Big Chief Revival Serves Up Memories of Route 66 Days

By Russell Ainsworth Of The St. Charles Post | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 31, 1996 | Go to article overview

Big Chief Revival Serves Up Memories of Route 66 Days


Russell Ainsworth Of The St. Charles Post, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


In far west St. Louis County, folks are savoring the rebirth of Big Chief, at one time a home for employees at the Weldon Spring Ordnance Works and the uranium-processing complex, also at Weldon Spring.

Big Chief is perhaps best known for its square meals of years ago. Now, the restaurant is becoming as popular as it was when it opened in 1929.

On Manchester Road in Wildwood, it is now called Big Chief Dakota Grill. The restaurant reopened last June 29 and now draws 500 customers Friday nights, 600 on Saturday nights and 300 on Sunday nights. It's also open weeknights (except Mondays) and for Saturday and Sunday lunches.

Big Chief began as a restaurant, souvenir shop, tap room and Conoco station (gas was 10 to 12 cents a gallon then) with 62 cabins out back. The Pierce Pennant Oil Co. in Texas developed five acres as a model for a chain of tourist stops every 100 miles or so, on what was then Route 66 connecting Chicago and Los Angeles, and Route 50, the main road to Jefferson City. Manchester Road was designated as Route 66 from 1926 to 1932 and as U.S. 50 from 1926 to 1955.

Si Hensien, 104, ran Big Chief in the 1930s. "Everyone that came there got a square deal, very well fed and got what they wanted to drink and a good night's sleep," he said.

The dining room served 5-cent sandwiches, 40-cent blue-plate specials and 75-cent steak dinners. After dinner, Hensien said, folks pushed back the tables for dancing. The cabins were motel units laid out in a horseshoe shape in back and on both sides of the restaurant. Each cabin had two rooms, bunk beds, hot and cold running water in the shower and tub, and steam heat. Most cabins had carports or garages, and a big playground was available for children. The cabins rented for $1.50 a night.

Tourists, truckers, people wanting artesian water from the 600-foot-deep well and St. Louisans on day trips went to Big Chief. They would take buses out for lunch. Even Babe Ruth stopped by when the New York Yankees came to town.

Milton Jaeger, 80, of Eatherton Road, recalled that his brother, who lives in Florida now, used to drive new cars from Detroit to points southwest, driving one car and towing the second. On many of these drives, he would stop overnight at Big Chief, Jaeger said.

Stories abound about Big Chief in its earliest years, the heady days of the Roaring 1920s and Prohibition. Art Hoerig, 88, lived in one of the cabins at Big Chief for about 15 years in the 1960s and 1970s. He said that under Prohibition, Big Chief "was wide open" for vice.

Other stories say some bootleggers met their maker at Big Chief. One story says a mobster's body was pitched into a deep cellar under the kitchen. The cellar was accessible only through a manhole. Virgil Zinser, who moved next door to Big Chief in 1937, said the pit was full of water but that no bones were found when it was drained.

Hensien said he remembers nothing about bootleggers or a still. "I'd know about it if that was so. . . . They never had any trouble while I was there."

Hensien and his family lived above the dining room while Hensien managed the restaurant. Although business was good, Hensien moved on to open his own restaurant, tavern and cabins at Lindbergh Boulevard near Watson Road about 1935. Big Chief furnished desperately needed housing for employees at the Weldon Spring Ordnance Works in the 1940s and later at the uranium-processing complex, also at Weldon Spring.

About 1950, Marco and Rose Aceto, restaurateurs from St. Louis, acquired the property with the intention of reopening the dining room. But they couldn't get a permit. Instead, the Acetos lived downstairs in Big Chief and didn't open the bar to the public until about 1959.

In the 1960s, Big Chief diversified when the Acetos erected a concrete-block building west of the motel and rented to an archery company and other businesses. …

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