The Chicken that Crossed the Road

by Mark Brown

02/19/2014

Headlines, like alarms, rang out: “Historic Bar Burns in Okarche” and “Famous Eischen’s Called Total Loss.” Crews from Okarche, Kingfisher, Yukon, Piedmont, El Reno, Cashion—even the Federal Correctional Institution at El Reno—fought a blaze that began in one of eight chicken fryers and, before it died, turned an Oklahoma landmark into a blackened, extra-crispy memory.

The only relic from that night is a chunk of the old bar, the one that entered California via Spain during the early 19th century, according to one Henry Hoffman, a restaurant supply guy who’d been trying to get Peter and Nick Eischen to take the thing off his hands for years.

“I remember them moving it in here in pieces,” Ed Eischen said. “The local priest hung it with lights. Twenty-four feet across, before it burned.” [1]

That evening in late January 1993, after the smoke cleared, they iced all the bottled beer that didn’t explode in the blaze and threw a wake for Eischen’s, swapping slugs and stories into the night. All who drowned their sorrows went home with black rings around their mouths from the residue of soot on the last of the longnecks.

***

They greet you at the threshold, the chicken-fried phantasma of finger-lickings past. The dense aroma of cooking oil moistens the air, and a warm glow flickers from wall-to-wall Bud and Coors promotional neon. Green drifts of a sawdust composite called FloorSweep—“Sanitize your floor surface with a pleasant pine scent!”—create a sandy underfoot but keep spitting oil and spilt lager from gumming up the works. The black-and-white Linoleum floor forms a checkerboard where is played out, every weekend, a fast-and-friendly game that, over the years, has seen the house often in the red but lately in the black. The controlled riot of a light-beer Saturday night suggests itself in the sappy (sad and happy?) slogans hanging slightly crooked in their frames, in the empty and inviting blue-green felt of the pool table, and in the classic rock revving up on the sound system, where if they don’t close the bar and the night and the week with “Sunday Morning Coming Down”—“Then I walked across the street / And caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken”—they should.

Saturday night must suggest itself because, in fact, it’s a Monday morning when the door opens and Ed Eischen sticks his thick, German, plaid-flannel self into the deep-freezer cold of late December. Another Monday when, more than likely, they’ll fry only a couple of hundred chickens before calling it a day.

The front door of Eischen’s opens onto the restaurant, though Ed is reluctant to call it that. “Day and night’s difference from walking into a restaurant,” he’ll tell you. But let’s call it a restaurant because it’s the room, of all the rooms in Eischen’s, that people who come in primarily to eat, versus primarily to drink, enter. The others enter the door to the south, which opens into the annex, where you can also order chicken, and play video games and take in the Eischen museum, a collection of mementoes arranged in an old meat case, because this side of Eischen’s was an IGA grocery in a past life.

Still, if you Google it, you find two websites: one for Eischen’s chicken, the other for Eischen’s antique bar.

Beer is king at Eischen’s, especially the King of Beers. Beer gear hangs all over the joint, everything from neon in the shape of George Strait’s hat to those kitschy glass pictures featuring 10-point bucks standing near winding, crystal streams. For as long as there has been an Okarche, there have been beer-drinking Germans filling its grain elevators and, afterward, its bars.

Despite claims otherwise, Eischen’s may not be the oldest bar in Oklahoma. When Eischen’s says they have the oldest “bar,” they really mean the bar—the single, ornate, storied piece of the Spanish bar to survive the 1993 fire. That’s the problem with old bars in Oklahoma, if not everywhere. They tend to burn down and get rebuilt and, with them, a new chapter for the history books.

Robert Painter runs the Blue Belle Saloon in Guthrie, which dates back to 1889, seven years earlier than Eischen’s 1896. Painter took over the business in 2013. Before Painter, the Blue Belle was owned by a woman who went by the name Annie Silvers. One thing about Eischen’s: It’s always been Eischen’s.

