The car passed fields and pasture, the road changing from blacktop to gravel.
Annette Dittmer turned off onto a dirt lane. The new “guest house” sat down among trees, not far from a shaded lake.
“I’m pretty sure my dad would like this part,” Dittmer said as she got out. “You can’t see it, but the cemetery is over there through those trees.”
Everyone around here says Wilbur Meinershagen would be pleased with his daughter.
Before he died in 2004, Meinershagen pushed hard for the new Missouri Veterans Cemetery north of this Lafayette County town, up past the John Deere dealership. He served proudly in the Navy during World War II, and getting that cemetery close to home meant a lot to him.
It opened in 1999 and already has about 2,900 graves.
Dittmer and her husband, Kenton, have opened a cafe in town since then, and, though it was not their intent, funeral groups often drop in at the Red Shanty BBQ & Roadside Cafe. One group had more than 30.
Annette might mention to someone about her dad’s role in getting the cemetery, and they would thank her. Also, she heard more than one say it sure would be nice to have a place for out-of-towners to stay near the cemetery. So Annette and Kenton, both 57, have fixed up a guest house on family farm land about a mile as the crow flies from the cemetery.
“Oh, he’d like what she’s doing,” said Jackie Meinershagen, Annette’s mother, who still lives on the property. “All this was real important to him.”
This family’s story has patriotism, a father’s devotion, a daughter’s love, sorrow, pride, the cry of a bugle and a bountiful meal.
But there’s also a lighter side to this menu.
Like the Dittmers turning a liquor store/bait shop into a restaurant when neither had a clue how to run one. How they’re keeping an 87-year-old bait man on the cafe payroll, and the challenge they faced in getting small-town folks to park in front of a liquor store and walk through a bait shop to get to a cafe.
And what in the world is on a sandwich called the “Frog Pollard”?
Here’s Kenton Dittmer’s take on jumping into the restaurant business, cold, at an age when a lot of people are thinking about winding things down:
“It takes exceptionally stupid people to open a restaurant at that point in their lives,” he said.
Not qualified to run a restaurant?
“I knew how to build a grain bin,” he said with a smile.
Didn’t know how to barbecue?
“Hell, no,” he said.
He had been in the construction business. Annette had taught home economics in high school before quitting to stay home with their two kids. She’d always wanted a restaurant, and he promised he would get her a nice one some day.
He started with the liquor store/bait shop combo in early 2001.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks soon happened. Then came Hurricane Katrina. Business tanked. People were buying liquor at the grocery store, and bait sales just weren’t cutting it.
“We had to do something,” Kenton said.
So they decided on the restaurant and took off driving to get ideas. Well, Annette was looking for ideas. Kenton was thinking about how to get out of that promise to his wife.
The two met when Annette was in high school and she saw Kenton sitting on a tailgate. She thought him to be pretty cute. They’ve been married 34 years, live outside of town on a farm and have two grown children.
In 2008, they opened the Red Shanty, keeping the liquor and bait parts. The main dining area was the garage for the previous owner. Another part, the outdoor seating, is modeled after a place called Sparky’s Roadhouse Cafe in Eureka Springs, Ark.
The Shanty, on Missouri 13, struggled early on. Annette thinks part of the problem was small-town propriety.
“Some people just didn’t want their car seen in front of a liquor store,” she said.
But they hung on, even through the economic downturn that began in 2008. Then the funeral groups started showing up. Traffic started coming up from Interstate 70, about 5 miles to the south.
The Dittmers think social media fueled that, including perhaps posts by a group of firefighters from California who stopped in on their way back from New York for a ceremony marking the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Kenton now sneaks out to the parking lot on busy nights to count the out-of-state license plates. The record is seven.
Wilbur Meinershagen served aboard the USS Fuller, a Heywood-class attack transport ship that carried troops in the South Pacific during World War II.
Those days remained a proud part of his life, but he never was one to build up his duty.
“He told me he worked in refrigeration on that ship,” said Jackie, his widow.
Meinershagen, a farmer, became active in the American Legion and made several trips to Jefferson City to lobby for the veterans cemetery.
At the dedication, family members pushed him in a wheelchair.
“People come from all over the country for services here,” cemetery director Teddie Velleri said recently as she walked the grounds.
The 2,900 graves include service members from 39 states and five countries. Among those is Meinershagen, who died in 2004 at age 79.
Not far to the west is the new guest house, furnished somewhat with family antiques.
“I think Annette’s dad would think that was a pretty wonderful thing she did over there,” said Elaine Hudson, a longtime family friend and neighbor.
The guest house is actually the bottom floor of the house where Annette’s mother lives. It can sleep eight or even more.
“There’s fish in that lake, too,” Kenton said.
From up on the balcony, Jackie said she could maybe see the cemetery if the trees were bare.
The lodging isn’t just for funerals. It’s there for anyone willing to pay the $135 nightly rate. The Confederate Memorial State Historic Site sits next to the new veterans cemetery.
Some out-of-towners who find their way to the Red Shanty, which serves wine from the local wineries, may notice a parking place next to the building that says it’s reserved for “Mr. G.”
That would be Melvin Greiwe. He’s 87 and used to work in the bait shop. He was kind of lost after his wife died, so the Dittmers kept him on. He runs errands, and Annette takes him to doctors appointments.
Oh, the Frog Pollard? “Smoked whole hog sSeasoned sausage with special BBQ sauce and dill pickles on a toasted bun.”
James “Frog” Pollard was a real person. At times homeless and disabled by diabetes, he cooked for years at truck stops, soup kitchens — including one in Independence — and the Wentworth Military Academy. The sandwich is a favorite.
“Things are better now, but I doubt we ever get to the point where we think we know what we’re doing,” Annette said.
Business is good, Kenton said. Good enough, anyway.
“If we’re ever full, the kitchen can’t handle it.”