Nationally Acclaimed McDonald Tea Room, Longtime Gallatin Landmark

Southern sympathies left their mark in the borderstate town of Gallatin, MO. History reveals Southern sympathies did much in the way of acquitting outlaw Frank James in the famous train robbery and murder trial held in Gallatin in 1883. About three-fourths of a century later, the legacy of Southern hospitality and fine food attracted national fame to McDonald Tea Room.

Southern sympathies left their mark in the border state town of Gallatin, MO. History reveals Southern sympathies did much in the way of acquitting outlaw Frank James in the famous train robbery and murder trial held in Gallatin in 1883. About three-fourths of a century later, the legacy of Southern hospitality and fine food attracted national fame to McDonald Tea Room.

The McDonald Tea Room (Postcard, Date unknown)

For over 50 years McDonald Tea Room brought thousands of people to Gallatin, all sharing a great dining experience. When radio was a media in its golden era, Duncan Hines ranked the Tea Room in Gallatin as “one of the 10 best places to eat in America.”

A southern lady from an affluent Texas family, Virginia married Charlie McDonald, a traveling salesman, in 1914. When Charlie’s mother passed away in Missouri, Virginia and Charlie moved to Gallatin to care for his father and to make Gallatin their home. But Charlie’s belle of Texas became ill with tuberculosis after their arrival here. Virginia was forced to take the “open air” cure, resting in a many-windowed room that was known as Maple Shade, due to the large tree just outside the window.

The exterior of Maple Shade at McDonald Tea Room as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendall before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001. Originally, Maple Shade was the McDonald residence immediately east of what developed as an award winning restaurant. (2000)

For seven years Virginia lay in that room. Charlie quit his traveling job. His father, Sam McDonald, had built a shop beside the house now housing the ailing Virginia. The shop evolved into a blacksmith, harness and carriage shop and, later, a grocery store. Charlie tried to enhance a meager grocery business by adding a line of hardware. But he still could not make ends meet.

Since the McDonald store was close to the school, Charlie decided to add a lunch counter and serve hot dogs and soups to school children. Soon, others were coming to eat at Charlie’s counter. All the while, Virginia lay in her bed thinking about Charlie’s lunch counter and his struggle to manage the family affairs alone. Charlie had borrowed money from the bank and was not yet able to pay it back.

From this adversity, Virginia rose from her sickbed to take over the lunch counter. McDonald Tea Room made its official debut in 1931. It began in the area that was commonly known as the Garden Room (the main entrance room). The north part of the Crystal Room was opened in 1939. Even this addition did not alleviate the waiting that people had to endure to eat at the Tea Room. People would wait o­n the patio in good weather, and Virginia would serve her famous iced tea.

Virginia McDonald, a Southern belle whose restaurant in Gallatin, MO, gained national acclaim by a No. 1 Book-of-the-Month cookbook and radio fame

 “My mother was an aristocrat in the South and never learned to cook, or even cared, until after the Civil War. She vowed then that all her daughters would know their way around a kitchen.” — Virginia McDonald (1887-1969)

Charlie and a helper built the final portion of the Crystal Room around the lean-to that had housed Sam McDonald’s original blacksmith, harness and carriage shop. It was a labor of love. The initials “V” and “Mc” were prominent in exterior masonry. Inside, the “V” pattern was repeated in the decor built by Charlie for his belle.

The Crystal Room, for banquets and larger gatherings, showcased the familiar “V” architectural accent

Charlie built the building by Virginia’s vision and oral blueprints, and he also built the tables and chairs. But he also helped Virginia build the business. Night after night he would go down to the railroad station to rub elbows with the men who plied his old trade, the traveling salesmen.His motive was advertising. He know that if you wanted to pass the word along o­n anything, you told a traveling salesman. And just as he figured, soon a sizable number of “drummers” were finding their way to Gallatin and Virginia’s cooking.

“When we walked in for lunch, the first thing we noticed was the smell: a yeasty, come hither aroma of rolls fresh out of the oven.”
— A Taste of America, pp. 163-64, by Jane & Michael Stern, Universal Press Syndicate 1987

 

Virginia, she insisted that everyone call her that, was the Tea Room in its prime. She “entertained” people as well as impressing their taste buds with delightful food. Wearing o­ne of her wide-brimmed hats, Virginia would sit in the Crystal Room, conversing with the dining public while she cajoled vegetables into works of art that would garnish her salads and relish trays. Locally viewed as eccentric, Virginia did things her own way.

