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Editor’s Note: George Boursaw (my husband Tim’s uncle) shares memories of working at the Old Mission Steak House and Art Shop in the 1950s. Owned by Jim and Fern Bryant at the time, the Steak House was located on what is now Ridgewood Road, about a half-mile past Haserot Beach on the left, before you head up the hill. The Steak House, which also included an art and antique shop, operated through the 1958 season. In 1959, the Bryants moved the restaurant to Bowers Harbor and, with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Moore, opened it anew as the Bowers Harbor Inn – now known as Mission Table. A fire destroyed the original Steak House – a two-story barn and stable later owned by Earl Wysong. A farmhouse is located there now. -jb

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Country bumpkin to … well, not quite Little Lord Fauntleroy, but quite a shock to a young teen. The Old Mission Steak House was my first job off the farm. The restaurant didn’t open until 5 p.m., so I would leave the cherry orchard, where I helped my dad (Garrett Boursaw) load the lugs onto the trailer in time to clean up and dress for work.

On the farm, it was blue jeans and a tattered tee shirt. Not the black dress pants, black dress shoes, long sleeved white shirt, white vest and black bow tie required at the Steak House. Luckily, it was a cheater tie.

But bigger than the change of dress was the culture shock. I went from working with a migrant crew of Mexican Americans speaking broken English to serving “High Society” – the resorters of Old Mission and the affluent from Traverse City.

When I started at the Steak House, the wait staff consisted of three other people: Terry Bryant, the owner’s son; Howard Wheelock, whose dad (Arthur Wheelock) was the hired man on the large fruit farm (“The Ridgewood”) just up the hill from the Steak House; and Steve Sobkowski, who lived in the village of Old Mission. Steve’s dad managed the Peninsula Fruit Exchange, which sold fertilizer and spray dope and bought fruit from the local growers. I was the outsider. Our farm was about four miles away (on the corner of Bluff Road and Boursaw Road).

The Steak House was located on a dirt road at the west end of Sweeney Lake (known now as Bagley Lake). The whole experience was a blessing, but strange – strange even before the first day of work. When I applied for a work permit, the lady asked me what my wages would be. I replied, “The waiters work for tips.”

She was reluctant to give me the permit, but did. That was a bit ironic. By then, my oldest brother, Tug, had two little ones and one on the way. I made more per hour than he did driving truck.

(Buy this photo at our sister site, OldMissionPhotos.com -jb) 

Old Mission Steak House on the Old Mission Peninsula, 1950s
Old Mission Steak House on the Old Mission Peninsula, 1950s

Picking Out Your Steak at the Old Mission Steak House

Other than the culture shock, the job was easy. The customers went to the refrigerated steak case where a selection of raw steaks was displayed. Gay Mericle, a local girl who was in college, stood in her little office with a window overlooking the case. The customer selected his steak and was asked how he would like it cooked. If he said “medium rare,” Gay would select a small wooden marker that was labeled “medium rare.”

On one side of the marker she put the table number, and on the other side, the customer’s number. If it was table six for four, one side would have a six, the other side a four. The customer was told to remember the customer number. The table number was for the waiter.

When the steaks were ready, the chef and co-owner, Jim Bryant, hollered “Table six!” The appropriate waiter would take the steak to the table and announce the customer number. Frequently, the customer forgot the number, but could tell by the steak and how it was cooked whose it was.

Coffee and a Salad Bar

This was before the era of salad bars, but the Steak House had one. Jim’s wife, co-owner Fern, liked to drink coffee with visiting neighbors at her house, but didn’t like getting up to get another cup. So, at the end of each table in the restaurant was a small wooden holder. On the bottom was a small candle; above that was a small opening; and on the top was a ceramic coffee urn. Before the customers were seated at your table, the waiter would light the candle and set the urn on top of the opening. The coffee was kept warm, and the customer would pour his own coffee.

It was a steak house, so there weren’t a whole lot of choices. Along with the salad bar, you got a steak and a baked potato. If you wanted dessert, you had two choices: cherry tart or nothing. It was cherry country.

