North Main eatery also known for its fried chicken, ‘homey’ feel, super fast service
One of the many restaurants “Out of the Past” that made a marked impression on the people of Princeton was Beaber’s Lunch Room on North Main.
Here was a place that specialized in chicken for many years and had a huge business for a long time. It was a “homey” type of place where everybody knew everyone. The service was super, and one got waited on fast and sometimes got your food by the time you sat down.
They sold so much coffee all the time that it was always fresh, never hardly over 20 minutes old.
In 1932, Russ Beaber Sr. worked for George Ostick in his restaurant two doors south of North Main and Elm Place. There was a beautiful bank building on the corner, and it was torn down in 1931 and a small Standard Oil Station was built there.
Ostick’s place was the third place of business from the corner. Russ Beaber worked for Ostick’s for several years and then bought half of the business in 1934. Later, he bought the other half and took over the whole lunch room.
Their menu right off was ham every day, roast beef and meat loaf along with real mashed potatoes and gravy, two vegetables, two slices of bread and a drink. They were always served with a glass of water in those round barrel-like glasses. There were no menus, but there was a big sign at the east end of the lunch room for everyone to see, and they ordered from that.
Service was super fast — not much waiting — as most of the clientele were in a hurry to get back to work. The main biggest seller was Beaber’s hamburgers — huge chunks of meat on a huge bun. Cheeseburgers were almost a meal in themselves. And, the ham sandwiches! There was enough ham in one sandwich that overflowed the bun half again as much — which also was like a meal in itself.
Everything was fried in huge iron skillets. They got their hamburger buns and bread from Henning’s Bakery a few doors south of the lunch room. Chicken was not served until after the war sometime.
All drinks — coffee, milk, tea, pop of all kinds — were 5 cents for a long time as well as gum, candy bars and suckers, before the war. They had a huge everyday following of people who worked at the north end of town. Grampp’s Poultry House employees ate there as well as Larson Seed House people and Pioneer Seed Corn people. Speedy Rheeling and his trucking business employees and many of the workers in the surrounding businesses also ate there.
I also remember that the fellows who worked on the railroad siding during their switching operations, shunting and moving box cars to the several sidings that were there in those pre-war days, would “park” the engines, and the engineers and switchers would walk over to Beaber’s for their big meals.
When George Ostick had the lunch room in the early 1930s, I remember one old-timer telling me that the big deal Ostick had was “all you could eat for 25 cents,” and those railroad men could stow it away.
They also had a huge coffee and roll business for coffee breaks.
Beaber’s was never across the street on the west side. They were at that location from 1932 until they moved to their present location in 1948. The two buildings they were in originally were torn down, and the Standard Oil Station on the corner was enlarged to its present size.
When they moved into their present location in July 1948, it was the original old Haines Harness shop, and some of the old harness was still hanging on the wall in the building.
During the years that followed, they remodeled the place several times. Their operating hours were from 7 a.m. until 2 or 3 a.m. the following morning. Russ Jr. always worked with his father, and when he got out of the Marine Corps in 1956, he worked full time at the lunch room. Russ Jr. bought the business in 1969 and ran it on his own.
The original lunch room entrance was straight forward in from the front and just inside was Monk Abel’s barber shop. Next was the showcase for candy bars and gum and other goodies; then the ice cream bin, then the counter. Behind the barber shop were tables and chairs. The “boys” used to play cards all afternoon there after the lunch hour.
Henrietta Nickelsen worked there as a waitress before the war from 1938 until 1942. Marie, Russ’s wife, did all the cooking upstairs and brought it down and put it in the steam tables for serving. All hams were cooked in the basement and brought upstairs. Earl Beaber Jr., Russ’s nephew, worked there as well as Gene Knapp and Helean Munson.
Friday and Saturday nights were the big nights — especially Saturday nights. On busy nights, Buck Kuhn and Junior Beaber would dip ice cream — Sisler’s exclusively — as fast as they could. Ice cream cones, shakes, hand-dipped cartons and pie a la mode, and they were big, generous portions and servings.
