Celine Kay remembers going on dates in the late 1950s in Harlan, Iowa. Teens would stop at Mickel's on the south side of town, where waitresses would skate out to the cars and take orders.
Years later, as a nurse at Myrtue Memorial Hospital next door to the restaurant, Kay would direct families of surgery patients over to Mickel's for a hamburger or a “greasy roll.”
“They would come back and say, 'That was the best darn meal. I needed that,' ” said Kay, 73, who now lives in Council Bluffs.
Over time, Mickel's evolved into a sit-down restaurant, the kind of place that served steaks, seafood and salads with a sweet house dressing. It also was where farmers gathered to drink coffee and talk about the lack of rain.
But those days are over, because on Monday Mickel's Family Restaurant in Harlan served up its last chuck-wagon steak. Current owners Sue and Ken Kobold are closing the restaurant and selling the property to the hospital, now Myrtue Medical Center.
Sue Kobold said Ken, 71, was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago. Though he currently is able to work, she doesn't know how long that will last.
“It's been a long time the restaurant has been here. But things haven't been working out with my husband's health.” Sue said.
“I just figured it was time for us to stop and enjoy things,” she said, her voice choking up.
George “Bud” Mickel and his wife, Ila, opened the restaurant in the late 1940s, in a Quonset hut across the street from its current location, Sue Kobold said.
Ken Kobold began working for the Mickels when he was 13. Bud Mickel took Ken under his wing, teaching him how to work and how to be dependable, Sue said.
“This is all Kenny has ever known.”
Sue worked for Mickel as a teenager in the mid-1960s, but she didn't meet her husband until she returned to Harlan after a couple of years at college and began working at the restaurant again.
A fire in the late 1960s destroyed the restaurant, but the Mickels rebuilt it. Then Bud Mickel died.
In 1972, after Ken and Sue were married, Ila Mickel sold the business to them, and they have run it ever since.
The restaurant became known for its “chuck-wagon steak” — smoked ground steak wrapped in a strip of bacon, a Bud Mickel original. Also well known are its sweet house salad dressing, sort of a mild French, and the greasy rolls — deep fried bread.
“Everybody wants to come here and get their house dressing and their chuck wagon and their greasy rolls,” Sue said. “They sound like they would be really awful, but they are really good.”
Word that the restaurant was closing has prompted people to buy as many frozen chuck-wagon steaks as they can, she said.
“Last Thursday we made 700 of those. And they are all gone.”
The salad dressing and steaks will be available until the kitchen is dismantled for an auction, scheduled for Feb. 11. Anybody wanting a final taste of smoked steak and bacon, or for the sweet dressing (“I can't tell you exactly why, but it's wonderful with iceberg lettuce,” Kay said), can call Sue at the restaurant at 712-755-2400 or her home at 712-755-2924.
Sue said she didn't know how the medical center plans to use the property. An attempt to reach a hospital administrator Monday afternoon was unsuccessful.
Kay and her husband haven't lived in Harlan for 20 years, but they continued to make regular visits to Mickel's Family Restaurant for dishes like chicken and noodles, made from scratch, or for the buffet.
The restaurant's closing will leave a void for them, both culinary and personal.
The Kobolds, who volunteered with the Red Cross and provided food to firefighters during fires or to displaced people, oversaw a culture of compassion, Kay said.
If a diner mentioned a health problem, the couple and their employees would take an interest and ask if you had seen a doctor, Kay said.
“They would ask, 'Have you done anything about it?' And really mean it. It was from the heart and the soul.”
The round table where area farmers spent many mornings is going to the Shelby County Museum in Harlan.
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