Farewell Elk Plain Café
By Marianne Lincoln
It was 1901, Lillian and Thorne Tibbitts built a business on the new Mountain Highway south of Spanaway. Inside the enterprise, Lillian sold gasoline, groceries and auto accessories to neighbors and people passing by on their way to the mountain. The gas was Red Crown, a division of Standard Oil.
The station was a rectangular building, cream-colored with red trim. There was a large awning out front held up by four posts. Between the posts were two gas pumps. One, a tall pump with the calibrated glass cylinder on top and the other, a shorter metal pump with meter readings.
On the front of the posts holding up the awning were colorful V-shaped flags for catching the customer’s eye as they drove down the highway. On top of the building, a large Red Crown Gasoline sign could be seen from far down the road. Above it a sign suggesting people stop for lunch. Across the front of the awning it read GROCERIES AUTO ACCESSORIES.
Around the building outside were several small furnished cottages. They were part of Tibbitt’s Tourist Camp. Next to them there was a sign touting they were approved by the AAA. This was Thorne’s part of the business. According to Barbara Dorfner Ford, the cabins were tiny, but during the depression, entire families lived in them.
Great granddaughter Anne Tibbitts Reitzug showed off an old business card for Tibbitts Tourist Camp, 4 miles south of the Spanaway Post Office. “14 MILES SO. OF TACOMA ON MOUNTAIN HIGHWAY.“ The phone number was MAD 162 R 3. The card advertised completely furnished cottages, showers and a community kitchen. STOP AND LUNCH was in large letters.
Lillian and Thorne had two children, John and Thornwell. They ran the business until the mid 1930’s.
In a recent discussion with Reatha Leber, she revealed she used to go there quite often in her childhood. Reatha and her sisters used to call Johnny’s parents Grandpa and Grandma even though she wasn’t related to them directly as her aunt Bernice was married to John Tibbitts. She reminisced with a smile, “I liked to go there. I would get pop, candy and snacks.”
I asked what she paid for them, she responded, “Oh, I think they just gave them to me.”
“All the better,” I responded. It’s nice to have family with a grocery store.
Reatha also mentioned Lillian had help running the store. “Johnny’s aunts and mother ran it,” she said.
Records are scarce from the late 30’s and 40’s, during that time the Tibbitts sold it and according to a News Tribune article from 1996, the gas station was remodeled into the Elk Plain Café in 1946.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, Sylvia Hicks McVey and Lydia (Hicks) McCauley leased it. Their other sister, Pat (Hicks) Justice also worked there, according to Cindy McVey Willett, Sylvia’s granddaughter. Cindy and her husband Rick have been commenting on café photos posted on Facebook this month. At first they thought Cindy’s great grandparents Perl and Edna Hicks had bought it. Another relative told them that wasn’t the case. This is the difficult part of remembering the past, getting the accurate story.
“We bought Cindy’s family home about three years ago and while going thru her father’s stuff we found some receipts from the Elk Plain Café,” noted Rick fondly.
Other people who operated the Elk Plain Café included, 1980-1984 Faith & Harvey Keller, 1985-1988 Janet Anspach, 1988-1995 Patricia Predmore, and 1996-2000 Randy Corner.
Joseph Nichols noted his grandmother Charlene Adams was a waitress there from 1980 – 1989 and dated one of the cooks named Walter.
Randy Corner shared several photos and stories of the Café in the late 1990’s, when it seemed to function as much as a community center and a restaurant. Randy noted. “People came to eat and stayed.” People would meet and have food drives for the holidays, go on sturgeon fishing trips and have hay rides around Christmas time.
Randy had a special place in the southwest corner of the restaurant where he would sit and run the business. He had been injured in his previous job as an operating engineer and was on crutches for a couple years. He also ran a Pizza Station in Elbe and a pizza place at the nearby shopping mall that he eventually incorporated into the Elk Plain Café.
One of his patrons, Bill Brown, liked to show up at 4 a.m. Randy gave him a set of keys. He would open up the Café and start a pot of coffee. Breakfast started when Randy arrived at 6 a.m.
Randy said there was a large number of regulars every day for breakfast. One of the regulars, who was very particular about his seat location and breakfast selections, was dubbed “Old Goat.” One day the regulars presented him with a plaque at his place that said “Old Goats Table.” Everyone was sad when he passed away.
And who could forget the screen door as you entered and left the café, “Thawack!” it would announced behind you.
Randy liked to fly. His list of customers included Slim Lawson who operated Spanaway Airport and the local flying school, Spanaflight and Tim Brill. Tim is an FAA Master Certificated Flight Instructor –Aerobatic and the 2013 Western-Pacific Region CFI of the Year.