No bills were ever placed on the tables in Virginia’s time. She was always in position behind a small kneehole desk, dispensing a gracious kind of hospitality, and a running commentary for as long as o­ne cared to linger and listen. She soon mentally cataloged the favorite dishes of her regular patrons. If she knew you were coming, your preferences would be served at your table whether they were o­n the menu for the day or not. It was o­ne of those special touches her friends loved. 

Virginia McDonald, a one-of-a-kind Southern Belle

In 1949 Virginia compiled a cookbook which revealed many of her culinary secrets. There were four printings, and in 1950 it was the o­nly cookbook ever to be honored as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. When Betty Crocker initiated a radio series o­n the most interesting restaurants in the United States, Virginia was the first person interviewed!

In 1964 the editors of Better Homes and Gardens published a book of 90 of the country’s best restaurants. They called it “Famous Foods from Famous Places.” McDonald Tea Room was selected, along with places like Four Seasons in New York, Maxim’s in Houston, Palmer House in Chicago, Broadmoore in Colorado Springs, and Sun Valley Lodge in Idaho.

“The drive is worthy every hungry mile for hearty helpings of pan-fried chicken, sugar-glazed ham and pecan rolls.”
— Midwest Living, June 1988

Former President Herbert Hoover tasted her food as did Margaret and Mary Jane Truman, actress Martha Scott, baseball magnate Branch Rickey, and former Missouri governor Arthur M. Hyde. Virginia’s corn muffins were a weakness of J.C. Penney, the chain store founder whose boyhood home is just 13 miles south of Gallatin in Hamilton, MO.

Gallatin almost lost the Tea Room after Virginia’s death in 1969. Joyce Hall, the founder of Hallmark Cards, often came up from Kansas City to dine with Virginia. At the time the great Crown Center development project was in planning, Mr. Hall considered a complete relocation of the Tea Room within the complex of stores and exclusive shops. The idea was dropped because of the negative impact o­n Gallatin’s economy. At the time, Hallmark did not have a subsidiary business, such as a greeting card facility or warehouse, that could be placed in Gallatin to supplant the Tea Room.

Cars with out-of-state license plates were commonly seen parked on West Grand Street in Gallatin at McDonald Tea Room. Local civic and social clubs frequently held luncheons and meetings at the Tea Room.

During ownership by Betty and Tom Cobb of Kansas City, the kitchen was modernized. Dottie and Jim Stotts of Liberty operated the establishment from 1979 until Dorva and Bob Jones of Kirksville assumed responsibilities. Eventually, some time after Bob’s death, Dorva auctioned off the contents of the Tea Room.

The Kirkendolls, after the renovating McDonald Tea Room (2001)

Bud and Jean Kirkendoll resurrected the business, completely remodeling the Tea Room in the style and grandeur of Virginia’s times, o­nly to see the building and entire contents go up in flames o­n July 4, 2001.

There really was no reason for the existence of McDonald Tea Room except that a great cook decided to go into business next door to her home. Virginia’s success is as American as any Horatio Alger story. With no business training and facing an $8,000 debt while recovering from several years of serious illness, she triumphed.

Revised. Written by Darryl Wilkinson for “Treasure the Times,” a tourism publication, 1988.

Entering McDonald Tea Room was a warm experience, with the fragrance of hot yeast rolls fresh out of the oven beckoning you to relax …as if you were back home
The room at the north end of Maple Shade of McDonald Tea Room as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001.
The front room of Maple Shade, the original residence on the east side of McDonald Tea Room as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001. The bay windows were on the east side of the building; a front door was closed off facing Grand Street. (2000)
The main entrance to McDonald Tea Room was the Garden Room, shown as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001. Originally, this room featured glass top ornate steel tables, tile flooring and painted walls. (photo circa 2000)
The large banquet room on the west side of McDonald Tea Room as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001.
The serving room on the north side of the large banquet room on the west side of McDonald Tea Room as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001. (circa 2000)
The original bedroom of Maple Shade was converted into a dining area. This shows the room as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001. This view is from the north, looking south. The entrance door opening to West Grand Street was only for emergency exit. (2000)
The entrance between Maple Shade dining rooms and a north room at McDonald Tea Room as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001. (2000)
The kitchen of McDonald Tea Room as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001. (2000)
The McDonald Tea Room kitchen as renovated by owners Jean and Bud Kirkendoll before the devastating fire on July 4, 2001. (circa 2000)