By Mary Francis McNinch
Some of my favorite stories told at the Mesa Gathering were about Mack’s Cafe in Murdo, SD.
Karen Haugland Poppe regaled us with her memories of the iconic Cafe located uptown in Murdo, SD. It was on the NE corner across from the Murdo Show House and next to the Gem Hotel. In the years her parents, Nels and Doris Haugland, owned it, Mack’s provided a lot of great food and good times. It was the place all the farmers and ranchers and later highway construction workers came for breakfast and left with ample sack lunches all made with food prepared from scratch by Doris beginning in the very early morning hours of each day. My own memory of the caramel covered or frosted cinnamon rolls Mom would bring the girls who cleaned the rooms at her Chalet Motel make my mouth water. When I mentioned the delicious ham and beans Doris made, my cousin Valerie who had been wolfing down a plate of sweet desserts at the Gathering and was not paying close attention to the conversation piped up and said, “There’s ham and beans!?” Sadly, they were only another mouth-watering memory.
Doris would make hot beef sandwiches with a mound of mashed potatoes covered in rich brown gravy and some of the best meatloaf you could ever eat.
“What’s on the menu besides fly specks and ketchup?” Ben Dykstra, a local rancher, would ask as he sat down in one of the booths.
Karen told us things I didn’t know…like how her mother made sure those who didn’t have a good meal to eat on all the holidays got free food from Mack’s before her own family ate. Doris and Nels had a family of 6 and the 4 kids worked without pay. Karen said one year she complained that she wanted a job that paid. Her mother said, “Then go and get one.” She went to work at the Murdo Coyote Newspaper office. She said, “I went home covered in ink, but I had money in my pocket.”
Doris started her day a few hours before dawn, but the locals like my parents and numerous other couples would crank up the juke box and party after hours on the weekends. I remember Mom saying, “Marge Bork played The Orange Blossom Special a million times.” (One of Mom’s Lorettaisms was, “I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate.”)
When Mom and Dad were building our new house next to Mowell’s, Grandma Sanderson, who was very hard of hearing called Mom and asked her what she was going to feed the men building the house for noon dinner. Mom said, “I’m sending them to Mack’s Cafe.” Grandma said, “Yes, and coffee.”
We talked about Slim, who worked at Mack’s and helped himself to packs of cigarettes, which he rolled up into the sleeve of his white T shirt. He didn’t much care for my Aunt Elna, and when she asked him to pass a note on to my mother, he told mom it came from the old bag.
Mack’s Cafe was where all the kids were welcome to fill up the booths and nurse a Coke after the movie until closing time. Sometimes, we pooled our money and ordered some delicious French fries. I always ate a Bing Candy Bar with my Coke.
Lots of my friends worked there. Marlene Rada Baker worked all through high school. Josephine Jost worked there, too. I had to work at Mom’s motel, but that’s another story. I remember Linda Kerns and so many others. I was in the Café one day, and Bill Jackson was sipping his coffee and said to the waitress, “This weather is like your leg…I’d like to see it clear up.” The waitress was his wife, Alice. She just filled his cup and moved onto the next customer without even smiling. She took the pencil from behind her ear and wrote down an order. She was a petite lady with red hair done in a perfect candlestick hairdo. Everyone wore a crisp white uniform and an apron.
I have such fond memories of that wonderful place. I’m sure anyone who lived in Murdo from the 1950’s through the 70’s have their own special memories of Mack’s Cafe.
Karen Haugland Poppe did her parents proud. She managed another iconic SD place called Wall Drug for 40 years… no ink.