Mike Dailey grew up eating at Pappy’s Place and still visits several times each week. He knows what makes the local landmark so special: “The friends, the beer and the camaraderie.”
A stop by Pappy’s Place is a step back in time: Laden with memorabilia, photos and tidbits harking a bygone era, the walls tell chapters of a story. Since it began back in 1926, the business has seen Springfield grow from its vantage point right on Main Avenue — and through the people who have made the local spot a part of the their life stories.
One of those people is Mike Dailey, who remembers eating cheeseburgers at Pappy’s as a child. “My father used to bring me here,” he says from his bar stool, sipping a beer as he watches TV on the set in the corner.
He grew up local, and after graduating from Parkview High School in 1964, he never went too far from home. Now he lives right up the street, and stops by Pappy’s more often than it seems he’s ready to admit. “Let’s say maybe every other day,” he confesses.
But Pappy’s is a tradition for more than just Mike. “We’ve had four to five generations in here at one time all sitting together,” says Mitzi Rupert, one of the restaurant’s owners, who can be found just a few bar stools down from Mike. “It’s just memories and history. (People say) ‘My dad used to bring me in here, or my grandparents…'”
Mitzi knows what she’s talking about: While she began waiting tables at Pappy’s nearly 20 years ago, her earliest memory of the restaurant dates back to childhood. “I grew up in the neighborhood, right up the street,” she says, and “when we were little, (Mom) would go get (Dad’s) paycheck and we’d get to eat here on Fridays.”
Building the business
Frank Plummer’s grocery store originally existed in the building that houses Pappy’s Place today. Mrs. Plummer (right) is shown with her daughter, Mary; the latter opened the restaurant in 1926. (Photo courtesy of Ima Bills)
The building that houses Pappy’s today wasn’t designed for dining. It was built in 1903 as a grocery store, a calling which eventually switched to shoe repair. In 1926, George and Mary (Plummer) Bills opened the restaurant and it has been serving up meals ever since.
Perhaps location played a part in the career change. “The old St. John’s Hospital was up the street, of course,” says Ima Bills, whose parents-in-law opened the restaurant way back when. “And that was where they drew a lot of their business.”
Now 89 years old, Ima’s firsthand memories of the restaurant date back to 1943. And today, she still owns the building where Pappy’s is housed. “It’s been in the same family the whole time,” she says, noting that the family built the original building as well as “the house next door…to the south.”
The house she mentions is very close to the restaurant — too close for comfort these days, in fact. “(The house) is grandfathered in, because there’s a little bit of the house that has a community wall with the restaurant,” she says. “That’s not allowed in this day and time.”
Ima lived in that house for several years after marrying into the Bills family. Other members of the family did, too — and “they would even rent rooms” to those who needed to be near patients in the hospital, she recalls.
The food-stop spot — then known interchangeably as George Bills’ Cafe and the Main Eat Shop — began in 1926. Note the sign to the left of the door that says “sleeping rooms.” (Photo courtesy of Pappy’s Place)
When Ima entered into the picture, the cafe’s menu was different from what it is today. “The folks did more home cooking,” she says. “See, they did not do barbecue at all. They had fried chicken and they had roast, you know, and mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans and that kind of thing.”
She also remembers that the spot was a popular one for local police officers. Those men, despite their badge, didn’t mind indulging in a prank here or there — especially when it concerned Sig Gustafson, one of the restaurant’s longtime employees. “The folks served a little dish of some kind of dessert with their meals,” says Ima. “And a lot of the policemen ate up there. And they’d put their hat over the dessert and tell (Sig) they didn’t get any.”
Getting past Prohibition
Even though Pappy’s has been seen as a local watering hole for generations, it didn’t sell alcohol in the beginning. After all, the restaurant opened its doors seven years before Prohibition ended.
And when permission came from Congress to re-admit the “devil’s drink” in 1933, some locals weren’t too excited. An article in the Springfield Leader & Press on Dec. 5 — the day Prohibition was officially repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment — proclaimed that there would be “no letup here on liquor law.”
According to Police Chief Paul A. Frey, “we’ll go right on arresting drunks. A drunk’s a drunk. We are not going to permit peace disturbances, nor disorderly conduct. There will be no letdown in the law. If an officer finds a man in possession of bootleg liquor, that man will have to be charged.” He did, however, concede that he “didn’t know what our duty regarding liquor will be after a new state law is enacted.”
