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Eatery Roulette In Cache Junction, Utah

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 by Larry D. Christiansen

A description of the early public eating houses at Cache Junction can only be loosely told from the tidbits of information available from public and private sources, but an abbreviated rendition will be attempted to frame one of the most interesting cases, possibly even a classic, wherein the story of the venture was better than the food. But first a little background, starting with the first meals served to construction workers at the initial establishment of a railroad location just east of Bear River Canyon which in time received the name of Cache Junction. The primary gang of workers grading and laying track and other construction work for the new railroad route connecting it to the old established road had food provided for them except for smaller crews doing preparatory or finishing work away from the food service provided by the railroad. Even after the new tracks were in use and the rail center at Cache Junction in operation, food service for railroaders and passengers was little more than an afterthought, receiving little attention by the railroad company. Still, workers needed to be fed and in one way or the other efforts were expended to fill that need. While food service will be the main theme of this account, additional background information is required to place it in context for the times.

The first railroad to reach Cache Valley came in 1873 as a narrow-gauged line and after being taken over by the Union Pacific, the line was pushed on to Butte, Montana. In the 1880s increased business caused the railroad to purchase bigger and heavier locomotives, making it expedient to strengthen the roadbed and track along with converting the line to the broad or standard gauge providing an interchangeability of equipment. In addition, the railroad decided to shorten and improve the route of its track by going through Bear River gorge with a new route to McCammon, Idaho. The multi-staged process began with considerable preliminary work beforehand when on July 24, 1887, the shift over from narrow-gauge to broad-gauge took place on one day in which 262 miles of track from Pocatello, Idaho to Garrison, Montana was changed. The second phase entailed the conversion of the line from McCammon to Ogden during the summers of 1889 and 1890, which required a change of route over much of this road. In the Cache area the railroad in late 1889 and early 1890 secured the needed right-of-ways (usually strips of land ten rods wide) from all affected landowners, and included was the land of Henry Ballard's homestead in which the tracks must pass through plus a larger tract of land for the planned railroad center (a strip 400 feet wide). This Ballard land was possessed and run by two of Bishop Ballard's plural wives, Emily and Margaret, who lived on and ran the farms. In the spring of 1890 the work began in earnest and was being done from both ends. At the north the route from McCammon to Swan Lake was converted from narrow to broad gauge and thereafter a new route along the valley's west side to follow Bear River through its gorge. From the south the narrow-gauge was changed to broad gauge to Dewey and then a new road made to and through Bear River Canyon to meet the other end of the line.

A few specifics of this grading and laying of track from the North come from a lady in Trenton in letters to her brother in August of 1890. She wrote that as the railroad gang moved into Utah and passed by her place on the ninth of the month they were laying two miles of track per day. Two weeks later she wrote that the track layers had passed Trenton moving south but their cooking cars were still to the north with the workers riding eight or nine miles each day to get their meals. She observed that over 250 men were fed three meals each day prepared by a dozen cooks and some waiters. The local residents sold their milk and eggs to supply some of the food required, and she stated it took seventy-five dozen eggs for each meal. By mid-August the track-laying from the north reached to the designated junction location just 'this side of the narrows.' A few days later the railroad engineer reported making rapid progress with the track-laying crossing Bear River through Cache Junction and about to enter Bear River Canyon with only eleven miles to reach Deweyville. He reported that 'several parts of the new track have been laid between Deweyville and Ogden,' thus it wouldn't take long to finish the broad-gauge line. A Salt Lake newspaper announced this completion in the newspaper October 2nd with the railroad's plan for an immediate test run followed by regular service on the main line plus conversion of the Cache Valley Branch to broad-gauge before the end of October of 1890. Before the tracks reached the proposed rail center at Cache Junction, much preliminary planning and labor had been accomplished, for at minimum there had to be a bridge to cross Bear River, a depot, train yard, coal and watering facilities for the trains and other necessary structures. In a short time a branch line would be built south to Mendon, connecting the center to the functioning rail line in Cache Valley that became the Cache Valley Branch.

