For almost three decades, Johnson’s Restaurant in Oakland City, Indiana, was a favorite place to go, to eat great food, celebrate special occasions, and drink from a bottomless coffee cup. I especially remember the regulars gathered at the counter drinking coffee, chatting in low bass voices, hugging their warm cups in their hands. For this coffee, the restaurant would receive The Golden Cup Award, given by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau. More recognition came from a popular state travel guide that listed Johnson’s Restaurant as one of the best eating places in southwest Indiana. However, like all successes, the business had more than a few turning points, times that led my parents, Darrell and Florence Hill, to struggle with the question of whether to continue the business. What follows is a story of the early days at Johnson’s Restaurant and what my dad always said was a pivotal event in the story of Johnson’s Restaurant during their ownership.
Johnson’s Drive-In Restaurant initially opened in October of 1952, with much local fanfare, newspapers touting it as “the biggest and best drive-in in this territory.” At the time, the restaurant offered a large area for drive-up curb service, with uniformed carhops taking orders and bringing the trays to the cars. Indoor dining was available too.
The new business was situated in a perfect spot, nestled at the junction of Indiana Hwy. 57 and 64. As a wedding present to my mom, Florence, my Grandpa and Grandma Townsend fronted the money for the building, and the business was run then by my mom, a petite young woman with a graceful smile, and her first husband, George Johnson, known to be a handsome charmer, putting people at ease with the flash of his smile. He was also the source of the restaurant’s name and half of my DNA.
My mom was known as a hard worker, and I am told that on the night I was born in 1954, up until it was time to go to the hospital, she was still at the restaurant, quickly tending to customers in her brisk and efficient way, tip-tapping around on high heels . A year or so later, when the marriage ended in 1955, my mom ran the restaurant alone. This period must have been difficult and lonely for her, being a single parent and bearing sole responsibility for the kind of business that runs on a very small profit margin. I can imagine her face being often sad, unsure of the future.
All this changed when a salesman came to her house on 1st Avenue in Oakland City and knocked on her door. Darrell Hill said he was so smitten by my mom when she opened the door that he was speechless. Florence was surely pleased too. Darrell was, literally, a tall, dark, and handsome young man from Evansville, who had been a salesman and entrepreneur from a very young age. I’ve written in an earlier piece of how his career began at the age of five, with his hawking a hog’s head in Uniontown, Kentucky, pulling it around in a wagon, and finally selling it for fifteen cents. His family was very poor, and he had gone hungry as a child. I’ve often wondered if his preoccupation with food, both in his business and his personal life, came down to that experience. Few of us can imagine what it would be like not to have enough to eat. Darrell Hill never forgot that experience or where he came from.
It is interesting to me that before my mom Florence married Darrell, Johnson’s Restaurant was sold on contract to Bill and Jane Malone in 1955, with the title and debt held by my Grandpa Townsend. I can only guess that my mom had had enough of the restaurant business, wanted a fresh start, and was also happy her parents would not have to worry about the money they had invested. The Malones, meanwhile, built a small house on the property, immediately behind the restaurant, and got to work.
Darrell and Florence Hill started their life together with three young children—one of hers (me), two of his (Greg and Chris)—in a duplex on Covert Avenue in Evansville, Indiana, where Darrell continued his job as a frozen food salesman. To my delight, he officially adopted me, and we were all Hills. He had already become my dad in every way but one. I have pleasant memories of the Covert Avenue duplex–walking to the end of the block on steamy afternoons to get popsicles, sitting by the heat register with Chris the chilly winter we both had the measles, and all of us scrambling and squealing, trying to catch Sky King, our parakeet that had escaped to the back yard. After a couple of years of our living in Evansville, however, Bill Malone began having serious health problems and could no longer run the restaurant. My parents came back to Oakland City and took over Johnson’s Restaurant in 1959, so that my grandfather, who ran a large farm, would not be saddled with the business.
With his entrepreneurial spirit and preoccupation with food, I’m sure my dad started the venture with excitement. My mom, on the other hand, was pregnant with my younger sister Julie at the time, and, having experienced the demands of running the restaurant before, may have had some misgivings. The five of us moved right behind the restaurant into the tiny house built by the Malones. It had four rooms—one small room serving both as the living room and our three kids’ bedroom, another small room serving both as the dining room and my parents’ bedroom, along with a tight kitchen and a small bathroom. With a baby on the way, one of the first things my parents did was to add two rooms to the house, something that probably didn’t help their financial situation but was necessary for their sanity.