“I was just there Monday night,” Painter said, tipping his hat. “We’re older than they are, but we’ve been closed a lot of those years. Even after the fire, they opened back up in a year. They are the oldest bar in Oklahoma.”

Who can say? After a century, it’s hard to separate truth from taradiddle. [2]

“During the ‘30s, clear up ’til the late-‘70s, there were three bars in town,” Ed said. “I think it might have went down to two in the ‘60s.” Now there’s one, and Ed believes it was sandwiches—roast beef and barbecue, of all things, and still on the menu—that saved him.

One thing that almost killed him was the King Can Club, a BYOL “bottle club” run on these premises for 17 years, where Billy Kretchmar and the Country Gentlemen were a house act except on a Saturday, when Ed couldn’t touch him, for Billy was on his way to backing Loretta Lynn and moving to Nashville where he changed his name to J. David Sloan. “Lord a’mighty,” Ed said. “It was me and my wife and another gal. They’re taking orders and bussing tables and I’ve got them stacked around the bar wanting drinks and I’m trying to find those goddam bottles.”

The King Can Club—a shotgun marriage of county cousins, Kingfisher and Canadian. Ed lives in Kingfisher County, works in Canadian County and always has. “My front yard is city and my backyard faces the farm, so that’s country.”

***

It’s Oklahoma Avenue that T-bones Main Street and cleaves Okarche in two—Kingfisher to the North, Canadian to the South. Okarche, turns out, is an acronym. Ian Frazier, unknowingly perhaps, wrote it like a puzzle into this paragraph from his Great Plains:

“The Cheyenne, who also once lived in Minnesota, hunted the region of the Black Hills and the central plains. In the early nineteenth century, many Cheyenne moved south, to the present-day Oklahoma and Kansas, so the tribe became the Northern Cheyenne and the Southern Cheyenne. To the west of the Cheyenne were their allies the Arapahos, also divided into Northern and Southern branches, and to the west of the Arapahos, roughly speaking, were the Shoshone, sometimes called the Snakes.”

Okarche is also a crossroads. Jesse Chisholm’s Trail ran roughshod right through it up until the 20th century, when they began moving Texas cattle to Kansas feedlots via the railroad, which separates Main Street Okarche and Eischen’s, Okarche’s claim to fame, from an air-handling manufacturer called Temtrol, Okarche’s biggest employer, run by an uncle of Ed’s who started a meat-lockering business that turned into an industrial heavyweight whose units climate-control the likes of the Devon Tower—not to mention most of the big Vegas casinos, according to cousin Ed.

Okarche has other claims to fame, or infamy. Okarche is where the body of Father Stanley Rother is buried, in Holy Trinity Cemetery out on Oklahoma 81 where, on the day I paid respects, the pre-Christmas ice that had shellacked most of Oklahoma lay thickly on the plastic poinsettias above his marker. The once-brave heart of Father Rother is a relic in the parish of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, where Rother was serving when he was gunned down in his rectory in July 1981.

Another man of God, the Reverend Richard Douglass of Putnam City Baptist Church, was murdered alongside his wife outside Okarche, not quite three miles from Holy Trinity Cemetery, in their Shepard Avenue home in sight of the highway. They make movies about such horrors—like Bennett Miller’s Capote, based on Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood. And like Heaven’s Rain, directed by Paul Brown and starring Mike Vogel in the role of Reverend Douglass’ son Brooks, who was left for dead but went on to become a state senator. Douglass plays the part of his father in Heaven’s Rain, a film that he also co-produced.

To get to Okarche, you take Oklahoma City’s Northwest Expressway, renamed—part of it, anyway—“Governor George Nigh’s Northwest Passage” in 1981. Opponents of Nigh’s “highway to nowhere” scoffed at his idea of upgrading Oklahoma 3 all the way to Colorado. No doubt, even driving it to Okarche, you feel as if you’re passing into another, nether world.

***

So, which came first, the chicken or the keg?

