Today is a sad day for my family.
Charlie ‘Chuck’ Winkler became my dad in 1973—I was four years old when my mother married him. I’ve often said that any man can father a child, but it takes someone special to be a dad. Chuck is my dad.
His father, Charlie Winkler, first opened CHARLIE’S NEW CAFÉ at 1043 Washington Avenue in Vincennes, Indiana, in 1951. Actually, he bought the existing restaurant, Campbell’s Café, and changed its name. A couple of years later he bought most of the block including The Watson Building—1908. The same building that burned during the early morning hours of Monday, March 24, 2014.
Even before my mother married Chuck, she and I ate in CHARLIE’S NEW CAFÉ. Her memory is of taking me there as an infant and sitting at a particular table located in the front alcove of windows opposite the cashier—the woman, Nelda Winkler, eventually became her mother-in-law, my grandmother.
I have written a novel, Some Go Hungry (published May 3, 2016 by Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint of Akashic Books), as a sort of roman a clef inspired by my having grown up in the various restaurants and managing CHARLIE’S SMORGASBORD.
CHARLIE’S NEW CAFÉ holds a special place in my heart. This morning I was saddened to see that the building, already in an incredible state of disrepair, was all but gone. Pictured in this post, along with an excerpt from my novel detailing the fictional Daniels family’s first foray into the restaurant business, set in a fictional Fort Sackville, Indiana, are the photograph memories of the real CHARLIE’S NEW CAFÉ—a local and family owned diner-style establishment gone forever.
A great deal of my life was lived along this particular stretch of Washington Avenue, Wabash Avenue, and 8th Street pictured below. Many evenings were spent in this building with my parents and grandparents. Often after finishing supper at the NEW CAFE—supper is dinner in southern Indiana—I would walk to COLUMBIA DRUG STORE on the corner to buy a comic book and pass the time while my family sipped coffee and caught up on the day’s events. I grew up in this building on this block.
At twenty years old I became the general manager of CHARLIE’S SMORGASBORD, which my grandfather opened in 1980 after closing CHARLIE’S NEW CAFÉ in 1979. It was located just a few doors down from the NEW CAFE in the former HAROLD’S Grocery Store. I managed CHARLIE’S SMORGASBORD on Washington Avenue and then on Kimmell Road for well over a decade. It too holds a special place in my heart.
Most of the photos included here belong to my family. Others are courtesy of Norbert Brown’s VINCENNES, INDIANA REMEMBER WHEN… Facebook page.
Ft. Sackville was first settled by French fur traders and became a spoil of war after American revolutionaries—during a surprise attack upon the British—captured the town’s namesake. Landlocked, the community lay in a flat flood plain bordered to the west by the Wabash River, the town and farms to the south safeguarded by a levee. The rest of the community to the north and east was isolated from the outside world by a crescent ridge of highlands by which one could look down upon the valley of Sycamores, grain silos, and shining white church steeples.
Farming and God were two industries by which family fortune might flourish or fail in Fort Sackville. Its townsfolk have, for the most part since the American Revolution, succeeded in isolating themselves from wantonness, even from the occasional nonsense that washed down river or traveled Highway 41 from cities larger. I lived all of my life in Fort Sackville; most of the population ate in my family’s restaurant. Daniels’ Family Buffet was a benefactor of the industry, relying on its supply: farmers for food, God for customers—most especially the Sunday Christians and the Friday fried catfish Catholics. However, over a half-century ago, long before Daniels Family Buffet, there was Daniels’ Diner, the first in my family’s restaurant lineage.
In 1951 a man’s handshake was his word, a contract, especially between friends and neighbors. My Grandpa Collin shook Lo Campbell’s hand and it was a deal. With the handshake came the birth of the Daniels’ restaurant legacy. I imagined Grandpa Collin eager to get home and announce to Grandma Dixie and their children, Aunt Charlene and Dad, that their lives were about to change. That they’d be staying in Fort Sackville after all.
