As reported in Galesburg's Register Mail, Monmouth's landmark Meling's Motel is following its attached restaurant this week in closing its doors.
When my family first moved to Monmouth, 'way back in the days of love beads and race riots, Melings was a clean, warm, modern place, a beacon at the north edge of town, where Route 67 and Bypass 34 met, welcoming us home from our peregrinations. You couldn't help feeling a sense of happiness, seeing that life-sized sculpted steer out at the edge of the parking lot, lit by the marquee and the neon sign above.
Its restaurant had been, at the time, the best place to eat in Warren county. Inside the front door stood an upright stuffed brown bear and a blond-and-grey-beehived woman in a black skirt and apron. She would seat the guests, then serve the meal, unless it became too busy, at which moments other staff would be drawn from the bar or kitchen to help out. The food was basic, midwestern, steak-and-potatoes fare, but done to perfection, and served beneath dimmed lights, on fine linen tablecloths. It was the oddest blend of down-home and Sunday Dinner.
My family, living on a college instructor's (later professor's) salary, could only afford to go there for special occasions -- mostly birthdays.
And, birthdays were a big deal at Meling's Restaurant. If somebody told the waitress that it was, for example, my birthday, then after we'd eaten our fill of locally-raised steak, home-grown corn, mashed potatoes and gravy, and iceberg salad, and we weren't sure we could fit in another sip of milk, the waitress would reappear with a *free* single-serving birthday cake, bearing the birthday-girl's name and a "magic" candle that would relight after each time it was blown out (it was years before I finally learned how that worked). Of course, the cake was always, for me, the best chocolate available.
But time does seem to pass unheeding. Monmouth had a few bold investors, and soon there was another fine restaurant in town, which lured away the head cook from Meling's, and soon dinners were not so special at Meling's Restaurant. The breakfast diner took on elements of greasy spoon -- although you could always rely upon them to offer a clean, tasty plate of the midwest standard of eggs, toast and sausage (or bacon), with a good hot cuppa joe and a friendly smile. When McDonald's moved in across the road, with fast-food breakfasts, at slightly lower costs, that took another stone from Meling's foundations, as it were.
I moved away, for nearly twenty years, and when I returned, the city was celebrating the arrival of two new motels -- one was a Super 8 less than a quarter mile down the highway from Meling's. It didn't take much to see where that led. Still, the restaurant remained open, struggling, providing simple menus and warm companionship. They hosted open-mike nights, where we locals could test to see whether we were talented or delusional (and, more often than not, caught in that middle ground). And, still going strong after nearly four full generations of performance, our local Lady of Warmth and Humor, brilliantly self-taught pianist Gracie Peterson was still banging the keys weekly up until almost her 100th birthday, and everybody sang along with her.
When Gracie was forced to leave off the keyboard for health reasons, it seemed that whatever heart the restaurant had once had, now was gone. It was soon after that the sale of the property was announced, and the restaurant was closed. The motel stayed open for a year or so, but, without the crowds at dinner and song, there seemed to be little to distinguish it from any other aging motor hotel, and the golden light of the Super 8 sign glowed so much newer and seemingly cleaner. Only the die-hards, who knew the routes intimately, bothered to stay the night there -- they and a handful of semi-permanent residents who didn't seem to be able to move farther into the community than its perimeter.
As I drive past the building these days, I see the cracked windows, the unkempt front door, the empty parking lot, and I can almost visualize tumbleweed rolling past. But, while it may be an old, nearly empty, nearly useless building during the daylight, it is more than that. It is the holder of memories, of warmth and of home and of the quiet prosperity of having just barely enough money to get by, and not so much that it kept us from holding onto one another. In memories, Meling's is forever a place of family and of welcome home.