Old Mission Steak House on the Old Mission Peninsula, 1950s
June 3, 1958, Traverse City Record-Eagle; Old Mission Steak House Opening for the Season

Math Teacher in Training

I have several isolated memories of the odd and peculiar. The waiters pooled their tips. At the end of the day, the tips were counted and divided by the number of waiters who worked that evening. On my first night, purposely picked to be not busy, there were only two other waiters. I shadowed one.

At the end of the night, Fern told me, “To be fair to the other two, we will give you one third, and the other boys will get will get one half of the rest, because they did more work.”

I pointed out, “Fine, but I get one third, which leaves two thirds. So, when they split that in two, we all get one third.” That may have been my first inkling to be a math teacher.

Even though I was young, I already had a big mouth and was prone to saying inappropriate things to big people. One day within her hearing range, I referred to her as “underbrush, not Fern.”  That did not set well.

It’s Spicy Salad Dressing

Fern was of nimble mind. Once while introducing a new table of customers to the salad bar, she explained that there were two choices of salad dressings. Each were in a covered container on either side of the big bowl of salad. When she uncovered the French dressing, she noticed several drowned fruit flies.

Acting quickly before customers looked, she stirred it up, then told the customers that it was very spicy, and that’s why there were all those black dots. Not sure what the health department would have thought, but we were in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from Traverse City.

At some point, Fern had one-page flyers printed up that we were supposed to put on the table. They noted that your waiter’s name was George or whoever. Although we were assigned a table, we would frequently help each other. If the coffee pot was empty, we would replenish it. If the salad bar was running low on something, we would take it to the kitchen. The kitchen would fix a fresh bowl, and the waiter would take it back to the salad bar. And sometimes a cohort would help you deliver the steaks. So, the customer may very well have more than one waiter.

Old Mission Steak House on the Old Mission Peninsula
Old Mission Steak House | Photo posted by Greg Buchan on Facebook

They’re Not Twins!

Because Terry and I both had black hair and deep tans, we looked somewhat alike. One time a customer asked if we were twins. Of course, we answered “Yes.” However, when the customer was leaving, he asked Fern why we did not have twin names. Fern was not amused, noting, “They are not twins!”

Terry was a talented artist. Interestingly, he wrote with his right hand, but drew with his left. He designed a flyer that said, “Your steak has not been touched by human hands. Our chef is Jim.” The message was accompanied by a wonderful drawing that was a caricature of an ape. Needless to say, it was not distributed.  Jim was opposed to cooking steaks well done. If he got such an order, it was a good thing the customer could not see the look on his face.

Just Go Out Behind the Barn

Fern had a neat sense of humor. Terry was from a previous marriage, and his little brother was adopted. Fern was fond of telling friends that Jim was not Terry’s father, and she had no idea who was the father of her youngest son – all of this without explanation.

But even Fern had an occasional slip of the tongue. The building that was converted to the restaurant was located a short distance from the house. Apparently, before its life as a restaurant, they referred to the building as the barn. When the kitchen facility was added, a bathroom was also added off the dining room on the back of the building. During the first year of operation, a customer asked Fern, “Where is the restroom?” Inadvertently, she blurted out, “Oh, just go out behind the barn.” Talk about a faux pas.

They’re Olives, Not Cherries

One random lesson learned: look before you leap. One evening after closing, we were cleaning off the salad bar. As I was taking an item from the salad bar to the kitchen, I noticed a container sitting in the shadows. I assumed t was black sweet cherries, so I reached in to snitch one. Big mistake, it was a black olive. It definitely was not sweet. It was years before I tried my second black olive.

I also heard about, but did not witness, a young waiter delivering a steak to the table. He decided to be impressive and lift the plate with one hand above his shoulder. Unfortunately, the steak began to slide off the plate, so, he slapped the plate against the wall. The steak did not fall, but it was flattened, and steak juice ran down the wall. I assume the customer got a new steak.