As kids, we never knew finances or even crowded conditions were a problem. I just remember having the restaurant a few steps away, as a second home, getting penny candy at Tracer’s Grocery in Oakland City, and playing with my siblings. The workings of the restaurant mostly stayed at a distance, background noise, like a box fan running in the summertime. There were a few times, however, when we might become more aware of it. My older sister Chris, for example, remembers being in awe of our mother’s typing skills and her ability to type out the daily specials for the restaurant menus without having to look at the keyboard. Sometimes she would wink at us as she typed.
The daily specials menu would be duplicated in the restaurant’s basement, the slight chemical scent of the mimeograph fluid still clinging to the purple ink as the pages were later added to the regular menu.
While we kids thought the biggest problem in our household was occasionally having to stand in the corner when we misbehaved, I know now that it was quite different for my parents. In the midst of having a baby on the way and a home renovation, they were rudely awakened to the fact that the restaurant wasn’t really doing well, and it was quickly apparent that without a solid increase in the number of customers, they couldn’t make it on the income the restaurant was providing.
On the other hand, my parents were no easy quitters, and my dad, having faced several difficulties in his young life already, was always up for a challenge. He began by running a series of ads in The Princeton Daily Clarion and The Oakland City Journal. Looking at those ads now, I can see how he tried to appeal to different audiences and tirelessly thought of new ideas to bring more people in.
One early ad announced, SPECIAL!..ALL THE CHICKEN YOU WANT… with Salad, Hot Rolls and Coffee. Only $1.25. EVERYONE WELCOME! People who remember the fried chicken and rolls from Johnson’s would think this would have been enough to bring in crowds. Perhaps my mom and dad hadn’t arrived at their best fried chicken and roll recipes yet, or maybe not enough people had come to try it.
One ad that makes me smile said, Sure way to score with the lady-in-your-life is to dine her here…. Another appealed to families: A family treat, Dine Out!
My favorite ad offered specially boxed lunches for picnics. I love the conversation balloons between “Helen” and “Mary”about picnic problems quickly solved by Johnson’s Restaurant.
Along with advertising, my dad was also constantly working on product, improving recipes and coming up with new items, such as the Ski-Hi, a double decker burger he created and cleverly marketed. Sometime in this period my mom and dad’s restaurant was the first in Oakland City and the area to offer pizza, not a very common item at the time.
After two years of creative advertising and food development, including the Ski-Hi and pizza, my parents were still just barely making it. Despite all the work they had put into food preparation and service, the town had not completely adopted the restaurant, and my mom and dad knew they had reached a turning point. My brother Greg has a memory of my dad around this time, Daddy standing silently at the front door, looking out for a prolonged period of time, his posture perfectly straight as always, staring through the glass at the back of the restaurant.
With the situation not improving, my parents then did something for the first and last time during our young childhood. They went on a trip by themselves to Florida, to clear their heads, do some soul searching, and determine whether they would stay with the restaurant or sell it and move on to something else. To the best of my memory, Greg, Chris, and I were in primary grades, and Julie, our new baby sister, was one. Mrs. Whitehouse, a beloved babysitter, was staying with us kids. She had tightly waved brown hair, rosy cheeks, and large soft eyes that reflected her kindness. To deal with our anxiety and, probably, to keep from answering the same question over and over again, she made us a chart with the days our parents would be gone. Each day we would mark one off with a fat black crayon.
I know little about my parents’ trip, but it was probably the closest they ever got to a honeymoon, having begun their marriage with three small children. In fact, the day after they were married, my dad bounded out of bed early in the morning and began dressing. In surprise, my mom asked, “Where are you going?” He replied, “To work; I’ve got five mouths to feed!” So I like to picture my parents having some relaxation and enjoyment on this Florida trip, walking on the beach, feeling the whisper of a balmy breeze, and having the most time to themselves they ever had or ever would again for quite a while. I’m sure too that this respite helped them gain some perspective about what they were going to do about the restaurant. They never told us whether they were of one mind in coming to their verdict, whether one had to win the other one over, whether they agonized, or whether they just calmly reached an answer. Whatever the case, they came back with the resolve to keep the restaurant going and got back to work.
Shortly after this trip, with the wolf still knocking at my parents’ door, the Oakland City High School football team began preparing for the 1961 season. Prior to the first game of the season, Oakland City Coach Delbert Disler had noted hopefully to a Princeton Clarion sportswriter that “Mike Schwomeyer and Wayne Parke, both seniors, will be the big guns in the backfield for the eight-man team. Schwomeyer is a fast halfback and Parke calls the plays from quarterback. Dick Wilder, Winifred Brown, and Gary Duncan, all juniors, will make up the rest of the backfield.” The sportswriter added that “Disler is counting heavily on junior Gary Minnis to handle the center chores and in Bill Harkness and Joe Shurig has two fine ends. John Richeson and David Corn will be guards.”
