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Tales of the White Front: Part 4

By Yvonne Nyenhuis

Fri, Oct 4th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

Life is made of many moments large and small strung together like pearls in a necklace. Some of my memories are fragments but remain vivid and surface when triggered by a current incident.

The two years following our purchase of the White Front was a time of change. Lanesboro underwent a transformation from a sleepy little town to a magnet for tourists. The coming of the trail was a bugle calling to the world. Leave your stress-filled lives and find peace as you ride your bike through fields and woods along the Root River. Aside from the campground in Sylvan Park, there were two places to stay overnight, “Mrs. B’s” and the Knotty Pine cabins. When it rained, tourists looked for a haven that was cozy and dry. On such occasions, weekends came to mean standing room only, at our small restaurant and guests hanging from the light fixtures. One Sunday when the day came to an end, we realized we were completely out of eggs. Glenn contemplated being closed Monday morning. I assured him, “We can get eggs.” Glenn was dubious. “Where can we get eggs at 4:30 on a Monday morning?” “The Chat and Chew,” I answered without hesitating. I ignored his amazed expression and picked up the phone. A cheery voice answered. Greg Thoen, who along with Karen Scheevel, owned and managed the Chat and Chew, said I should come down. He smiled broadly as he led me to a place in the basement where there were eggs in great abundance. The White Front opened at six Monday morning as usual.

Now and then something occurs that causes us to see the world in a new way. The front door opened and 11 people filed into the restaurant. They were a diverse group, men and women of different ages. Some looked oriental. Others were light-haired, blue eyed, and tall. They were speaking Russian. Once seated they were brought menus which they greeted with a blank look. We were puzzled as to how to communicate with them. An oriental lady turned to me. Her face lit up suddenly, “Meat” she cried triumphantly. I wrote down “hamburger” on my order pad. Three of the men ordered California burgers, which we served open-faced. They picked up the top part with mayo and lettuce in their fingers. The bottom part with the hamburger, tomato and onion they attacked confidently with a knife and fork. Our guests communicated noisily, back and forth across the tables, jubilant laughing, having a great time!

My oriental lady searched the contents of her purse and produced a post card picturing a huge stone head of Lenin. She was very proud of this achievement of her people. She offered the card to me as a gift. She seemed to feel she was giving me a great treasure. She and her friends were visiting from Siberia.

Returning the honor I presented her with a white china mug with a logo of the White Front in blue. We had 150 made for our regular customers which we handed out as Christmas presents. I imagined her sitting at her kitchen table far away in Siberia drinking her tea from a mug she received in Lanesboro, Minn.

As they left, Glenn came out of the kitchen. He counted out their change and said “Goodbye, come again” in Russian. The Siberians looked at him in wide eyed amazement but didn’t explore the matter further which was good because Glenn had just about used up his Russian vocabulary. It was 30 years since he studied Russia at the University of Hawaii.

Sometimes we are caught in a moment when time stands still. I was approached by an old man steadied on either side by two younger men. They appeared to be studying me. Perhaps they wondered if I would recognize this person and his importance. I found myself staring into the impassive face of the original owner of the White Front. Ben Bearson started the restaurant in a white frame house in 1932. The trio ordered soup to take with them. In minutes they were gone and I was left to ponder the significance of their visit.

After Ben Bearson the restaurant had a colorful proprietor. Elmer Walters was a showman and a master in public relations. He is remembered for his sense of humor and his unique approach to business. After the restaurant was destroyed by fire in 1940, he sold sandwiches out of the ruins which he named “The Dump.” The new stone building was opened in 1941. there were signs on highway ‘52 telling the public, “Come to the White Front Café for “lousy” food and “warm” beer! customers always talked about the signs tacked up on the walls. High in one corner near the ceiling, you had to twist your neck to read it, were the words, “Why in the hell are you looking up here?” If you neglected to come in for a while you might get a postcard, “Where have you been? We missed you!”

Beer was delivered in barrels on Friday. When it arrived customers were waiting mugs in hand. Through the years the White Front retained the reputation for good food and congeniality. On our menus were the words, “Come to the White Front Café where you will greet old friends and make new ones!”


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1:33:55, Oct 17th 2013

jkoljord@yahoo.com says:
I enjoy your articles on the White Front, especially the last one when you mentioned Elmer Walter. He became my stepfather in 1956, sometime after he had left Lanesboro and moved to Winona. Everything you said about him was absolutely true! He and my mother, Helen Jorde from Rushford, bought a hotel in Amery, Wisconsin in September of 1956. He had the lobby walls filled with goofy/funny signs, although some were kind of risque. His business cards to advertize the hotel said, "it's terrible, gonna risk it?" Also, anyone over 80 who books a room with their parents will get it for free! His signs were once mentioned on the Arthur Godfrey show. When my family visited them at the hotel we never knew what to expect! You have heard the saying "so and so is always so late that they will be late for their own funeral. Well, he was! He was living in San Benito, Texas then and was cremated. This was in October. The next June my mother had a graveside ceremony set up for the cemetery in Lanesboro. All the family was there, including my brother from Colorado, whom Elmer had adopted. But, the crematoriium in Texas forgot to send the ashes up! We went ahead with it anyway. This could only have happened to Elmer!

Keep on writing. Jan Koljord
La Crescent, MN