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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003 02:20 pm

End of the road

After 75 years, the Dixie Truckers Home closes the book on Route 66


"Sure they stop, but it ain't to eat. . . . An' when you stop you got to buy sompin so you can sling the bull with the broad behind the counter. So you get a cup a coffee and a piece of pie. Kind of gives a guy a little rest."

--A truck driver to Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck tells the story of a migrant family--refugees from a vast catastrophe--and the people who help, hinder, or simply watch their progress as they move down the road. The road was a particular one--what's left of it is now called Historic Route 66.

Charlotte Beeler's life resonates with the history of that road, her journey mirroring the rise and fall of the kind of place that Steinbeck described--a place where a traveler could get "a little rest." The Dixie Truckers Home was always more than a business to Charlotte, or C.J., as friends call her. It was started by her father, John Geske, and her grandfather, J.P. Walters, on January 1, 1928. C.J. was born the following December, and her own story has closely followed the fortunes of the Dixie.

C.J. and her husband, Chuck Beeler, had dated in high school. Chuck jokes that his advantage was having a 1940 Pontiac. Very few kids had cars during World War II, but he had a permit because he worked on his family's farm and needed the Pontiac to get into town. When C.J. married Chuck in February of 1949--and, later, when they took over the reins from John and Viola Geske--they not only continued but enhanced the truck stop that opened soon after the birth of Route 66. This month they relinquish control of the Dixie Truckers Home, and their departure closes yet another chapter in the history of that fabled road.

The Beelers' journey resembles Route 66, with the occasional twist and turn, rising and falling with the rhythm of the land. And the story of the Dixie is like the story of the old road: it cannot be told without following the travelers and the people who served them on their way.

"From the very beginning, it was always about service," says Chuck Beeler.

"We weren't the cheapest," C.J. admits, "but we aimed to be the best."

"The philosopy of C.J.'s dad was always about pitching in," adds Chuck. "If something needed to be done, you did it. Everybody pitched in with anything that had to be done--clean the restrooms, wash dishes, work out on the drive, whatever. Everybody took pride in making it first-rate. Nobody thought of not doing something because it wasn't their job."

Tom Teague, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society and the founding president of the Route 66 Association of Illinois, has spent 19 years studying the history of the road and the businesses that grew up around it.

"You have to realize, as recently as 1918, there were only 3,000 miles of paved roads in the country," he says. "Most were postal roads. Today we have 37,000 miles of paved road in Illinois alone. You can't have that kind of change without sweeping culture with it. It's worth remembering and saving, and it's becoming more and more worthy of study." Route 66 "had a real impact on how business and commerce was done across the country," Teague says.

"It was a blue-collar, mom-and-pop road. It ushered in the golden age of the small-time entrepreneur. It was a populist road, a great example of just enough government assistance. Government built the road, but the entrepreneur along the road gave it character. Yes, it had great scenery. Yes, it provided greater access. But its real function rested in the psyche. It inspired people to dream, and it gave them a chance alongside its pavement to work and to build and to realize their dreams. It was a road of possibility."

The Dixie "was not really much when it started," recalls C.J. "My dad and grandfather bought this old mechanic's garage right on 66. Only used about a quarter of the space, and there wasn't really a restaurant then--just six counter stools for people to sit while they got something to eat.

"The very early years were the Depression years, from '29 to '33. I don't really remember much about those times, except I know beggars would come to the back door of the kitchen to get something to eat. Hoboes got off the train that went close by, and they knew they could always get something. My mother would never turn them away."

During its first years, the Dixie functioned as a local cultural center, regularly turning into a primitive drive-in theater. "One night a week we would have free shows," says C.J. "Usually every Saturday night people would come for the show. There would be a couple of rack wagons for the stage out in the back parking lot, and we would have Aunt Polly and her crew. She was a very popular musical show in those days. People would come from Minier, Stanford, from all over--people would come from 30 miles away. If we didn't have her, people would lay blankets down and we'd show movies on a big screen. People would come in at intermission and get pop and candy and hamburgers and ice cream. I remember that's when Dad would say, 'C.J., I need you in the kitchen.' I'd spend the rest of the night washing dishes by hand." Paper plates were still several decades away.