The various work and construction at Cache Junction took place before and after the track reached there and would continue for some time afterwards. Sometime during this work and while the workers did not have access to the railroad's cooking facilities on wheels, the foreman of a gang of workers went to the closest ranch nearby and begged Emily Ballard to prepare a hot noon meal for his workmen, which she finally consented to do. While it can only be speculated as the duration of this initial furnishing of meals, this cooking for pay undoubtedly led to her establishing her own eating house in the area a short time later. An early plat map of Cache Junction shows only the depot, a water tower, B & B [Bridge & Building] House, the coaling-shed and a small freight building. A later plat map, showing the situation after 1910, included a 'lunch bldg.,' and many other structures. At all times the key center was the depot, and initially it was a small structure that had to be enlarged within a few years. The earliest known picture shows a number of people along the side of the depot facing the main tracks with the out-set portion of the structure (with bay windows for the station master to observe for oncoming trains) approximately in the middle and the depot was not very long. It would be another fifteen years before the railroad had a separate facility for eating at Cache Junction.

As Cache Junction became established, eating places for railroad workers and passengers came into the picture early. In early January of 1891 the Cache County Court granted a license to 'conduct a lunch stand at Cache Junction' to Mrs. George Molla for a fee of $5.00 per quarter. Very likely this lunch counter could have been in the waiting room of the depot for at this time the Union Pacific's Oregon Short Line contracted with others to provide food services along its lines. At the same time another man applied for a license to conduct a 'boarding house' at a rate of $10.00 per quarter, but no further action was taken on this and man set up a store and postal facility instead. The small fees for a lunch stand ($5) and boarding house ($10) per quarter were inexpensive compared to a saloon license which was granted at this time fixed at $750.00 per year. A month later in early February of 1891, Emily M. Ballard, who had earlier fed railway men, received a license to establish a 'boarding and lodging house' at Cache Junction at a rate of $10.00 per quarter. Mrs. Ballard borrowed some money from her brother and had a building constructed east of the main line track directly east of the depot. This structure also became the permanent residence for Emily and her children who now operated their farm and a business, where Emily and her children served meals to those wanting food. There exists an old photograph of Mrs. Ballard and her family posed in front of the eating place that had four windows and the front door facing the railroad tracks with the establishment's name 'Railroad Eating House' painted in large letters directly onto the frame building upper false front. Stories by family and friends relate Mrs. Ballard usually served twenty regular railroad men plus some passengers, and her customers had their fill for fifty cents per meal which included large trays of meats and vegetables and treats such as ice cream. About a decade after starting this business her health began to fail as she suffered from cancer until her death on May 7, 1903, in the house where she lived and worked. Probably her business ended in late 1902 or early 1903, and very likely her establishment was taken over by J. Briggs who operated an eatery during part of 1903 and into 1904.

The intervening years after 1891 probably saw other eating businesses attempted beyond the lunch stand or counter and Mrs. Ballard's Restaurant Eating House. In June of 1902, the Oregon Short Line announced that beginning the first of July they would stop the leasing of hotels and eating houses to contractors and soon thereafter the railroad would operated them. In the announcement it spelled out that the facilities at Pocatello, Cache Junction and Glenn's Ferry and 'elsewhere' would follow this change. No known listing or directory for Cache Junction exists for 1903, but the one for 1904 lists only a restaurant for J. Briggs and another for Mrs. B. F. Hottle. In 1905 Mrs. Hottle still ran her restaurant and for the first time there was a listing for the 'Oregon Short Line restaurant' positioned on railroad property between the various tracks situated the closest to the trains and depot. By May 1, 1903, there existed another eating establishment mentioned in a Logan newspaper under that date stating: 'Call on our new restaurant, second door south of the Post Office when you feel hungry. Good square meals.' Into this mix with more gaps than facts came an interesting first hand account of eating, or attempting to, in one of Cache Junction's eating houses. The story was published on the front page of a Logan newspaper on March 3, 1903, under the title 'A Good Story,' and so it was and it was better than the hoped-for food. The complete account as written by an unnamed source with a sub-tile of 'Told at the Expense of the Station at Cache Junction' went as follows:

'I see'' said Will T. Sprowl of Denver, who is registered at the Windsor, 'that they
have stopped gambling in Salt Lake City and that no one is permitted to gamble for
money any more. I hope that this reform movement will strike Cache Junction, where
they play roulette to get their meals.'

'Back up!' chortled a large gentleman with a Henry Clay nose; 'you don't mean to
say that they are hard up for money down there, do you?'

'I mean just what I say. Before you can get a meal at Cache Junction you have got
to be an expert roulette player, or you dont [sic- don't] get anything.'

'Show us!' chorused the crowd.

