Photo courtesy of Eureka Springs Historical Museum
This week, we will focus on a site in Eureka Springs that most are familiar with and
have stopped to enjoy some of the best fried chicken ever known to man: Best Western
Inn of the Ozarks/Myrtie Mae’s Café.
On one of the westernmost ridges in the town of Eureka Springs lay a campground
first opened in 1910s. The Tower Heights Park Campground, established in 1914 by
Sam Leath, had places to pitch your tent around a large concrete-floored pavilion that
had, among its amenities, kitchen equipment, including refrigerators. It only cost a
quarter to stay the night.
Before the end of the 1920s, Leath had converted his property into Camp Leath,
believed to be Eureka Springs’ first motor court. From the west, motorists would enter
under an archway, check in with the management, and claim a cabin for the night or
week. The little log cabins weren’t very elegant, but sleeping in a bed under a roof sure
beat sleeping on the ground under the stars.
There was a woman who lived next door who vested a stake in Camp Leath. Her
name was Myrtie Mae Barrett. Myrtie Mae was a widow, with six mouths to feed, and
she saw an opportunity. After trying out her idea with a couple of test runs, she opened
her own dining room to strangers, advertising with a board nailed to a tree near the
camp’s entrance the kitchen’s offering of ‘Home-Style Chicken Dinners.’
She served the same thing for lunch and dinner each day: fried chicken, vegetables,
mashed potatoes, rich cream gravy, homemade jams and jellies and hot homemade
bread with fresh-churned butter. She learned how to make things happen quickly.
She could open the door, count the travelers, invite them in and take of through the
house to the back, where she kept the chickens. She could quickly catch, pluck and
prepare a chicken and have it on the table in about 30 minutes.
In 1938, when the property was taken over by Mr. and Mrs. R.C. Barbee, Camp
Leath’s name was changed to Camp Mount Air. In 1955, Jerry and Martha Newton
bought the camp and turned it into Mount Air Court, replacing the cabins with a motor
court in which every room was built into a strip of rooms and each guest room had its
own bathroom, with free TV in the rooms, and a heated swimming pool. When it was
purchased by Dave and Shirley Bird in 1967, the Mount Air Café restaurant became
Country Kitchen a few years later in 1972. And in 1977, the Mount Air Court was
franchised by the owners to a national motel chain, and the Best Western Inn of the
Ozarks was born.
The restaurant came a long way from the days of Myrtie Mae’s dining room table,
but it never diverted from the cuisine she introduced to all those travelers. In 1992,
the name of the restaurant was officially changed to Myrtie Mae’s, which it’s known as
today. Folks still come in for that fried chicken, as well as a very hearty breakfast, and
a magnificent salad bar.
— Stephanie Stodden, Museum Operations Manager