In an attempt to lure farmers west (and German farmers were considered the best), the Homestead Act of 1862 promised any settler—provided they didn’t fight on the losing side of the Civil War—a free 160-acre section, under the condition he or she stay on it for five years. The Rock Island Railroad brought them here. Thus would the West be won. Peter Eischen was running a saloon and hotel in Minnesota when his family won a lottery in one of the land runs. They were headed to occupy a farm in rural western Oklahoma when they heard of the half-Lutheran, half-Catholic, German settlement of Okarche. Eischens, Heinens, and other families established roots, sending for more family members when they could afford to transport them. Three of Ed’s relatives arrived that way, and they all homesteaded and farmed wheat.

Wheat farmers, German or other, have always known what to do with excess grain. An Okarche Times edition of 1893 displays ads for three saloons. Knowing where its bread was buttered, Anheuser-Busch built an administrative outpost nine miles north in Kingfisher in 1900. Two years earlier, Adolphus Busch, brewery founder, had donated $300 to the college there, creating no small ruckus.

“God forbid that Kingfisher College shall stain her record with blood,” cried the Okarche Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in an editorial published in the Daily Oklahoman, perhaps confusing blood with blood-alcohol.

The college kept the money, and the towns of Kingfisher and Okarche kept the temperance wolves at the saloon door until statehood came and dried everything up until the Dust Bowl days. In Okarche, at Eischen’s, anyway, it seems they’ve been slaking that thirst ever since.

In 1884, Ed’s great-granddad John Heinen opened a general store in Okarche. Two years later, his other great-granddad, Peter Eischen, opened a saloon. “He ran it until 1907,” Ed said, “then statehood put him out of business.”

Oklahoma entered statehood dry by constitution, enacting its own prohibition 13 years before the national ban. The ball got rolling in 1906 with the passage of the Enabling Act, an effort to get both Oklahoma and Indian territories deemed a single state. The act called for freedom of religion and prohibited polygamy. The manufacture and distribution of liquor—by “sale, barter or gift”—was outlawed for 21 years.

The town of Okarche didn’t incorporate until 1905. By then, Eischens had firmly established themselves in a number of ventures. In addition to the saloon, Peter ran a billiards hall into the 1930s, a fact that remained unknown to the family until a few years ago when a local installing a sprinkler system in a flowerbed found a coin stamped “Peter Eischen Billiards.”

The building Eischen’s occupies today was built, Ed believes, in 1902. This is where his granddad Nicholas Eischen and dad Jack set up shop. “They put a grocery store in the frontage looking north, and a bar here in this building looking east. They put in a lunch counter and served roast beef sandwiches, barbecue beef sandwiches, and homemade chili. I’m still using that recipe today.”

That’s half of the current Eischen’s menu.

The rest:

Whole Fried Chicken, $14 (there are no half-orders)
Cheese Nachos, $7
Chili Cheese Nachos, $9
Frito Pie, $6
Fried Okra, $7

Chicken comes with sides of dill and sweet pickles, pickled jalapeños, marinated raw onions, and a basket of sliced white bread. The nachos and Frito pie came in the ‘70s, the okra a decade later when a group throwing a private party brought their own okra with them. Bar customers clamored for the contraband okra enough to force Ed to add it to the menu. Eischen’s does not fry potatoes and never has. Nor do they fry chicken nuggets, no matter how hot they are with the kids.

“I told my rep,” Ed said, “you’ve been in here on a Saturday night. You’ve looked in that kitchen. You think we got time to cook them goddamn chicken poppers? Come on.”

One of the sacrifices made in the name of convenience is the glory of the arrival of a plate of fried chicken on a table. You can eat a bag of poppers and drive at the same time, but you do so blindly, pulling the nuggets from the bag one after another in seven- or nine-count rhythm until the last of the boneless lunch is done and the empty bag is shoved heedlessly into the floorboard. What you can’t do behind the wheel of a car is chew through a deep layer of browned skin and moist meat all the way to a bone that, with any love and luck, you’ll pick clean with greased lips and eager teeth. A bite of Eischen’s fried chicken is a reminder that chicken still has soul.

