THE BROOKS HOTEL
When Edna Geisy and Gladys Rasmussen go out for dinner,
they don't order fried chicken much any more. All too often, in their opinion,
it just doesn't measure up to the version they cooked up in their own kitchen,
every Sunday, for nearly 60 years. Edna, 92, and Gladys, 84, perfected the
art of fried chicken during the glory days of the Corvallis' Brooks Hotel,
the stately old yellow and cream Victorian that graces the corner of Willow
Creek Road and the Eastside Highway.
Each Sunday fro 1916 to 1975, hungry diners came from
miles around to enjoy the family-style cuisine, the warm hearth and the family
atmosphere made famous by the Brooks clan. And while a whole new generation
of Bitter Root residents has never ever heard of the "Brooks girls," Edna
and Gladys still like to reminisce about the made-from-scratch meals for 30
they cooked up each Sunday morning for much of their lives.
"I don't think we could have done it if we hadn't been
happy with it," said Edna, reflecting on the many hours of hard work over
a hot wood stove. The Brooks Hotel began in 1916, quite by accident, according
to Edna. Her father had purchased the home for his family of six - another
child would be born later - and, as the delivery man who ferried both the
mail and passengers between Woodside and Corvallis via horse drawn buggy,
he found himself offering an extra room in his spacious home to a traveling
salesman one afternoon.
That's all it took. Before long, all three extra rooms
in Louis and Lulu Brooks' house were taken up with lodgers, sometimes with
as many as four men in a room. "And, of course they had to eat," said Gladys.
So the tiny Brooks kitchen began turning out home cooked meals for boarders.
At 50 cents for a night's lodging and 25 cents for dinner, it wasn't a bad
investment for a travel-weary salesman.
The Sunday fried chicken dinners were soon to follow.
Lulu Brooks and her daughters Edna, Gladys Inez (for a while), and Lois (until
she moved out) hadn't ever been introduced to the shortcuts of fast food cooking.
From slaughtering and plucking the chickens on Saturday afternoon to setting
the long dining room table with white linen tablecloths, flowered china,
and the family's best silver, the meals were 100% homemade. "There were always
two vegetables, potatoes and gravy, and one or two salads," said Gladys.
"And, it was all family style."
As their clientele grew, so did the Brooks garden, and
that meant everyone pitched in to hoe and harvest. Edna's grandson, Roger
Geisy, who now lives in Whitefish, remembers summer stays at Gramma's usually
meant shucking peas, peeling potatoes and ducking in and out of a steamy kitchen
every Sunday morning. "You worked hard as a kid, but you always sat down
to a good meal, that's for darn sure," he recalled.
Everything on the table came out of the Brooks' garden,
pantry or fruit cellar. Canning 135 quarts of peaches during a season wasn't
uncommon, and Gladys estimated the between peaches, pears, apricots, pickles,
plums, beans, tomatoes and corn relishes, the family canned well over 1,000
quarts every year. "We'd make jam four gallons at a time," said Gladys. We
finally bought a large enamel baby bathtub for making it in."
Edna's specialty was the chicken. She rolled it in flour
and, using lard she'd rendered herself out of pork rinds from the pigs she
raised, fried it in a 14-inch covered skillet. That was her secret to moist,
tender chicken. Her recipe evolved from years of practice. "You don't do it
right all of a sudden," she said. "You have to learn gradually."
Gladys would churn out a hundred-plus rolls and six pies
every week. If the pies were open-face, she'd make the crusts on Saturday.
Otherwise, it was all made fresh every Sunday morning.
In February 1958, Mrs. Brooks died and Edna and Gladys
weren't sure they could continue the hotel and meals by themselves. "We thought
we'd work until July and then quit," said Edna. "But we worked for 17 more
years after Mama died." And by the time they retired in 1975, their Sunday
dinners were so popular that only those with early reservations were lucky
enough to share in the weekly ritual. Many kept coming back, attributable
to the homy surroundings, the delectable aromas, the chance to mingle with
the cooks in the busy kitchen prior to mealtime, the bowls piled high with
real potatoes - peeled, cooked and mashed - and the two grandmotherly cooks
who made sure all the serving dishes were bottomless.
Edna and Gladys, both widowed, now live in the 98-year-old
Victorian house they inherited from their mother. It is till known locally
as the Brooks Hotel, though it has long since ceased to be one. Edna keeps
busy crocheting for grandchildren, Gladys likes to follow the horse races
and they both still like a good game of bridge. While they don't miss the
hours of cooking, they don't regret them either. "We just all worked as a
family," said Gladys. "It was a good life."
The Missoulian, September 19, 1992
The Bitter Root View