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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.