It had a strange pungent smell when you entered which I can still remember vividly today even though I haven’t been there in nearly forty years. I could never quite figure out exactly the origin of the odd smell, but it was part stale beer, part greasy spoon, and part blue collar sweat, since the patrons were mostly local farmers. But the smell grabbed you upon entering the establishment and told you where you were, which was rural America, circa 1980, inside Trader’s restaurant in Boone County, Kentucky. They say that sense of smell triggers strong memories, and I can absolutely confirm that belief, every time I walk into a greasy spoon I am reminded of Trader’s restaurant. It brings back fond memories of a simpler era gone by, before Facebook, before smart phones, before memes.
Restaurant may not be a totally accurate description of this establishment, though it did serve food. It was more of bar, or at times maybe a honky tonk, though this was before line dancing was a big thing. This was the era of classic country; Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Roy Clark, and Hee Haw. When you entered Trader’s you could either turn left to enter the dining section with a jukebox, or turn right and enter the bar. When we were with our Dad we always turned right, like fruit flies attracted to sugar water. It didn’t matter that we were young teenagers, the owner knew our parents, what church and school we attended, and she likely attended our baptism. The town was that small. There was an L-shaped counter with bar stools aligned underneath where you could sit and order lunch and a beer after a morning working in the fields. During a weekday lunch you had to be mindful not to sit in one of “regulars” seats, primarily Ed, Clarence, and Greg Boh. Ed and Clarence were brothers who ran a farm just a few miles up the road and Greg was the adult son of Ed. Greg was as they said at the time, a bit touched, or retarded, today we would call him mentally handicapped or severely disabled. I would estimate that Greg’s mental capacity was that of elementary school kid and much like Mike, from my Of Mike and Men blog. He was a very large man, at least 6 foot in height and weighing well over 200 pounds, who was a jolly and very kind-hearted person that wouldn’t hurt a flea. He wore thick lens glasses with heavy black plastic frames. In the Air Force we called then BCGs (Birth Control Glasses), because any girl in a right state of mind wouldn’t have anything to do with a GI wearing them. Every day he wore the same work uniform with heavy work boots, in fact that’s all I remember him wearing, even when he wasn’t working. He was always smiling and happy and everybody’s friend, and everybody was friendly to him in return, there is something to be said for that. Greg ordered the same thing every day for lunch, a Cheeseburger deluxe with fries, and a Barq’s red cream soda in a bottle. Today, I can’t drink a red crème soda without thinking about Greg; if only we had more people in the world with his kind demeanor. After hurriedly eating his lunch Greg would spend the rest of the lunch break looking at the extensive candy rack in display at Traders. When he stood in front of the candy rack with his mouth watering, he blocked everyone’s view with his extra wide girth and the other kids just waited patiently until he was done. He was indeed like a kid in the candy store, he just happened to be a grown man in his twenties.
In hindsight, I am not sure why a bar/restaurant also had a candy rack, maybe it was for the farmers to bribe their kids with candy while they downed a few beers with their friends, or maybe it was because Rose, the proprietor did it just for Greg, I’ll never know. But after excitedly perusing the candy rack for 5-10 minutes Greg would make a few selections for his daily treat and pay Rose with some change in his pocket. It was always a thrill for him.
