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The Midget Malt Shop

July 10th, 2012 at 11:49 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

The Midget Malt Shop was in the small building on the left.

(Originally published in July 2006)


The decision of the day: chocolate almond or chocolate chip?

On a hot Saturday afternoon, Dave and I visited Braum’s for an ice cream cone. Ice cream is fine, but of all the desserts I crave, this isn’t one of them—unless, of course, you’re offering homemade vanilla ice cream. That, I love.

To me, ice cream has always seemed like more of an activity than a treat. I never keep any in our freezer, but occasionally, Dave and I will visit an ice cream shop.

Maybe the idea of going out for ice cream started at a young age.

When I was in grade school, a new place opened in our town of 400 residents. First of all, businesses didn’t open in Pawnee Rock, they closed.

But one summer, Frank Jones and his wife started a place in town called The Midget Malt Shop. They didn’t sell midget-sized malts, but the concrete-block building they occupied was very tiny—not much bigger than, oh, a jail cell.

Now, if you’re an 8-year-old kid and your only shopping opportunity in town is at the gas station or the grocery store and the only items of interest in these places are candy and gum, then you’re thrilled when another option becomes available.

Now we could buy ice cream and snow cones. So this was big.

We had a place to go in Pawnee Rock, a destination.

Under the shade of a cottonwood tree, the malt shop sat at an intersection near the highway. A window air conditioner hung outside the building, humming and rattling as air conditioners do, but it was apparently not very effective at cooling the place. Frank’s face was usually dotted with sweat.

To order, a person could either walk or drive up next to the small white building.

When I ordered a cone, Frank slid open the glass and the screen and delivered the vanilla ice cream. Rivulets of milk streamed down the cone and onto my hand. It’s difficult to keep up with an ice cream cone in July.

In addition to an ice cream maker, the Midget Malt Shop had a grill and a deep fryer. That meant hamburgers and French fries. We’d hit the jackpot.

While many small communities have restaurants, Pawnee Rock did not. As I recall, during my 18 years in town, one restaurant opened and it only stayed in business for about three months.

Well, I suppose you could count Betty’s Café as a dining establishment. I was in the building from time to time when I was very young. During his work breaks, my dad and I would sit at the counter and we’d each drink a bottle of pop.

Betty’s Café was a tavern frequented mostly by older men. In fact, it seemed to be for men only, with the exception, of course, of Betty.

But the tavern did have a grill and she probably fixed burgers or made grilled-cheese sandwiches for the regulars who drank Schlitz beer.

With the opening of the malt shop, Pawnee Rock had its very own take-out place. Hamburgers sold for 25 cents apiece, which in those days was more than my mother was usually willing to consider.

But several times mom caved in to my begging. She sent me running the two blocks to the Malt Shop with a dollar and three pennies in my hand, to buy four hamburgers for the family supper.

I think the place only stayed open for two summers.

The Midget Malt Shop may have been a failed business venture, but for a brief moment in time it gave us a place to go for ice cream and hamburgers.

And in a small town, that was a mighty big thing.

columns, life on the ground, nostalgia, small towns

  1. Leon Miller
    July 12th, 2012 at 10:03 | #1

    Across the street from The Midget Malt Shop, and years before its time was a combination diner, gas station, ice cream parlor and beer hall. In May, 1956, I came home from my final semester at Fort Hays State University, waiting to enroll at The University of Kansas School of Architecture the fall semester. My Dad told me about an opportunity that had just opened up in town that involved re-opening a business in the building at the corner of Centre and US Hwy 56. The guy who had been there suddenly died of a heart attack and
    no one was around to take his place. My Dad asked me if I’d like to try my hand at running a business. Actually, he was hoping I’d stay home and take over the Miller Oil Company, where he’d spent his whole life. He owned and supplied the Mobilgas to the pumps in front of the station, so had an incentive to get a friendly face in there to take over the station. Being young (22) and ambishious, I accepted the challenge and proceeded to work hard and built up a reputation of having delicious and GIANT size hamburgers, along with soda pop, ice cream and beer. I did something the previous owner had never thought of; I gave super service to all my customers which included washing windshields, checking air in tires as well as oil in the crankcase – oh, and I pumped gas into their gas tank. This was all running smoothly until the end of August, there was a lady in Great Bend, who had an independent gas station (Hudson Oil Company),and decided she was going to start a “gas war” by dropping her prices to $0.05 a gallon BELOW what I was paying,(which at the time was $0.18/gallon).
    This convinced me the opportunity was dying, so I quickly held a “FIRE SALE”, got rid of my stock and headed to KU for the fall semester – which turned out to be one of the smartest moves I’ve made in my lifetime.