Your whole fried chicken arrives in a paper boat. Your “plate” is a dozen or so foot-squares of parchment paper stacked on top of each other like phyllo dough in need of honey and nuts. No forks, no knives, no tea, no coffee. The business card claims you can get a wine cooler—from the first wave, not the resurgence that’s washed up products like Seagram’s “Escapes”—but I only saw some pop and more beer—hoards3 of it, as if Eischen’s were distributing Budweiser instead of just purveying it.

Chicken came to Eischen’s like a lot of ideas—that is, not precisely thought-out. “Fried chicken,” Ed said, “started with my brother George. We all worked at the store and did a night or so at the bar. He was the meat-market manager.”

To shore up his meat proceeds, George decided to hold a shuffleboard tournament at the bar on Wednesday nights. He charged competitors a buck apiece to compete. The prize for the champ and runner-up was a fried chicken, which George fried himself on the stove in a cast-iron skillet. Even in 1960-dollars, it seems like a slow way to build up a meat counter. That skillet now resides among the keepsakes in the Eischen’s meat case Hall of Fame.

“He’s like me,” Ed said. “I can’t cook with electric. I like to see that flame.”

“He’d get it where he thought that temperature was about right. Dust his chicken. He first started out with just flour and salt and pepper. Then he started experimenting with some other spices. Back then, he was the only one here. Bartender, took care of the shuffleboard, the cooking. Put those chickens on. Check his clock. Be out here doing something. Check his clock. Turn that chicken. And then give it whatever.

“Then he’d take that money collected for the shuffleboard tournament and ring it up as meat sales the next day.”

People always want to know the secret to things, be they chili or margaritas or chocolate pies or fried chicken. Maybe the secret’s in the ingredients, or maybe it’s in the hands of the cook, or perhaps it’s in the mind of the beholder, locked away for good behind the impenetrable veil of pastime that first bite creates.

***

Paul Eischen manages the money side of Eischen’s. He was driving to the city one day when a trailer coming from the other direction came unhitched and went flying through his windshield and hit him smack in the face. Paul threw his son into the floorboard. He survived unscathed. Paul survived, but “they had to rebuild his whole face. He has no sight in one eye, two-thirds sight in the other. He does the book work,” Ed said, pulling an imaginary paper to his face, “that close.”

What George missed but Paul didn’t was the ‘70s and all that brought. Eischen’s added nachos then, first just with Rotel then later chili. “Chili used to be a winter item,” Ed said. “Then all of a sudden, wow.”

I can’t cook with electric. I like to see that flame.

But it was the unlikely marriage of fried chicken and cold beer that had everybody talking, and coming, from miles around (Ed said 99 percent of Eischen’s business rolls in from out of town). Until that one day when things got too hot to handle.

Ed knew they’d build back after the fire—they were back in business within a year—he just didn’t know if anybody’d care to come. They came all right, like new growth after a prairie burn. And they, for the most part, have been families. Eischen’s still gets the bikers from the city out on their poker runs, but time and tide has brought a new clientele to the fried chicken joint that still claims it’s only a country bar.

“In the olden days,” Ed said, “they’d come in and throw a party and, if they got hungry, order chicken. Your old guys sittin’ at the bar, and that language people had to put up with. After we burned down, it slowly evolved. That’s when we lost all those old-type guys ’cause there wadn’t anything here for them.”

Beer still flows in copious amounts—behind the taps that draw only light beer, an Advil station offers some relief, and a testament to the amount consumed, given how many 3.2s it takes to wreck a head—but there is no wine or spirit in sight. If beer consumption is up, so is business overall, which Eischen’s has a habit of calculating in chickens fried.

“Some nights we don’t hardly get any beer drinkers,” Julie said. “By food sales, we’re a restaurant. But it depends on how long you have to wait for that chicken—and how many beers you drink.”

