue reading

The Great Arkansas Post Office Tour

Tobacco Sorters  (1942-1944) ~ Thomas Hart Benton

In Arkansas and Missouri, the name is ubiquitous. Even the most casual visitor tends to notice, and occasionally asks, “Who is this ‘Benton’ character whose name keeps cropping up?” In fact, it isn’t “this Benton” but “these Bentons” for whom the states’ schools, counties, and towns are named.

The first Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) served five terms as senator from Missouri. A strong advocate for westward expansion, he petitioned Congress to fund a survey of the road to Santa Fe. The petition granted, Commissioners George Sibley, Benjamin Reeves, and Thomas Mather of Illinois took charge of the survey, measuring and negotiating their way across Kansas and New Mexico from 1825-1827. Continue reading

Learning to “Cowgirl Up”

Ready to Ride

If that’s a “YeeeeeHaw!echoing down the corridors of your Fortune 500 company, or the distinctive click of boot heels tapping across polished granite toward the exit, there’s no question what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.

Founded in 1931, the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition eventually became the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just the Rodeo: a mélange of trail rides, barbeque, bronc riding, , baby animals, wine tastings, quilt exhibits, livestock auctions, concerts, and calf scrambles that truly has something for everyone. Continue reading