"I have good memories growing up there--I started working when I was 10 or 11," she says, and laughs. "I remember we had comic books that told about astronauts going to the moon--it seemed so far-fetched and impossible."

At 74, C.J. is still trim and straight-backed. Her clear eyes and infectious laugh enliven her retelling of the Dixie's early days. "My girlfriends would come down from Shirley, and we would play upstairs. We'd have slumber parties, and you can imagine . . . we'd stay up all night, and always people coming and going. We'd go down and get pop and ice cream. It was a treasure.

"And all the time it kept growing," she says. "Back then there was not much on 66. There was a filling station in Shirley, and another in Bloomington. In '39 the filling station burnt down, and then the place in Bloomington closed, so we were the only one on a good long stretch of road. We began to concentrate on the Dixie and started enlarging it."

"In those days there weren't many filling stations," says Teague. "There wasn't a lot of cross-country travel. People carried their own gas or bought it from farmers. There was a growing retail demand for gasoline, and the Dixie came at a perfect time to meet that need." The highway's busiest commercial corridor ran between Chicago and St. Louis. "A great number of truck lines sprang up to carry freight between the two cities," Teague says. "Companies like Night Hawk, BeMac, Red Ball Express, Campbell's 66--the famous 'Humpin' to Please' trucks with the galloping camel known as Snortin' Norton.

"This was always a hallmark of the original Route 66, from its beginning to its close. It was a great economic engine and it attracted a lot of possibility. I've heard it said that Route 66 represented the paving of our manifest destiny. It inspired people to wonder what might lie over the next hill and, for the first time, they could easily find out. They could drive on a single continuous pavement that stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles. It linked the nation's second and third largest cities, and it became a tremendous agent of change--both economically and psychologically."

By the time it closed, Route 66 was famous internationally. When the last portion was shut down in 1984, a radio crew from Yugoslavia traveled to Arizona to cover the event. The imaginations of these foreign visitors had been captured by The Grapes of Wrath (both the book and the 1940 John Ford movie), the Bobby Troup song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" (recorded by artists as diverse as Nat King Cole and Depeche Mode), and the TV series Route 66 (which ran for four years in the early 1960s). But perhaps most stirring to their imaginations was the fact that you could travel 2,400 miles without ever crossing a border checkpoint and being asked to present your papers.

Route 66's borderless expanse suggested freedom, which is central to the mystique of the highway. "Virtually every ethnic and demographic group is represented somewhere along that route," Teague says. "It was always a road of the people. It was always a road of small, unexpected, idiosyncratic pleasures."

Just as the road was leaving its imprint on the world, the world affected life on the road.

"During the war years, there was a time when the speed limit on 66 was reduced to 35 miles per hour," Teague says. "It was posted to save wear and tear on rubber and to save fuel--both of which were rationed in those years. But the truth is, it was never really a safe road."

"It used to be called 'Death Curve' out here," C.J. says, referring to a spot where Route 66 swung around the town of McLean. "It was just two-lane traffic. If you didn't slow down, you'd go off the road, or run into people head-on.

"I remember in World War II troops in caravans traveled up and down 66. You could see long lines of military vehicles out on the road, and they would stop at the Dixie to get something to eat. Dad would get things arranged so they could all come in. He would set up special serving lines to accommodate that number of people, and we could get them in and out pretty fast.

"And I remember the end of the war," C.J. says. "The night that peace was declared everybody kind of stopped what they were doing and went out and hugged everybody and loved each other. We were all just so happy."

Whether feeding hundreds of troops during wartime, or an army of hungry drivers during peace, food has always played an essential role in the life of the truck stop. In days past, a good roadside restaurant could be recognized by the number of trucks parked in back. Truckers served as informal food critics for the nation's highway dining establishments. The Dixie, by any light, exceeded the standard.

"C.J.'s dad was a pretty innovative guy," Chuck remembers. "And he paid a lot of attention to the systems we used. A lot of the recipes came from him. We were a burger-and-chicken place basically, but there was a lot of care that went into how we did it. We had a very precise system for how we'd marinade the chicken, how we spiced it, and then the times used for cooking. The thighs, for example, would go in before the breasts because they would take longer. Everything was very precise and repeatable."

