66 Through St. Louis: Big Chief Roadhouse

This is the final post in a series highlighting Route 66 stops of interest through St. Louis. We encourage you to learn more about their history and then check them out in person. Even better, snap some photos and share them with us on Twitter and Instagram by using #ShowMe66 and tagging @mohistorymuseum.

In 1920 few people paid much attention to the idea of a “highway business,” but there would soon be a fortune waiting on the roadside. Within the first year of the Federal Highway System’s founding in 1926, the American Automobile Association predicted tourists would drop $3.3 billion along the nation’s roads because they needed places to sleep, eat, and gas up. The experience of getting gas was generally the same everywhere, but eating and sleeping along the road could rapidly devolve into unwanted adventures.

Pierce-Pennant Terminals

Color postcard of the Pierce-Pennant Terminal in RollaThe Pierce-Pennant Terminal in Rolla, Missouri, along Route 66. Company president William Clay Pierce also built Big Chief. Image courtesy of Joe Sonderman.

Unlike gas stations, hotels and restaurants existed long before the words “Route 66” were ever spoken, but food and lodging options in the 1920s tended to fall to the extremes. Luxurious suites and expensive feasts didn’t work for a thrifty family needing to get somewhere fast, but the other extreme—dingy boarding houses and slop-on-a-plate dives—convinced many they never should have left home. The traveling public clearly needed a middle ground. Enter William Clay Pierce, president of the St. Louis–based Pierce-Pennant Oil Company.

Pierce saw a huge opening in the middle-class tourism market and constructed a series of Pierce-Pennant Terminals, each one a combination hotel, restaurant, and gas station done up in stately colonial stylings. A Pierce-Pennant Terminal’s features, which included a Western Union station, long-distance telephone, and on-site mechanic, all told travelers the same message: There would be no bad surprises here.

The entrepreneur planned to span Route 66 (and eventually the United States) with a terminal every 125 miles—the distance it seemed drivers could reasonably cover in a single day. By 1928, Pierce-Pennant Terminals were found along Route 66 in Tulsa, Miami (Oklahoma), Springfield (Missouri), and Rolla. The location just outside of St. Louis, the Big Chief Hotel, added a southwestern flair to the typical Pierce-Pennant Terminal.

The Big Chief Hotel

Black-and-white photo of the Big Chief HotelBig Chief Hotel, ca. late 1930s. The existing restaurant building was originally flanked by a service station and office. The restaurant’s bell tower came down in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Image courtesy of Joe Sonderman.

Today all that remains of the Big Chief Hotel is its restaurant, but when it opened in 1929, Big Chief offered a total solution for travelers weary of bad lodging and worse food. The restaurant was the centerpiece of a built ensemble, with a service station and office on either side. Four gas pumps sat in front of its large port cochere. A U-shaped drive of 60 cabins stretched behind the streetfront structures, and playgrounds, fountains, a tennis court, and horseshoe pits dotted the grassy center area. Big Chief was a tourist’s dream, a place where you could get a full fuel tank, fuller stomachs, entertainment for the whole family, and a nice bed—all without having to pile back into the car.

Tourists in the 1920s hungered for the unusual and novel, and Big Chief’s southwestern stylings hearkened back to the idea that Route 66 was a road to adventure. The careful detailing of its stucco walls, terra cotta roof, and arched doors hinted that tourists would get more here than at the average roadside stop. Inside its so-called Spanish Dining Room, meals ranged from a 5-cent sandwich to a 75-cent steak dinner, and tables were pushed aside nightly for after-dinner dancing before guests strolled back to their rooms.

Post-Route 66 Life

Black-and-white photo of Big Chief's cabinsBig Chief’s ring of cabins used to stretch behind the existing restaurant building. Image courtesy of Joe Sonderman.

Despite being one of Missouri’s best-preserved businesses from the highway’s infancy, Big Chief’s time on Route 66 was over almost instantly. Just five years after Big Chief’s grand opening, Route 66 was rerouted to Watson Road. Business slowed as a result, and by the late 1940s gas service had disappeared and motel rental had fallen to a local, “by-the-hour” clientele. The restaurant closed soon after this, and the motel rooms went away by the 1970s. A decade later the ornate former restaurant had taken on other lives as a resale store, landscaping company, and Missouri’s best-dressed bait-and-tackle shop.

In 1993 ranch owner Todd Deville saw Big Chief’s deeper potential. He completely restored the structure, reopening it as the Big Chief Dakota Grill. His idea of “Bringing the Old West to West County” proved a hit, albeit a short-lived one: Big Chief had closed again by 2004. It changed hands a few times thereafter, until Stephanie Mulholland purchased it in 2012. She reopened it as the Big Chief Roadhouse with a winning plan: veteran chefs, in-house smoked meats, and a reverence for the building’s history on the Main Street of America.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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