1 of 6
The iconic Circle Inn Malt Shop started wooing travelers in 1955 with its circle-in shtick: Order on one end, circle around, and pick up the food on the other end. This was twenty years before McDonald’s adopted a drive-thru, but eight years after Esther and Harry Snyder had inventedthe fast-food drive-thru at an In-N-Out Burger inSpringfield, Missouri.
2 of 6
Behind Pine Street, houses and old rail tracks mark where Bourbon’s original main street used to be. The town about-faced in the 1960s, after the highway startedoffering more business than the tracks.
3 of 6
4 of 6
5 of 6
Chuck Ray points out a portion of his favorite goto health-food book, which sits in CDR Naturals health-food shop for all to peruse.
6 of 6
Donna Ray wraps up organic bread for eighty-four-year-old Dorothy Benthal, a cancer survivor.
By Sarah Alban
Drive down Interstate 44, and you’ll see four water towers in Bourbon.
Each one scrapes the sky, a cask promising “BOURBON.”
You’d think they were full of whiskey, but Bourbonites barely touch the amber drink. That might account for the city’s longevity: Bourbon celebrates one hundred and sixty years in 2013. And some of its people seem to have lived nearly as long.
I visited Bourbon with hope to buy the mayor of Bourbon a bourbon. Mayor Leonard Armstrong was out of town, committed to a family reunion. But he sent his right-hand man, Alderman Bob Gargus, and right-hand woman, Phyllis Arnett, to show me around town instead. They wouldn’t drink either.
Not bourbon, at least. Bob and Phyllis would drink another aqua vitae. More on that soon. But first, about the name: It started with a French homage and with George Washington kicking butt.
Barrel for Builders
In 1794, President George Washington had trouble in Pennsylvania. Farmers wouldn’t pay excise taxes on corn whiskey, so Washington sent in troops and nipped that conflict. For condolences, the president gave the Irish and Scottish farmers sixty fertile acres in Bourbon County.
Et voila: Bourbon County, Virginia (today Kentucky), had whiskey makers.
The Irish and Scottish farmers made whiskey from corn, which made it fundamentally different from barley-based whiskey across the Atlantic. Theirs was a strange cousin of iskie bae, or “water of life” in Gaelic. But Irish and Scottish pioneers down the Mississippi River, who got barrels via the Ohio, started asking for the firewater from that old county in Virginia.
“Old Bourbon whiskey,” they asked for. By 1840, they wanted just “bourbon.”
Bourbon was what Richard Turner’s customers wanted. Richard’s general store, seventy miles southwest of St. Louis in St. Cloud, intercepted all the Irish and Scottish builders of a railroad to Rolla. Turner stuck a barrel outside his shop, and the workers—whose sweat, shovels, and picks laid the tracks— flocked toward the barrel like flies to light. Parched flies. “BOURBON” called to them like the water towers do to drivers today. Only difference is that the barrel contained what it promised.
“I’m going to Bourbon,” the rail workers would say.
A postmaster opened shop on September 27, 1853. That day, a Tuesday, he submitted to the government the name “Bourbon in the Village of St. Cloud.” And “Bourbon” it became when the city incorporated about fifty years later.
Part of Route 66
With a painting of the Bourbon water tower behind him on a diner mural, Josh Ware points out every Circle Inn Malt Shop customer by name. He should know. He’s grown up in this diner.
“I care about what happens to Bob,” Josh says, nodding to a diner sitting by a window. “I care about what happens to Jim. I care about what happens to their wives. If they stopped coming in here, I’d still care.”
Josh and his brother Justin have been running Circle Inn since 2011, when their father, Bob, died of a heart attack. The brothers never talked of letting the diner close, and they each relocated a wife and two kids to Bourbon from Jacksonville, Illinois, and St. Louis respectively. Even though Bourbon’s big boom of the 1960s had burst, four grocers had left, and factories had shut down, they stayed.
“We feel a part of Route 66,” Josh explains. “Everyone can talk about having their cheeseburgers here in the seventies.”
Everyone can remember the ice cream too. They just can’t taste it anymore.
The forty-year-old ice cream machine Bob Ware bought in 1971 to mix milkshakes and make cones with curls on top “stopped working two months after he did,” Josh says. A new one costs about $20,000, but Josh says they will find the money. He says Circle Inn will stay open by focusing on food and friendliness.
“What I want to do is completely different than what might happen,” he says. “We hope that Dad would be proud. We think he would.”
Outside, cars whiz loudly down I-44. No train whistles. The old Pacific Railroad, today the Frisco, from St. Louis to Rolla was Bourbon’s lifeline in the 1880s. Sixty-four trains a day stopped at the Bourbon Depot to load up with apples, fresh milk, cattle, pigs, chickens, and iron ore before heading west to Rolla or northeast to St. Louis. In WWII, the trains carried soldiers. Today, whatever they carry doesn’t stop in Bourbon. The depot was torn down in 1969 as I-44 construction was finishing.
On the north side of the tracks where Turner General Store once stood, weeds stretch like veins across nineteenth-century facades. Faded signs pale against old bricks. But walk away from these tracks and into the buildings’ backyards, and the veins disappear. Buildings come to life. Chalkboards hawk daily specials, neon “OPEN” signs welcome walkers, three sleek black Dodge Chargers sit in front of the police department, and two taverns serve firewater on Pine Street, Bourbon’s main spigot off Historic Route 66 and I-44.
