Remembering the legendary taste of Treloar’s
Treloar’s Inn has been closed for 45 years, but no other restaurant in Fort Dodge history evokes more fond memories and tingles more taste buds than the eatery that L.D. “Papa” Treloar launched in a small garage, with outdoor seating for four, at 2000 N. 15th St.
Those of Baby Boomer and earlier generations who were once its most loyal customers still wish it were alive and try to relate to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren what a special place Treloar’s holds in their hearts – and yes, in their stomachs. Oh, to relive the taste of those baby back ribs, the fried chicken and shrimp, the steaks, the 15-cent burgers, the barbeque beans, the homemade salad dressings and that special barbeque sauce. And oh, to once again be able to pull your car into a stall at Treloar’s Country Boy Drive-in, where carhops on roller skates took your order.
Remember the “Happy Days” hit television comedy and its fictional Arnold’s and Al’s Drive-in? Well, Treloar’s was Fort Dodge’s equivalent – a popular gathering place that was around long before we celebrated that TV hangout of The Fonz and Richie Cunningham.
Why does the name still live on after so many years?
“The people for one,” said Deb Treloar Toler, of Aurora, Colorado, daughter of Max and Jean Treloar and granddaughter of Papa and Hazel Treloar (Max succeeded his father as restaurant manager).
“Papa and Dad kept employees for years and everyone knew them,” she added.”The customer ALWAYS came first, no matter what. Everyone learned that the first day. The food, of course, especially the ribs and chicken (in my opinion). The ribs/beans smokers and the smells that went with them. It was so popular that people would wait up to three hours to get seated on a Mother’s Day Sunday.”
Toler’s sister, Claudia Treloar Spillman, of Phoenix, said it was a “generational restaurant” that appealed to teens, young families and older residents.
“Many special events and moments were celebrated there,” she said – first dates, birthdays, homecoming and proms, family reunions, weddings and anniversaries, service club luncheons and more.
“Even now, all of these years later, I occasionally run in to someone from the Midwest,” said Mary Porter, daughter of Papa Treloar’s oldest child, Billie. She also lives in Phoenix and sold wholesale groceries and supplies to restaurants for 37 years.“As soon as I mention Treloar’s, their eyes light up and sparkle as they share stories about their visits to the Inn.”
Born in Ogden, their grandfather, L.D. “Les” Treloar ,worked boyhood jobs shining shoes, selling newspapers to coal miners and clerking in a grocery store. He ended his formal education at the eighth grade and eventually became a signal lamp man and then a brakeman for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. He came to Fort Dodge in 1920, when he was 22, worked briefly for the U.S. Gypsum Co. and then became a switchman in the Illinois Central yards. He wasn’t making enough money to support his family, so he and his wife, Hazel, and a younger brother O.L (Orsie) started a lunchwagon business selling peanuts and popcorn to northern Iowa fairs and farm sales.
Once the summer fairs and sales ended, they parked the sales trailer and concession stand at the Theiss family plot north of Fort Dodge, just off 15th Street. He also had what he called “Treloar’s First Aid to the Hungry” in a small building at 1022 Central Ave., but beginning in 1928, he and Hazel started operating a restaurant from the Theiss site – housed in a 10- by-12-foot garage they bought at a farm auction.
Treloar’s Inn was born – with outdoor-only seating for four – and he soon expanded the garage to allow seating for eight. Hazel did the cooking, including sandwiches and fried chicken. Word of the restaurant’s food spread quickly and so did its seating: By 1941, 64 diners could be accommodated; by 1946, there was seating for 210; by 1950, 425, and in 1957, 508.
In 1947, Treloar’s Curb Service (later called Treloar’s Country Boy Drive-In) was opened on the same two-acre plot of land where the Inn stood and in 1950, the Treloars’ oldest son, Max, took over management of the growing business. (L.D. and Hazel had five children: Elaine (Billie), Max, Beverly and twins Dean and Dewey. All are deceased.)
At its height, Treloar’s operated five restaurants in Fort Dodge – the main Inn and the Country Boy were joined by Max Treloar’s Pancake Feast in 1961 (sold three years later to Max’s sister Billie and her husband Delbert Porter, to become “Del Porter’s Pancake Feast”); a restaurant and lounge in the then-new Holiday Inn in 1964, and the Treloar’s Crossroads Restaurant at the Crossroads Shopping Center in 1969. Hundreds of employees worked for the restaurants over the years.
Being in the restaurant business is no easy profession, then or now. Treloar’s suffered several major fires over the years and in 1967, a robbery in which employees were held at gunpoint in the coffee shop area while the gunman stole $1,100. He was never captured.
Treloar’s closed in November 1975, the result of a combination of business decisions and the health issues of Max Treloar.
Her father started getting headaches and vision issues when she was in high school, Toler said. A brain tumor was eventually found and throughout the rest of his life until his death in September 1981, he had several brain surgeries.
“The brain cancer made running the businesses very difficult, but he tried for many years. He made many ‘not so good’ decisions and ended up losing everything. Papa was older and retired, living in California by then, and, unfortunately, none of us four kids were inclined to continue the restaurants. Therefore, everything went into receivership, got sold to some Fort Dodge investors, had an auction to dispose of all fixtures and equipment. The restaurant and drive-in were torn down in 1977.
“As with most of us, hindsight is golden. All of us remaining kids – Claudia, Tod and myself (my older brother Stan (Pudge) died in 1999) – regret not continuing on with the restaurants in Papa’s and Dad’s names.”
Fond memories remain, however.
Claudia Spillman recalled an initiation ceremony for each new busboy.