My rather major mishap seemed to be the customer’s fault at the time. Of course, “at the time,” I was a young teen. Now in my mid-70s, I understand. As I was delivering sour cream for the baked potato to the end of the table, I tipped the container slightly and some sour cream dribbled on the back of a male diner’s chair as he was contently leaning forward to cut his steak.

I intended to say, “Excuse me, Sir, but don’t lean back. I spilled some sour cream on the back of your chair. Give me a minute, and I’ll wipe it up.” But as soon as I said, “Excuse me,” he leaned back and said, “What?” Of course, the sour cream was now on his sports coat. My bad.

The Mericles were the only siblings that worked for the Bryants.  Gay’s little brother, Chris, was a fellow waiter and two grades behind me. Chris was a poised waiter. The Miracles were not farmers and had only recently moved to our area. Chris had a severe stutter that became noticeable towards the end of his shift as he grew more tired. But his smile and gracious style got him through.

Moving to Bowers Harbor

When the Steak House closed and moved to Bowers Harbor, Gay had moved on, and her sister Lucy inherited her job. Lucy was younger than Gay and older than Chris. The Bowers Harbor Inn (now known as Mission Table) was located in a large old mansion, known locally as the Stickney Place. Mrs. Stickney’s ghost is rumored to haunt the place.

The Inn was much larger that the Steak House, so the wait staff and customers increased. But the set up was much the same until the Inn got a liquor license. That left me and my original cohorts too young to work in the dining room where liquor was served, so we all moved on to something else.

Old Mission Steak House on the Old Mission Peninsula, 1950s
May 14, 1959, Traverse City Record-Eagle; Old Mission Steak House re-opens as Bowers Harbor Inn

A Ride Through Old Mission In an Antique Car

My fondest memory of the Old Mission Steak House was not at the Steak House and not during the usual evening hours of business. An antique car club had contacted Fern and asked if she could open the restaurant for a Saturday lunch to be attended by only members of the club. She agreed to their proposal.

It was the usual set up of salad bar, select your own steak, and cherry tart for dessert. They were a fun group to serve, but of course, a bit different with so many orders being put out so close together. As we attended to their needs, they were jovial and complimentary.

But when they cleared out and we started bussing the tables, the wait staff was flabbergasted. Some tables left no tip, and others only a small amount. We asked Fern, “Why?” She relieved our anxiety with her response: Any tip you get is above the 15 percent the club has already paid.

We were still sighing with relief, when a club member reappeared. He asked Fern if the boys could bus the tables later. They wanted to give the waiters a ride in their vintage autos. What a thrill! I climbed into the rumble seat of an impeccably restored antique, and the man and his wife gave me a tour of the village of Old Mission.

In the 1950’s, the village did not have paved streets – a flashback in time. It seemed so authentic to ride by the small houses on a dirt street in a vintage car. Now in the second decade of the 21st Century, some roads in the little village are still dirt roads.

Old Mission Steak House on the Old Mission Peninsula, 1950s
March 25, 1957, Traverse City Record-Eagle; Fern Bryant speaks at Ogdensburg Club
Old Mission Steak House on the Old Mission Peninsula, 1950s
July 31, 1964, Traverse City Record-Eagle; Fern Bryant dies at Traverse City Osteopathic Hospital
Old Mission Steak House on the Old Mission Peninsula, 1950s
Nov. 16, 1968, Traverse City Record-Eagle; Fire destroys former site of Old Mission Steak House

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for that great article! This was well written and provided a greater understanding of the Old Mission Steak House. We had owned the home and property where the Steak House was from 1994 to 1999. We had been told that there had been a Steak House on the property many years earlier. We never knew much about it. One summer day a man and woman knocked on the door asking where the Old Mission Steak House was. They said they were retracing their honeymoon travels from 40 years earlier now on their 40th anniversary. She showed us a post card that she had saved in her journal from the Steak House. That post card seemed to be the same photo as above. It was so good to finally know what the famous Old Mission Steak House looked like. They said it was wonderful and so memorable. You may have been part of their great experience remembered.