Within a little more than a month, it was legal to sell alcohol by the drink in Springfield. But while it was legal, it wasn’t necessarily easy — and it was definitely expensive. On Jan. 16, 1934, the same newspaper reported that “it takes almost as much money to go into the liquor business here as it does to start a bank.”
Numbers backed up the claim: It cost $1,225 for a business to sell alcohol in Springfield, an amount that was composed of various fees and equals around $25,000 today. To further put the numbers in perspective, the federal liquor license cost $25 — and Springfield’s city fee was $600.
But Pappy’s managed to get a license to sell beer. “The restaurant there was the only place in Springfield that sold 5 percent beer by-the-drink that didn’t also have a liquor license,” Ima notes.
Since she doesn’t have a copy of the license, Ima doesn’t know the specific date on which it was issued. But she’s certain it dates back to as soon as alcohol could be sold in Springfield. “I’m sure he didn’t waste any time,” says Ima of her father-in-law’s efforts to get a license.
That action makes Pappy’s, according to its owners, the business with the longest-running license to sell beer in town.
A tasty reputation
“It’s pretty darn good,” says Linda Gray, a two-decade employee of Pappy’s, as she brings out a bun stuffed full of pulled pork. The sandwich — available in small or large — is an experience best taken with a knife, fork and napkins. Lots of napkins.
While the Bills family has owned the property throughout the restaurant’s lifetime, the building has been leased to various individuals since 1950. Each has left an impression on the cafe, such as the addition of barbecue — and the name change to Pappy’s Place — by Paul and Dorothy Ankrom in the 1970s.
Today, Pappy’s menu is filled with a variety of options to tempt its hungry diners. Barbecue pork and beef, pork tenderloin and hot links fill the menu, accompanied by sides of barbecue beans, potato salad, cole slaw, fries and onion rings. And that’s just a few of the offerings.
“Holy cow, it’s all good,” says Linda Gray, who has worked at Pappy’s for around 20 years. “You can’t beat the prices, the food or the atmosphere.”
Or the sauces, which can be purchased by the pint or gallon.
“They make them all,” Linda says of the tangy accents, which are available in hot, regular red and gold, the latter of which is akin to a honey mustard. “We just jar it up as people buy it,” she says.
Continuing the legacy
During her time at Pappy’s, Linda has seen babies — still so young in her mind — grow up right before her eyes. There’s one young lady in particular who “turns 21 in March and can’t wait for me to serve her first beer,” she says.
It’s those people and memories that Pappy’s uses to maintain its corner-bar, center-of-the-community feel. “When you come to work here, it’s not just a job,” says Linda. “You get a whole new family.”
But that’s not a new concept. Even years ago, “it was a neighborhood place,” says Ima, who recalls people coming by every single night in decades past. “(It was) kind of like ‘Cheers,’ you know, where everybody knew everybody else. And they still do, to a great extent.”
Some of those regular faces gather on Egg Wednesdays, when local ladies meet at the restaurant (and farm-fresh eggs are sold). And once a year, many old-timers gather for Hacker Day in honor of longtime patron Jim Hacker, a man who was at the cafe six days a week — all day — for more than 13 years.
“(Jim) sat on the first stool as you’d go in,” recalls Ima. “(His wife) took him as she went to work, and came and picked him up when she got through. He’d sit there and he’d visit with everybody and spend the whole day.”
Jim’s gone now. It’s a representation of the cold hard fact that as years pass, Pappy’s numbers are dwindling. “We’re losing all our older regulars,” says Linda. But that simply means one thing: “You could say that we’re on the hunt for some new old fogies.”
Want to become a new old fogey (or simply eat some barbecue)?
Pappy’s Place (943 N. Main Ave., Springfield; 417-866-8744) is open Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., but the kitchen closes at 8 p.m. Happy hour is daily from 3 to 6 p.m.
One of the most notable times to visit is on Hacker Day, which is held each year on Dec. 23. Even though the day’s namesake — Jim Hacker — passed away in 1993, the tradition continues. “A lot of people will go back for Hacker Day…because they think they’ll see somebody that they used to know,” says Ima.