Edwardsville's A&W Drive In - Edwardsville's Route 66 History #7

As promised, here we are back to Edwardsville's Route 66 history with the story of the A&W Root Beer Drive-In. This was published in the November 2012 issue of The Prairie Land Buzz and also in an issue of Show Me Route 66.

Give an eatery half a century in the same location and it's bound to generate a lot of memories. And when the restaurant is owned by the same family all those years, their story becomes part of the community's story. Mel and Vonney Kaufmann lived in Wisconsin when they started hearing glowing reports of Vonney's sister's successful A & W Root Beer Drive-In franchise in Springfield, Illinois. Inspired to search for a city that needed an A & W, Mel and Vonney decided on Edwardsville. They arrived in 1954 and purchased a lot on St. Louis Street/Route 66 on which to build their A & W.

The Kauffmanns' chosen property had once been the location of the grand two-story A. O. French residence, but the now-empty lot had more recently been used by Orville West to sell popcorn from a portable circus-style wagon. The threat of a permanent building housing a commercial business in the old established St. Louis Street residential district set the neighborhood afire. Protests over the commercial entry into the area eventually led to the establishment of Edwardsville's zoning laws, but in the short run the Kaufmanns' construction of their new business was allowed.

Opening day was during the summer of 1954, but their first year's struggles were not over. There was still resentment over the business's intrusion into the residential neighborhood. It was an especially hot and humid summer, reaching as high as 114 degrees, and the building had no air-conditioning. During the 1950s, their struggles were many, but the business started to take root in everyday activities and special events. By the 1960s, the A & W was firmly established in Edwardsville and enjoying a robust business. The Kaufmanns' son, Dennis, returned home from the Navy in 1961, married his high school sweetheart, Carol Brethorst, in 1962 and the same year purchased the business from his parents.

A 1950s shot of the Edwardsville A & W shows the building as it looked in its early years. Note the five-cent root beer. (All photos courtesy of Michael A. and Carole Sporrer.)

The 1960s and early 1970s were good years for the Kaufmanns and for their A & W. During the 1960s, the economy was robust and the A & W had become a beloved institution in Edwardsville. After-school treats, first dates, family get-togethers, and travelers' meals all happened at the drive-in. College kids, businessmen, and moms with small children sat next to each other in the dining room or parked next to each other under the canopy. There we sat, with our lovely frosty mugs of sweet root beer and our “Mama Burgers” or “Papa Burgers,” soaking up memories-to-be. The Mississippi River Festival began in 1969 on the SIUE campus, bringing crowds of music lovers to the Edwardsville area, and to the A & W. This ambitious and amazing summer music festival which lasted 11 seasons became a common thread in the region's younger generation and delivered the A & W some of its most profitable years as crowds descended on the drive-in after each performance.
The Kaufmanns remodeled their business in 1973, adding extensive landscaping and more parking, increasing the dining room capacity to 38 seats, and lending the building a more modern look. By the 1970s, it took about 30 employees to keep the A & W running smoothly and to compete against the other fast food restaurants in town – Dairy Queen, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger Chef, McDonalds, Long John Silver's, and Dog-n-Suds. After the remodel, Dennis Kaufmann said, “You've got to keep up and ahead of the competition.”

The Edwardsville A & W Root Beer Drive in 1976, after a big remodel in the early 1970s.

In 1977, two events involving fast cars occurred – one tragic for the Kaufmann family and the A & W community and another one entertaining for Edwardsville residents. On a summer evening in June, Dennis Kaufmann was driving his 1967 Jaguar on Illinois 157/Route 66 just north of Edwardsville when he lost control of the automobile on Mooney Hill. It went off the road and then veered back on, sliding into the path of an oncoming vehicle driven by a woman from Worden. According to the local newspaper, “Her car struck his in the passenger's side, and the Kaufmann car came to rest into a nearby wheat field after skidding nearly 400 feet from the point where it first left the roadway.” Kaufmann was pronounced dead at the scene. A funeral mass was held a few days later and the A & W owner was buried in Valley View Cemetery, about a mile and a half farther southwest of the A & W on old Route 66.

The other car-related event that year was the shooting of numerous scenes in Edwardsville for the car-chase movie, “Stingray,” including a car chase past Woolworth's on Main Street, action in the Madison County Courthouse, and an arrest scene at the A & W. This excitement occasioned newspaper articles, boosted business, and added to the long list of collective memories at the A & W. Richard Taylor, the writer and director of the movie, was associated with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville during the 1970s. Taylor returned in June 2011 when “Stingray” was shown at the Wildey Theatre on Edwardsville's Main Street during the city's annual Route 66 Festival.

An A&W Root Beer billboard south of Edwardsville near Legate's Motel.

Carol Kaufmann remarried in 1980 to retired TWA pilot Michael Sporrer whom she met through a cousin. Sporrer enthusiastically became involved in the business and to this day enjoys reminiscing about the restaurant and sharing and showing their collection of photos and memorabilia.

An F4 tornado was the next storm that Carol Kaufmann Sporrer would have to endure. In 1981, a tornado ripped through Edwardsville, doing an estimated five million dollars in damage and destroying or damaging numerous homes and business buildings. It was late in the evening, and Carol sent everyone else down into the basement, but didn't get there herself. She took refuge under the stainless steel counter and heard the “train” noise of the tornado coming at them. Carol later recalled, “When it was all over we found that one of our trash cans had been picked up from outside and flung through the windows. It smashed into that stove in the middle of the room and pieces of glass were sticking in the wall.”

The A & W Root Beer Company named Carol and Michael Operators of the Year in 1983, and the President and CEO of A & W brought his family along from California for a celebratory event. By 1990, Carol and Michael welcomed the opportunity to finally retire and sold the A & W to relatives Art and Sandy McNeil. But in 2000 the McNeils closed the business, and in 2001, the A & W building was demolished and the empty lot became a parking lot for the First Baptist Church. Local newspaper articles mourned the city's loss and cited the memories the community had shared there. I'm sure it's especially true for long-time Edwardsville residents as it is for this one-time late-1960s SIUE commuter and recent transplant to Edwardsville – when I drive down St. Louis Street, I'm not just passing by rows of empty parking spaces. I'm driving by a lot full of memories on Route 66.  


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