After blaze, historic tavern in tiny Arrow Rock reopens doors

Karen Miller woke up and saw flashing lights out the window of her home in Arrow Rock. Miller works as the general manager of the J. Huston Tavern, which is the oldest continuously serving restaurant west of the Mississippi River. The lights were not something someone would typically see in the small town of Arrow Rock, which has a population of 56, Miller said. So, she decided to investigate. Initially, she thought the lights were from the highway patrol. As she walked down the street, she ran into another resident who told her what was going on.

“They said the tavern was on fire,” Miller said. “Then I started running.”

An electrical fire started by a freezer in the kitchen had caused the blaze. Luckily, firefighters were already working on putting out the fire by the time she arrived to the tavern.

The kitchen, which was built in the 1950s, was destroyed. But the rest of the tavern, built in 1834, and its artifacts were able to be salvaged.

Smoke from kitchen fire charred the walls inside the J. Huston Tavern. | Zhihan Huang/Missouri Business Alert

Now, after a summer of restoration, the J. Huston Tavern’s doors are open again for business. But even a fire couldn’t keep the tavern from continuing to operate.

Friends of Arrow Rock, the organization that started running the restaurant in January, worked with Missouri State Parks to find a solution. Instead of hosting meals inside the burnt rooms of the tavern, they constructed a giant tent beside the venue with a mobile kitchen.

The tent was branded as the “summer kitchen,” which is a nod to history — in antebellum days, homes had a summer kitchen. It was a separate building set away from the house so if something caught on fire — which happened often, Miller said — it didn’t burn that house.

The tavern set up a tent as temporary dinning place and operated a mobile kitchen outside the building to keep operating after the fire. | Zhihan Huang/Missouri Business Alert

Due to the heat, being outside in the tent wasn’t exactly the same as eating in the tavern, said Sandy Selby, executive director of Friends of Arrow Rock, but business has been steady.

“It’s certainly something people are willing to put up with that inconvenience because they are great supporters of the tavern and its history and they want to keep it going,” Selby said.

In Arrow Rock, historical tourism is the main driving factor of the town. Selby describes the J. Huston as a centerpiece of a number of historic buildings that are being preserved. So when the tavern wasn’t operating at all, it affected business in town. Normally, people visit the Lyceum Theatre and eat at the tavern. When the tavern was closed, those people were dining elsewhere and not going to the local shops.

“Our shops suffered because they weren’t coming to Arrow Rock to eat, so they weren’t shopping here either,” Selby said. “So, it is critical to our economy, and some people just come here specifically to come to the tavern and while they’re here, they shop and or they may stay in our B & Bs. And so it is an important piece, really central to our very small economy.”

Historical tourism is an economic driver of Arrow Rock, located about 45 miles northwest of Columbia. | Zhihan Huang/Missouri Business Alert

Inside the tavern, the entire kitchen had to be replaced, and the walls had to be washed of burn marks. The artifacts inside were temporarily moved to a nearby church, where preservation work has been done.

Marty Selby, a historic preservationist based out of Arrow Rock, has worked on the preservation effort at the tavern. He said preservation is, in essence, maintenance and repairs. But for a fire, it took more than just a little repair.

“This just involves bringing in a lot of different talents,” Marty Selby said. “Everybody from architects to engineers, down to the people who are scrubbing the floor. Just to bring it back and try to maintain as much as the original building fabric as possible, but making the necessary repairs and restoration to make it usable for customers.”

The tavern officially reopened on Wednesday.

Kim Borgman prepares food in a mobile kitchen at the J. Huston Tavern in late July. The tavern’s indoor dining room reopened Wednesday, and its permanent kitchen is scheduled to reopen in November. | Zhihan Huang/Missouri Business Alert

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