    A Pawnee Rock buddy of your dad, Elgie

    Leon Miller

  2. J.P.
    July 12th, 2012 at 14:01 | #2

    A great article Cheryl, and as a bonus Leon’s story!

  3. roger hanhardt
    July 15th, 2012 at 05:29 | #3

    I started high school in Pawnee Rock in 1960, and the station Leon is talking about (later Dorothy Bowman’s antique shop, now P Lee’s antiques) was owned by a gentleman by the name of Louis Swoboda. I don’t remember if he still had gas, but he had a fine tavern and hamburger. You sat at a horseshoe shaped bar. He was a big man and wore whites like a baker including the hat. His daughter worked with him, and she was Betty. After Louis died, Betty moved to that building to the north. She also had a good burger. I ate at Louis a lot my first two years of school, because on basketball game night, I did not drive home the 14 miles to Albert, but stayed in PR killing time. Many fond memories from those days. Roger Hanhardt

  4. Rick Clawson
    July 15th, 2012 at 16:26 | #4

    My only memory of the Midget Malt Shope was after buying a chocolate shake and walking home with it, I traded the shake to my brother for a bologna sandwich. I know it sounds like my brother made out big time, but I chose bologna over a chocolate shake that day. LOL! There was a diner inside the Pawnee Inn during our early years with a very cosey dining area with red checkered table cloths. I remember it was a boon for the farmers during one wheat harvest, but I don’t recall it staying in business very long. Also, when Jack Snavely was the Jr High coach the players would have dinner at the Pawnee Inn on game nights when the games were played in town. I guess it was a part of the athletic budget while he was there, but when he left after my 7th grade year we did not eat there anymore. Perhaps this was in leiu of the high school closing.

  5. July 7th, 2013 at 01:56 | #5

    My father was Betty’s brother, and we ofter spent a weekend visiting the kin back home in Pawnee. He and Betty were pretty close. But mostly I remember being dumped at the cafe to entertain myself while my dad did whatever mysterious family business had built up in his absence. Betty would let me fill and wipe the jars, roll the napkins, entertain her dog. When she got tired of me being underfoot, she’d had me a couple of rolls of coins and i’ll direct the music jukebox offering for the afternoon and training for the world olympic pinball champions. i can still play a mean pinball. Betty was a kind person but she brooked no bull. We called her uncle Betty most of the time and she didn’t mind. She was fun, honest, treated you as well as you deserved, which worked out well. I wonder today if she’d have been considered trangendered instead of lesbian. I am in aw at here comfort with who she was– it couldn’t have been easy during those times. She’s sort of a personal hero for showing how one can be oneself without apology. that’s for helping keep her memory and legacies growing. i liked the pickled eggs but never could get myself to try the pickled pigs feet.

  6. July 7th, 2013 at 07:47 | #6

    How nice to hear from you, Jana! Did you live near Pawnee Rock? Betty was an enigma to me. As a kid, I wanted to ask, “Why is that man named Betty?” I don’t think anyone ever gave her any problems – and she was accepted – she stayed in business for years.

  7. Jana
    July 8th, 2013 at 18:30 | #7

    Hi Cheryl:
    Rereading that– sorry about the typos; hope it made some sense anyway. No, we lived in Topeka, and now I live in the Northwest. I’d like to see Pawnee again someday but don’t expect that will happen unless I do a cross country road trip. I really enjoy your writing. Thanks again for keeping the history alive.