Looking Back

Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Myrtie Mae ?

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

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