ASHLAND – It was a place where families gathered for a meal cooked from scratch, teenagers crowded into booths after basketball games to play their favorite tunes on the jukebox and locals met to share gossip, a cup of coffee and a fresh donut.
Granny’s Café held a lot of memories for Ashland residents, as did its predecessor, the Calumet Café. The building that housed these two local eateries was burned down on Saturday by the Ashland Volunteer Fire Department as part of a training exercise.
A small number of vehicles parked along a side road off of Highway 6 to watch Saturday morning as at first wisps of smoke floated from the building around 8 a.m., later as flames reached high into the sky and finally as the remains of the building fell in a smoldering heap.
According to the Ashland Historical Society, C.B. “Bert” and Florence O’Kane Martin purchased land at 202 Highway 6 to build a new café in 1932. The Martins had a restaurant on 14th Street in downtown Ashland, but wanted to take advantage of the new Highway 6 route, which was busy with traffic.
The name Calumet was chosen in part because it fit beneath a used lighted sign the Martins purchased that displayed the name “Rainbow.”
The popular eatery became host to cast parties after plays staged in Hoffman’s Auditorium. After the last of the play’s three-night performances, the Martins would close down the café and invite the cast to dine on oyster stew.
The Calumet Café also became the “hang out” for local teenagers after high school sporting events. The eatery would fill up with groups of youngsters who eagerly forked over their coins to play songs on the miniature juke boxes in each booth.
The first chef at the Calumet was Lyle DeMoss, who was later became one of the Omaha area’s most popular radio and TV personalities. Not long after leaving the café, DeMoss went to work for WOW radio.
Bert and Florence’s sons, Glenn, Lloyd and Merle, helped run the popular restaurant, along with their daughters, Ethel, Ruth and Mae.
Merle was known for his debonair good looks. He attracted many customers to the café with his charming personality, according to the historical society. A couple of these customers happened to be movie stars.
In 1938, Spencer Tracy and a young Mickey Rooney were in Nebraska filming “Boys Town.” Somehow, Merle became acquainted with the two actors and other members of the film crew and invited them to Ashland. They drove to the Calumet Café for a meal, but Tracy remained in his car while ate his food in order to not create a stir with his stardom.
Bert died in 1937 and Merle was killed overseas while serving in World War II. As her other sons and daughters started families and careers of their own, Florence sold the café in 1944.
For a period of time, the building was not used as a café. Local history shows it was an auction house at one point. But in 1972, Bill and Lois Christ bought the building and turned it back into a restaurant. The name “Granny’s Café” came from a friend of the owner’s daughter.
Bill Christ worked at Lincoln Water Works, right across the highway from the Calumet, and would come in at 2:30 a.m. to make donuts. On his lunch hour from his full-time job, he would wash dishes at the café.
Seven years after the Christs bought the café, they sold it to their daughter, Jan Newsham and her husband, Lee Wigle. Bill Christ continued to make donuts every morning.
Julie Schroeder bought the place in 1988. In 2004 she sold the building to Larry Rybin and leased it from him for three years. With little fanfare, she closed the doors to Granny’s Café permanently in 2007.
At the time, Rybin said he hoped the building would remain a restaurant and many local residents eagerly anticipated the reopening. But it didn’t happen. Aside from a short stint as a summer vegetable stand, the building remained vacant.
After a few other owners, the property was purchased by SAMRK Enterprises of Gretna. Aakash Bhoja is the owner of the business, and he watched Saturday morning as the building burned.
Bhoja’s plans for the property include building a small strip mall, he said. As the owner of Gretna Wine and Spirits, his is working on plans for at least one of the retail spaces to be a liquor store. Details are still being worked out, he added.
At one time, Bhoja had hoped to remodel the building, but he said it was not feasible because so much work needed to be done on the structure. He salvaged the Granny’s Cafe sign, however, and plans to use it somehow in the new building.
Now that the cafe has been burned, Bhoja will have the debris cleaned up and begin work on the strip mall.
“Once we get the plans finalized, we are hoping to have the structure up by fall,” he said.
Saturday’s training opportunity gave firefighters the chance to learn in a “real life” environment to better understand the dynamics of fire and firefighting, said Fire Chief Mike Meyer.
Eighteen firefighters practiced interior firefighting techniques, advanced hose lines, command responsibility, safety officer responsibility, pump operations, water supply and accountability.
This kind of training provides more than what firefighters can learn in the classroom, the fire chief said.
“Most people that join have no experience in firefighting,” Meyer said. “They find out in the first real live burning exercise if firefighting is for them or not.”