Its lifeblood was sapped 87 years ago when the railroad passed it by, but this tiny Kansas community has kept alive by a mixture of fried chicken and nostalgia. The Brookville Hotel, originally a feeding spot for cowboys on cattle drives, attracts 90,000 customers into its rustic dining rooms each year. They flock into the prairie town as much for a glimpse of the past as the chicken dinners served family style on red checked tablecloths, notes Mark Martin, the fourth generation of his family to manage the restaurant. “People come for the nostalgia, the Old West,” he said. “A lot of people are trying to get away – physically, maybe on a one-day trip, and they like to reminisce about the past.
From all parts of the country they come to eat where Buffalo Bill once dined, to imagine themselves seated toe-to-toe with cowpokes who had just finished a long cattle drive from Texas.
The hotel stopped accepting overnight guests in 1972, but business in the first-floor restaurant is booming. From May through August, and average of 10,000 are served monthly. In a normal night, the community’s 237 residents are far outnumbered by the diners. Brookville was founded in 1870 when the old Kansas Pacific Railroad made the town a division point, where crew changes are made. Its population grew to almost 2,000 with the railroad and cattle drive traffic that followed. But 20 years later, the steam locomotives began passing Brookville by when other division points were established. And the town seemed ready to join other former railroad communities in oblivion. The hotel hung on by bare threads until Gus and May Magnuson took it over and in 1915 initiated the family-style chicken dinner tradition that their ancestors continue to this day.
During World War II, serviceman from nearby installations crowded into the restaurant. Many bomber crews would regularly pick up picnic lunches to eat on long practice missions. When the war ended they spread the reputation of the Brookville Hotel nationwide to their friends at home. Many customers drop into the community from Interstate 70 on their way between Denver and Kansas City, Martin said. Business is particularly good during the skiing season. Several small businesses have opened recently including a handicraft store, art gallery and antique store. Brookville once had a bank, but it went out of business and the restaurant took over the building 15 years ago. The Brookville Hotel’s isolation and history do not keep it immune from the times, however, as Mrs. Margaret Martin, owner of the restaurant and mother of Mark Martin, learned this spring. “The West Coast drought is going to leave us with some terrific shortages of peaches and potatoes,” she said. “We may have to modify the relish plate a bit and as for potatoes, we will just have to pay more for them. But we’ll never sacrifice on the quality of food we serve.”
Originally published Friday, March 25, 1977