  2. Thank you George for the memories. I always wondered what the Steak House was all about. I do remember visiting the art shop with my dad and being a young “country kid” I thought Fern was very flamboyant and I was impressed with her artistry.

    I enjoyed the newspaper clippings Jane, thanks for the story.

  3. Well written, George! I agree with it all. I was the waiter (young kid) that smashed the steak against the wall (Hey, it didn’t hit the floor). I also fondly remember the old car ride- what a treat. I do remember replying to a customer who inquired about desert saying with a stutter “We have a cherry turt or nothing” (rhymes with curt) The customer had a very strange look on her face. Fern thought it was hilarious and would often remind me of it even when I ended up working at the Bowers Harbor Inn as a dishwasher since I wasn’t old enough to wait on table. The Old Mission Steak House was truly a unique experience for me.

    • Chris, Thank you so much for your positive feedback on my piece on the steak house.  I was reluctant to write it because, as you said, we were just kids.  I have isolated memories of isolated incidents but not much historical context. Fortunately Jane (my nephew Tim’s wife and publisher of the Gazette) came up with some wonderful pictures, newspaper clippings, and historical background.
      Between the time I submitted my article and Jane was able to publish it, I learned of Howard Wheellock’s death.  I guess it is time to record our personal histories.
      George

  4. George, Terry Bryant (now Collins) told me to ask you if you remember when a big chunk of steak got stuck in your throat and the other waiters finally got it out while really pounding your back. Terry is alive and well. He just moved from TC to Grosse Pointe and living with son Evan. He was a regular member of our Sunday lunch group at the Tavern. We are a group who were together growing up and summers at THE DOCK at Haserot Beach. He is very missed at our lunches.

  5. Nice article George…I worked in the kitchen as a salad chef with Lee Herman and Ida Mlujeak Bee. Let me tell you that kitchen was hot..it was a “Hells Kitchen” One of my favorite memories was after we had got the “house” ready for the next day we all piled into the red jeep and drove to Haserot Beach. drove over the sand right into the water and drove off the jeep to the cool water. Good place to work for the summer…many memories..and as Becky mentioned we sure miss our friend Terry Bryant Collins!!

  6. i was one of the original 14 yr old waiters there. let me tell you that was a big influence on me. first off gale mericle gave the waiters camel cigarettes to watch us get sick, but after about a month we were fully addicted and paid her 2 cents for one. my mother sewed vests for the waiters out of bleached canvas that we wore with clip-on black bow ties.
    as george said the tips were humongous, i could hardly make it home on the bicycle with all the weight. after work we would count the tips andone of the boys cried because we got much higher tips then his. fern’s solution was for us to pool the tips and each waiter take the same amount home. this made me cry. my grandfather george issaic altenburg let me know that was the one event that made me an elephant republican.
    in retrospect to me it was like working on the farm. there were no politics and we all functioned as a team, very proud of the place and people there.
    when the bryants bought the bowers harbor inn we worked all winter there to get the place ready earning 75 cents an hour and all the free camels we could smoke. the year it opened, around ’61 they didn’t have a liquor license but it sold out every night. when they got the license a couple of years later things seemed to change, it was still very busy but lost ambience what with local bar hogs like soggy oggie and willie warhoop harrassing the regular customers.
    my favorite job at the new place was parking cars, those Cadillacs could hit 50 mph going from the door to the parking lot. another great one was washing dishes where you could get steak bones by the grocery bagful for the dogs at home.
    one of my saddest memories was about the bryants too. their adopted baby boy died after a year. the ex waiters carried the tiny casket into the old mission church in mid winter wearing the clip on bow ties. as the newspaper article said fern died a year late and her husband jim moved away.

    • We all have enjoyed having Terry with us for so long and now really miss him as he has gone to live with his son in Grosse Pointe. We will see him again, I am sure. He had a lot of good stories along with you about the steak house and other Old Mission carryings on!!!!!!!!!!! Becky

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