Years ago, I was assigned to write a series of Chicago Tribune articles set in Princeton, IL, the historic Bureau County seat that grew up along U.S. Rt. 6, about two hours west of Chicago, and an hour east of the Quad Cities.
After I wrapped interviews one day, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce director winked and said, “C’mon, I want to show you a special place out of town.” We got in his car and motored winding, forested roads a few miles south before pulling up at a low-slung motel overlooking a picturesque lake in the middle of nowhere. “Welcome to the Ranch House,” the chamber czar said.
The Ranch House looked so much like the Bates Motel of Hitchcockian fame that I half expected to find Tony Perkins behind the front desk, battling odd facial tics. A 1950s-era neon sign with a blazing arrow beckoned to the parking lot, and an old, creaking wood plank walkway led to the handful of rooms.
The motel had the same air of abandonment as the hostelry in Psycho. Yet it was wide open for business, as was its attached dining room.
Ambling into the Ranch House Restaurant was akin to stepping through worn oaken doors into the immediate post-War era. The eatery showcased dark wood paneling, booths of virgin Naugahyde, and a decorating style time had forgotten. Yet it radiated a cheerful air. We slid into a booth with the owner and ordered up the mouth-watering specials, “whiskey steak” and battered, deep-fried pickles.
The grub was bested only by the stories told of the Ranch House.
A colorful legacy
It turned out that the history of the motel and restaurant was as unique as its ambiance. In the 1950s, the legend went, a handful of Chicago politicians made an autumn ritual of skipping town for a long weekend on a west-bound train. At the first stop out of the city, they’d be joined by their best friends, a pack of Cicero mobsters. Thus assembled, the fun-loving group of cronies would travel until the train hit Bureau Junction, home of the Ranch House. There, they would hunt, fish, and be entertained by area gals practicing a profession as old as time.
Returning to Chicago, I couldn’t stop trumpeting the charms of the Ranch House. I pleaded with anyone with the slightest urge to weekend in Bureau County to book a stay at the old motel, and sup at least once in its restaurant. Several took me up on the suggestion, and ended up loving the place as much as I did. When out-of-state friends came to the Windy City, I always squeezed a visit to the Ranch House into the itinerary. After all, I reasoned, a place that unusual, that distinctive, that one-of-a-kind couldn’t survive much longer.
Of course, it didn’t. It wasn’t three years after my discovery of the Ranch House that I got the sad news that it was gone. In a more urban setting, it would have been razed to make way for one more chain submarine sandwich shop, or another in an endless string of national bank branches or chain pharmacies.
But since it wasn’t, it simply burned down. Arson? No one knows.
In the lineage of idiosyncratic small businesses, the Ranch House was a cousin to a variety store in my hometown that sold anything the owner could buy off the back of a truck, from tackle boxes to tape recorders. It was of the same family tree as a much-beloved German eatery on Chicago’s north side that felt like a mini vacation to Bavaria each time you visited. It was a distant relative of a quixotic amusement park where generations of northeast Illinoisans relished their first Tilt-a-Wheel rides.
All the above have passed into memory now, replaced by condominiums, parking lots and in one case, the latest outpost of a national home center chain.
These recollections aren’t just random, misty, watercolor memories. Consider the existence of Small Business Saturday, the post-Thanksgiving and Black Friday event designed to encourage folks to shop small, independently-owned stores, boutiques, and service businesses for their holiday gift purchases.
That’s a noble cause, and one I applaud. But we ought to be shopping and dining small most days of every year, not just one. If we don’t, the future for America’s subsequent generations may be as absent of independently-owned businesses as it could be of spotted owls, Siberian tigers, and mountain gorillas.
Sure, there should be a place in the world for chain restaurants, convenience stores, bank offices, cinema megaplexes, and discount retailers.
But through our quest for the quick and convenient, we’ve made them so ubiquitous that when traveling it’s getting harder and harder to tell Dallas from Philadelphia, Seattle from Jacksonville, or New Orleans from Detroit.
Moral of the story
If there’s a place for national chains, there should also be one for the family-run, non-plasticized, non-homogenized, non-Seal-of-Approval-endorsed business. The kind of enterprise that doesn’t just sell you a product, service or meal, but leaves you with a memory, an anecdote to recount to friends and just maybe a friendship with the personable owner dependent on your business.
If we all back independent stores, eateries, and hostelries with our dollars, we can help ensure at least a few of them will still be around years from now. We can think of it as our holiday gift, and indeed a priceless one, to generations yet unborn.