I could imagine Grandma Dixie’s reaction. I saw the cold, November day—I knew them intimately. I knew how my Grandpa Collin spoke to her. Growing up, I’d listened to their conversations in the Diner, often at night after closing. Perhaps she had been packing boxes. For an eternity, it might have seemed. Boxes salvaged from her sister and brother-in-law’s store, Wollard’s Grocery, where Grandpa worked as a butcher since returning from the War. Even though she and Grandpa lived simply, their house on Ridge Road rented, it must have been a task to pack their few possessions: toys, clothes, dishes, photographs, her mother’s china and table linens, Grandpa Collin’s navy uniform, her wedding dress, the one in which her mother had been married. She remembered Collin dressed in his Navy whites standing there in front of the pastor at Wabash Valley Baptist Church. She and Collin had been high school sweethearts; they married after his first year in the service, only weeks before the war. She was pregnant with Charlene. No one knew. Collin was home on leave. How young and handsome he was standing there, smiling, as she was escorted by her father down the aisle, the organ’s musty music echoing down, falling from the church’s white cupola ceiling two stories above onto their family sitting in the oak pews below. She and Collin had no money. Their honeymoon was spent at roadside motel in Terre Haute—supper and cheap red wine on a picnic table near the motel’s front lobby. Their lives had always been in Fort Sackville, now they were leaving everything they had known, her parents, sisters, and moving to San Diego to find a better job, a better life. We don’t know anyone in San Diego. What was Collin thinking, she must have thought. Thank goodness for the children, at least Charlene and C.J. will be with me.
My Dad and his eleven-year-old sister were a great help to Grandma Dixie the last several weeks while Grandpa Collin worked double shifts for extra money. Although, Dad says he was upset that they’d sold his bicycle. “We’ll buy you a new one in California,” Grandpa promised. “They have much faster ones there.” Grandma Dixie had said the moment Aunt Charlene drew her first breath she’d been an independent spirit, demanding, stubborn. She was all Daniels. C.J., however, needed coddling. He was more of a tag-along. Grandma Dixie’s mother had said C.J. would follow his big sister off a cliff; he had their Roberts blood in him, and Grandma Dixie’s need to be loved; even though Dad had Grandma Dixie’s spunk he needed someone to watch over him, to love him. I know Grandma Dixie felt blessed to have been given the task.
Dixie was restless, wanting to get the move over, settle, get the children back into a routine, enrolled in school. Christmas break was less than a month and a half away so beginning the New Year in San Diego could be the opportunity she and Collin had been seeking. Children need routine. Charlene would have no problem settling in but C.J. might need a little prodding. I’m sure my Grandma could have used a break too. Something new.
How in the world will we ever move all these boxes, she thought.
That November night in ‘51, she later told me, Grandpa Collin arrived home just in time for supper. It would be the second-to-last supper in the Fort Sackville house. That’s how she thought of it. He bounced through the kitchen door — when happy his step was more bounce than walk — and sat in his usual seat at the kitchen table, his smirk pronounced—a look later made popular by a young rock and roll boy from Memphis on Ed Sullivan. Aunt Charlene and Dad were sitting across from each other waiting for their dad to dig in. Once Collin did, it signaled they could start.
“Collin,” Dixie said, “I can see by the look on your face you got something up your sleeve.”
“How’d you like to stay here near your sisters?” His eyebrows matched his smirk.
“I don’t understand?” she said, passing the mashed potatoes to C.J.
“We’re staying! We’re staying in Fort Sackville!” Collin announced. The children and Grandma Dixie stared at him.
“Collin, what do you mean? You’re going to get these children wound up; I’ve had a long day. I’m looking forward to getting them fed, bathed, and in bed. I want quiet time, a cup of coffee, and the paper, if I haven’t packed that, too.”
“I bought a restaurant!” he said. “I bought The Café from Lo Campbell. You know, his wife Susie’s place on Fairground Avenue. I talked to him this afternoon; I bought it. We shook on it. I’m signing the contract tomorrow. I’m going to pay for it with the weekly receipts.”
“You’re out of your tree!” Grandma Dixie replied, in total disbelief. “Did Campbell ask you or did you ask him?”
“I had lunch in there today; he just started talking about how the place was too much for Susie to run. With them owning and running the IGA she didn’t need to work. Plus they were thinking of selling it all and moving to Ocala. There’s a motel down there for sale. Tired of the Indiana winters, he said. That’s why we were moving, right? To find a better job? Well, I found one, here!”
Grandma Dixie sat at the table, looking past Grandpa toward the barren kitchen walls, the windows with no curtains. He’s found a job, she thought, after I’d convinced myself we were doing the right thing. My husband bought a restaurant. What in the hell are we going do with a restaurant?
“Well,” she said, “are you keeping the name?”
“Nope. I already thought of that. It’s going to be Daniels’ Diner! What do you think?”
Our lives will never be the same.
She remembered the community’s uproar after her older sister Dottie’s steamy and very public affair with the married Joe Wollard. Her sister had been Joe’s cashier. When Joe divorced his first wife and married Dottie, Dottie could no longer work the checkout line. Customers refused to buy groceries from her – ‘the other woman’. Owning a family business meant having the community involved in your everyday life. Dixie didn’t want customers involved in her family’s affairs.
Restoring her focus on Collin from across the kitchen table, she gave the only honest reply she could, “I think you can help me put this house back in order, that’s what I think!”
March 24, 2014