Marie Beaber baked all the pies — homemade! They really never had any “specials” day after day, mornings and afternoons. Coffee was made in a big coffee urn with a long spout at the top and they would turn the spout so that the water would drop directly down onto the coffee beans. The waitress would turn the water on and if it wasn’t watched, it would run over, and that happened a few times. They took turns cleaning up the mess.
Milk was sold in half-pint bottles. During the 1950s, ham sandwiches were 30 cents; salami, 25 cents; hamburgers, 25 cents; egg sandwiches, 15 cents; cheese sandwiches, 20 cents; cheeseburgers, 20 cents; bacon and egg, 40 cents; tenderloin, 30 cents; grilled cheese, 25 cents; ham salad, 25 cents; and so on.
Toast and coffee was 25 cents; doughnuts or rolls, 15 cents; coffee, 10 cents; and tea or milk, 15 cents. Plate lunches: ham and one egg, 50 cents; ham and eggs, 70 cents; bacon and eggs, 70 cents; ham and eggs with potatoes, 80 cents; hamburger steak plate lunch, 85 cents; ham or meat loaf plate, 85 cents.
Then sometime after the war, chicken started to become popular — with fish on Friday nights. Saturday was the big chicken night. They had a huge carry-out order business. Everybody was literally “on the run,” yet, everybody was always in a good mood in spite of all the hectic activity most all the time. There was no abusive language, and there was a lot of respect from the customers as well as the employees. There was a lot of kidding and joking going on most all the time, and everyone had a good time and would be in a good frame of mind. Anyone who ever ate there always went away with a full, satisfied feeling of being well fed, and if you weren’t, it was your own fault.
The Beabers put in long hours at the lunch room. On Saturday nights, they had to stay open until at least 1 a.m. — until the train came in from Chicago with the Sunday papers. During the middle of the week, they would get the funnies, inserts and magazines; they had to insert them in the Sunday papers before they could go home that Saturday night. Those long hours — from 6 a.m. in the morning until 1 a.m. the next morning — were a little trying most times, but the Beabers would catch a couple of hours nap in the afternoon and come back to work to finish out the day. They were open every day and on Sundays, they remained open until around 1 p.m. in order to sell their Sunday papers.
Russ Beaber Sr. was never with any partners in running the business since he bought out Osticks. And Russ Jr. worked along with the family until he bought them out and then was on his own. All employees were treated like family. In the 1930s, there wasn’t any Social Security, so the employees were paid in cash.
Ruth and Bill Prince were coffee and roll customers as well as Pixlie Berry and his wife, Bess; Ollie Davis and his wife, Marg; Walt Levering, Martha Larson and the people who worked at the various factories and businesses, were good customers. Farmers also came in for coffee and lunches. With their super-fast service, good, hot, quick meals and super delicious big ham sandwiches and their very own special vegetable soup and chili, there was no chance of getting any “old” leftovers of any kind.
Raymond Beaber, Russ’s brother, did all the janitor work after hours. Later in 1976, Russ acquired the building north of their present restaurant and made it into a combination meeting and dining room and catered to parties and other social events to accommodate various clubs and organizations, and it worked very well. I remember several times, I attended coach Tony Lavorato’s high school basketball squad recognition meeting and would dine on chicken and have the opportunity to meet the players personally. The meetings were sponsored by local interested groups, and the media was also invited. There were other school functions and meetings there also, and many times after school games, the kids would congregate there.
Henrietta Nickelsen remembered that on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941, Bill Lind and other servicemen were still in the restaurant when the news came over the radio that Pearl Harbor was bombed, and all the servicemen left immediately to go back to their bases. What an emotional impact at that time, and she remembered that chilling effect.
Gov. Dwight Green dined there as well as many other notables who came to Princeton from time to time.
Beaber’s Lunch Room indeed has a niche in the history of Princeton, and we all have many happy, fond memories of wonderful times there while dining and meeting and chiding with friends and making new acquaintances.
Beaber’s Lunch Room ceased operations in May 1985. Marie Beaber passed away in 1969, and Russ Sr. passed away in 1982.
Another super-fantastic business — OUT OF THE PAST!
Note to readers: Bill Lamb, who died in 2013, wrote this story for his “Out of the Past” series with the Bureau County Republican in June 1991. It and the accompanying photos were retrieved from the archives of the Bureau County Historical Society, which granted its permission to republish them.