Guthrie Center’s Parrish Cafe

After having to drop out of the American Institute of Business in Des Moines, Iowa, the summer of 1937, Doris Wilson moved back home to Dexter. She worked a couple of months at the canning factory, as she had in high school, and did housework for Dr. Osborn’s family.

But that December she went to work for Parrishes in Guthrie Center. Cora Parrish was a younger sister of Doris’s Grandmother Goff. John and Cora Parrish and their son Boyd ran the cafe. Doris may have even lived with them.


Even though Doris had worked at the downtown Bishop’s Cafeteria while she went to A.I.B., she had never done real waitressing before, taking orders and delivering them to the table. Cousin Boyd Parrish, a half dozen years older than Doris, was so patient as he showed her how to go about it.

His mother Cora asked Doris, age 19, to help her cut up chickens in the kitchen one day. Doris confessed that she didn’t know how. Cora muttered that she couldn’t believe that a daughter of Leora’s couldn’t cut up a chicken.

It was during the Depression and Wilsons lived in town. Protein was mainly black walnuts they’d gather in the woods, or game her brothers could hunt and trap, which they’d bring to the house already skinned and ready to cook. They couldn’t afford to buy chickens.

By Christmas, Doris had worked there three weeks and had saved enough money for Christmas gifts, even a little something for fellow waitress, Marie Carmichael.

Marie Carmichael and Doris Wilson, waitresses at Parrish Cafe, Guthrie Center, Iowa, March 21, 1938

She took the Liza Jane train home from Guthrie Center and through Monteith, where she remembered seeing a clothesline filled with sheets when she rode the train as a toddler, to Menlo.

There she waited for two hours for the bus, and had a very icy ride through Stuart to Dexter. The house they were living in was right along the highway, so I’d guess they dropped her off at the house.

Christmas gifts she later remembered taking home were a pipe rack for four pipes for her dad, and two framed black silhouettes on silver foil–a girl and a boy–for her sixteen-year-old sister, Darlene. She also had small gifts for her mother, and for her younger brothers–Dale (age 16), Danny (14), and Junior (12).

Either Clabe or Dale drove Doris back to Guthrie Center in their Model T truck. It had been stripped in back in order to haul wood for heating.

The Parrish cousins had a copy of Gone With the Wind, which had first been published the year before, so Doris read it while she lived there.


Virginia Baked Ham was a cafe favorite. It came in an oblong block, like a loaf of bread, sliced into one-half-inch slabs, then heated in water. Doris hated when someone came in during the cook’s two-hour afternoon break. That meant that she’d have to fix whatever they ordered.

School teachers ate there often. They’d push tables together to eat as a group. When they ordered dinners they almost always asked for substitutes for something. Doris became proficient in picking out which would order baked potato, etc. Teachers were some of the worst tippers. Once Doris was left a tip of less than a dollar for a large group that had argued about who was going to get to pay the bill.

Doris was about to get off work one day when two businessmen came in and chose the booth in the back of the cafe by the kitchen. When Doris asked for their orders, they asked how big the T-bone steaks were. They both ordered one, which turned out even larger than Doris had described. Before long, they motioned Doris over. She was afraid something was wrong, but they asked, “Could we each have another steak just like the first ones?” Doris asked if they were serious. They were. Did they want more potatoes? “No, just steak.” The cook roller her eyes when Doris put in the second order.

The men in suits finished off their second steaks, and left $1.65 for a tip for Doris. Most people left a dime. Someone came in for coffee when the men were there. He said he’d noticed their big black car with New York license plates on it.


Doris was back in Dexter the summer of 1938, working at the canning factory again. The next spring she moved to a Minburn farm with the rest of the family, helping to clean up the house (cleaning the ceilings and walls of calcimine so she could paint them a pail green) and yard (trying to mow with a rotary mower, planting garden, etc.), helping her mother can 1100 quarts of fruits and vegetables.

Cora Parrish wrote Doris that if her folks could spare her, they could really use her help in the dining room at the cafe. So Doris worked there several months again, living with her cousin LaVerne Parrish. She paid $3 per week rent out of the $7 wages she earned at the cafe.

Parrish Cafe, Guthrie Center, 1940. John Parrish, Cora Parrish, Doris Wilson, Lois Brady, Evelyn Shelley

Doris worked for Parrishes most of 1940, until she got a job waitressing in Perry. Perry was handier to get to her folks’ place on a farm southwest of Minburn because it was on the M&StL railroad, which ran right through Minburn on its way to Des Moines. By then she knew how to waitress, and even how to cut up a chicken.

Doris Wilson, Guthrie Center, 1940

This story is also told in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.




    • Thank you. At first I was a little overwhelmed at all the pictures my grandmother, then Mom saved, but I’m slowly getting them sorted, figuring out where they go and with which stories. Someone mentioned John Parrish and suddenly something “clicked” and I was off and running with it.

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