Cathcart's Cafe: Known from Coast to Coast - Edwardsville's Route 66 History #5

Here's #5 in the Edwardsville Route 66 history series. This piece ran in The Prairieland Buzz, Show Me Route 66, and The 66 News. 

Cathcart's Cafe: Known from Coast to Coast

George B. Cathcart arrived in Edwardsville, Illinois, in 1921 at the age of 39, with a strong work ethic, two decades' worth of coal mining experience, and his wife, Clara. By the time he died in 1952, Cathcart had helped to save the path of Route 66 through Edwardsville's business district and had built up a restaurant business that anchored the community's Route 66 trade and served well its many local customers.

Cathcart and his wife left the company town of Thurber, Texas, when the Texas and Pacific Coal and Oil Company began phasing out their coal operations. In the Edwardsville area, he secured a mining job.

In 1922, Cathcart put a down payment on a house at 454 East Vandalia Street selling for $9,000, with plans to turn the residence into a “first class and up-to-date boarding house.” A newspaper ad announced, “Will be open for business Monday, November 27 in the beautiful home formerly owned by Mr. Joseph Hotz. Modern furnished rooms with meals. Can take care of 12 people. Mrs. George Cathcart. 454 E. Vandalia Street.” Clara Cathcart was set up with a business to run – the Cathcart Tourist Inn. Meanwhile, George continued in his mining job.

From Humble Hamburger Stand to Successful Restaurant
A $20 down payment to the Hotz Lumber Company on May 8, 1924, bought Cathcart enough lumber to build an eleven-foot-square hamburger stand next to the Cathcart Tourist Inn. He bought supplies and ice cream on credit, and on opening day gave every child that came along a free ice cream cone.

In 1926, Route 66 began its 30-year trek through Edwardsville right by Cathcart's door. With the national route designation came more traffic and more hungry customers. As his business grew, he added on and renovated the building and bought equipment. At the rear of the building he added a meat market and grocery.

On October 11 of that year, the Edwardsville Intelligencer ran a two-column article headlined “Cathcart's Modern Cafe and Market Stands as a Monument to Hard Work and Fair Dealing.” The story highlighted his support of and participation in President Franklin Roosevelt's National Recovery Act (NRA) with the following introduction:

“When President Roosevelt announced the introduction of the NRA and many business men were trying to understand it, George B. Cathcart, who has known how hard work and perseverance really are necessary to accomplish anything, was among the very first in Edwardsville to wire the president a pledge of complete support in the operation of his business. Prominently displayed in his cafe and grocery at 456 East Vandalia street is the pledge, printed in large letters: 'Mr. President we are with you to bring back prosperity.' On this display board, surrounded by a beautiful and attractive Neon lighting arrangement, is the Blue Eagle to which Mr. Cathcart is entitled 100 per cent...”

By 1933, the restaurant had been expanded to fill a 36 x 80-foot building and $20,000 worth of modern equipment had recently been installed, including a basement full of refrigeration units. 

A soda fountain dispensed soft drinks while the kitchen sported the latest in ventilation systems. The counter ran the length of the front portion of the building, seating 32 guests. Another 56 customers could be accommodated at tables.
Always the Promoter
On opening day anniversaries, Cathcart often gave away ice cream cones as he did on that first day in May of 1924. In 1933, the restaurant celebrated its ninth anniversary by giving away 877 ice cream cones between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 pm.

He advertised regularly in the local newspaper and in the Edwardsville High School yearbook with catchy phrases like “Where Hospitality Prevails,” “Good Food is Good Health,” and often, “Known from Coast to Coast.”

In 1931, Cathcart organized a traveling baseball team representing his cafe. In 1933, he began selling membership tickets to the World's Fair Club of Chicago. And for a period of time, the cafe parking lot served as a bus stop for a variety of bus lines.

In 1933, George Cathcart had an average payroll of $240 to $255 per week, employed about 16 people, had enlarged the restaurant six times, and was open 24 hours a day. Photo courtesy of June Nealy.
Bumps in the Road
In 1927, George and Clara were divorced and within a couple years the Cathcart Tourist Inn was sold to Fred Goddard, who continued to operate it as Goddard Tourist Inn. In December 1939, George married Mrs. Mavis Price in St. Louis, but evidence suggests that union did not last either.

