BROOKVILLE – As small towns go, this one is but a blink on the road for passing strangers – unless they know of its finger-licking claim to fame. All of Brookville, Kansas (population 239), is set in a thicker of elms, redbuds and rustling cottonwoods beside old state Highway 141. It is surrounded by endless rolling fields of alfalfa, sorghum and scruffy Kansas prairie grass, and little else. Were it not for the jet trails hanging in the sky, one could forget the century here. The streets are unpaved and dusty. Native Kansas sandstone buildings and wooden storefronts are as they were 100 years ago. And so in most ways if the Brookville Hotel, which just may have one of the longest-running restaurants in this part of rural America. Rooms are no longer available. But for 72 years the hotel’s restaurant has been making just about the best pan-fried-in-lard country chicken dinners anywhere.
Kansans think nothing of driving 90 miles each way from Wichita for a Sunday repast of country fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, cottage cheese, creamed corn, sweet slaw and baking-powder biscuits. The restaurant serves 1,600 dinners a week. Unlike deep-fried chicken, the Brookville’s secret is traditional pan-fried country chicken, coated with canned milk, flour, salt and pepper, and cooked in less than an inch of pure lard in a huge rectangular frying pan. The lard never covers the chicken. It just bubbles around it as the chicken is turned. The crusty crumb residue is saved for the cream gravy.
But even before the chicken dinners got started, a restaurant existed here. For 110 years, first as the Cowtown Cafe, and since 1894 as the Brookville Hotel, it served food to buffalo hunters, railroad men, cowboys, soldiers, farmers, townspeople, traveling salesmen and tourists from as far away as Paris. For 93 years the Brookville has been run by one family, the Magnuson-Martins. Today, the restaurant is Brookville’s only business besides a garage, a gas station and an antiques shop. At one time the town fairly bustled with two hotels, four general stores, boot, millinery and jewelry shops, as well as a newspaper, lumberyard, opera house and the mighty centerpeice around which it all grew, a nine-stall Kansas Pacific railroad roundhouse.
The Kansas-Pacific’s arrival in 1870 made Brookville a railroad divisional center. Huge herds of West Texas cattle were driven up, fattened, then loaded onto stock cars bound for Kansas City. The town’s population soared to 800, rivaling that of Salina, 17 miles to the northeast. But when the railroad moved its roundhouse to Junction City in 1889, Brookville shriveled. Years later, business picked up when Kansas Highway 141 was built to link Kansas City with Denver. And when World War II came and Camp Phillips was built nearby, thousands of soldiers came to this remote region of Kansas. Brookville even had its own telephone exchange. Mamie and Bert Bradley ran it for years. After Bert got hit by a passing train in 1946, Mamie ran the company be herself, sleeping on a cot at night near the switchboard, and in a pinch even climbing a pole to straighten out a crossed line. Then the war ended. Interstate Highways 70 and 135 were built near Salina. And Highway 141 grew cracked and tarred, the forgotten messages on its old galvanized billboards becoming scraped and faded.
Except for its bustling trade in legendary chicken dinners, Brookville became just another little town that time forgot, without so much as a grocery; a place for retirees, and residents who commute to jobs in Salina. The hotel sits on Perry Street. But few in Brookville know the names of the city’s half-dozen streets. There are no addresses, only post office boxes, and visitors seeking directions are told to “turn left at the corner by so-and-so’s place.” For residents, there are pleasures to be savored here beyond the hotel’s succulent fare. Mayor Audrey Wires likens life in Brookville to “kind of like living in the country, but you have neighbors living right close by.”
Residents say they cherish the quietness and the community feeling that allows for both autonomy and easy familiarity and support. “This little town is like on big family,” said Virginia Miller, a resident since 1963. “When one of our people hurts, they all hurt with them.” The closeness, without being meddlesome, is what appeals to residents about life in Brookville. “You can visit and have your neighbors and friends, and you can keep to yourself if you want, ” said Karen Riedel, city clerk. “But if something comes up, everyone pulls together.” Postmaster Ward Watkins figures people from a big city would probably go crazy in Brookville. And he figures he would do the same in a big city. Watkins said that small towns the size of Brookville, where he personally knows each resident and each knows him, can keep a person honest and free of stress. “People know me all my life, know what I was when I was growing up, and what I was later on.” “So you’re not going to fool anyone out here by trying to be something you’re not,” he said.
By Rogers Worthington, Chicago Tribune