Parrish Cafe, Guthrie Center, Iowa, 1937

Grandmother Goff’s younger sister, Cora Parrish, and her husband John ran a cafe in Guthrie Center. In December of 1937, they drove to Dexter to see if Doris, the oldest daughter of niece Leora Wilson and who was out of high school by then, would waitress for them.

While Doris packed, Cora said to her niece, “Leorie, I don’t know how you got such a shy daughter.” Doris earned $1 per day, meals, a uniform, and free rent in the apartment above the cafe. 

John and Cora Parrish and Doris Wilson

Great Aunt Cora asked Doris to help cut up chickens to fry, but Doris didn’t know where to start. “Well, I can’t believe that a daughter of Leorie’s doesn’t know how to cut up a chicken!”

Doris didn’t reveal that in those Depression years her family had rarely had chicken to eat. Squirrel and rabbit mostly, but occasionally a raccoon or once even a ‘possum. Once in awhile canned government meat.

Virginia Baked Ham was a favorite meal at the Parrish Cafe. It came in an oblong block, like a loaf of bread, and was sliced into ½ inch slabs and heated in water.

Teachers often ate at Parrish’s, some regularly. They’d push tables together and always asked for substitutes for what was listed on the menu with their dinners. Doris could pick out which one would choose a baked potato, which one didn’t like corn, etc. Teachers were the worst tippers, many times leaving no tip at all. 

Once Doris was about to get off work when two businessmen in suits came in and chose a booth in the back, by the kitchen. They asked how big the T-bones were. They both ordered the steak, which were even larger than Doris had described. Someone came in for coffee and mentioned a big black car in front with New York license plates.

Before long, the strangers motioned Doris over. Oh dear, what’s wrong? “Could we each have another steak just like the first ones?”

“Are you sure?” Doris knew the first ones, which had been served with potatoes, had filled them up.

“Yes.”

“Do you want more potatoes, too?”

“No, just steak.”

When Doris put in the order, the cook rolled her eyes. 

The men in suits left Doris a tip of $1.65, which was a big deal in 1937.

Parrish Cafe: John and Cora Parrish at left, then Doris Wilson, with two more employees

From Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression, due out later this spring.


Doris also worked with Marie Carmichael at the cafe. Through the Historic Guthrie County Facebook page and Brick Imerman, I learned that Marie was on the 1937 State Championship Guthrie Center basketball team.

Great basketball players Marie Carmichael and Doris Wilson

They were awarded a trip to Wichita, Kansas to watch the AAU Women’s National Championship Basketball Tournament. Doris Wilson played in the tournament there that year with the team from AIB in Des Moines.

6 comments

  1. Now you really have my curiosity piqued! Just who were those mysterious men from New York in suits with the big black car? Mafia bosses? Lawyers? Real estate speculators trying to grab up farm land from cash-strapped and struggling farmers? I can see a novel or short story coming from that incident!

    • Probably salesmen. Guthrie Center is a county seat, but it’s still pretty isolated. They’d eventually get to Omaha on Highway 44, but it was more common for folks to take White Pole Road, which now runs mostly parallel to I-80.

  2. I can’t even imagine eating some of those meats they ate. I do remember some very low wages and food prices but never that low. Amazing to looking back.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.