In 1928, Cathcart was charged with disturbance of the peace due to neighbors' complaints about “large noisy and foul smelling stock trucks” being parked outside the cafe while the drivers stopped for meals.
During the 1930s, several robberies occurred at the cafe, each time with the robbers escaping with small amounts of cash. In 1938, the restaurant operator's “plans to enlarge cafe with a small floor to permit dancing” were shot down by the Edwardsville City Council as they voted to “retain a section of the liquor ordinance prohibiting dancing in taverns.”

In the midst of State's Attorney C. W. Burton's clean-up of Madison County gambling, Cathcart found himself charged with possession of gambling equipment after a raid of city establishments in 1941. Five county authorities testified against Cathcart but the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict after about 15 minutes of deliberation. The machine was to be returned to the restaurant.

Saving Route 66 through the Business District
In late 1937 a newspaper article announced that “The Edwardsville city council and the state highway department are at loggerheads over improvement of U.S. 66 through the city.” It was anticipated that in 1938 there would be federal money available to repave Route 66 through Edwardsville, but that cuts were expected in 1939. The Illinois Division of Highways objected to the busy route passing right in front of the Edwardsville High School on West Street/Route 66. The Division suggested a change in the route turning from West Street onto Schwarz Street at the bottom of the hill below the high school and rejoining the current route a couple blocks past the business district, effectively bypassing the businesses along St. Louis and Vandalia Streets. A group of businessmen banded together, with George Cathcart serving as chairman, and aligned themselves with the Edwardsville City Council to oppose the Division's plans. Meetings and correspondence ensued.

The Division eventually backed off its plan to take Route 66 completely out of the business district through the length of downtown. Instead a plan was put forth which would also turn from West Street onto Schwarz Street below the high school, but travel just a few blocks on Schwarz before turning north along the old Illinois Terminal right-of-way onto Benton Street and then back onto Vandalia Street/Route 66. This plan would bypass the high school, but use the current route along “Automobile Row”, through the intersection with Main Street, and past numerous businesses, including Cathcart's Cafe. The Division also agreed to repave the sections of St. Louis and West Streets being bypassed, because of the heavy Route 66 traffic which had damaged them. The May 20, 1938 Edwardsville Intelligencer carried the headline, “State Division Orders Changes in Route 66 Here: Requires use of Schwarz-Benton Streets, but will rebuild St. Louis-West if City Officials Cooperate.”

However, just six days later the local newspaper carried the following headline, “State Reverses Decision on 66: Division of Highways Gives up Plans to Change Course over Schwarz Street.” The article began, “The course of U.S. Route 66 through Edwardsville will remain along streets it now occupies, according to a revised decision of the Division of Highways, announced Thursday in a letter to Mayor William C. Straube from Chief Highway Engineer Ernst Lieberman.” George Cathcart, the cause he had championed, and the City of Edwardsville had won the continuation of Route 66 along its current route through town. However, one of the reasons for the decision reversal was revealed in a quote from Mr. Lieberman's letter, “In view of the fact that at some future date when we modernize Route 66 we will have to by-pass Edwardsville...we have therefore decided to repave Route 66 through Edwardsville on its present location.” The battle had been won, but the correspondence gave a foretaste of what was to come in the mid-1950s.

End of an Era
On March 4, 1952, George Cathcart died in St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield after having been a patient there for eight days. The 1952 City Directory listed 456 Vandalia as “vacant.” By 1954, a cabinet maker had set up shop in the building that had hosted thousands of restaurant patrons. A succession of other businesses followed in the location. Surely the ghosts of years past that visit the tourist inn look askance at the brick building that now sits in place of Cathcart's Cafe – known from coast to coast.

In 1999, the Cathcart's Cafe building was razed and was replaced by this brick retail building. On the right, the former Cathcart/Goddard Tourist Inn still stands, currently vacant and just waiting for someone to breathe some new Route 66 life into it.