'It's just this way: I had to go to Logan a few days ago on business, but when I got to
Cache Junction I found that the train was late and that I would have to be there a number
of hours. I saw a restaurant sign near the depot and, being hungry I went in. There were
several people sitting around the stove, but I saw no signs of a dinner, table or waiters. In
the center of the room there was a table with a wheel pivoting on its center, and divided
into compartments. I couldn't think what the thing was for, so I sat down by the stove
with the others and waited for dinner to appear. I didn't have to wait long, for a door in
the back of the room opened and a girl came in with a tray on which was a number of large
dishes filled with eatables. As she appeared in the room the natives left their positions
around the stove and drew up around the table. Thinking that something had probably
happened to the regular dining table and that they were using the roulette wheel arrange-
ment for a makeshift, I followed suit and fell into the circle. Then before my astonished
eyes the girl proceeded to fit each plate of eatables into a compartment and clamp it in
there. I wanted to ask what it all meant, but the others didn't seem to see anything out of
the ordinary in it, and so I waited for further developements [sic]. After placing the
food the girl picked up a pile of plates and distributed them around the table. This done,
she grasped a bundle of forks and, walking into a gap in the circle, said to the man at her
right, 'How many?'

'Three,' he replies laconically, and handed her 30 cents, receiving a fork in return. She
went the rounds of the table, each man naming three or four and giving her 10 cents for
each number. When she got to me, though I didn't know what the game was, I told her six,
and for my 60 cents got a fork. I noticed that each man had his fork poised in his right
hand and had an expectant eye fixed on the wheel, so I did the same. The girl having
distributed the forks and collected the money, leaned over the table and grasped a spindle
on top of the wheel. 'All ready?' she inquired in a tired voice.

'Yep,' came the answer, and before I could see what was coming that wheel was flying
around, and meat, potatoes, turnips, bread and butter went sailing past me in quick
succession. I gasped and looked around, and there were the other guests, each rapidly
spearing from the flying wheel the eatables they wanted, and the girl was in the 'lookout'
chair seeing that nobody got more than he had paid for. I was sitting there gazing on the
flying wheel, with my mouth wide open, when the man next, who had been successful,
nudged me. 'Better sail in, pardner,' [sic] he said, 'and get the play on your money. Play
10 cents each on the meat and vegetables and a white chip on the bread and butter.' In
a dazed way I lunged with my fork for the meat and lost. The same fate pursued me in my
effort to land the other eatable, and I was just going to try again when the girl in the
'lookout' chair bawled me out. 'Stranger, you've lost your stack,' she said. 'Better buy
another if you want to eat. Grub for money and money for grub. You pays your money
and you takes your choice. That's the rule of the house.' Well, do you know, I bought
another dollar's worth and played them in, but didn't win a thing. Another dollar followed,
and then I bought $5 worth. The other people had finished by this time and left me sitting
there playing away for something to eat. The hungrier I got, the more interesting the game.

I forgot family, home and friends in the mad excitement of the game. Before my feverished [sic]
eyes there swam a multitude of dishes heaped with viands. Talk about Tantalus! I was beginning
to feel that I could not lift my arm for another attempt when the 'lookout' got out
of her chair and stopped the wheel. 'Time to close the house,' she announced; 'come again tomorrow.'

I staggered to a chair by the window and looked out. When I had started to
play it was high noon and the sun was shining. Now a gray pallor was stealing over the
landscape and the wind whistled mournfully. I felt lonely, also very hungry, and I groaned audibly.

The girl engaged in clearing off the cursed table, turned and looked at me for a moment,
doubtfully. Then she spoke. 'It's plumb against the rules,' she said, 'but I guess you are
entitled to something on the house.' She handed me a piece of bread and butter. This
unexpected kindness was too much for me and I broke down and sobbed. 'Don't cry,' said
the girl, sweetly; 'you ain't robbed us. I guess the $7.80 you spent will cover everything.'

Cramming the piece of bread into my pocket, I rushed out into the darkness. Later on, while
waiting for my train, I stealthily ate it.

A genial barber in Logan read the story of the roulette wheel with interest and wrote to the newspaper confirming the existence to the whirling food service and added a little information as follows: 'It takes a man who has bucked up against that proposition to appreciate the article thoroughly,' said he. 'I've been there myself and have made many a dab for pie and gigged a potato, and likewise went after a potato and meat and got sponge cake and pickles. It's a great game though, and there is enough excitement about it to pay you if you lose. It's merely a question of a man's arm working in conjunction with his eye and thinking apparatus, and every fellow has equal chances with the other. That wheel has been there many years and has been the source of much amusement and many temporary disappointments,' said he, 'and it will probably continue for some time as of old.' Using the above information on the eatery and Mrs. Ballard's health we can probably eliminate her business and Oregon Short Line Restaurant, and the new restaurant mentioned in the newspaper as being two doors from the post office does not fit the story's location of the roulette near the depot. Besides the latter served 'Good square meals,' which was not the case at the 'flying wheel' place. Apparently the roulette service was either at Mrs. Hottle or J. Briggs' restaurants across from the depot.

