Tears couldn’t stop manager Linda Hudson’s hand from turning the lock.
Gasper’s, the 39-year-old Kingdom City truck stop, closed its doors for the final time Tuesday, ending the legacy of a restaurant that’s known by truck drivers from coast to coast.
“I’ve been to all 48 (continental) states and all you have to say is ‘Gasper’s’ and people know exactly what you’re talking about,” Bill Klostermon said.
Klostermon, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, has come to Gasper’s since it opened. He smoked light cigarettes and drank black coffee Tuesday morning at his regular table with 10 other regulars.
“You don’t start your day without coming here,” he said to nods of agreement.
Gasper’s opened in 1965. Skelly Oil Co. hired John and Lottie Gasper to manage the truck stop at a time when only two other businesses had a home in the fields off Interstate 70 at the U.S. 54 interchange. Two years later, the couple bought the business. Lottie Gasper’s blackberry cobbler and fried chicken impressed the customers as much as her work ethic impressed her employees.
“She never asked you to do something that she wouldn’t,” waitress Bea Hughes said. “She wouldn’t put up with no mess, though. She was from the old school. You worked.”
Hughes, who has worked at Gasper’s for 20 years off and on, didn’t wait tables Tuesday but came in to say goodbye. She wore street clothes and big earrings shaped like Christmas trees — earrings are her trademark, she explained. It’s how the customers remembered her.
“I never thought I would be here when the doors would come down, never in my wildest nightmares,” Hughes said. “I just took it for granted.”
As recently as 10 years ago, employees remember lines that wrapped around the building on Sunday afternoons as people waited to be served. But competition has decreased business in recent years.
In August 2000, Ron Atkinson, the Gaspers’ grandson and current owner of the restaurant, leased the space to Bobber’s, a truck stop in Booneville.
Two weeks ago, Bobber’s owner Albert Schlueter announced that he would not renew the lease in December. Schlueter said he considered it for a while, but the building’s need for renovations, concerns about changes to I-70 on the horizon and the declining volume of customers ultimately swayed his decision.
“It’s been a phenomenal restaurant, but its time has come,” Schlueter said. “When these places get to be 35 years old, they stop meeting the needs of the public.”
The accompanying gas station and convenience store will remain open but might close temporarily. Ron Atkinson would like to redevelop the entire truck-stop plaza. He plans to have a business proposal by the end of the year. Ideally, he said it would include a fast-food component — possibly with a franchise chain connected — and a sit-down restaurant.
Ron Atkinson said his business completely misses the quick-serve customers, which he said describes the majority of young travelers.
For the regulars — served by waitresses who shared stories and concerns along with the biscuits and gravy — a “McStop,” like the next door McDonald’s sign boasts, won’t do.
John Edwards, a 71-year-old farmer, met his wife, Donnie Edwards, at Gasper’s. She has been a waitress there since 1971. John Sparks, a 36-year-old truck driver, can’t remember a world without Gasper’s and its black-and-white kitty-cat clock behind the cash register. Larom Hilke, 35, came with his dad on deliveries for Hilke Ice Co. to Gasper’s as a child. He made the 60-mile drive Tuesday from Freeburg for one last cheeseburger.
Then there’s the staff. Delores Barnes, 64, started in October 1965 with only a five-year absence since due to tuberculosis. Arlene Willfley, 72, started pouring coffee for truckers in 1969. Tears filled their eyes Tuesday afternoon after the restaurant closed.
They shared more than tips. They shared a second home, and none of them knows what to do next.
“It’s going to hurt all of us,” Donnie Edwards said. “It hasn’t even hit me, yet. I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow.”