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Travel back in time -- and get great fried chicken, too

By Tom Uhlenbrock

Missouri State Parks

ARROW ROCK, Mo. – If Kenny Leech is graded by the fried chicken he cooks at J. Huston Tavern in the historic village of Arrow Rock, he will ace this course.

The aroma of good food frying permeates the air as you approach the brick two-story building, which first opened in 1834. A plaque on the wall inside notes that Rural Missouri magazine voted the fried chicken tops in the state in the latest poll of its readers.

“I try different recipes, make different kinds of pies and cakes and cobblers,” said Leech, 22, who is in his second year at the tavern. “I’d like to have a cheesecake, but it’s not from the time period.”

Leech is a senior at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, where in December he will become the first graduate of the school’s innovative Hospitality and Tourism Management Program. Students in the program work as cooks and waitresses at the tavern. Leech gets credit toward his degree, $8.50 an hour and plenty of experience.

Once in danger of being razed, the tavern was the first property in Missouri bought by the state for historic preservation, and is now billed as one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants west of the Mississippi.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources operates the tavern as part of Arrow Rock State Historic Site, which features a handsome visitors’ center that explains the area’s history.

Shellee Peuster knows Arrow Rock well; she grew up nearby and her first job as a teenager was as a waitress at the tavern. Now 34, Peuster works for Pfoodman Holdings, a food service operator based in the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin. One of Pfoodman’s clients is Missouri Valley College.

Peuster helped set up the college’s hospitality program in the fall of 2009. When Pfoodman got the state contract as the food concessionaire at J. Huston Tavern in the spring of 2011, she connected the program to  her old work place.

“The practical experience is the most important thing the students get,” Peuster said. “They learn pressure under fire, the fast pace. It really has to be learned in a real-time setting.”


Dinner and a play

Fast pace are usually not words associated with Arrow Rock, which has about 50 or so permanent residents and celebrates its association with Westward Expansion, the Santa Fe Trail  and artist George Caleb Bingham.

Kathy Borgman of the Friends of Arrow Rock notes that the village is just a 15-minute drive off busy Interstate 70 in north-central Missouri, but makes for a tranquil trip into long ago.

Just four blocks wide and eight blocks long, Arrow Rock features a two-block boardwalk of shops offering antiques and handmade gifts. The town’s architectural heirlooms are scattered in a park-like setting.

“Some people describe Arrow Rock as a town within a park,” Borgman said of its turn-of-the-century ambience.  “You can spend half a day in Arrow Rock and get your hands around it. When you leave, you feel like you’ve really been to a different place.”

Arrow Rock does have its busy times, thanks to another of the town’s celebrated institutions, the Lyceum Theatre. During the theater’s season, visitors flock to Arrow Rock to dine at J. Huston and take in a play.

“It’s Broadway-caliber theater,” Borgman said. “People see it and say, ‘That was really good.’ They don’t expect something so professional in a small town.”

The theater’s schedule this season includes: Boeing-Boeing, July 21-28; Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest, Aug. 4-11; Buddy-The Buddy Holly Story, Aug. 22-31; To Kill a Mockingbird, Sept. 8-15 and Sanders Family Christmas, Nov. 10-18. For more information, visit lyceumtheatre.org.

Arrow Rock has two other award-winning restaurants – Arrow Rock Station serves dinner year round Friday and Saturday and on theater dates, Catalpa is open from Easter to New Year’s for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings and on evenings of theater performances.

Arrow Rock, and the restored railroad town of Blackwater eight miles away, can be visited anytime, but weekends are best when the shops and historic buildings are open. For visitors who wish to stay overnight, Arrow Rock has six bed and breakfasts and Blackwater has the historic Iron Horse Hotel.

“It puts you into a totally different atmosphere,” Borgman said of Arrow Rock, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark. “It makes you want to stop and poke around. You have to be willing to back off a bit from your mile-a-minute pace.”


Craft festival in October

The J. Huston Tavern was built in 1834 by Joseph Huston, an early Arrow Rock settler and civic leader from Virginia. Planned as the family home, the building welcomed immigrants heading west and became known for its overnight lodging and meals.

Today, the tavern is part museum and part restaurant.

The Daughters of the American Revolution, which pushed the state to save the building, has restored a first-floor summer kitchen with period furnishings. Three bedrooms and a spacious ballroom upstairs also are furnished, and open to tours by reservation.

The restaurant, which seats up to 140 people in three rooms and the “tap room,” is open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday, and dinner on Saturday. The Sunday lunch menu is family-style, all-you-can-eat fried chicken and raspberry-chipotle glazed ham, which is also offered on nights when the Lyceum Theatre is performing. There is full bar service.

The tavern, which operates Easter through mid-December, can be reserved for groups of 35 or more, and is available for private parties, special events, wedding receptions and business meetings.

“Arrow Rock tries to do festivals and other things to bring people to town,” Peuster said. “They have events on the first Saturdays of every month. The big thing is the Heritage Craft Festival the second weekend of October.”


Holding its own

A stop by the restored railroad town of Blackwater can be a bit more rambunctious (sort of), especially if you spend time at the Bucksnort Saloon.

Owners Gerald and Connie Cunningham have recreated a tavern right out of the Old West. The tavern is a family affair, so the Cunninghams sell no liquor, only sarsaparilla and other old-fashioned sodas for $2 and packaged ice cream treats for a buck.

The Cunninghams also operate the Bucksnort Trading Co. next door, and sell items aimed at their first love, supplies for historic re-enactors. “Everything from the mountain man up through the cowboy era,” Gerald Cunningham said.

The shop, which has a second location in Arrow Rock, has in its inventory herbs, soaps, onyx carvings from Pakistan, palm-leaf hats from Guatemala, Zapotec weavings from Mexico, wood bowls from Indonesia and woven baskets from Missouri.

“If Walmart sells it, we don’t” is the Cunningham’s credo.

Sitting mostly on a double-wide block of Main Street, Blackwater has half a dozen collectible and antique stores, an old-time jailhouse, the West End Theatre and one of the country’s few museums dedicated to the telephone.

Blackwater is named for the river that flows nearby, but got its lifeblood from the railroad. When the trains no longer stopped, the town dried up.

Another local product, Bobby Danner, restored the Iron Horse Hotel next to the tracks and the rebuilt train depot. The hotel is now a bed and breakfast, with a restaurant that operates on Fridays and Saturdays. Visit ironhorsehotel.com for more information.

Bonnie Rapp, the former city clerk and unofficial historian, says Blackwater is far from its boom time of 600 residents in 1920, but is holding its own.

“We’re at 205 now,” Rapp said. “We’ve increased six whole people, but at least we’re not going downhill.”

For more information on Arrow Rock State Historic Site, visit mostateparks.com. Other sites are jhustontavern.com, friendsofarrowrock.org and arrowrock.org.