Whatever, the facility was still operating in late June of 1903 when a man from Salt Lake tried his luck or a copycat took his turn with a pen. Once again the author's own words are given as he wrote his story published on page three of the Salt Lake Herald entitled 'Tried Chance At Food Roulette' followed by three subtitles''Salt Laker Plays Game; Gets No Meal' / 'Misses the Sandwiches' / 'Loses On Pie And Other Things, And Quits.' The author's original tale, perhaps influenced to some degree by the March story above, is here repeated word for word as follows:

In this age of invention there are many novelties, but the newest out is the
'roulette lunch counter.' A hungry Salt Laker, who tried to get a meal in Cache
Junction yesterday, was steered against this new invention, and he is fully
convinced that it is the greatest game going. He had heard of nickel-in-the-slot
restaurants and had eaten hamburgers from a lunch car window, but never before
had he been up against a roulette wheel for his daily portion of the staff of life.

If he gets no more than he got then, he will probably never 'go against' one again.

The counter is constructed and operated on the roulette plan. He found it to be
a case of play your money on the ham sandwich, and it came potatoes. As he
expressed it: 'You take a chance at the revolving table with a fork, and if you are
lucky you may get a doughnut or your fingers in the butter, if not, you pay your
money to the pretty waitress, get a smile for your resemblance to a certain fish
[sucker], and go away with an empty feeling under your belt.'

The Salt Laker had made a long trip on the road and arrived in Cache Junction
with a large-sized appetite. From a little shanty hung the pretentious sign,
'Restaurant.' His appetite would have stood pork and beans, and as the train had
to wait there some time, he decided to take a chance on the country cafe. What he
discovered when he went into the 'restaurant' made him wonder how many
'fingers' he had called for the last time. In the center of the room stood a table
poised on a post, much after the order of a roulette wheel. Around it was a
stationary counter and stools to sit on. The revolving table was a double-decker
and divided off into sections corresponding to the colors on a wheel. In these
various sections were placed plates containing bread, sandwiches, pie, doughnuts,
potatoes, cold meats and various other articles of food. A trim maiden with a coy
smile stood at the cash drawer and operated the machine.

The Salt Laker sized up the situation, and although he had some doubts about
picking up any 17 to 1 shot bets on that kind of layout, decided to take a chance.

'What will you have?' asked the waitress, as she bestowed her most bewitching
smile upon the tenderfoot.

Buys Chance on Sandwich.
'I'll take a ham sandwich,' replied the Salt Laker.

'Ten cents, please,' said the maiden.

The Salt Laker put his dime on the board and took a fork from the girl.
'Here it comes,' laughed the girl, as she gave the table a turn and sent the
sandwich plate whirling around towards the place occupied by the Salt Laker. The
latter saw a white streak fly by, made a desperate dive at the table with his fork and
fetched up with a small bunch of potatoes on the fork prongs.

'You lose,' laughed the girl, as she raked the dime into the cash drawer. 'What
will you try now?'

The Salt Laker 'tried' to crush that 30-cent feeling that was creeping up his back,
as he gazed around and noticed the smiles of amusement on the faces of several
loungers, and replied, 'I guess I'll try some pie this time.' He swore under his
breath that he would get that pie if he had to stop the table to do it. He got ready.

He saw the piece of pastry coming his way. He made a grab for the plate. Alas!
His fingers dived into the butter bowl, and the pie spun merrily on.

'Lost again,' said the waitress, with a smile, and again raked in the dime.
'Better luck next time,' she ventured, in a reassuring tone.

Spend $1.50; Gets Nothing.
But so far as results were concerned the Salt Laker didn't see where the luck came
in. When he had tried for everything, from ham sandwiches to doughnuts, without
getting even so much as a smell of limburger, he decided that he was up against a
brace game, and quit. As he marched into the dining car of the train a half hour later
and ordered a top sirloin, he entered this item upon his memorandum book:
'Spent $1.50 for meal I didn't get.'

"When the Salt Laker told the story of his experience in his home city his friends
asked him what brand he was smoking now. However, he vouches for the story.