"This is one of the things that made the Dixie stand out," Teague says. "There were no franchise manuals in those days. Everyone who went into business had to figure it out for himself. The Dixie existed for 75 years because they were successful at hitting upon the right formula for serving their clientele."

"We sold an awful lot of cornmeal mush in those days," says Chuck. "It seemed like a lot of people would come out from Bloomington just for the mush. We'd cook off the cornmeal and then put it in big serving pans to set overnight. The next morning we'd slice it and put it on the grill or in the fryer. We sold a lot of mush."

Fern Gresham worked the Dixie's grill for more than 20 years. "I cracked a lot of eggs," she says. "Lot of times there'd be a long line of customers when I came in, and a long line of customers when I went home--and it'd be like that all day. It made the time go fast, though. And there were plenty of times Chuck Beeler would be right there, shoulder-to-shoulder with me at the grill."

Gresham has plenty to say about the unusual culinary preferences of some of her truck-driving customers.

"I had one guy who always wanted the chili," she says. "Our chili was always really popular, but this guy got to where he'd want it on everything. It got so bad that I worked a breakfast shift once when he was in and he'd have me put that chili inside an omelet. He seemed to like it, but, if you ask me, it was disgusting.

"I fixed every kind of egg you can imagine. I even had one guy who would want his eggs raw in a glass. He would drink them."

"We went through a lot of eggs down there," C.J. remembers. "In those years, Chuck was still farming full-time and helping out down at the Dixie during the winters and filling in when he was free. At one time, he farmed almost 2,000 acres. In addition, we had a chicken operation, almost 1,800 eggs every day. We supplied all the eggs at the Dixie from our own place, and you can imagine the work--everyday they all had to be candled and graded before we could bring them in.

"Chuck farmed and helped out down here from the time we were married in 1949 until 1967, when my folks retired and turned it over to us."

"The original building burned in 1965," Chuck says. "We were open continuously from the day we started right through to now with the exception of a few hours at the time of that fire. We had cabins around the perimeter at that time--I think about eight of them. We would rent them out for people to catch up on their sleep. We towed one of them over and set up operations from there. We were pumping gas again within hours, but we didn't get the new building open until 1967."

The new building gave the Beelers a chance to put their own stamp on the Dixie. They expanded services and added new profit centers. "Most truck stops in the early days were very primitive affairs," says Rich Henry, part of a family of Route 66 truck drivers who well remembers the road between Chicago and St. Louis. "They were typically very small with maybe one or two pumps and a small one-room building. What you see today with the multi-lane fuel islands, full-service restaurants, gift shops, and convenience stores--they hadn't been invented yet."

The Beelers re-invented the truck stop. C.J. has fond memories of rebuilding the Dixie.

"We decided to put in a small gift shop," she says. "When you came in, you'd go to the left to go to the restaurant and right into the gift shop. I wanted to sell cards in the gift shop, and I wanted the best. I called the people at Hallmark and talked to them. They wanted to provide me with an off-brand of cards, but I told them I wanted the Hallmark card. They didn't want to do it. They told me they had never had their greeting cards in a truck stop before. I remember telling them, 'The Dixie is no ordinary truck stop.' " She smiles. "They ended up giving us the line to sell--so we were the first.

"We did very well with those cards. Do you know what the most popular card turned out to be?" She pauses. " 'Happy Birthday to My Wife.' " She laughs. "Those truck drivers were on their way home when they remembered their wives' birthdays. They'd buy a card, and we sold Fannie May candy. I imagine a lot of truckers' wives got a card and candy from the Dixie.

"We had so many kinds of people come through," C.J. says. "Guy Lombardo used to come through in his bus with maybe 40 or 45 musicians. He'd most often come through on a Sunday afternoon when the place was full. He'd walk through and find tables that had room--like a table for four with only a couple there. He'd ask if a couple of his musicians could join them and, of course, they'd always say yes. He'd get his whole band seated like that."

In an industry that today often measures a worker's longevity in days and weeks, a significant number of Dixie employees have tenures measuring in years and decades.