The season started with a loss to non-conference foe Petersburg and an injury to Wini Brown. Disappointment, however, eventually turned to hope and excitement, as the team began winning, and by early October, the drumbeat of a possible Pocket Athletic Conference title was stirring up the town. The last time a football PAC title had been won by Oakland City was in 1956, and the school and the town were hungry for a success.
One of the most momentous games of the season was against Rockport, a team that carried the unusual moniker of the Zebras. After Oakland City had won the PAC in 1956, the Zebras won it the next four years. In fact, Rockport went into the 1961 game against the Acorns with a stunning 41 game winning streak. The Zebra’s amazing quarterback, Gene Vincent, had been injured two weeks prior to the Oakland City game, so you can imagine the Acorn fans’ disappointment when they saw him take the field. His presence, however, did not end up mattering, a sportswriter noting how Oakland City’s John Richeson and David Corn did an outstanding job of stopping the normally high-scoring quarterback. The not-to-be stopped Acorns grabbed the win with a score of 20-7.
Excitement rose to a fever pitch when the Acorns defeated Dale in the next PAC game, 27-7, and the buzz in town for the next week was all about the final PAC game for the Acorns, a match against the tough Owensville Kickapoos on October 24th at Owensville. Oakland City was going in with an undefeated PAC record, and the game would decide the conference winner.
If my high school days are any guide, it is likely that the week of the game, boisterous school pep sessions were held, and team spirit signs went up in the school and throughout the town. A raucous fan bus almost certainly followed the team bus heading to the southwest portion of Gibson County that October evening of the game. This much we do know: the weather was superb; after a high of 78 at approximately 2:00, by game time the temperature was a perfect 68, with a light breeze. Excited fans from both towns walked onto the field, where a marching band boomed and blared under the bright lights and the smell of popcorn drifted in the air.
A large crowd of Oakland City fans—adults and students—showed up to back the Acorns, and they, along with the cheerleaders, vibrated with nervous energy. Explosive cheers rang out from the fans when the Acorns took the field, although some held their breath at the kickoff, the ball floating high, end-over-end, to begin the game.
Had my dad only known what was riding on this contest, he would have been there, yelling his head off.
The Oakland City team blasted into the lead, with Gary Duncan gaining hard won yards, and Mike Schwomeyer sprinting across the goal line with the prize in the first quarter. The PAT was added, making the score 7-0 for the Acorns. Then, just seconds later, Owensville’s quarterback Steve Armstrong found “Pudge” Garrett open for one second and spun a perfect pass into his hands. The Owensville fans went crazy. The Princeton Clarion noted the next day, “The speedy back [Garrett], playing with an injured knee, took off like Native Dancer” (a celebrated thoroughbred racing horse). Sure enough, Garrett scored.
Adding insult to injury, Armstrong then passed to Garrett for the two-point conversion. The Kicks took an 8-7 lead, leaving Acorn fans chewing their nails.
Late in the second quarter, the Acorns’ Schwomeyer broke through and ran the ball to the Owensville 10 yard line, where he was hit. A loud thud and a grunt carried across the football field as he went down. To the great alarm of the Oakland City fans, he didn’t get up, and was, for a moment, knocked unconscious. Schwomeyer was having an amazing season, and his first quarter touchdown in this game made 27 times the “scoring sensation” had made it over the goal line for the season so far.
Acorn fans grew silent, even as Schwomeyer came to. Moving slowly, he hobbled to the sidelines, trying to shake off his injury. Meanwhile, another stalwart Acorn rose to the occasion. Wayne Parke “sneaked over from the 10 yard line on the next play with 1:30 remaining in the first half” and scored. The Acorn fans jumped to their feet. Then a revived Schwomeyer re-entered the game with the score now 13-8 in favor of the Acorns, his resurrection bringing even more cheering from the Oakland City section. As their team headed to the locker room at the half, the Oakland City cheering section stood, bobbling a bit on the wooden bleachers, and gave a rousing cheer for their team.
After the half time, the Oakland City defense played strong, but a heart-stopping moment occurred for the Acorns when a repeat of Owensville’s Armstrong-Garrett play unfolded before them. With the Acorns holding the lead, the Kickapoos’ quarterback found Garrett running up the sidelines, open again. Armstrong fired another perfect pass, and Garrett was again streaking toward the goal. Almost miraculously, an Acorn player caught him at the 9-yard line after a 39 yard run. The Acorns’ defense then held firm, and the Kicks lost the ball on downs.
