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After nearly 200 years, Missouri's oldest restaurant closes its doors to an uncertain future

J. Huston Tavern sits on the main street in Arrow Rock. It is a key attraction at the Arrow Rock State Historic Site and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Josh Stotler
J. Huston Tavern sits on the main street in Arrow Rock. It is a key attraction at the Arrow Rock State Historic Site and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Missouri’s oldest restaurant, J. Huston Tavern, has been a fixture in the historic river town of Arrow Rock since 1834. It survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and three major fires.

But earlier this year, the classic federal-style building on the boardwalk closed its doors when the concessionaires running the operation ended their contract with the state.

The tavern was the first building in Missouri to be set aside for historic preservation with public funding. It is now owned by the state and management is arranged by contracting outside operators.

For the past five years, the J. Huston Tavern has been run by the Friends of Arrow Rock, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the town’s historic properties.

But on Feb. 10, the group exercised its right to terminate the agreement with the state to manage the tavern, according to a recent Facebook post.

The effective date is May 1, but the restaurant closed after the holiday season.

In the group’s termination notice, they cited the need to preserve and protect its financial resources, said Cynthia Imhoff, the Arrow Rock State Historic Site administrator.

The state plans to put the concession opportunity up for competitive bid this spring, Imhoff said. The bid will be posted on a statewide e-procurement site, missouribuys.mo.gov, and interested bidders can register online at missouribuys.mo.gov/registration.

“It’s extremely difficult to operate a food service in a sort of seasonal community,” says Kathy Borgman, former executive director of Friends of Arrow Rock.

The town has a population of just 60 permanent residents, although it attracts some 100,000 visitors a year, primarily in the summer. This makes it difficult for the locals to sustain a restaurant year-round, Borgman said.

Crowds are drawn to Arrow Rock’s idyllic charm, as well as to the Lyceum Theatre, which stages Broadway productions with professional artists recruited from around the country. According to the theater’s website, at least 33,000 patrons attend the productions every year.

With the season opening June 7 with “42nd Street,” all of these visitors will need somewhere to eat. Now that the tavern is on hold, Arrow Rock has just one other seasonal restaurant, the Catalpa, a casual dining spot on Main Street, as well as an ice cream shop, The Badger’s Hideaway.

“It is priority to get the concession contract out for bid and awarded once the competitive bid process is completed,” Imhoff said.

A long history

The tavern was originally built by Judge Joseph Huston Sr., a court official and justice of the peace from Virginia, as a home for his family. Although Huston is credited with building the structure, it was the African Americans he had enslaved who built the tavern, said Michael Dickey, Arrow Rock historian and former administrator of the historic site.

It was positioned near the intersection of two major roads, one leading to the Arrow Rock ferry landing and another connecting the town to Boonville.

Before long, Huston saw the potential to supply lodging and food to weary travelers.

“Sometimes the late-arriving travelers might bang on somebody’s door and say, ‘Hey, is it OK if I’m here tonight for $1,’” Dickey said. “We think he was putting up travelers in the back of the building and then eventually just expanded the business.”

Interior of the Rest Room in Arrow Rock Tavern circa 1916.Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia
Huston soon added lodging, a restaurant, pub and general store to the business.

“It was kind of a social center, and, of course, the store was like the Walmart of it’s day,” Dickey said. “Huston also served as postmaster of Arrow Rock for a while. People would have gone into the store, picked up their mail and whatever supplies they would have wanted.”

State purchase

By the turn of the 20th century, the tavern needed more oversight, and the Daughters of the American Revolution stepped in to persuade state lawmakers to designate the tavern a “historic shrine.”

In September 1923, the state purchased the building for $5,000 and handed over the title of “permanent custodian” to the DAR, which continued to provide meals and lodging. DAR chapters from around the state supplied the furnishings.

The DAR ran the tavern until 1982, when the state took full control. To keep the restaurant running, the state set up contracts with concessionaires who would run the food service while the state maintained the site.

Apart from a few renovations since then, the restaurant has been consistently serving customers as the longest-running restaurant west of the Mississippi River, Dickey said.

Rustic charm

For nearly 200 years, the tavern has retained its rustic charm with a tap room and three spaces dedicated to dining: the Sappington Parlor, the Huston Room and the Bingham Room.

The parlor honors Dr. John Sappington, the first physician in Saline County who introduced quinine to Arrow Rock’s early residents as a treatment to curb malaria. The Huston Room honors the tavern’s founder, and the third is a nod to artist George Caleb Bingham, known for his genre paintings illustrating the tough life on the Missouri River in the mid-19th century. His home in Arrow Rock is part of the state historic site.

For years, the restaurant has been known for its Southern fried chicken, chicken-fried pork tenderloin with gravy, smoked beef brisket and country cured ham. With so much charm and history rooted in the tavern, the residents of Arrow Rock say they would like the restaurant to reopen.

“The building itself will always be secure through the park system,” Borgman said. “And something good will happen there, I’m sure, down the line. But when and how? We hope someone with a lot of ingenuity and experience and enthusiasm will see that opportunity and snatch it up.”

“The tavern is a vital part of Arrow Rock history,” Imhoff said.

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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