When we were there for lunch, usually after spending the morning stripping Tobacco at Boh’s farm, we steered clear of the Boh’s seats and found an open stool at the bar counter. I would also order a Cheeseburger deluxe with fries and a soft drink, though I was more of a Dr. Pepper man. The Cheeseburger deluxe was Rose’s specialty and it was a huge gooey mountain of greasy meat topped with cheese and all of the fixings, no doubt the best burger I ever had. Most of the time however we visited Trader’s late Saturday afternoon after working at Seltman’s farm with my Dad. Us kids would order a soft drink, which was a big thrill for us since we didn’t get soda at home, and my Dad ordered his favorite beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, which is making a resurgence right now (but not sure why). I think America is nostalgic for simpler times, but I think we need to be a little more thoughtful on what we resurrect from the past. Stopping at Trader’s for a drink or three was my Dad’s main social event for the week so it was not a short excursion. He usually had 2-3 beers at a minimum, and spent the time talking politics and telling stories and jokes to the other patrons, and my Dad could tell stories like no other. Most of them were true, and they always ended with a hearty laugh and big sly mischievous smile from my Dad. We laughed too and so did Rose, even though we had heard them a dozen times before. If my dad got too long-winded, which was not uncommon, my brothers and I might wander back to the jukebox to see if they had any new tunes.
It was loaded with mostly country and a little bit of classic rock, no David Bowie I assure you. We didn’t have a lot of spare change, so we didn’t fill it up with much of our hard earnings, but occasionally on a whim we would load a few quarters and listen to a few songs. My brothers were into 70s classic rock, I was mostly an ELO and Cars type of guy. But Rose knew her audience well and there was rarely an offering that sparked my interest.
When it was time to go my Dad would settle-up with Rose, (cash of course) and direct one of his boys to grab a case of returnable Pabst Blue Ribbon quart bottles. Trader’s did not have much of a back room for beer storage, so most of the beer for sale was stacked along the walls as high as a young boy could see, for the patrons to pick up as they left for home. Each week we would drop off a heavy cardboard case of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon quart bottles and pick up a new case of full bottles. For dinner that evening my Dad would open the first quart of Pabst and have it finished by the end of the meal, he would then open a second while he watched Hee Haw in our family room, and at some point fall asleep in his chair. This routine was a given in our household, like the sun coming up each day or the change of seasons. The only variable was whether he would fall asleep before or after finishing the second quart of Pabst.
Rose, the proprietor of Trader’s, was a strong-minded and very able middle-aged single woman, with a quick wit and sharp tongue. She always greeted the regulars by their first name and knew their order, both food and drink, before they told her. I don’t recall why Rose was single, it was quite uncommon for a woman not to marry at that time. She may have lost a husband early in life, but I don’t remember any mention of a late husband, so I don’t know for sure. She may have been gay, but that wasn’t something you announced to the public in rural Kentucky in the 70’s. I do remember on one occasion a drunken patron making some crude comments about her never having “experienced” a man, but she had been running this bar for years and had heard worse, and she artfully dismissed the insensitive comment with a quick comeback that put him in his place. Rose could hold her own in a bar full of drunken louts. You might say she was a precursor to the feminist movement, running a bar/restaurant by herself and holding her own with a bunch of drunken men, but I am not sure if that is accurate. She was just an independent and successful woman, highly respected by all who knew her. I don’t know what you call that exactly, I think it is just being a good citizen and caring, competent human being, no labels needed.
She did have a few workers that would occasionally help her out in the kitchen, and on Sundays after Mass my Dad would drop a few of my brothers off at Trader’s and they would spend a few hours scrubbing the place clean. It was thankless work but much better than housing tobacco in scorching heat. My brothers did smell like bleach the rest of the day, but that was better than they (and I) smelled before our weekly Saturday evening bath.
One of my fondest memories was one dreary winter evening we stopped by Trader’s after a Winter hike near Big Bone and a country music singer was hanging out at the bar. After a few beers he brought out his guitar and he began to sing one country song after another in a rich baritone voice, with some humorous bantering between songs. I was mesmerized. Though not a huge fan of country music, sitting 15 feet away while he skillfully belted out a catalog of classic country hits was an experience I will never forget, and much like the SonVolt song Windfall the sweet music…it sounded like heaven. Ever since then I’ve been a huge fan of live music, it touches your soul. So next time you are out and about and need to grab lunch, do so at a local establishment, maybe a country singer will pop in and sing a few songs, your day will be much richer for it. Just be careful not to sit in the regulars’ seat.