“When we would get fairly busy, one of the cooks would grab the new busboy and tell him to run over to the Country Boy and get the chicken stretcher. The busboy would usually look puzzled, but they would run across the parking lot to the Country Boy only to be told that the Country Boy didn’t have the chicken stretcher – that the Inn had it. So, the poor kid would come back over to the Inn to report that the chicken stretcher wasn’t there – only to be sent back again because it had to be at the Country Boy. By this time dirty tables piling up and so the manager would come looking for his new busboy. Needless to say, there is no chicken stretcher. The manager would just throw his hands up and start laughing as would we all. The busboy in time got to play the joke and the next new kid.”
Mary Porter recalls that when his grandchildren were young, Papa Treloar came up with a novel idea to save the Inn some money – and make them some money.
“He decided to get a garbage truck and haul all the garbage, from the Inn, to their big house on the hill out across from Kennedy Park,” she said. “He had a huge cement slab poured, and a huge garbage cooker. After the garbage was cooked, it was dumped on the slab to cool. Then he had a herd of hogs that ate the garbage. When they got butchering size they were killed, processed and served at the Inn. A lot of silverware made its way into the garbage too. Grandpa paid us a nickel for every piece of silverware we found. Oh, my, we would race to the hog lot as soon as we arrived at grandma and grandpa’s place.”
Deb Toler worked in all of the restaurants at one time or another.
“I started as a busgirl at Treloar’s Inn on Saturday mornings when I was 14-years-old. Then graduated to server after about a year. After that, I went to work at the Country Boy Drive-In as a counter girl and cook. One of my memories there was being left alone and suddenly getting a rush of people. I ended up doing a $100 hour (which these days doesn’t seem like much but with 15-cent hamburgers, it was a lot).
“When management decided to bring back roller-skating carhops, I was one of the first ones to do that. That was definitely a challenge, but a lot of fun. I remember dropping a lot of trays in the beginning. My older brother, Stan, was my manager–otherwise, I may have been fired. It was difficult even though I did roller-skate. Balancing the tray was the trick and I did this job before any waitressing so I hadn’t learned how to correctly balance a tray yet. Another fun trick to learn was getting the tray hooked to the customer’s window–some cars’ windows didn’t work right so sometimes you had to put the tray on the back windows. The customers (especially the kids) always enjoyed that we were skating.”
Tod Treloar is the only family member who still lives in Fort Dodge. He has worked at National Gypsum Co. for 44 years. He said he wanted to work at the Inn at age 13 and was only allowed to split the hickory wood. He started working at the Inn when he was 14 or 15 as a busboy. Gradually he did other jobs such as waiter, cook, fountain and salad areas. He later transitioned to working as a cook at Treloar’s Crossroads. However, later he went back to Treloar’s Inn and he left there before he graduated high school.
His cousin Mark Gadbury – son of Beverly Treloar and Deon Gadbury – said his favorite memory “is that twice a year we would eat as a family at the Inn in celebration of our grandparents (Treloar and Gadbury) anniversaries. Otherwise we never got to go to Treloar’s to eat. My friends would go all the time, but we never went. Because of our infrequent dining at the Inn, I would always order the same thing each and every time: Ribs. I have never found ribs that tasted as good as were at the Inn. When I was older, I would go the Country Boy Drive-in and order a Country Boy Sandwich (three-decker with two hamburger patties, lettuce, relish, melted cheese) and Papa’s special French fries (all for 60 cents).”
Papa Treloar and his wife loved monkeys and kept two, Maggie and Judy, in a cage out behind the Inn. That was for the entertainment of the people waiting in line to get in for dinner. In the wintertime, Maggie and Judy were housed in a heated building in the same property where the Treloar’s lived.
One of the most successful Treloar’s carhops was John Dodgen, who in 1940, at age 14, became a carhop and advanced to assistant manager at age 17. He graduated from Fort Dodge Senior High School as president of his class in 1944, served in the Navy during World War II, and with his brothers started Dodgen Industries in 1947 in Humboldt, first distributing and then manufacturing farm equipment.
Employees actually peeled and cut fresh potatoes to make Treloar’s French fries–they were never frozen. Max Treloar ended up developing a potato cutter and selling it through a separate company, originally called Treloar’s New Products, but later changed to Treloar’s Brokerage. Papa Treloar developed a patented Treloar Bar-B-Q oven which Frank Johnson of Ideal Heating and Sheet Metal built to his specifications. He and Johnson sold 15 of them around the country at $5,000 each. As you entered Treloar’s Inn,the first thing you would see was the glass enclosure with the ribs hanging and slowing turning and the rib grease dropping down on to the large pans of beans.
Each year, the restaurant would close for a day when the State Fair was going on in Des Moines. Papa Treloar would rent a bus and take employees and their immediate families to the Fair. The bus left around 8-9 in the morning and would get back around 1-2 a.m. He would also always buy the 4H winner (cattle) and have it out front of the Inn in a corral for a while.
Today, the site where Treloar’s Inn and the Country Boy Drive-In once existed (on the northwest corner of North 15th Street and 20th Avenue North) is occupied by the Village Inn, constructed in 1981 – four years after the Treloar’s buildings were demolished. Five years ago, a granddaughter of Papa Treloar – Ann Stoner of Cedar Falls, daughter of Billie – donated memorabilia that includes a photo of Papa Treloar, a sandwich wrapper, a sign and menus and a fried chicken box.
Village Inn General Manager Josh Hendrickson said the items are displayed in a large shadow box in the lobby of the restaurant and that “people stop and take pictures all the time. People who once lived here and come back for a visit will come here to eat and say, what is that? It just takes them back.”
Papa Treloar is not far away, 37 years after his death.
The gravesites for the Treloar’s founder and his wife Hazel, their son Max and other family members are located just across the highway in North Lawn Cemetery.
“Papa and Grandma always wanted to be able to see their corner,” Toler said.