Breakfast at the Elk Plain Café according to Randy was, “Homestyle.” He made eggs benedict, eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage and pancakes that were as big as the plate at 12 inches across. For the kids he would prepare Mickey Mouse pancakes. He had a farmer’s breakfast that he said, “Had everything including the kitchen sink.”
Randy said Leo Ceccanti was the owner of the café when he operated it. I spoke with Leo around 2006 and asked about reopening the enterprise as a bakery. He said the building was, “Too far gone.” Leo passed away a couple years ago and left it to his family who formed the Elk Plain Café LLC.
The property was sold at the end of 2012 to O’Reilly’s Auto Parts and they will be tearing the building down as soon as the permits come through. The residents in the mobile homes have moved out and those will likely be gone in a few days.
I contacted O’Reilly’s Real Estate Department in Springfield, Missouri this past week and asked about the plans for the café site. Patrick Tasset was happy to send over the architectural elevation and landscape plan for us to see. The new building will be masonry and brick with a significant amount of landscaping, including some trees. The current fir trees will be removed. Esterly Schneider Architects of Springfield, Missouri are the designers of the building. Construction will likely begin in March. The best news was that he was affable and interested in the feedback from our community. The location is certainly a prominent one with the triangular street corner and the design is nice looking with its red brick accents. Of course, I suggested there should be some trees capable of holding Christmas lights. Every community needs a happy spot to light up in the dark of winter.
O’Reilly’s has also purchased a lot on Meridian in Graham next door to the Mexican Restaurant and will be building a store there as well. Patrick noted that building does not have as many street fronts and will not be quite as elaborate as the one in Elk Plain. It is expected to begin construction in early April.
Many people have expressed sentiment regarding the landmark that the bright red, now faded, Elk Plain Café has become in the community. I contacted Jean Sensel who was the Spanaway representative on the Landmarks Commission and County Councilman Tim Farrell who is an avid local historian. Neither thought the building was salvageable due to its deteriorated condition and county health regulations. Indeed, Kevin Greely took me inside. With a flashlight and the flash turned on, I managed to get a few photos of the molded wallboard, dusty bench seats and torn up floors.
Local businessmen at the 723 Networking meeting were quick to notify me in December when Rick Ceccanti took down the Café signs. I contacted Rick and he acknowledged also salvaging the old interior door with the etched glass that said Elk Plain Café. He has plans to donate them to a local museum.
In preparation of the demolition, I posted some photos of the Elk Plain Café on Facebook. Many people reached out to comment on their memories and experiences.
Michael Zubitis, “A Dios, Elk Plain Cafe! Sorry I didn’t eat there more often…Just didn’t have a lot of $$$$ when I was a kid!“
Terry McLaughlin, “I had lots of meals there, certainly a great breakfast place to go with friends! Great memories!”
Richard Olson, “Wow, I used to buy cigarettes there as a kid. Before I was legal.”
Robin Heick- Bish, “Hey, I bought cigs there too (when I used to smoke), since the machine didn’t ask for id.”
Calvin James, “My bedroom was up stairs in 1969.”
Samantha White Kilcup, “Best french fries in the world.”
Rick Gardner, “I used to like walking over there for their fried chicken dinner.”
Annette Sullivan, “My in-laws met there. I have this place to thank for my Wayne Miller! Gerry was working and Ralph stopped by for a bit to eat…”
Cindy McVey Willett, “I remember going there and we always got a bottle of pop.”
Steven Slater, “ Firemen used to walk over there to eat when the Elk Plain station was open. There was a story of Sasquach scratching up the siding one year.”
Robert Meier, “Every time I pass it I remember riding bikes there on Saturday mornings with my dad for breakfast, all the way from Spanaway Park.”
Robert Etteldorf, “They served some great breakfast and lunches out of that old building.”
Susan Rankin, “Had many breakfast and dinners eaten there and the Griebe’s lived out back. Learned CPR at the fire station also located out back when I attended grade school at Elk Plain… So sad to see it looking like that.”
Joseph Nichols, “My Grandma was a waitress there when I was kid.”
Jeanette DeBella Bogue, “Man, they had awesome food!”
Robin Barnes of the Spanaway Historical Society added, “They made the best grits and gravy according to the old-timers. There was a big scandal when they raised the price of coffee.”
Farewell Elk Plain Café, you have been an icon in the Elk Plain / Loveland community with your bright red paint, great homestyle meals and circle of great friends. We wish you and the community great success as you return to your original purpose, auto accessories. But we won’t mind if you put a pop or candy machine out front, for the good old days.
For other stories about the history of Elk Plain/Loveland try these links.