Respected businesswoman passes away
Grandson reflects on Bessie Brown’s service to the local community and love for family
When a relative or loved one to Bessie Brown passed, it wasn’t uncommon for patrons of Brown’s Dairy Bar to see a “Sorry, we’re closed” sign in the window and a wreath hanging on the entrances of her business. The long-time owner and operator of the Gruetli-Laager establishment put her work on hold to pay her respects to those loved ones and their families without hesitation, and Elaine’s Flowers knew as soon as she called she wanted a blue, floral wreath sent to the family of the deceased. If you drove down Highway 108 earlier this week, you saw the above wreath donning the doors of the dining room, but this time the flowers were for Bessie, herself.
Saturday morning, at the age of 79, Bessie died following a battle with dementia. She was a hard-working mother of four who dedicated her life to her family, her restaurant and serving her community. She was, without a doubt, the strongest woman I’ve ever known who possessed a work ethic and drive like no other. I admired her to no end for those qualities, along with her generosity and leadership, and after receiving a flood of texts, calls and visits to the funeral home in the days following her passing, it is obvious I am not the only one who shares the sentiment.
She was “Granny” to me, my brother and cousins, but most anyone else who came to the window to order or pick up food knew her as “Bess Lee.” For someone who was very reserved, enjoyed her privacy and rarely had a photo snapped of her (she always despised having her photo taken, throwing her hand up to hide her face at the mere sight of a camera), it never failed someone would ask, “Is Bess Lee back there?” And, most of the time, they wouldn’t have the question out of their mouth before she had appeared in the doorway of the back office and was making her way to the window to greet whoever was there.
Bessie was a quiet but important part of the community for nearly 46 years. She and my grandfather, Doug, struggled to make ends meet for many years as members of the regular workforce before deciding to become entrepreneurs. Papa was a coal miner and Granny sewed on buttons at the old shirt factory in Altamont, and even moved to Modoc, Ind., for a short time in search of work, before returning to Grundy County to open Brown’s Café. The cafeteria-like restaurant opened in 1972 in Altamont and was run out of the same building that now houses Walker Video for two years before she moved back to her birthplace and built Brown’s Dairy Bar.
From 1974 until just recently, Bessie probably fed nearly every mouth in the county at least once and employed so many in the community during the 46-year stretch. Speaking from experience, my grandmother was sometimes tough to work for, but it was because she demanded perfection from her employees. The Dairy Bar had to be clean, the food had to be cooked just right and the ice cream cones had to be beautifully spun if they were to be handed out the window to her loyal customers. She cared what each and every customer thought of her and her restaurant, and that was what made her and her business an overwhelming success.
Along with operating a prosperous establishment, she was an extremely generous person. I can’t even begin to count the boxes of hamburger patties and bags of buns she donated to causes like the St. Jude softball tournament or horse show at the Gruetli-Laager Volunteer Recreation Park. Nor was it out of the ordinary to take down an order on the phone to have her check the caller ID and tell whoever was running the window, “Don’t charge them for their food.” She knew the person on the other line was barely able to afford food for their family and she never expected them to repay the debt. She did things like that all the time, but she was never one to boast or make it known the good deeds she had done. The closest she ever came to trumpeting a donation was when she sponsored mine and my brother’s softball teams in Beersheba Springs. She paid the team’s league fees, we wore “Brown’s Dairy Bar” shirts and she proudly displayed two league championship trophies inside the restaurant’s kitchen.
While typing, I had the thought that she would not much care for me writing this, but I can think of no better way for me to honor her memory. She enjoyed every little article I wrote for the Grundy County Herald while I was in high school and made it a point comment on each when she saw me. There was so much more to her than the little that is included in this piece, but I feel what I have shared about her here is a small but exemplary account of the life she led. She was an amazing woman who will be missed by so many. She was buried at Fall Creek Cemetery following funeral services Monday afternoon.