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Home with historic past threatened with demolition

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 | 10:09 p.m. CDT; updated 7:30 p.m. CST, Friday, February 19, 2010
This house at 2911 S. Old 63 in Columbia, once a restaurant owned by Annie Fisher, a successful African-American restaurateur and caterer in Columbia, now rests on property recently purchased by the owners of Old Highway 63 Mini Storage who are looking to expand their business. Historians are upset that this house could be destroyed.

COLUMBIA — In her time, Annie Fisher was a household name among the Columbia elite.

Fisher, a black woman who left school in the third grade to work in the fields, was born in 1867, shortly after slavery ended in th United States. She went on to build a catering and dining empire in Columbia, and her beaten biscuits were known across the county. But her memory is now fading.

Beaten biscuit recipe

Annie Fisher was known for her beaten biscuits, which were made with a “biscuit brake.” The machine pushed the dough through rollers, and then the biscuit maker would fold the dough in half and run it through again. This recipe was provided by Fisher reenactor Verna Harris-LaBoy, who owns one of the now-rare machines.

 

Ingredients:

Sifter of flour

Teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons of sugar

3 tablespoons of lard

Teaspoon of baking powder

Cup of milk

 

Directions:

Mix ingredients together.

Run through beaten biscuit machine until dough pops.

Bake in slow oven.


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In March, the City Council voted to rezone the property where she ran her restaurant, giving initial approval to a plan that would demolish it.

Kevin Murphy of the civil engineering firm, A Civil Group, spoke at the Feb. 7 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on behalf of the owner of a self-storage facility next to the house. According to meeting minutes, Murphy told the commission that the owner of Old Highway 63 Mini Storage, Merle Smarr, planned to tear down the existing structures to expand his business. At the time, no one raised any concerns, and the property was rezoned.

Now, Annie Fisher aficionados in Columbia say that losing the house would be a tragedy.

Verna Harris-LaBoy, a Columbia resident who portrays Fisher in presentations to groups of schoolchildren, has spent years gathering information about Fisher. Most of that knowledge has come from interviews with those who knew her, because written accounts are hard to come by. Harris-LaBoy said she hasn’t even come across a picture of Fisher in all the years she’s researched her life.

Now, she said, she’d like to have a part in saving the house where Fisher showed off her cooking skills.

“I think it would be a shame to let it go,” Harris-LaBoy said. “We don’t have a lot in terms of early black history in the community. It’s like it’s being plowed down.”

Fisher found her talent when she was transferred from working in the fields with her family to working in the kitchen. There, she discovered a love for cooking and she worked to hone her skills until she started a catering business.

She built up her business until she eventually owned more china, silver and linens than anyone else in Boone County. She could easily serve a party with a thousand guests, Harris-LaBoy said.

“There wasn’t a party in this town that was of status that wasn’t catered by Annie Fisher,” she said.

Fisher’s recipe for beaten biscuits was known throughout the world. At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, they won her a first-place award, and she filled orders for them from across the country.

Fisher used the profits from her success to build a house on Park Avenue. The house was built to Fisher’s specifications, and she lived in a tent on the site to oversee its construction, Harris-LaBoy said. That house was torn down in the 1960s as part of an urban renewal project, she said.

In 1920, she built Fair Oaks on land she inherited from her father near what is now Old 63. The restaurant she opened in the house was frequented by MU alumni.

Since Fisher died in 1938, the property has been home to a number of Columbia families. Now, Harris-LaBoy said she worries Fisher’s legacy could be destroyed with the house.

“It’s like she’ll disappear like all the others, beneath the concrete,” she said.

Efforts to save the house have thus far been unsuccessful. Brent Gardner, a realtor and member of the Historic Preservation Commission, said he had worked with a potential buyer for the house, but the deal hadn’t worked out for the buyer.

Gardner said the house has strong historical significance, and he thought it could still be used to house a restaurant.

Charlotte Smarr, Merle Smarr’s wife, said their plans to expand are on hold because of the state of the economy. In the meantime, she said, they would be open to selling the property if approached by a potential buyer.

“If somebody wants to buy it and do something with it, we’re not opposed to that,” she said. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘That would make a really nice bed and breakfast.’ But unfortunately, neither he (Merle Smarr) nor I have time for another business.”

Because of renovations and other changes to the house over the years, Charlotte Smarr said, any projects would take quite a bit of work.

But restoring the house would be “well worth the work,” said Donna Pierce, who researched Fisher when she was the food editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Pierce, who grew up in Columbia and now works for the Chicago Tribune, visited the house in the mid-1990s. Even then, Pierce said, it looked like it needed updating and repair; the house was dark and filled with the former owner’s art collection. Still, seeing Fisher’s kitchen and sitting in her office was a “profound” experience, she said.

Pierce, who had planned to write a book about Fisher, said she remembered the house from when she was growing up in Columbia, when it was across the street from the Sky-Hi drive-in theater. At the time, though, she said she didn’t realize the significance of the house.

“My heart would be broken if that house were torn down,” Pierce said. “If there’s any house that needs to be preserved, it’s that one.”


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