Old Trail Inn recipes bring memories to life for museum diners

Monday, August 7, 2017
Holding up a metal tray bearing a photo of the Old Trail Inn, Museum Executive Director Lisa Mock (above, left) explains that waitresses used those to present their customers’ bill during the 1947-65 run of the restaurant.
Banner Graphic/ERIC BERNSEE

Delicacies synonymous with a restaurant that has been out of business for more than 50 years delighted a Putnam County Museum dinner group Sunday as a sell-out gathering of 80 people relived a Sunday dinner at the Old Trail Inn.

When Putnam County Museum Executive Director Lisa Mock asked those who had actually eaten at the Old Trail Inn to raise their hands, about a third of the audience complied.

With the restaurant closing in late 1965, a person would have to be 55 or older now to have any memory of the legendary fried chicken, swiss steak, sweet rolls and other goodies served family style at the Old Trail Inn along old U.S. 40 (just off present-day U.S. 40) in a Putnamville building that burned down in August 1973.

Passing out pieces of cake for dessert, Myers’ Catering server Liz Davis (above, right) distributes another delicacy for the 80 diners at Sunday’s Old Trail Inn dinner fundraiser for the Putnam County Museum.
Banner Graphic/ERIC BERNSEE

How good was the grub at the inn? It earned the Duncan Hines’ seal of approval back in 1950, being featured in the Duncan Hines Guide as one of the top 100 places to eat in the country. And on one Sunday, owner Marion Wilson claims it served 981 meals.

As the wait staff from Myers’ Catering and Myers’ 5 East served food their cooks had created from original Old Trail Inn recipes, Mock detailed how the dinner and museum fundraiser came about.

“This wouldn’t have happened without (museum board member) Malcolm Romine wanting to do an exhibit on the Old Trail Inn,” she explained.

Here comes the swiss steak (below) as a platter of the Old Trail Inn favorite makes its way around the table at the Putnam County Museum fundraiser Sunday.
Banner Graphic/ERIC BERNSEE

In lobbying for that museum exhibit, Romine had boasted that the inn served the “best fried chicken he’d ever eaten,” Mock said.

And in the midst of trying to put together an exhibit on the Putnamville landmark purchased by Marion Wilson and turned into the successful restaurant in 1947, “in comes Maxine Williams,” Mock continued, with well-worn recipes for Old Trail Inn favorites.

“Hallelujah!,” Mock said she responded, “Let’s have a dinner. That’s how the ball got rolling on this one.”

No sooner did she announce that a dinner was going to relive what it was like in the heyday of the Old Trail Inn, than the original seating (Sunday’s meal) was sold out.

“You bought all the tickets within 48 hours,” she said, noting that once a decision was made to add a second dinner in September, that sold out in eight hours, what with a waiting list already in hand.

Now, plans are being discussed for a third dinner in October. And even without final approval of the logistics for that session, only a dozen tickets or so remain.

“We’ve talked about doing a Thanksgiving dinner and a Christmas dinner,” Mock said, “and now Malcolm Romine wants to do one every quarter.”

Back in its glory days, the Old Trail Inn often served 300 guests on a Sunday with after-church and evening seatings. The dining room seated 100 with an additional 25 or more seats available on the porch when the weather cooperated.

A number of former Old Trail Inn waitresses, dishwashers and cooks were in the dinner group Sunday and shared their memories.

They recalled specifics such as a big group of DePauw University professors who inhabited a round table every Sunday and were said to be “very good tippers.”

Dishwasher Bill Weist, whose mother was a cook at the inn, shared his reminisces about Wilson and his habit of going outside to smoke a cigar and jump on his tractor to mow for about 15 minutes whenever something went wrong like a dropped tray of food or glassware.

Fellow dishwasher John Jackman, who said he was 15 or 16 when he worked there in 1957-59, recounted how the ladies made those delicious sweet rolls (aka cinnamon rolls) and the dishwashers just couldn’t resist them.

“When they weren’t looking,” he confided, “we’d take a fork and dig the middle out of those sweet rolls. That’s where the good stuff was.”

The waitresses would then come in to get the sweet rolls to serve them, and spot the dishwashers’ handiwork. “They’d be all over us,” Jackman smiled.

Doug Hansel, another former dishwasher back in the day, said he could “confirm John’s story about the sweet rolls, because in 1964 and ‘65 we were still doing it.”

Meanwhile, museum director Mock talked of plans for an Old Trail Inn exhibit and even a forthcoming book about the legendary eatery.

“If anybody has an Old Trail Inn uniform (like the blue-and-white or gray-and-white outfits the waitresses wore) tucked away, the museum would really like to have it,” Mock said.

She also lobbied for the inn’s recipe for cole slaw, one formula that escaped the cache of recipes Maxine Williams kept all these years.

“If anyone has a recipe for the cole slaw, I believe Susan Wilson (relative of the inn owner) will pay five dollars for that,” Mock laughed.

Ever the museum maven, Mock noted that the building that housed the Old Trail Inn was reportedly built in 1831 with four rooms as an original stagecoach stop.

It was added to over the years, and after 1920 became the Grant Hotel, which in its latter years carried a nefarious reputation because of alleged gambling activities.

“For years the Grant Hotel had an unsavory reputation,” Mock said. “I think maybe it was just the place to go.”

The place was subsequently raided and closed, remaining that way until Wilson purchased it in 1947.

Wilson closed down the Old Trail Inn in December 1965 with the building standing vacant several years until David and Ann Stigler bought it. They owned it at the time of the 1973 fire.

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