"We were fortunate to have so many good employees," says Chuck. "We've had several that have been with us for 30 years, right from the beginning. Nelva Menzel and Margaret Kirby were waitresses. Margaret Kirby is in her 90s now, but there's five generations of Kirbys--starting with Margaret--that have worked here. And Lena Hall, she worked as a cook. Larry Bailey--still here--worked on the drive." He rattles off names, conjuring up the memories of not merely employees but significant people.

"I never planned on staying here so long," says Liz Hunter, who's been working at the Dixie in one capacity or another for 23 years. "And I wouldn't have either, except for the Beelers. They just treated everyone like equals.

"They made it a pretty special place to work. They'd take care of people, not just employees either. I can't tell you how many times I've seen Chuck take money out of his own pocket to help a driver that needed a hand."

The Dixie holds special meaning for Hunter: it's where she met her husband, Dan. "There was always a policy that we couldn't date other employees or we couldn't go out with truck drivers," she says. "Dan came here as an accountant, and when we decided we wanted to be more than friends we went and asked. We decided if they wouldn't let us date one of us would resign. But they told us to go ahead and they were happy for us.

"Dan worked here as an accountant, but he always wanted to drive a truck. We're married now, and Dan got his dream. He drives a truck and still works part-time with the books."

So Liz Hunter is now going out with someone who is both an employee and a truck driver. Though this violates the rules on two counts, the Beelers have always been ready to put people before the rules and the immediate concerns of business.

"We never let anybody get stranded," Chuck says. "Just as a matter of policy we tried to help out wherever we could. We made arrangements with a local church, and some of our people were always directly involved when someone needed a hand. Nelva would quite often take people to her home if they needed a place to stay. I remember a couple came through on their honeymoon one time. They broke down and had no place to go. Nelva took them to her house and put them up and fed them until they could get going again. I guess, in a way, they spent their honeymoon at the Dixie.

"And I don't know how many times we had runaway children come through. They'd get stopped here and get scared and we'd look after them until we could get in touch with their parents or the local authorities.

"One way or another, we just meant to help people out," Chuck says. "There was a guy in here last month on the Fourth of July. He told me that he'd been in here 35 years ago on the Fourth of July. He said he had no money and we fed him and his family and filled his tank and took his license as collateral until he could send us the money. Course, I didn't remember him, but I guess it happened. We never turned anybody down."

C.J. recalls "the saddest one."

"A family came through in a sleeper cab--Mom and Dad and two little ones in the back. They came in and said something was wrong with their baby. They had fed him in St. Louis and there was something wrong. We went out and found the baby. Somewhere after St. Louis he had died in the back of that truck. We called the coroner to take the poor thing. The people had to get back in their truck and leave without him. We never saw them again."

C.J. and Chuck look at each other quietly. "It was sad," Chuck finally says. "We've seen so much here. It's been a great journey for us. It's been a good life. We've been blessed to work with so many good people and to know so many good people through this business."

Over the years that business was an unqualified success. The Dixie even set up outposts in Effingham and Tuscola. But times change. On July 31, the Dixie passed into corporate hands, and the Beelers' personal touch--and the legacy of their many loyal employees and customers--will fade. C.J. and Chuck are taking over the Quick Pic convenience store next to the McDonald's across the street from the Dixie, and their pioneering ideas of what a truck stop could be will be absorbed into a corporate franchise manual. Even the name Dixie Truckers Home will become a trademarked commodity. Its new owners can stamp the name cookie-cutter fashion on any business along the laser-straight Interstate 55.

But the true Dixie will take its place in history alongside the fabled Route 66. The true Dixie was all about people, and it served those people well for more than 75 years. At times it seemed all of life rolled down that road, and a large share of it stopped in to refuel and get a bite to eat. The people who stopped were often not even hungry. They were simply tired of going. They came in for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Some just needed a place to take a little rest.

Dixie Chili Recipe

10 lbs ground beef
2 cans diced tomatoes-#10 can
2 cans red beans-#10 can
1/2 cup chili powder
1/4 cup sugar
2 tbs cumin
1 tbs salt
2 tsp black pepper
2 cans tomato juice
1 can V-8 juice
1 lb onion-diced
2 tbs granulated garlic

Brown the ground beef and the onions. Add the diced tomatoes and red beans. Add the spices. Add the tomato juice and the V-8 juice. Place in six one-gallon jars; refrigerate.

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