COLUMBIA — Volunteers cautiously stepped through unlit corridors scattered with glass shards and discarded papers in search of fragments of the past Saturday.
Wooden gates and theater seats emerged from the dingy depths of the old diner. The Bull Pen Cafe that once served breakfast and lunch to hungry Columbians and hosted weekly livestock auctions will be demolished in the very near future.
Each piece of furniture removed from the building evoked colorful memories in former employees and patrons of the restaurant, who came to walk its halls one last time.
Former owner Jackie Cockrell came with her granddaughter, Anna, to search through the remnants of the once-iconic restaurant for pictures and other items of sentimental value. Cockrell began working as a waitress at the restaurant in 1978 as a teenager. She bought the diner nearly 15 years later and ran it until the last day of business in 2007.
As she walked through the doors of the barren structure, Cockrell displayed a look of sorrow. She tried but struggled to remember each room as it would have appeared during her 30 years of service to the Columbia establishment.
However painful, Cockrell said the final visit to the Bull Pen gave her at least "a little bit of closure."
Historic Preservation Commissioner Pat Fowler coordinated the effort to salvage treasured relics from the crumbling remains of the old diner.
Several rows of seats from the auction barn and mud-covered wooden cattle gates found their way through the front entrance first. Next, volunteers pried doors off their hinges and wooden signs off the wall with hammers and crowbars. Fowler expects those items to fetch a particularly hefty price.
Fowler sees great value in extracting objects with sentimental significance from buildings that face the wrecking ball. Allowing people to own a piece of the history they lived is very satisfying, she said.
"The Bull Pen is meaningful to a lot of Boone Countians, and we always try to preserve those things that can live on and have useful lives," Fowler said. "The more we connect with prior generations, the deeper we feel about where we live and who we are."
The Historic Preservation Commission will sell the salvaged artifacts to the public at a later date. All proceeds from the sale will go to the New Century Fund, which helps owners of historic properties preserve the buildings' authenticity.
Since the restaurant closed in 2007, the building has fallen into extreme disrepair. Marty Riback, the property's current owner, filed an application to demolish the building in February, citing safety concerns. The date for demolition is unknown at this point, and Riback said he has no specific plans for the property.
The renowned gathering place opened in 1951 as Boone County's agricultural scene was rapidly growing. For all of its 56 years in business, the diner opened daily from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. and served breakfast and lunch.
On Wednesdays, farmers and ranchers crammed into the dining room before heading to the livestock auction in the amphitheater behind the restaurant. The frenzy of the auction stretched the Bull Pen's staff to extraordinary lengths.
"Some nights I didn't even go to bed. I just went home, took a shower and came back," Cockrell said. "You never knew how many cattle they were going to have to auction off so you just waited til the last cow went home."
People from all walks of life sat atop stools at the enormous counter, eagerly awaiting their brain sandwiches or pancakes. Farmers, lawyers, politicians and students congregated at the diner for meals and lively political discussions.
Former Mayor Rodney Smith frequented the spot for many years and often participated in such debates. The diner even served country music star Willie Nelson and comedian Jeff Foxworthy on their stops in Columbia, Cockrell said.
The people who ran the Bull Pen interacted as though they were family members, she said. Most had trademark nicknames like "Papoose," "Golden Arches" and "Alf." Bandy Jacobs, former co-owner of the Columbia Livestock Auction barn, earned the nickname "Cracker" after ditching the diner one morning in favor of a meal at Cracker Barrel.
Jacobs, 88, opened the sale barn in the rear of the restaurant with his father in the early 1950s and served as an auctioneer for the duration of its nearly 50-year existence. Even now, a decade after the diner closed its doors, Jacobs longs for the company and hospitality it provided.
"I miss it because that's where everybody hung out and ate," Jacobs said. "I used to order the brain sandwich with mustard and onion. You can't get one of those around here anymore."
Besides the dining experience and livestock auctions, the Bull Pen hosted annual back room poker games, a much-hyped footrace between two regular customers and even a few baby showers, Cockrell said.
Several factors contributed to the eventual demise of the Bull Pen, including the ban on smoking in restaurants, the new layout of the highway and the conclusion of livestock auctions in the late 1990s, Cockrell said. However, instead of dwelling on the difficult times toward the end, former waitress Debbi Hartmann remembers the diner in its glory days.
"I just have so many memories from this place," Hartmann said with tears in her eyes. "Everybody knew everybody else. Someone walked in the door, and you knew who it was. It was almost like (the 1980s TV show) 'Cheers.'"
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