From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Helen's Place at Kirkmansville, KY

A visit to a unique country store and restaurant


A few weeks ago, I was invited to lunch at Helen's Place, to help celebrate the 82nd birthday of my neighbor. Miss Margie.

I was a little surprised when I learned that this restaurant is located in Kirkmansville, KY. Kirkmansville is a tiny village in the extreme northwestern corner of Todd County. It sets at the intersection of Highways 171 and 107, which are not major highways. (Nor are they wide or straight highways!)

Miss Ardell, Margie's friend since childhood and the inspiration behind this expedition, drove us over to Kirkmansville in her Buick. Margie's daughter Sandra and I rode in the back seat.

We took Pilot Rock Road (Highway 507) to Allegre and turned north on 171. The roads wound around the hills, through the trees, and over the creeks. Usually, I would have enjoyed the scenery, but I felt a little carsick. I'm not used to the back seat.

We pulled into the parking lot at Helen's Place a few minutes before noon, entered the little building, and looked for a place to sit. The main room was full of tables and chairs, but Helen invited us to sit in the back room.

A waitress brought our iced tea, and we went through the line to get our food. The meal was served as a buffet, and the food was very good. I can honestly say it was home-style cooking. I don't remember the entire menu, but I filled my plate with:

BBQ ribs
Chicken and dumplings
Creamed potatoes
White beans
Macaroni salad
Homemade rolls
Johnnycake

My companions decided to have dessert. While they were getting their pie, I took some pictures of the back room and enjoyed the exhibit of old-time photos from Kirkmansville's past. (The white bands across the photos below are the unavoidable reflections of the overhead florescent lights.)




The back room has tables on one side of the aisle and chairs on the other side. On Friday nights, local musicians meet here to jam and to entertain. At the front of the room, a microphone and speakers stand ready. Plaques over the mantle honor two beloved musicians who performed regularly in the past: Frank Phipps and Donnie McGehee.

(To place this music-making in its proper perspective, one must know that thumbpicking originated in this precise area of Kentucky. Merle Travis is from Muhlenberg County, just a few miles north, as is Eddie Pennington. Odell Martin, also a thumbpicker, was from the little town of Allegre, six miles south of Helen's Place. The Everly Brothers learned thumbpicking from their father, a Muhlenberg County native and an accomplished musician.)


But back to Helen's Place and our visit there. While we were enjoying our meal and conversation, the tables in the other room had filled with diners. Many of the customers were men who had come in from the fields. I suppose they find it easier (and more fun!) to come to Helen's for a hot meal than to pack a lunch.

Helen came back to talk to us again before we left. She said that she was honored that we'd come there for a birthday celebration. We complimented her on the delicious meal, and she insisted that it was "just plain country cookin'."

Miss Ardell asked how many people were employed there. Helen explained that she has a staff of five, counting herself. They work together preparing the food, without any firm rules about who's going to make what. Usually, they fix two main dishes as well as a variety of side dishes.

When we went to the front room of the store to pay, I spotted a box of college-rule spiral-bound notebooks on the shelves. I bought a few for Isaac; I had tried unsuccessfully to find them at WalMart the night before. My meal was surprisingly inexpensive. As I recall, it was less than $7.00, including the tea.

Someone at Kirkmansville paints rocks and sells them at Helen's Place. Sandra bought one for Margie that had a fawn painted on it. When we started home a few minutes later, we saw a doe and a little spotted fawn along the road, just outside of Kirkmansville.

After we went around the first few curves, Sandra suggested that we stay on Highway 171 at Allegre and go home by Butler Road, instead of turning onto Pilot Rock Road. It was still a winding road back to Allegre, but after that, the road was somewhat less crooked. I was glad.

- - - - - - - - - - -

Related:
"Seen at Kirkmansville, KY" -- Prairie Bluestem
"Great Road Name Lost" -- Prairie Bluestem
History of Kirkmansville -- Todd County, KY, Family History

7 comments:

Michael Leddy said...

Just wondering — the only Johnnycake I know is the Rhode Island variety, made with white cornmeal and milk, fried in bacon fat, and served with syrup, like pancakes (unbelievably good!). I'm guessing that's not what you had with lunch. What's a Johnnycake where you are?

RunAwayImagination said...

Thank you for another enjoyable post. I love your writing style and the pictures you insert to illustrate daily life.

Genevieve said...

Michael,
You've described this johnnycake, except for the syrup. It looked and tasted like a cornmeal pancake, about half an inch thick. The ladies had a discussion about what to call it on the way home, and they are the ones who decided that it was johnnycake. I've never seen it served before, but I don't know much about Kentucky's home cooking. I'm a transplant. :)

Genevieve said...

Runaway, I noticed that they don't have a piano there. Anyone who wants to play the piano will have to bring one.

I had a hard time writing this post. I was finally able to put it together about five weeks after we went over there. I guess it took that long for me to realize what were the high points of the experience.

Michael Leddy said...

Wow -- I never knew there were Johnnycakes beyond New England. The ones I've had are very thin (so thin that the edges are crisp), but I don't know if that's the standard NE style.

heelers said...

This post would do credit to any magazine.
J

boss dusco said...

dont forget to get some of boss dusco,s homemade sippin shine while near allegre best shine around just ask for the boss...no revenewrs please

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.