Oakland City took advantage of their next possession with Duncan and Parke gaining key yards. A Clarion sportswriter then went on to described how
Schwomeyer’s next touchdown convinced all onlookers that his scoring pace this year has not been a ‘fluke’. The hard running halfback took the snap at the 7 yard line and darted toward the goal line. He was hit and stopped by three Kickapoo defenders at the 3 yard line, but with his powerful legs churning like mighty pistons, managed to carry the ball and the three Owensville players into the end zone.
When the clock turned to all zeroes, Oakland fans swarmed the field, the Acorns winning the game 19 – 8 and taking the PAC crown for the first time since 1956. Plans were quickly made to meet back in Oakland City and continue the celebration there.
Success or failure can turn on such a small act. As the happy crowd drove home, someone decided to stop at Johnson’s Restaurant and share the big news. My dad and the Johnson’s crew were exhausted after a hard day’s work; nevertheless, after hearing about the game, my dad decided to join the impromptu gathering of the fans downtown. A local newspaper reported the event that turned out to be a key moment in the life of Johnson’s Restaurant:
Following the Oakland City victory, team members and fans rallied on Main St. and were driven around town on the fire truck. Later, jubilant fans, football players, and coaches were feted to free refreshments at Johnson’s Drive-In by Darrell Hill, owner. The celebration Tuesday night lasted several hours.
At the downtown celebration, my dad had spontaneously invited the entire town to Johnson’s Restaurant for free pizza and drinks. My mom, at home with us kids, might have passed out had she known.
Once he made the invitation, my dad went flying back to the restaurant, where the employees were getting ready to close for the night. He excitedly broke the news to the employees that not only were they not closing at the regular time, but they also would be serving the triumphant football team and their fans, and the celebration could go on for a while. I’m sure the crew picked up on my dad’s excitement, and the preparations began quickly—glasses dunked into and filled with clattering ice, pizzas put together and popped into the oven.
My dad was simply astounded by all the people who came. Soon the restaurant was filled with high spirits, and my dad and the waitresses served the Oakland City fans and team with drinks and pizza, while cooks in the kitchen kept the pizzas going in the oven, one after another. The spicy scent of pepperoni, tomato sauce, melted cheese, and dough wafted through the building. The crowd was so large that the restaurant staff couldn’t keep up, and my dad encouraged the fans to get their own drinks and refills from the fountain if they wanted. Many team members, still joyfully laughing and slapping one another on the back over the football victory, now joined in taking orders and serving the crowd.
This moment was truly a turning point. For anyone who has been a high school sports fan, cheering on a team provides a bonding that can, at least briefly, transcend petty grievances, make life’s other worries recede for at least a while, and leave everyone feeling united and part of something bigger. When the team is victorious, or even better, wins a title, the fans are ecstatically drawn together—all of them celebrating this same event at the same time, all of them sharing in a blissful moment of pure happiness.
Not only had my dad provided food and drinks and a friendly place that gave everyone the chance to extend this special moment, but also, by letting the fans have the run of the restaurant that night, he helped Johnson’s to become their restaurant, the community’s restaurant, the new place to celebrate and come together. I’m sure my dad’s generosity made an impression on the small town of Oakland City, where he eventually became someone much admired and considered an asset to the community.
From that time on, Johnson’s became one of the favorite spots in town, not only after ball games, but also for any occasion that called for good food with friends and family. Over time, Johnson’s became not only the local community’s restaurant, but also the area’s restaurant, for people from nearby towns, such as Princeton, Petersburg, Mackey and Winslow. We had customers who regularly drove from Evansville and Washington, from Mt. Carmel and Huntingburg. Until Interstate 64 opened, it was a prominent stop for many people driving between Louisville and St. Louis on Hwy 64 and for people driving between Evansville and Indianapolis on Hwy 57.
In the distant future, a fire, a blizzard, and highway changes would bring new challenges, but for many years after this fateful football game, business continued to grow. The after-PAC victory celebration did indeed turn the tide, and I feel special gratitude to Coach Disler and the 1961 Acorn football team.
My siblings and I would all work at the restaurant in the coming years, and we knew how our parents ran the business and the time they spent making it work. Through 1988, they helped and mentored hundreds of employees who never forgot them, and occasionally, during the night, would welcome to their door an employee with a serious problem. Great food and friendly service helped to make the Johnson’s Restaurant era memorable, but it all came down to my mom and dad themselves—super people who cared about their employees, their customers, and their community. For those who used to eat or work there, it is spoken of wistfully, even with longing. It was a special place in a special time, and I feel lucky I got to be a part of it.
Thanks to my siblings—Greg Hill, Christi Tooley, and Julie Hill—for their memories, and also, thanks to The Oakland City Journal and The Princeton Clarion sportswriters who so colorfully wrote about the games. Special thanks to my husband, Randy, for recalling my dad’s stories and for being the best copy editor around.