Wednesday, August 08, 2018

From Newton County Memories: Remembering Gertrude Brown and the Brown Derby

When McQueen Funeral Home in Wheaton sent me a notice concerning the death of Rita Wolfe, a 58-year-old woman from Fairview, the name was not familiar, but for some reason I knew that it had to be the girl I had known four decades ago as Rita Roller.

The age was the same- she had been in my sister Kelly's graduating class at East Newton High School- and the Roller family was from Fairview.

I confirmed that it was the Rita I knew who died when I checked back with the funeral home the next day to get the complete obituary for the Inside Joplin Obituaries website.

While I was saddened that Rita died so young, I had not seen her for a long time and had never really known her well. She had been in my thoughts recently, though, when I was writing my book Newton County Memories.

Rita was mentioned in one chapter in the book in a story I originally wrote in 2016 when I received word that Gertrude Brown, the longtime owner of the Brown Derby Restaurant (and a champion bowler) had died.

Rita was one of the young waitresses I remember from my days hanging out at the Derby. Though the building that housed the Brown Derby still stands on Highway 86, a mile or so before you get to Newtonia, the business has been gone for nearly 30 years and sadly, another one of the people who made the Brown Derby such a memorable place is no longer with us.

The following essay is taken from Newton County Memories:

My friends and I never spent much time in the dining section of the Brown Derby Restaurant, something for which I am sure the owner, Gertrude Brown, was forever grateful.

It was something that we had never seen in Newtonia. In the past, if we wanted to get a fountain drink, an ice cream cone, or a cheeseburger, we had to go six miles to the Dairy Dip in Granby or even further to Neosho to the Corral.

That all changed on January 10, 1969, when the Brown Derby opened its doors, two miles west of Newtonia on Highway 86. That date is forever fixed in my mind because for years afterward, the poster announcing the opening date was pinned on the bulletin board at Ted Arnall's barbershop.

I was still almost a couple of months from becoming a teenager when the Derby opened for business, so my trips to the establishment were limited. It quickly became a hangout for East Newton High School students, especially after school and after nighttime activities since the restaurant was only a mile from the school.

On rare occasions, my friends and I would walk to the Derby, always making sure to stay far from the road in the wide ditches on both sides.

Sometimes when we were lucky and there were not many people in the back room, where the pool table was located, we would manage to scrounge up a quarter and play pool as we drank our soft drinks. And as anyone who ever went to the Brown Derby can tell you, the Pepsi-Cola fountain drinks from the Derby were the best they ever had.

If we were not able to find 25 cents after buying a Pepsi and a hamburger, we would take the cue ball and compete against each other, banking it off the sides and creating our own games.

For me, there was always the jukebox. My favorite times were the rare ones when I was the one who was able to select the music- five songs for a quarter. Gertrude always made sure there were plenty of oldies, and I had the opportunity to play the Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, and Johnny Rivers songs that were not yet in my record collection.

Many times after Brad Letts passed his driver's test and bought a used car, he ended up reluctantly taking his younger brothers and me to the Derby.

As we reached our high school years, some of the younger people who went to the Derby (the adults always ate in the dining section in front) were lured away from the restaurant by the opening of Reta's in Granby. By that time, I was driving and as everyone knew, several of the best-looking girls at East Newton were working at Reta's. The Brown Derby was a smaller restaurant and usually only had one waitress working at a time and sometimes it was an adult and not a high school girl.

I didn't worry about taking some of my business to Reta's.

The Brown Derby was always going to be there, I thought. And its owner, Gertrude Brown, would be there to keep the young people in line, smiling even as she grew more exasperated with some of our antics.

The building that housed the Brown Derby still stands on Highway 86, but when the sign finally came down years after the restaurant closed its doors, there was no clue to those who did not live through those days why the Derby was so important to the people of Newtonia, Stark City, and the other nearby communities.

The Derby, like Reta's, the Dairy Dip, the Corral and so many other establishments that played such important roles in those coming-of-age years, are only memories today, but what wonderful memories.

When I heard of the death of Gertrude Brown at age 99, my thoughts immediately turned to the Brown Derby, the restaurant that she ran for two decades. I remembered the nights when she was gone to one bowling competition after another, sometimes on the local level, sometimes at the national.

I remember the people who made the Derby such an inviting place- the adult employees who kept us in line and the high school aged waitresses like Robyn Trowbridge, Lou Ann Ball, and Rita Roller, who we quickly found out could do an even better job of keeping us in line.

I remember the taste of that Pepsi Cola, loaded down with crushed ice, those burgers, the ice cream, and the sounds of worn jukebox versions of Roy Orbison singing "Pretty Woman." and Johnny Rivers singing "Memphis."

More than a quarter of a century has passed since the Brown Derby's doors closed for the final time but for those of us who had the privilege of spending time there, our debt to Gertrude Brown can never be repaid.


Newton County Memories is available in paperback and e-book formats at and is available locally at Granby Auto Supply, Pat's Books in Carthage and Always Buying Books in Joplin.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Harvey Hutchinson 303-522-6622 voice&text