By 1934, the remains of an old building stood near the city square at Gallatin. Along the front of the building and at the edge of the street, a deep ditch was littered with junk and refuse. Behind were hen houses that were wrecks of buildings; the yard was littered with rusty machinery and junk. This deteriorated building and lot had served as a blacksmith for Samuel J. McDonald since its establishment in 1868.
Charles McDonald, the son of the blacksmith, worked as a traveling salesman in Texas for a hardware firm of St. Louis. He met and married Virginia Rowell there. After a period of time she became very ill.
Mrs. McDonald was a sturdy-built woman, but her weight went down to 79 pounds. A physician who had cured many cases like this one prescribed the “rest cure.” For seven and one-half years, she lay upon her back in a room built especially for her and open on three sides, taking no exercise at all.
In the first six years of her illness, she lay so quietly and patiently and there was no gain. But she was holding her own and not losing strength nor weight. Meanwhile, her husband quit his job as a traveling salesman to be with her. In an attempt to cure her, he’d spent $10,000 of his own money, plus borrowing $8,000 from the bank.
His hardware business started to dwindle. So he sold groceries to help pay the daily living expenses, doctor bills, bills for medicine, and bank note payments. As his debts mounted, Charles added a small fast food business serving hotdogs, burgers, chili, etc. he cooked on an old stove taken from the hardware stock.
Time passed and the Great Depression began. The bank where Mr. McDonald did his business failed and paid no refund. He owed $3,000 to one of the banks and it demanded the money. He didn’t have the money and couldn’t even keep up the payments and the interest.
As Mrs. McDonald lay on her back, she did some serious thinking. She’d come from a family of good cooks and she thought of herself as being among the best of them. She confronted her husband about establishing an eating place. He thought it was a good plan. But he also thought there were several obstacles in the way. He didn’t think she was able to do the cooking, and they didn’t have any place to serve the food with the exception of an old barn on the property.
Some time later she came to the blacksmith shop and once again confronted her husband about her idea. He finally conceded. He soon made her three tables, colored with a can of bright vermillion carriage paint left over from the old days. He placed them between the hardware counter and the south wall.
Mr. McDonald questioned his wife about how she expected to attract customers. She knew she had regular customers coming to eat hot dogs, and she thought to expand sales by asking these customers to try her corn muffins. She carefully shaped her muffins in the daintiest form and said “these corn muffins will melt in your mouth” because of her fine baking. These muffins made her business distinctly different than from all other competitors.
From the first she intended her establishment to be a “tea room” — not a café nor a restaurant. There was to be no food over the counter. All the food was to be served on the bright red table tops. Her fame as a cook soon spread and many people started to patronize her business. At times, between 200 and 300 people came to eat there each Sunday.
As time passed the old hardware shelves were torn out and replaced with red and black cabinet doors all down one side. More room was still needed and rows of tables were placed down through the old shop, and an addition had to be put on the rear to accommodate them.
This tea room came to be known as the McDonald Tea Room, and it became a landmark for Gallatin, drawing people from miles around to eat there. Mrs. McDonald credits her success both to her good cooking and the cooks she trained to cook just as she did.
After Mrs. McDonald’s death, ownership of the Tea Room changed several times even though each successive owner left its name unchanged. Unfortunately, this piece of Daviess County history faded away when the tea room building burned to the ground on July 4, 2001.
9/13/34 v.71 “She Wins Out With Tea Room In An Old Blacksmith Shop”
— written, researched and presented by Wilbur Bush, Gallatin, MO