Out of the frying pan: 39 years at the Inn

Friday, November 16, 2012

In June of 1973, Dave Heilemann was working as a cook at the Coachlight Restaurant in Fayetteville. A 28-year-old with master's degree, he had a friend who had gotten a job in Eureka Springs at the Mount Air Lodge. So Heilemann came over and applied at lodge's restaurant, which had just moved from an log cabin by the waterwheel on the highway.

"It was called the Country Kitchen back then," Heilemann said.

On Wednesday, Heilemann retired after 39 years at the lodge, now the Inn of the Ozarks, where he started out as a line cook and ended up as part owner and manager in charge of day operations. On Nov. 21, Heilemann will fly to Hilo, Hawaii, then drive 20 miles south to Pahoa, where he has bought a house, and relax.

"I realized if I stayed, I'd work here to the day I died," Heilemann said. "I don't want to go out that way."

While he's only been there 39 years, Heilemann knows the history of the inn, which evolved from a gypsy camp into the largest hotel in town. Originally the site of the White Elephant campground, it became Camp Leath in 1920s, then Mount Air Camp in 1930. Photographs on the walls of the restaurant, now Myrtie Mae's, show tents and cabins on the site. In 1955, Jerry and Martha Newton bought the camp and turned into a motor court called the Mount Air Court.

"That's when the first brick building was built," Heilemann.

When Heilemann came to work in 1973, it was owned by David and Shirley Bird, who had bought it in 1967. They had added two more large blocks of rooms, the pavilion and the 'new' building housing the lobby, office and restaurant. Tourism was starting to boom, Heilemann said -- the Passion Play had started, and busloads of people came through town and ate in the restaurant.

"It was chaotic and it was busy," Heilemann said. "We'd do 400 a meal."

One reason is was chaotic is because staff kept quitting, he said, and you never knew who would show up. By the end of the year, he was promoted to kitchen manager, then food and beverage manager. Another block of rooms was added in 1976, and the convention center in 1977. A stand-out memory for Heilemann: the phone call he received telling him the convention center was on fire. Heilemann, who had worked the night shift and gone to bed, threw on some clothes, drove over and watched the building burn down. He spent the next weeks on the phone, frantically trying to reschedule meetings or find other places in town to take them.

"I never want to go through another year like that again," he said.

Heilemann doesn't have an unbroken record working at the inn. He quit twice-- once when the inn was sold to Landmark Hotel Corp., and again when its management convinced him to come back to work. It didn't last, and Heilemann went to work at the Holiday Inn in Russellville. A year later, the inn went on the block for back taxes, and Randy Wolfinbarger put together a group of seven investors, including Heilemann, who bid on it and won.

"Three of us went to work every day," Heilemann said.

The other two were Wolfinbarger, who is still general manager, and Ellen Summers, who is the bookkeeper. Summers, who started working at the inn as a waitress when she was 16, is the only other person who's been there longer than he has, Heilemann said. Molly Pinkley and Addie Miller have worked there 38 and 36 years respectively, he said, and other staff have been there 10 to 15 years, he said.

"We don't change staff like most places do," Heilemann said. "I think it's because it's a good place to work. It's not run from on high."

Originally from the Chicago suburbs of Glencoe and Skokie, Heilemann had honed his restaurant skills working his way through North Illinois University waiting tables and cooking in a sorority house. He came to Fayetteville in 1968 to do geologic mapping for his master's dissertation, and moved to Arkansas several years later. He remembers the first day he walked into the Mount Air Lodge and was offered a job by David Bird. He also has memories of celebrity guests through the years -- the security surrounding the visits of presidential offspring Steve Ford and Lynda Bird Johnson, the story he can't relate publicly about actor Pat Buttram, the actor who played Gene Autry's sidekick and Mr. Haney on 'Green Acres.'

"One time Art Garfunkel came in on his own and had breakfast," Heilemann said, adding that although the singer was older, it was pretty obviously him because of the hair. "He sat and stared out the window."

What Heilemann won't miss -- dealing with the small crises that come up on a day-to-day basis and having to make a decision, right or wrong. He's also bussed a lot of tables through the years, and cleaned rooms when he had to. But the pace has evened out -- the inn used be busy as hell from May to October, he said, then drop to nothing. During the winter, the restaurant was sometimes only open for dinner. He's also changed.

"I don't stress out as much as I used to," he said.

Jayne James is taking over as restaurant manger, Heilemann said. What he will miss: the staff, the restaurant regulars and the downtown business people.

"When you live in a place for 40 years, you get to meet a lot of people," he said. "Eureka Springs will always be a special place to me.

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