“Ah shucks Mark,” Ernie would drawl, “I’ve told that story so many times.”
“Come on, once more,” would be my reply (I’d played this game with Ernie a few times over 15 years).
“Well, OK. You see, one night back about 1960, as I was getting ready to close, a gentleman came through the door. He told me he could show me how to make the world’s finest fried chicken. I told him in return I’d offer him the finest barbecued pork sandwich he’d ever tasted,” Ernie would begin.
“He cooked the chicken, in some kind of special pot (which turned out to be a pressure cooker), I fixed him a sandwich and we ate. Mr. Sanders told me I could make a lot of money selling his chicken. Even offered to sell me a franchise. I told him I’d sell him a Pig Hip franchise and he could quit the chicken business. We laughed. After dinner, he moved on. Guess he became sorta famous. Maybe I should have considered one of those chicken franchises of his.”
It was one of Ernie’s best stories. For many, many years, Ernie Edwards ran a restaurant in a small town along the side of Route 66 in Broadwell, Illinois. Broadwell is just a few miles from Lincoln and Springfield (where an aspiring young lawyer would begin a path that would lead him to the White House).
Broadwell isn’t a town as much as it is a wide spot in the road. Because of the interstate wiping out part of old 66, you really have to make an effort to stop there. There isn’t much to see anymore.
The old Pig Hip burned down a few years back. An electrical fire in the restaurant Ernie had made into a museum turned the old, mostly wooden building into a tinderbox torch that was completely ablaze by the time the fire department could be summoned.
But here’s the interesting part. People kept coming. When the restaurant was open, Ernie served up barbecued pork sandwiches and other short order delights. But as the years piled up, the interstate diverted a lot of the traffic from the old road. Ernie retired and figured his career was over. His second career, as a storyteller of and on The Mother Road had just begun.
Then the guidebooks on the old road started getting written. The restaurant had closed and now it was not even there, and people kept stopping to see the now closed highway icon.
I met Ernie in 1995, when took my first trip on Route 66. I knew the first time I met him he would be a “staple” on tours of the old road. We’d stop, and Ernie would hold court in the back of his house. The people would gather around, listen to his stories and get a autographed Pig Hip placemat, buy a few of the souvenirs Ernie sold, and head down the road, having met a true piece of Americana.
Last year, a friend of Ernie’s called me. Seems Ernie was having a harder time getting around and it was time for him and his wife to consider relocating to an assisted care facility in Lincoln. He didn’t want to go. His friend Bobby said, “I’m just calling a few of Ernie’s friends to see if there’s anything we can do to cheer him up. He’s pretty down about having to go to the nursing home.”
I had an idea. Two days later, at our Spring Open House at the KVIE Studios, we invited people who knew Ernie and people who didn’t, to sign one of two giant 30×48” poster boards, one with the “Pig Hip” logo on it. Then, with an assist from FedEx, we delivered the cards to Ernie in Lincoln. That was last April.
Last week, my intercom beeped. “A guy named Bobby is on the phone. Says he’s a friend of Ernie’s, and you would know him.”
Took just a second for my brain to make the connection and I picked up the phone.
“Mark, this is Bobby from Illinois. I just wanted to call you to tell you Ernie Edwards passed away last night. He was 94 years old.”
Then Bobby continued, “I wanted you to know because of the cards. When Ernie got those cards last year, it really turned things around for him. He moved to the senior home, and he and his wife didn’t take a lot with them, because the house was only a few miles away. But he took those cards. They were part of a display in the town museum last fall about The Pig Hip and then they we returned to Ernie’s room at the home where he was staying.”
“Whenever anyone came to visit him over the past year, they would hear the story of your cards. Ernie would tell anyone who would listen that those cards were from his California friends who visited him on Route 66 at the Pig Hip. A big smile would come over his face. It really made a difference. I guess maybe he thought people didn’t really care much about an old restaurant man who told stories.”
I was speechless. A tear or two rolled down my cheek. I thanked Bobby profusely for his call and his comments. I asked him to send my best to Mrs. Edwards.
I’ve met a lot of people like Ernie along America’s old highways. Like Dawn at the Rock Café in Stroud, Oklahoma; or the folks hoping to restore the Wheat Growers Hotel in Kimball, Nebraska; or Angel the barber in Seligman, Arizona, a man who perhaps singlehandedly helped start the movement to preserve and restore Route 66, because he wouldn’t let his town die.
But there aren’t too many quite like Ernie. They broke the mold when they made him. We have lost a friend, those of us who travel Route 66. And next year, when the bus rolls into Broadwell, we’ll stop and I’ll tell the story of the man who sold the “Pig Hip” sandwiches (you only use the LEFT hip of the pig for sandwiches, because the pig scratches himself with the right one, and the meat on that side is tougher – or so Ernie said, with a straight face and then a laugh.)
God, I love to travel. Mostly I love getting off the interstate and taking the old roads, meeting people like Ernie, and hearing the stories, because it’s the stories that make people like Ernie live on within us.
Did I tell you the one about the fried chicken salesman who stopped one night at this little restaurant in Broadwell, Illinois…
So long Ernie. Your friends on “The Mother Road” will miss you.We found this video, courtesy of Central Illinois Tourism. Enjoy!