Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 30, 2020

"The cream of the crop"

While several food combinations might reasonably be called a quintessentially American meal, battered fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, creamed corn and coleslaw, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert, certainly qualifies as one of them. But while Colonel Sander's offerings can serve in a pinch, nothing matches the fare at our family's favorite - the Brookville Hotel in Abilene, Kansas!

"Family-style" serving meant heaping platters brought to the table and refilled as many times as needed to satisfy appetites amplified by anticipation. The great food and atmosphere produced hefty side dishes of laughter and conversation too. The friendly service was unbeatable.

But those times are now only memories. The restaurant closed in late September, a victim of COVID-19.

In an Oct. 13 Reuters story, owner Mark Martin said after the pandemic emerged, he and his wife Connie struggled to break even, just as other small businesses across the country have. Martin said they were hopeful in the first months after receiving a $57,000 loan through the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program. Three-quarters of it went to pay his dozens of employees. They re-opened on Easter weekend for takeout only, hitting their goals of 200 meals on Saturday and 400 on Easter Sunday. Mother's Day was also successful, with 700 takeout meals.

While they were eventually able to open the dining room with limited seating, it wasn't enough. Martin said a normal summer brought two tour buses a week for lunch or dinner, but this year, only two buses stopped during the entire summer season.

According to the restaurant website, it began in the 1870s when the railroad came through Brookville to haul Longhorn cattle coming from Texas along the Chisholm Trail. Originally known as the Cowtown Caf�, the hotel was built in what was expected to be a railroad center.

While the Union Pacific Railroad eventually relocated its round house to Junction City, the Brookville Hotel continued to do a good business in the fading small town. In 1894, Gus and Mae Magnuson purchased the hotel. Mae�s cooking started the hotel's reputation for great food, but it was the Magnuson's daughter, Helen Martin, who originated the "Family Style Chicken Dinners" in 1915. In 1933, Helen became the owner, and she made additions in 1948 and 1960. Third-generation owner Cal Martin made further additions in 1971. Its fame grew to the point that in 1973 the Kansas City Star featured the restaurant in an article "400 Miles for Fried Chicken?" Further additions in 1978 increased the serving capacity to 200.

Mark and Connie became fourth-generation owners in 1982. In 2000, they decided to move the restaurant to Abilene, along Interstate 70. They copied many features of the original restaurant, including the round-roof facade, the words "Since 1870" in large letters on the front, and lavish wallpaper and drapes inside.

In recent years, our Manhattan, Kansas family would meet our Salina, Kansas family at the Brookville - the approximate halfway point between the two towns. Among those of us who met there were our parents, siblings Dave and Gaila and their families, uncle Stan and aunt Kay, Dave's parents-in-law Dale and Dolores, and many others. We even took our adopted German "daughter" Nadja there when she was our exchange student. Last year at the restaurant, we met a father who was cycling to Canada to raise awareness about eating disorders, such as the one that had been fatal for his daughter. In December, 16 of us gathered to celebrate the Christmas. holiday.

Dave has great memories of the restaurant, too.

... Best chicken dinners we ever had, better than Mom's and hers were great! Always knew what you would get, never left hungry, and lots to take home usually. Can't believe it closed, but Covid has wiped out many businesses. Will really miss going there even if only two or three times a year!

Friend Bryce recalled his family gatherings there:

We had wedding rehearsal dinners and Ferguson family gatherings there forever. This is when I'm almost glad that Mom and her sisters aren't living. They would be so saddened by this news, since restaurant dinners were really big deals for farm families back then ... I took almost all of my foreign visitors to Brookville. The last ones were the parents of our exchange student, Will, from Spain. When I lived in K.C. and had foreign visitors, we'd drive out to Brookville for Sunday noon meal and then by the farm at Marquette, and then back to Kansas City. It was my "Introduction to Kansas Tour." I'm sure that hundreds of families have the same kind of memories.

The restaurant survived two world wars, the 1930s Dust Bowl and the Depression, but the coronavirus proved to be too much. It is unlikely when things get better that Mark and Connie will try again. Brandy Lea, their only child, died 25 years ago at age 17 and so there is no fifth-generation family member to step in.

But online, the recipes for Brookville favorites live on at many sites. Typical is the one for their cream-style corn.

2 1/2 (16 ounce) packages frozen whole-kernel corn, thawed
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Combine corn, cream and salt in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Stir together the sugar and cornstarch to prevent lumps, then stir them into the corn. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, and simmer until thick, about 20 minutes. The longer it cooks, the thicker it will be.

I haven't tried it yet, so I don't know if I can replicate the lovely creamy corn served at the Brookville. But I do know the memories created at the restaurant are priceless, and I'm thankful I have those.

"Brookville was the cream of the crop," Bryce told me ... and he wasn't just referring to the corn.

Left: Photo from the Kansas City Star 1973 article of the hotel/restaurant exterior in Brookville; top-middle: 2006 picture of (l-r) Nadja, daughters Katie and Mariya, and husband Art in front of the Abilene Brookville restaurant; bottom-middle: nieces Sydney and Erynn inside the restauarant; top-right: pre-Christmas, but post eating photo of Freeland Family in December 2019 outside the restaurant; bottom-right: restaurant's certificate of recognition by the James Beard Foundation. Image from the restaurant's website.

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