White Springs Supper Club revisited
By Audrey Posten with Doris Phalen Barrette
A week or so ago, Doris Phalen Barrette visited Schillerstrasse Antiques.
“It was very tastefully done,” she said of the antique shop that opened Labor Day weekend in the building that once housed the White Springs Supper Club.
As far as endorsements go, that’s a pretty good one to get. After all, Doris grew up at the Springs, washing dishes and peeling potatoes as a girl, then later waiting tables and serving drinks. Her mother, Ethel Mann, helped run the Springs from 1949 until her death in 2004.
As the Springs begins another chapter in its storied history, Doris looked back on what made it an important part of not just her family, but the surrounding communities as well.
Archie Fritz built the Springs on the property that once housed the Klein Brewery and opened the supper club in 1936. Doris said it is not clear whether Fritz actually built the Springs or if he simply removed the upper floors from the brewery. The building is four stories high, 80 feet long and 60 feet wide. Three rooms—each seven feet high—in a sand cave were used to store and cool the beer the brewery manufactured. The cave was connected to the Springs by an entrance behind the bar, which has since been blocked.
After Fritz built the Springs, Doris said there were a few different owners, and her mother tended bar for each of them on Saturday nights.
Ethel, born Ethel Bovee, married Doris’ father, Charley Phalen. Together, they had two children—Doris and her sister.
“This was during the Great Depression years,” Doris said.
“My father deserted my mother during this time. My dad’s brother and his wife raised my sister in Chicago. She would come up to visit, but never lived with us. I was raised by my mother and Ray Bovee, my mother’s brother, in the early years.”
While Ethel was working at the Springs, it was purchased by Ervin “Shorty” Mann and his wife, who came from Cedar Rapids. The couple shortly divorced, leaving Shorty as the sole owner. He and Ethel married in 1948.
Soon after Shorty and Ethel married, Doris said the couple had financial problems due to Shorty’s divorce. As a result, the Springs was closed for a year while both Shorty and Ethel worked in Dubuque. Eventually, the Springs was able to open on weekends, then finally full-time. The supper club was closed on Mondays, but was open every other day from 5 p.m. to 3-5 a.m.
“I remember working those 12 hours many, many times,” Doris said.
Doris said some of the Springs’ busiest and most memorable times were when the establishment hosted dances.
“They had dances upstairs with some well-known bands from the Midwest, plus square dances and wedding dances,” she recalled. “There were huge crowds at the dances. The Springs had no air conditioning, so there was a huge fan upstairs screened off from the dancing area. The fan was made from an airplane propeller about six feet around. It did the job, but was very noisy. They had all the windows open also. Downstairs was cooled by a fan in the doorway to the cave behind the bar.
“When I came of age to serve the drinks, I can remember, on dance nights, trying to elbow my way to the booths, through the crowd. It was that crowded!”
The dry years
During the 1950s, Iowa became a dry state. Without the liquor sales, money got tight at the Springs, so, at the suggestion of Doris’ cousin, Elmer Sawvell, Ethel and Shorty held roller skating upstairs. Elmer owned a skating rink in Ferryville, Wis., so he provided the Springs with the skates.
“For two years, we had roller skating upstairs, with Shorty leading the skaters for the first round.” Doris said. “This is where I met my husband, Phil Barrette, of Prairie du Chien.”
Around that time, Doris said the bridge between Wisconsin and Iowa became free, allowing for more travel (and more romances) between the states.
“We were married June 8, 1957,” Doris recalled. “Mom and Shorty had a wedding dance for us at the Springs. They gave away free beer all night long. We saw people sitting on the cement step out front with dish pans of beer!”
Doris said Iowa’s status as a dry state caused some of the Springs’ most secretive endeavors. Regular customers had drinks served to them in coffee cups that were filled from a liquor bottle hidden in the kitchen.
“When the authorities from Des Moines were planning a raid, they let the sheriff’s department know,” Doris explained. “The sheriff’s department would call a bar in McGregor and say, ‘It’s going to be hot in McGregor tonight.’ That bar would call another and so forth.”
Once, when her husband, Phil, was bartending, Doris said two men asked for drinks. Phil refused, so the two men asked for Ethel.
“Phil called my mother out and she said, ‘It’s OK to give them a drink. This is the sheriff in the corner.’ The sheriff told Phil to keep up the good job!”
Doris said one of the White Springs’ quirks people always asked about was the hole in the wall by the phone and an arm coming out. During the leaner times, Doris said there was not enough money for a phone, so Ethel and Shorty got a pay phone and cut a hole beside it so it could be answered from the kitchen when people called in carry out orders.
“They later got a phone on the back bar, but the pay phone and hole stayed,” said Doris.
Another quirk was the Ray Stevens record “The Streak,” which was a popular juke box tune.
“It said ‘Ethel, don’t look now,’” Doris said. “Mom was teased about that record and it stayed in the juke box for years because the customers loved to play it and tease mom, ‘Ethel, look out!’”
Doris also fondly remembers the White Springs menu. When Shorty bought the Springs, Doris said he brought a chef named “Doc” with him. Their menu consisted of French fried chicken, shrimp (21 for 99 cents), barbecue ribs, hamburgers and French fries. A meal consisted of meat, French fries, a roll and a relish dish of celery, carrots and pickles.
“If I remember right, you got a quarter of a chicken with the above for $1.25 and $1.50 for half a chicken,” Doris said. “I think Shorty brought French fried chicken to this area. The ribs were a White Springs specialty. The pork ribs were hickory smoked in a barbecue pit behind the house. The sauce was made by Doc and later by my mother. When Doc was gone, my stepfather took over the cooking.”
However, on Dec. 19, 1965, that all changed.
“Two drinkers started fighting,” Doris recalled. “Shorty came out of the kitchen to stop the fight, as he had done many times before. He stopped the fight and then had a heart attack and died in a booth at White Springs. He was buried Dec. 22, on my husband’s birthday, in McGregor.”
After Shorty’s death, Doris said the Springs had a number of cooks. Ethel did not do much of the cooking, but she always made the potato salad and coleslaw, her specialties.
“She made both from scratch, as was all the food,” Doris said.
The menu also grew to include ham, steak, lobster tail, scallops, catfish, French fried onion rings and a huge relish dish.
Doris also recalled the famous White Springs coon feeds.
“The hunters would bring raccoons to the Springs,” she said. “Shorty would barbecue the coon in the pit, then steam it in the kitchen with the Springs’ special barbecue sauce. The local ladies each brought a covered dish to share.”
Doris said she has not had raccoon since those feeds, but that she and Phil, along with their family, still enjoy the same barbecue ribs and sauce for which the Springs was so well-known.
After Shorty’s death, Ethel became the sole owner of the Springs. Harold Landt helped her run the business for many years.
“He knew most of the customers by name, knew their favorite drink and was popular with his humor and laugh,” Doris said. “He was with mom until she died.”