Mr. John Burns is a name associated with savory odors and gustatory pleasures. The mention — or even the thought — of Burns would cause gastric juices to flow in residents of Monticello in the 1870s.
John Hugh Burns was a pioneer restaurant man in Monticello. Articles in the local papers called him “jolly and rotund.” Sounds like he would have made the perfect Santa.
In 1873, Burns opened a restaurant one door south of Spencer’s Drug Store at 109 N. Main St. While there were restaurants at that location before, they were all short-lived. Burns had the industry and perseverance to make his eatery a winner.
In 1874, he moved the restaurant across the street to what is today the location of WMRS radio. He rented the building initially but purchased the facility within a few years. This row of businesses was known as the “Commercial Block.” He soon opened a connected bakery.
Initially, the loaves of bread he baked were to serve the restaurant trade but soon it turned into a business of its own. In the 1880s, Burns was baking 275 loaves of bread per day to meet the demand at his bread counter.
Burns wasn’t the only bread store in town at the time, but apparently he owned a lion’s share of the trade. The business during this period required a full-time baker. Burns brought in an experienced baker named Paul J. Schultz.
Burns expanded the depth of his building. This expansion gave him the space for a larger kitchen and seating. The dining area extended 75 feet deep and seated 100 diners. Even on a bad day, Burns could feed 40 patrons for the evening meal.
In the second story of the new addition, he had boarding rooms which was an additional boon to his daily business.
Burn’s success in the restaurant and bakery business was not an accident or a run of good luck. Anyone familiar with the bakery and restaurant trade knows that it isn’t an 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. career. Typically, Burn’s working hours were from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
An article of the period noted that Burns had one year where a shortage of help forced his sleeping hours from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Even with this unthinkable schedule, he still managed to maintain his rotund figure and good humor.
The article mentions that Burns’ happiest moments were “providing a spread to his hungry patrons, hosting a fraternity banquet or an election wager feast.”
The Monticello Herald published one of Burns’ election wagers on Feb. 6, 1885. The article reads as follows: “John Burns backed his political convictions during the late campaign by a promise to spread a banquet for Cloyd Loughry and his friends if Republican Presidential nominee James G. Blaine was elected in his contest against New York Governor Grover Cleveland. The contingency was that Cloyd was to do likewise for John. This was nothing new for John, but the result was something new for Cloyd and it had taken three months to recover from the shock and come up smiling. This he did last evening, however, in a way which left no room for criticism. Burn’s tables were surrounded by fifty-two guests, among whom several were from Delphi. The whole company was in excellent spirits and enjoyed themselves till after midnight.”
Burns was full of all kinds of off-the-wall ideas. In December 1890, the Monticello Herald published a short article titled, “The Town in the Woods.” It reads: “John Burns captured a screech owl one night that was perched on his sign in front of his restaurant. The bird seemed thankful to be taken in out of the cold and at once made himself a home on John’s highest shelf, where he sits as kind of an inspector of the bread trade.”
So what is the story of John Burns? He was born in 1843 and served with the 15th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War. In 1866, he married Ossie E Bradford. We find Burns in the 1870 census living in Idaville, where he was a saloon keeper.
In 1873, he opened his restaurant but in 1892 he moved to Boone, Iowa, where he owned a restaurant business. Apparently back in Monticello, he had sold his business but still owned the building.
Burns returned to Monticello in 1895 for a short visit. His building had burned to the ground. Burns continued to run his restaurant in Iowa until 1908. At age 65, he was admitted to the Veteran’s Home in Leavenworth. Later, he was transferred to the Soldier’s Home in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Burns died in June 1931 in Marshalltown. He and his wife, Ossie, are buried in the local Boone Cemetery.
Back home in White County, Burns’ former restaurant and bakery location would have a continuous string of owners and, at times, the building was not remotely related to anything edible.
While there are gaps in the timeline, what we do know is that Fred L. Griffin, a newspaper man from Remington, purchased the restaurant in June 1909. Griffin understood the business principles of keeping a restaurant and strived to continue drawing a crowd.
An article dated Dec. 10, 1910, in the Monticello Herald highlights some of the uniqueness of the Almo Café, which was vying for one of the oldest continuous locations for dining in Monticello. Griffin transformed and modernized the restaurant. The article states that the upgrades incorporated by Griffin made the café one of the coziest, cleanest and quaint restaurants found anywhere in northern Indiana.
Griffin added a soda fountain at the front which significantly added appeal to the local residents. Griffin’s upgrades in equipment cost $1,000. At this time it was common to have 50 to 60 dinner guests.
The upgrades were tasteful, clean and inviting to patrons. Griffin also added more personnel to provide prompt table service as well as additional staff at the lunch counter.
“Sealshipt” oysters were served exclusively at the Almo. The oysters came from oyster beds in Connecticut in sanitary sealed cans. Fred’s wife, Louise, was in charge of all food preparation.
The rigors of running a restaurant took a toll on the Griffin couple. F. L. Griffin confessed that running the restaurant was what he termed a “slavish life.” Griffin sold the Almo to Frank Elton Baxter, also from Remington, in November 1911. Mr. Baxter retained the Almo Café name.
Next up to bat at the Almo was Zula (Hanna) Million, of Burnettsville. She was the widow of Randolph Hanna, who had died in 1911. Zula was the daughter of John W. and Mary (Chilcott) Hanna, of Burnettsville.
Zula was running the Carson Hotel that fronted Washington Street and located behind the Almo Café. She briefly owned the Almo and, in November 1915, sold the café to Mrs. Emma Downey.
Downey would own the Almo for three years, at which time she sold the café to Miss Virginia McElhoe and Miss Effie Burns, both of Monticello.
McElhoe, at the time, was 32, and Burns was just 18. The adjoining lot to the south became the Almo Café. In July 1918, McElhoe and Burns would sell out to experienced restaurant proprietor and baker John Reeder, who was known for flipping restaurants and bakeries in the area.
Reeder, in turn, would sell the Almo to Arthur Gilbert, an experienced baker having conducted a restaurant and bakery in Fowler.
A week after closing the deal on the Almo Café, Reeder would purchase the Strand Restaurant on South Main Street. Within a week, Reeder would purchase a bakery in Monon and sell the Strand Restaurant to Mr. and Mrs. Clifton Barnes, of Monticello.
A week later, Reeder would buy the Strand Restaurant back and selling it again in April 1920 to Monticello resident Frank Benjamin.
Gilbert would end up selling the Almo back to Reeder in 1921. Reeder turned around and sold it to Amos Edwin Dake. In July 1922, Dake would sell the restaurant back to Reeder and purchase a restaurant in Van Wert, Ohio.
Anyone dizzy yet?
After this string of ownership changes, Reeder would put the moniker of Reeder Restaurant on the sign out front. At this time, he would enlist the help of his son, Jack, to help run the businesses. However in August 1922, Reeder sold the Strand Restaurant to John Hughes of Brook.
The Commercial Block stores where the Almo was located would be condemned by the state fire marshal. When the Commercial Block was condemned, it was owned by V.D. Clyne, who tried to work with the state fire marshal, promising to remodel the row of buildings.
In the end, the wooden store buildings were taken down. The businesses in the block would have to find other locations.
The Almo provided the area with a top-notch café for dining and was a household name in Monticello for almost 50 years. One must say that the Almo had a great run.