When those two highways starved rail traffic in the late sixties, Bourbon businesses survived by about-facing. Their storefronts transformed into backs, the backs into fronts, and stores that once pulled traffic off the trains started doing the same off highways. Bourbon, the whiskey of adaptation, is also the city of adaptation. It has grit in its guts.
Something in the Water
The four water towers drink from well water 810 feet deep. Bourbon’s aqua comes with a delicious mint aftertaste. Drink it, and you might forget about the namesake aqua vitae.
“Our water is good here,” Bob says.
Bob likes to see things happen fast “because I’m seventy-five years old.” In the past five years he, Leonard Armstrong, and three other aldermen have revamped the budget. They paved Bourbon’s stretch of Route 66, installed a half-mile walking trail in the city park, grabbed the city a $70,000 backhoe partially through a grant, built a high-school baseball diamond, poured concrete sidewalks down Pine Street, and oversaw twenty duplexes’ construction.
They persuaded Kline’s Down Home Cafe, located in Rosebud, to open its second branch in Bourbon and are luring other businesses with an incentive program that goes like this: Rent in Bourbon’s industrial plots for ten years, and you can buy the land for $1.
Their grit is enough to make anyone wonder if some superhero mineral is in Bourbon’s mint water.
Bourbon water hydrates some of the longest-living people in the country. Fifteen percent of the city is sixty-five or older, which is slightly above average for the country’s population. Vera Veiman lived to be 105. She bought Chryslers all her life, and on her one hundredth birthday, a local Chrysler plant gave her a high-end model. Ninety-year-old twins Marge and Marie Friesenhan make nightly appearances at the Town Tavern.
Dorothy Benthal’s grandparents lived to be one hundred. Her dad, ninety. Her mom, eighty-eight. At eighty-three, Dorothy was en route to make it that far, too, but was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. She didn’t want chemotherapy, having seen it weaken her husband, so she changed her diet instead. She stopped eating sugar, meat, and dairy.
Thirty pounds lighter and cancer-free less than a year later, Dorothy whips a loaf of organic bread out of a freezer at CDR Naturals, Bourbon’s healthfood shop. People like Dorothy are enough to make one wonder if something super is in Bourbon’s water.
If any business helps Bourbonites live longer, it’s CDR Naturals. The shelves are ribboned with herbs, shampoos with avocado and bamboo, environment-friendly toilet paper, and something called “Uber Greens.”
Chuck Ray, who co-owns CDR with his wife, Donna, puts down the Uber Greens to talk to me.
Chuck and Donna never ate this healthily until Chuck and their son, Josh, were diagnosed with hypoglycemia. That’s when the trio cut white sugar and flour from their diets.
In 1995, the high-school sweethearts moved to Bourbon from St. Louis, opened a shop, and filled its shelves with items they’d researched and tested down their digestive tracts. In a town named for an inebriating indulgence, CDR Naturals was the first store of its kind.
CDR sits between two taverns, Uncle Ernie’s Bar and Town Tavern. But by the time I left to meet Phyllis Arnett for a bourbon, I hardly wanted any.
Two Bars and Twins
A glass of water collects condensation on the bar at Uncle Ernie’s Bar. This is not the first incarnation of this bar. The wood comes from a 1978 barn salvaged by owner Brian Hartung. The tin siding that holds up the bar comes from Mayor Leonard Armstrong. (That’s as close to having a drink with the mayor as I’ll get.)
Uncle Ernie exists. He’s seventy-one. No fewer than seven burgers are named for him. (One is for Ernie, Jr., his son.) Uncle Ernie—everyone calls him that—likes ordering the Original Big Ernie Burger. Hardly anything at Uncle Ernie’s comes without a half-pound of bacon.
“I’m just not sure how I want to die tonight,” Phyllis says, looking over the menu.
Brian has poured more than bourbon at Uncle Ernie’s. (Although if you visit, Evan Williams bourbon is the top seller and cheapest, so don’t be shy ordering the standard.) “Around here, it’s like Cheers,” Brian says. “Everybody says, ‘Hey!’ ”
Bourbon’s other tavern, Town Tavern, is also like Cheers. Behind a deceptively residential-looking unmarked white door lies a jubilee: food, drinks, balls knocking around pool tables, smoke billowing to the ceiling, and neon lights making shadows on couples dancing to rock and kids eating finger foods. When a good song comes on, pull your singing voice out of your gut—= because that’s what everyone else does. Town Tavern has been serving good times since before Prohibition.
“Officially, we didn’t serve during Prohibition,” owner Mike Vink says, grinning.
Bartender Sherrie Kempf-Belle puts a bourbon and soda in front of me and shows Phyllis and me competition awards from 2012: barbecue pork, barbecue ribs, and bloody Marys. Phyllis and I toast Bourbon, and as we do,
Sherrie checks her watch.
“They’re usually here by now,” she says cryptically. She means the ninety-year-old twins.
At mention of the centogenarians, I begin to think I should have had the water instead of the bourbon. There is something in this eight-hundred-foot deep aqua vitae. Real water of life.
Outside Town Tavern, Phyllis points out landmarks. An old jail across the street with the whitewashed ghost of a door. Beneath us, a sidewalk barely older than a toddler. It was poured by volunteers Mayor Armstrong recruited.
I finish my bourbon and soda. On a sidewalk the mayor helped create, I stood beside Phyllis, who knows enough people in Bourbon to qualify as ad hoc mayor, and I knew I had accomplished my mission as close as was going to be. Phyllis and I hugged.
“All the stories we heard today,” she started to say. “I never knew all of that. I’ve never been so proud of Bourbon.”