The table was made to operate as it does simply to save time and the expense of
waitresses. It was intended, it had been learned, that those who ate there should sit
down and turn the table themselves until they get what they want. That is the way
it is operated by the 'star boarders,' but when tourists come through they must take
their chances according to roulette rules.

While it was possible that the person writing the second story had no knowledge of the first man's story, either written or communicated orally, the similarities are striking. If no the other hand the second writer either had read or knew of the earlier written story, he wrote of his experience acting as though he had no such knowledge. Each wrote his tale at his own expense whereby he was the fall guy or sucker with tongue in cheek in a doleful hungry way, and unquestionably both were written to be published. Both saw it as a gambling experience similar to playing roulette with excitement in playing it. However, attention should be called to several items of difference. The first writer played the losing game for about half a day, expended $7.80 without getting any food, with the game called by the establishment at closing time. The second writer played a much shorter time, and he quit 'the greatest game going' after spending $1.50 without success, and offered more explanations. He saw the new fast food service as designed to save time and expense with fewer needed employees. Moreover, and belatedly, he explained, this novel food service was 'intended' to have each customer turn the table to the particular food he desired and serve himself, which the 'star boarders' usually did. However, when novice newcomers ('tourists') came in, a staged production was experienced under the rule of food roulette, which had the makings of a wild and woolly food stabbing ordeal akin to a free-for-all except for the charge. In addition this writer had to vouch for the truthfulness of his story when he arrived back in Salt Lake as his friends questioned his account, thinking he was high on something other than the truth.

This amusing story in the Salt Lake newspaper elicited only one known response a few days later which without details stated: 'People who go against that food roulette wheel at Cache Junction certainly depend upon chance for a livelihood.' Adding to the reasons cited earlier that this roulette service must have been at either the establishment operated by Mrs. Hottle or J. Briggs, was the detail that Mrs. Ballard had lost her long battle with cancer and had died and buried over a month before the second writer's experience. Perhaps as the new roulette food service became better known, the novelty and excitement around it could have been a drawing card for a time. By early September of 1903 a Cache Junction news item in the Logan paper told of two people returning from a two-month vacation to take charge of the lunch counter but with the unwelcome news: 'Alas for Cache Junction, it has lost its restaurant. No more warm meals at all hours.' This can be interpreted two ways; the food roulette had ended or the whirling food was not warm and/or only available during restricted hours.

Additional wondering about the roulette server could be if there was any connection to a local Cache Valley invention called the 'Handy Table.' In 1891 the Harris Brothers firm in Logan came forth with a piece of household furniture that consisted of an ordinary circular table with an additional revolving smaller table attached to the larger stationary table, whereby. the food could be placed on the revolving center table with the idea of eliminating the necessity of one person waiting on the table by each eater turning the table to the food item they wanted. The Logan firm made this type table and patented it, and one of the brothers went to the East with the firm's 'table server,' hoping to interest some of the heavy manufacturers in it. Some six months later there arrived in Logan from the East a railroad car of 'Self Waiting Dining Tables' and were available for sale at Harris Brothers' music store and at T. B. Cardon's. The promotional advertisements for it stated: 'The 'Waiter' is a round platform thirty inches in diameter and is raised about one inch above the table. It turns in the centre of a round table fifty-eight inches in diameter. The eatables are all placed on the 'Waiter.' It saves passing hot, heavy, or full dishes, or passing your plate to be served.' In late December of 1891 'The Harris Self-Waiting Table Co.' was sold to the Farmington Commercial & Manufacturing Company of Davis County. During the last few days before the New Year, the Harris Bros. Music store was giving a self waiting table to everyone purchasing an organ from their music store. Very likely the Cache Junction roulette restaurant used the idea or concept of the Harris Self-Waiting Table, enlarging an adaptation of it to suit their situation.

The man who responded to the first article thought the roulette service would probably continue for 'some time as of old.' In 1905 Mr. Briggs business interests moved to Trenton then booming and he apparently gave up the restaurant in Cache Junction. The Oregon Short Line Railroad has a 'lunch bldg.,' constructed directly south of the depot in 1905-06 where it initiated a food service at all hours of every day along with being closest to the tracks, making it difficult for others to compete with it. It appears that the roulette food table didn't whirl much, if any, after 1904 and possibly ended the previous year.


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Updated: 11 Jun 2011

Copyright 2011 by Larry D. Christiansen
Produced for Cache Co. UTGenWeb