“Most of the people came in here to drink beer and they might eat a chicken,” said Ed’s daughter Annette from behind the counter. “Now it’s the other way around.” They’d cook 40 chickens on a Friday in those days. “Now,” she said, “it’s a thousand.”

I made a note to do the math as the first of the Monday lunchers began coming in and taking booths and tables. The sound of the deep-fat fryers began to crackle and snap. The help began to dart around like minnows in a bucket. The speakers pumped more classic rock—Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” with Grace Slick belting the final refrain:

“Remember what the dormouse said:
Feed your head
Feed your head”

The phone rang and Annette answered it. “Eischen’s?” she said. “Yes, we are.”

They were coming, in spite of the ice storm, and they’d keep coming through the week, stalled only by the hump of Christmas Wednesday. In days gone by, they’ve cooked turkeys for Thanksgiving dinners at Eischen’s and opened the bar on Christmas for dances. Ed shook his head. “We would go to Christmas all day and at 4 o’clock come up here and open the club—for a dance. Just worked our…”

Hineys off, yes. What’s new? An indication of how crazy things can get these days is a handwritten sign posted inside the door: “Possible wait up to 2 hours for chicken on weekends.” Eischen’s has eight fryers going at all times, and Ed said they can fry 28 chickens in 15 minutes. That’s 96 chickens in an hour, give or take, so make it 100. That’s 10 hours of breakneck fry time to hit the one thousand birds of Annette’s reckoning. “For five or six hours,” said Julie Kroener of any given Saturday, “it’s a madhouse.”

This is what causes Ed’s high blood pressure, it and “all the little nitpicky crap.” Julie and myriad others take some of the stress of his back, a back that still pains him from the days of dairy farming, when he’d sling beef quarters over his shoulder. He tried to get off the farm, if only for a while, studying animal husbandry at Oklahoma State back in the ‘40s. He didn’t last. Too much to do in Okarche, what with the grocery store, bar, liquor store, King Can Club, meat locker, dairy farm, and—almost forgot—housing development to deal with. That and the sausage-making, which he still does because somebody once said, “Ed, nobody makes it like you do,” the way somebody once said, “Ed, will you fry this okra for us?”

Ed said they can fry 28 chickens in 15 minutes. That’s 96 chickens in an hour.

“I’m fourth generation,” Ed said. “Whatever dad told you to do you did. But I got grandkids that…” And with this Ed trails off, like a ladle of chili. One of the things that must be worrying him, surely, is the merry-go-round: the legacy of fried chicken and cold beer that’s spinning wildly, happily, zanily out of control and that somebody somewhere, more than likely in Okarche, is going to one day inherit.

On his way home to eat lunch, Ed pointed to a couple of maps on the office wall, one of the United States the other of the world, each stuck with colored stickpins to indicate all the places on the planet people have come from in order to eat Eischen’s fried chicken. It’s some serious voodoo. There are pins on top of pins. There’s even a pin sticking out of Antarctica.

Said Ed, shaking his heavy head, “We created a monster.”


Footnotes
1. Now one-fourth that size and blistered black, the bar stands on the north wall of a dining room where also hang photographs depicting the ornate wood frontispiece that, before the fire, added an odd regality to this country beer bar. During the Christmas season, a small decorated tree stood under its last, lone standing arch where, upon closer look, the gaping mouths of some lion or harpy or other chimeric beast bares its fangs. Hanging on the wall behind the tree is a black-and-white photograph of George Eischen, who fried the bar’s first-ever chickens. Overhead, acoustic tiles have replaced the tin roof swallowed in the blaze.
2. Cowboy actor Tom Mix, it’s been written, tended bar at the Blue Belle between 1902 and 1904. Another story says the bar was rebuilt in 1903, having burned to the ground some years before. There isn’t much living proof that Mix mixed drinks at the Blue Belle, but there are bullet holes in the ceiling, and so we are left to at least imagine.


Originally published in This Land, Volume 5, Issue 3, February 1, 2014