The Shack comes back

The Shack was a legendary MU hangout for about 60 years
Thursday, August 9, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:15 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
A photo of The Shack from the 1979 MU Savitar. The hangout was a legendary landmark on Conley Avenue, where the Reynolds Alumni Center now stands, and was closed down in the 1980s.

COLUMBIA - A chipped and faded green door gave way to the musty, wooden smell of one of MU’s oldest hangouts. Inside The Shack, the tables and bar were adorned with initials carved into them by many generations.

The Shack was one of the lasting memories of MU alums for the better part of the 20th century, but it has been nearly 20 years since it burned to the ground in 1988.


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Soon, a new generation of MU students will be able to experience this former campus landmark. A restoration of The Shack is included in the plans for the expansion of Brady Commons. But these students might not even realize The Shack dates back to before many of their grandparents were even born.

A man, a truck and a dream

The story of The Shack has become a legend, and its beginnings are no different. According to longtime Shack owner Joe Franke, it all started in 1920, when Chandler Davis decided to move his family from California to downtown Columbia.

By 1921, Franke said, Davis and his family had arrived at 704 Conley Ave., where the Reynolds Alumni Center currently sits, and set up shop. Davis and his family began running a restaurant out of the extended truck that they called the Davis Tea Room. Their spaghetti and bread garnered quite a reputation around town, as did the homemade soup.

In 1932, the Davis Tea Room was bought by Jack Armel, and the name was promptly changed to Jack’s Shack. Along with the name change came another key introduction to the restaurant — beer. The establishment changed from a restaurant that catered to a largely dine-in crowd to one specializing in carry out. It was during these years “The Shackburger” was introduced, perfected by former employee Mary Blakemore, according to Franke.

In 1939 “Jack’s Shack” was officially shortened to “The Shack.” It was around this time the restaurant gained its status as the most prominent near-campus hangout Columbia had to offer. The pew-like booths, the worn green entrance door and the sign that was stolen so often the managers ended up carving the name on a nearby tree, all became legendary.

“From the middle ’40s to the ’80s, anybody who was anybody that came through the university has been to The Shack,” Franke said. “I go all over the country, and anybody who found out I was from Columbia, the first question they would always ask me is whether The Shack was still there.”

The restaurant’s most famous regular was cartoonist Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey. Walker used to run the Showme, an MU humor magazine that many say had a role in Walker being kicked out of the School of Journalism. Walker ran all Showme meetings from the back room of The Shack. Walker went there so often he even carved his name into the ceiling, and many of Walker’s Beetle Bailey cartoons involve the restaurant in some form.

Another sign of its popularity during this time was the 1956 hit song “The Green Door,” written by MU alum Jim Lowe. The actual inspiration for the song is heavily debated, but many at the time believed it came from the famed green door of The Shack. Franke, though, says he does not believe the song actually came from the restaurant.

Sometime in the 1960s, The Shack closed down. It was re-opened in 1974, but never regained its luster as a campus hangout. In 1984, The Shack officially closed down.

In February of 1988, MU purchased the land that the Shack resided on. Nine months later, at 1:07 a.m. on Nov. 1, The Shack burned to the ground. Suspicions of arson were widely reported in the local media at the time, but no culprit was ever found.

The New Shack

Almost 20 years later The Shack is coming back, but this time around you will have to bring your own burgers. The plans for the expansion of Brady Commonswill include an area called The Shack where students can congregate and eat together. It is part of the second phase in the expansion, which will not start until the first phase is finished, scheduled for around the end of 2008. Michelle Froese, spokesperson for Student Auxiliary Services, said there will not actually be any food served at The Shack. But students can get a burger from Mort’s, named after Mort Walker, and walk over and eat it at The Shack. The area will also contain official memorabilia from the original, such as a booth, photographs and newspaper clippings.

MU has been working closely with both former Shack owner Joe Franke and Mort Walker on the plans. Franke even gave them the recipe for the original Shackburger to use at Mort’s.

Franke said he thinks it is a very good situation.

Froese said she is also excited about blending the old with the new.

“It is a great way to give the students a new place to go while letting them take a look at history at the same time,” Froese said.

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