REMEMBERING THE OLD HIGHWAY TO BAGNELL DAM©
By Dwight Weaver
The narrative for Part Two of this series began on Twiggy Road (formerly part of old Highway 54) near the Lake Ozark Speedway and traveled south to the junction of Midway Road and Highway 52. Silver Dollar Restaurant, a Phillips 66 Truck Stop and Heritage Inn and Suites are located here today, but in the 1930s it was the location for Gay’s Tavern, William Cahill’s Model gas station and Musser’s Ozark Tavern. From the 1950s to the 1990s, it was the location of El Rancho of the Ozarks.
In Part Three we journey further south along Midway Road going by an electrical substation on the right, then around a curve in the road. There is an overgrown field to the right, which was the location of an oak sawmill operation in the 1970s and early 1980s. On the left today is Handy Jon. The office building occupied by Handy Jon housed a café in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Just a bit further, on the right is the former location of two very prominent attractions in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – Stuckey’s Pecan Shoppe and Nickerson Farms restaurant. All that marks the location today is a concrete slab. Toward the back of the lot is a mobile home.
Travelers of the 1950s could not miss seeing these two businesses, first because the high-peaked roof of the large Nickerson Farms restaurant building was a brilliant red, and the Stuckey’s building sat close to the old highway. Many travelers were familiar with the Stuckey’s brand name because it was a chain known best east of the Mississippi River. The Stuckey’s business here was the first one built west of the Mississippi River and was established in 1957 by I. J. Nickerson of Columbia, Missouri.
Stuckey’s carried a wide variety of candy, sold many varieties of honey, and had a colony of bees with the hive built into the wall of the building. The author can remember once standing before the clear glass window that separated the active bees from the interior to watch the bees as they made their honeycomb and raised their young. It was a fascinating and educational exhibit for which there was no charge.
The building that housed the restaurant was quite large and built in the Tudor style of architecture. It had a steeply-pitched roof with gable ends and had half-timber cross gables decorating the exterior white walls of the restaurant. The restaurant could seat up to 100 guests and the author can remember eating there at various times. They served excellent meals ranging from hamburgers to steaks.
The Nickerson Farms headquarters was located in Eldon for a time. For a look at the distinctive architecture that characterized the Nickerson Farms restaurants, one can drive down Oak Street in Eldon. Their former headquarters building is along Oak Street across from the fire station. The former headquarters building also displays another feature characteristic of Tudor style buildings – tall, narrow, multi-paned, paired windows.
The Nickerson’s stated their goal in their advertising. It was “to have the cleanest, friendliest, most courteous stops on the nation’s highways, and to sell the finest products available at the best prices possible and to give fast efficient service to all of our customers.”
The Nickerson’s were in the right place at the right time to begin their ambitious plan for building a chain of Nickerson Farm restaurants across the nation because the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of Interstate highways. Interestingly enough, Missouri was the first state in the nation to begin Interstate system construction. Within a few years the Nickerson’s had their restaurants in 17 states. You could see them from miles away because of their bright red roofs and they were generally located as close as possible to a major off-ramp.
Nickerson Farm restaurants were not franchise operations. They were wholly owned by the Nickerson’s who hired managers to run each restaurant. The author can remember being in their headquarters building in Eldon in the 1960s and marveling at the rows of desks, each occupied by a lady with a busy telephone responsible for a particular group of restaurants at some far away location.
But back home at Eldon, where they built their very first restaurant, which just happened to be on the road to Bagnell Dam, matters weren’t always smooth sailing. It is said they had differences of opinion with W. S. Stuckey of the Stuckey chain over whether to serve complete restaurant meals, as the Nickerson’s wanted to do, or just fast food. The first ads for Stuckey’s called it a “candy shoppe” but then it became a “pecan shoppe.” Not long afterwards the Stuckey’s building was remodeled to house the restaurant. A peaked-roofed pyramid-style canopy with a brilliant red roof was built to protect customers from the weather while filling their gas tank in front of the restaurant.
Nickerson Farms restaurant remained in business to about the year 1980.
Part Four of this series will focus on Max Allen Nickerson’s Zoological Gardens, which was located next door to the Nickerson Farms restaurant. Max Allen is the son of I. J Nickerson. The Zoological Gardens was more than just the dream of a young man who became fascinated by reptiles when he was a teenager. The Zoological Gardens became a precursor to Max Allen’s academic future and fame as one of the nation’s leading zoologists.
(Illustrations: A typical Nickerson Farms restaurant, from a postcard, photographer unknown; the original Stuckey’s Pecan Shop near Eldon, from a postcard, photographer unknown; a view of the later modified Stuckeys-Nickerson Farms restaurant operation near Eldon, photo courtesy of Dr. Max Allen Nickerson.)