Thursday, December 18, 2008

I am going to take a break from politics to talk about another passion of mine...

Fried Chicken.
Specifically, Chicken Annie's Chicken or Chicken Mary's Chicken..

Here's a mouthwatering picture so you know what I am talking about:

J.T. Knoll, Local Historian, Pittsburg: Well, it's interesting. I have found myself everywhere from New Mexico to Illinois where I lived in Chicago for 7 years and I have on more than one occasion people have asked me, "where you from?" and I tell 'em I'm from southeast Kansas and they say, "oh yeah, that's where those chicken places are". And I've heard it from other people as well. It's not just me that... you know, they're in other cities and people ask them about Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's, so, the reputation's far and wide.

Narrator: for over sixty years, people from all across the state and beyond have been coming to rural Crawford county to eat at Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's. Of course, the main reason for their notoriety is the chicken. But the two restaurants are also famous because of their location...less than a block apart, in what some would call, the middle of nowhere.

Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's are located in the small community of Yale, which is situated just northeast of Pittsburg and Frontenac. At one time, Yale was a coal camp. One of a number of thriving, mostly immigrant communities that developed around the coal mining industry.

J.T. Knoll: Well, this is Thirteen-Yale. It was thirteen, mine number thirteen. The mines all through the area were numbered. I grew up around number nine over in Frontenac. All the mines had numbers fromŠ that were assigned to them so that theyŠ rather than a street or aŠ They were out in the middle of nowhere. They sunk a mine so that was. "you're over at Thirteen".

One of the miners at Number thirteen was charley pichler, who's wife ann was destined to become "chicken annie".

Louella Lipoglav, Owner, Chicken Annies: Well, it's a long story. My dad got hurt in the mines and she had to make a living for the children. She had 3 children. And had to make a living for them so she started out by selling veal sandwiches in her home and then she started with the chicken dinners. Started out with 2 pieces and potatoes and coleslaw. And then it just kept growing.

Narrator: Ann Pichler began and serving meals out of her home in 1933. And as the business grew, so did the house. New additions were made to accommodate more and more customers, and Chicken Annie's literally formed around the Pichler home. Then in the early 1940'S, another Yale family fell on hard times.

Tootie Zerngast, Part-Owner, Chicken Mary's: Mary Zerngast her and her husband both came from over like Austria, Germany and I think they came over here in like the late Ninety's or early nineteen hundreds. Well, they came here to work in the mines, he did, you know. And she was typical miner's wife.

Narrator: The Zernagst story is almost identical to the Pichler's. When Joe Zerngast developed a heart condition and was no longer able to work in the mines, it was up to Mary to support the family.
She began selling chicken dinners out of their home, just as Ann Pichler had done a decade earlier.

Tootie Zerngast: That's all she knew how to do is cookŠ she cooked chicken, you know, good, and people liked her food. She started cooking just for the neighbors, you know, like there was a couple of bachelors and things around and friends that knew her. They'd come out to eat. She'd get up at night and cook. She'd be in bed. If they'd come and knock on her door she'd get up and cook.

Narrator: The business quickly outgrew the Zerngast home so they moved it to a former pool hall. Then in the early nineteen seventies, both Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's moved into their present locations.

Given the small size of the town, they're practically next-door neighbors. A circumstance that has given rise to legends of feuding and bitter rivalries. in fact, one story claims that the two women were sisters who'd had a falling out, and that they had built their restaurants close together just to spite each other.

Tootie Zerngast: They were not related, you know. And there wasŠ Oh, I think a lot of people like to hear the idea that there's conflict.

Louella Lipoglav: At first it was.....maybe they had their feuds and things, a long time ago, the families, but no, right now it's fine.

J.T. Knoll: And I think it's just a matter of kind of chance, you know. Chicken Annie opened her's in her house and Chicken Mary opened her's in her house. You know, they just happened to be living nearby one another. And it ended up to be kind of a friendly rivalry between the two places. But the truth is they both ended up having more business than they knew what to do with.

Narrator: And while truth may or may not be stranger than fiction, it's usually more interesting. And the real story of Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's is far more fascinating than any folk tale.

J.T. Knoll: You know, these people were incredible. Working jobs that nobody else wanted to work to go down into those mines and do that. There was no other source of income so when the husband could no longer work.....Of course, piece-work in the mine, you only got paid for what you dug. When that no longer happened, Chicken Annie and Chicken Mary had to figure out how to survive and it says much for the resourcefulness of those women, that they figured that out and the hard work that they put in to get these places going and that they're still going today. - 34:34

Narrator: Over the years, Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's have made significant contributions to the local community and the local economy. They bring in customers from miles around, they help keep local wholesale suppliers in business, and they've provided employment for countless high school and college students.

J.T. Knoll: My parents were long-term "Chicken Annie's eaters" and so we were there on a Sunday afternoon.....

Louella Lipoglav: We were so busy so I says, "Hey, J.T., you want a job?". And boy, he started right in and start working.

J.T. Knoll: And they got me up from the table and I went immediately to the back room and started washing dishes, these massive carts full of dishes. They were backed up already. So I got a baptism of fire. But, that's how I got started there.

Tootie Zerngast: A lot of them say that's their first job and they first started working here they thought it was pretty rough but when they got out in the world they found out it wasn't really not that bad, you know. But they worked hard, you know. When you're in a restaurant you work hard.

Narrator: Not much evidence remains of the coal mining industry, and many of the coal camps have dwindled to a smattering of homes. but you can still see some of the original camp houses, an occasional water tower, and the only hills in the area are man made. Piles of mine tailings, that in the last 80 years, have become overgrown with trees and brush. But the town of Yale will always be on the map - as long as it remains the home of Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's

J.T. Knoll: It provides a sense of soul to the community. That is, there are certain places around any community that if they were gone, it would take somethingŠ They're irreplaceable. It's just good for us all around here to know they're out here. We may not eat out there very often, but whenŠ We know they're out there and we know Chicken Annie's and Chicken's Mary's and their saga, their stories are there.


This transcript is from KTWU's Sunflower Journeys 2002 season.
Sunflower Journeys Home

A production of:
KTWU Channel 11
Washburn University
Topeka, Ks. 66621

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