May 25, 2024

Paul’s Cafe in Wendell to get new life

Find this content useful? Share it with your friends!

By C. A. Ray

Grant County Herald

The iconic tiny log cabin cafe in Wendell had its beginnings in Fergus Falls. 

“It was along the river and called the Log Cabin Cafe,” said Mary Ann Erickson, 88, whose father, Paul Williamson, brought the cafe to Wendell in 1954. Her mother, Evelyn, cooked at the cafe, renamed “Paul’s Cafe,” for the next 26 years.

“She cooked breakfast and dinner, between 20 and 30 dinners a day,” said Mary Ann, who started working at the cafe after school when she was a senior. 

Paul, who had emphysema, was the official greeter and unofficial storyteller, at the cafe.

Grandma Inez was a constant presence in the cafe as well. Known for her, shall we say, meddling and conservative economics, she made sure the books balanced, going so far as to add vinegar to the ketchup to make it last longer.

The Williamson family has a history of food service. 

“The whole side of the family owned and worked in cafes from Staples to Tintah,” said Mary Ann.

Mary Ann herself made the business her career and worked at a bar/cafe in Dalton and for a long time at the Home 20 in Elbow Lake.

“Mostly I handled the cash register,” she said, adding she never worried about being robbed.

“People felt sorry for ‘that little old lady,’ adding that she held a “real” job at Otter Tail Power, for only four years.

Mary Ann remembers that back in the 1950s and 60s, the rural area around Wendell was full of small farms and large families. On Saturdays, or days when it rained, Wendell was full and buzzing with people.

“There were four places to eat in town in those days,” she recalled. “As well as a hardware store, bar, pool hall,  grocery,  and a couple of gas stations.”

But it was Paul’s Cafe that lasted and became the most well-known. Its fame spread far beyond Grant County. In fact, Mary recalls hearing about a trucker from Chicago who had a route that ended in Fargo. He drove down from Fargo to Wendell just to have a meal at Paul’s Cafe.

Paul’s was known for its good meals, with fresh ingredients, such as local beef from Swenson’s Meat Market in Elbow Lake… and fair prices. It was also known for its unique log cabin exterior and tiny size…It held only 13 seats. Once a customer was done eating, they learned to leave so someone else could have their space.

But not before enjoying dessert: a slice of Evelyn’s famous homemade pie,  cookie, or brownie… or a donut brought in fresh from the Elbow Lake Bakery. 

Paul’s Cafe was also famous for Evelyn’s oyster stew.

Although everyone was welcome at Paul’s Cafe, Evelyn had some rules.

“I would not put up with farmers coming in with manure on their shoes and stinking up the place,” she said. She had no compunction telling an offender to take their boots off before they came in to eat.

The Williamsons closed Paul’s Cafe in January of 1980. The cafe was sold to a variety of  owners who, over the years, tried to make a go of it. Nobody ever could. The economy of the area had changed. There were no more small farms and big families. The building sold its last meal around 15 years ago and stood empty. Recently Todd Vikesland purchased the building and the lot, moved the cafe off, and is currently putting up a new, larger cafe with the same log cabin motif.  He hopes to staff and open the business in the future and use the old cafe for storage.

“I want to make it like the Paul’s Cafe I remember from my youth,” he said.

On January 10, 1980, the Grant County Herald published a story about the cafe and Evelyn, who was retiring.

 Paul and Evelyn farmed in the Battle Lake area for 22 years with Paul hating every Minnesota winter. He promised his wife that one day they would move south. So when Paul retired, Evelyn started packing.

“One day he came home and announced she didn’t have to pack so much. They were moving south all right, but only to Wendell because he bought a cafe… I could have killed him.”

She  recalled opening day featuring an open house with free coffee and donuts. There turned out to be a blizzard that day and they didn’t think anyone would show up.

“But we ended up getting rid of 24 dozen donuts.”

She recalled how she tried to print up menus like a proper cafe, but people kept swiping them. So she set up a blackboard to publish the simple selections, specials, and prices. That blackboard lasted until closing.

When Evelyn retired, people gave her all kinds of ideas on what she should do: get a cat or start knitting.

“Well I hate cats and don’t know how to knit,” she told the Herald. 

With two children and eight grandchildren she found ways to keep busy.

Paul passed away in 1968 and Evelyn in 2006 at the age of 94.

Find this content useful? Share it with your friends!