"Of all the bewildering things about a new country," wrote the novelist Willa Cather, "the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening." Willa, a Nebraska import, and I are kindred spirits in that respect. Growing up on the prairie there were precious few landmarks by which to orient one's self: a leaning weathered barn here, a long-defunct grain elevator there. When I was a youth, one of the more familiar landmarks was the Farmer's Inn, a solitary structure looming above the flatlands at the junction of IL Route 158 and Triple Lakes Road. The two-story red brick building looks the same as when it marked the half-way point to grandmother's house in south St. Louis. That is to say, it looks the same as the day it was built in 1896.
Incredibly, because for the past decade the Inn has undergone an identity crisis, of sorts. After sitting idle for years, its upper floor littered with pigeon droppings and its muddy cellar under four feet of water, the Inn was resurrected briefly as a chic, "upscale restaurant in a country setting." The tony eatery lasted less than a year, done in by mediocre reviews and local indifference. It was probably one of the worst business decisions since Decca Records turned down the Beatles. If there was an upside, it was that the owner, a real estate guru from St. Louis, refinished the oak floors, replaced the antiquated plumbing and electrical systems, and remodeled the bar and dining rooms.
Soon after, a pair of hip urban foodies specializing in local, seasonal produce, redubbed the restaurant "The Farmer's Inn & Prairie Kitchen" and tried to make a go of it, only to fail a few months later.
Most recently, the Inn suffered the humiliation of serving as yet another rural Mexican chophouse. I was rankled -- if not riled and roiled -- every time we drove past the new sign advertising "Mariachi's Mexican Restaurant and Cantina." Nothing against the hard-traveling, hard-working Mexicans who settle here in hopes of a more lucrative life, but one thing this area does not need is another taco and margarita joint.
THE FARMER'S INN WAS built as a stopover for thirsty farmers as they traveled between the small agrarian communities of St. Clair and Monroe counties. In 1910, the good folks at Anheuser-Busch Brewery, no doubt as an incentive to sell their and only their brew, presented the owners with the gorgeous 16-foot bar delivered via horse (sadly not Clydesdale) and wagon. With the exception of a small crack in the mirror behind the bar, the remnant of a bar stool tossed in anger that managed to get past the protective arms of the proprietor, the bar area is unchanged from a century ago.
During prohibition, the Inn did duty as a general store. After the Drys had gotten their comeuppance, another local man, Otto Rodemich, re-opened the Inn as a restaurant and bar. (Otto's stern Teutonic visage looks out at the diner from the cover of the current menu.) Old Otto, I'm guessing at his wife's insistence, opened a dance hall on the second floor, which soon became the place to be on Friday nights during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. The Inn changed hands twice more before becoming little more than a pigeon coop in the nineties.
These days, there are woefully few farmers to be seen at the Farmer's Inn. Most of the nearby hayfields have been sold off piecemeal to big time developers from far off West St. Louis County, and the rich soil has been smothered with fescue and asphalt. Where corn and beans once ripened there grow dreary suburban McMansions linking neighboring villages. The garrulous inhabitants of these cookie cutter homes now park themselves on the stools once occupied by stoic dairy and pig farmers. Talk of crops and the weather has given way to the inane braggadocio of sports fans and overindulgent parents.
The Inn's latest owner, Todd Shylanski, a computer programmer in mid-life mode, is a converted traditionalist and a localist, so the Inn utilizes a good deal of produce fresh from the few nearby family farms. Todd's wife Kelley has decorated the walls with the jerseys of local high school sports teams and faded family photographs. Over draft beers and St. Louis-style pizza Todd tells us that he is dead certain the Inn is haunted, doubtless by the ghosts of its former inhabitants, some of whom can be heard mounting the rickety staircase, noodling on an upstairs piano, or fleetingly glimpsed gliding between rooms.
I can't say as I blame them. If I had my druthers I wouldn't leave the Farmer's Inn either.
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