The last stop
Boondocks USA closes for good
WILLIAMS — Even though there was the low murmur of friendly conversations, the tinkling of glassware, the sound and smell of sizzling meat on the grill and the bustle of waitresses rushing to fill orders, the mood was somber.
For in just a few days, Boondocks USA, the landmark truck stop, cafe and motel on north Interstate 35 at Exit 144 in Williams would close for good.
Its last day was Oct. 20.
Bob and Miriam Welch opened the cafe and truck stop on June 5, 1973. At that time, Interstate 35 only extended to Old Highway 20, coming from its origination point in Oklahoma. It wasn’t until November 1975 that the I-35 corridor extended to the Minnesota border.
Boondocks USA was strategically positioned at the intersection of the North-South route of Interstate 35 and the East-West route of U.S. Highway 20. Throughout the years, it remained a beacon to weary travelers, with its windmill visible long before high-rising digital signs were the norm.
In the closing days, Bob and Miriam were occupied with legal matters and visiting with relatives and loyal customers who have made the trek to Williams to wish them good luck in their retirement. At 82 and 81, respectively, the couple have earned a time to relax. With his typical sense of humor, Bob boasts that for 44 years, he worked seven days a week until an injury forced him to reduce his work load to only six days a week.
The couple raised their three children, put several members of their wait staff through college and could possibly take credit for several Boondock babies.
Boondocks became a refuge several times over the years, especially when Mother Nature was on a tear. In the 1970s, hundreds of stranded motorists spent several days at the truck stop until the roads were navigable again. Most recently in February 2016, the Welches opened their doors to motorists stranded during a blizzard when Interstate 35 was closed for more than 20 hours.
Over the years and through many storms, strangers packed into the cafe became friends and several were married.
One woman in Sioux City, wearing a Boondocks t-shirt, told how her brother met his future wife at Boondocks while hunkering down during a winter storm. The Boondocks t-shirts were gifts for the entire bridal party.
That is the legacy of Boondocks USA because anyone who has visited the place, has a story to tell.
Lee Pennington on her move to Michigan stopped to visit the familiar place. With her mother living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and her father in Kansas City, Boondocks was always the half-way point.
“When we’d see that windmill and the big Boondocks sign, we knew we were halfway home,” she said.
Surprised to hear the oasis was closing, she expressed disappointment, took out her camera and started snapping pictures of the Country Dog and City Dog potty stations, the sophisticated Boondocks weather station and the Boondoogle Oil Rig No.9.
“This was a part of my childhood,” she said.
John and Myra Buman made the trip from Harlan to eat at Boondocks one last time recently.
“Take a picture because he got the last Boondocker Tenderloin!” said Myra pointing to her very full husband who miraculously finished the massive tenderloin that could feed a small nation.
The closing has left over-the-road truck driver Joe Miller of Elkhart, Indiana, down in the dumps.
“I didn’t grow up on hamburgers and pizzas,” he said. “It’s hard to find restaurants like this on the road.”
For more than 40 years, Boondocks has been a destination for Miller.
“I’d stop every other week when I’d haul dry wall out of Fort Dodge,” he said. “In the 80s and early 90s, I’d haul a lot of John Deere machinery out of Iowa. They always had good food here.”
George Dreier of Williams sits at the counter and watches his wife Jean serve some of the last customers.
“We managed the motel for 27 years,” said George. “And through all those years, I’ve enjoyed working for Bob and Mim.”
The Dreiers will be moving to Thompson where Jean is looking forward to caring for her grandson.
“I love children,” said Jean, who did double duty — babysitting a child of a Boondock waitress while also overseeing the motel.
It’s that kind of caring and family atmosphere that made the Boondocks special, said David Whitaker of the Whitaker Marketing Group that will be overseeing the business auction on Nov. 28 at Titan Machinery in Williams.
“Bob is quite a passionate and a very giving guy,” said Whitaker, who was impressed by not only Welch’s dedication to his employees, but their dedication to him. “What a nice guy! Did you know that he paid for the college education of one of his waitresses so that she could become a teacher? How many employers do you know who would do that?”
The allegiance was returned because after it was announced in early October that the Boondocks was closing, not one employee left, said Whitaker.
“They wanted to see it through until the last day,” said Whitaker. “That takes a special owner to instill that kind of dedication in his employees. Big time!”
For Bob Welch, it is hard to say what stands out the most through all the years and all the people. One of the accomplishments that the Welches’ are most proud of is their mentoring of staff.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with so many people and I’ve enjoyed being able to help so many young people start off,” said Welch.
He said when he saw potential, he helped them achieve their dreams. Over the years, he and Miriam financed the college educations of two medical physicians, one architect, one optometrist, three registered nurses and one school teacher.
“It’s been a pleasure being able to help,” he said.
Their own children started working at Boondocks picking up trash and mowing the grounds, said Welch.
Today they each have their own successful careers in hedge fund management, neo-natal nursing and computer technology.
Welch reflected on the Boondocks story.
“I started out with nothing — this was a cornfield in the 1960s,” he said. “But I was raised on a farm and I learned how to work.”
He worked for 11 years for Philips Petroleum and developed and built Boondocks, serving as the chief architect, chief engineer and chief contractor.
“I know every block and brick of this place,” he said.
Despite working 24/7 for 45 years, Welch admits that he’s enjoyed every minute.
“I looked forward to going there every single day,” he said.
The Welches have been surprised by the attention they have received since the closing was announced.
The nationwide publicity surrounding the closing has brought many wishes, support and stories from customers who feel Boondocks is a part of their lives.
“It’s been a much bigger landmark than I realized,” he said. “I got a letter from a lady who has been coming here to meet her grandchildren for 32 years. You can’t put a certain value on that.”
What’s next for Welch? Certainly not retirement. He still operates a convenience store in Iowa Falls and is a propane and diesel distributor. He owns three farms and for 32 years he has served on the Ellsworth Community College Board of Trustees in Iowa Falls.
All in all, it has been a good haul, said Welch.
“There have been many wonderful people over the years,” he said. “Its been a very enjoyable time.”