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The Hub complex leaves lasting legacy

By Staff | Jan 2, 2015

The Hub Complex as it looked in the 1970s.

Cold, windy, gray, and bitter was the day when the first bucket clawed its way into the former Hub complex located for 50 years at the intersections of U. S. Highway 2 and 3. The sound of breaking glass, brick falling and metal crashing brought to reality that this landmark was soon to be demolished. As I watched from my vehicle earlier this month, the homicide sprawled across what used to be the gas station and front parking lot. Mounds of bricks, metal windows, soldered beams, counter tops, doors and tiles smashed by the clang of the wrecking bucket. I witnessed as the corpse was hauled away-truck load after truck load.

Others, too, had gathered to watch-most notably was Betty Hillman, the former owner of The Hub. I walked to her vehicle as the howls of demolition blabbed. Upon opening the back door, our eyes met. Her vehicle was warm, inviting, and silent as she watched. I knew the time had come to write a fitting tribute about this hallmark restaurant which she and her husband Ken owned and into which they poured their souls.

The next week, we met at her home. Seated at her dining room table, she served from her Christmas china. Her hand, as it had so many times in the Hub, once again graciously set down a cup of hot coffee. She smiled at me and said, “Let’s talk about the Hub.”

We started at the beginning. Betty Lou’s parents, Bjarne and Inez (Hilde) Hjelmstad, were from Adams, ND and Ken’s parents, John and Pauline (Westford) Hillman, were from rural Mountain, ND. Betty smiles as she talks about Ken’s time in the U. S. Navy. She recalls with ease their wedding day, August 17, 1958 and their move to Minneapolis where Ken was employed at Bishmann Manufacturing. Ken gained valuable knowledge about tire changers and other garage equipment which benefited him in operating his own station.

In the fall of 1966, Ken and Betty’s daughter, Kelly, had to have her tonsils out. Well, there was no better place to come than to Rugby where Ken’s brother, Dr. Lyle Hillman, and his wife, Diane, resided. Dr. Hillman was practicing as a physician at the Johnson Clinic. Betty and Kelly arrived via the train, the surgery went well. Ken drives out to Rugby to bring them home. Ken adores Rugby and mentions to his brother, “Say, if a gas station position happens to open up, be sure to let me know.” It was meant to be because Ken was shortly clued-in that the Andy B. was looking for a new manager. Betty said “His ears perked up, and the next thing I knew, we were in Rugby.”

Leonida Koenig prepares a meal in the Andy B., the name of the truck stop, prior to purchase by Ken & Betty Hillman.

The Andy B. was the start of what became the Hub complex. It was a truck stop with a stall, service station, truck wash, and a coffee shop. At one point, Ken’s brother, Dave, and his wife, Gloria, managed the coffee shop. You now understand the Hillman brothers like Rugby! In time, even the parents resided on 14th Street SW. Dave and Gloria took time off from the coffee shop, and asked if Betty could “take care of it while they were away.” That is exactly what she did! “I could barely boil water, let alone cook in a restaurant, but I knew Ken wanted this,” Betty confided. “I was already helping with the books in the station, and I figured I would give it a try.”

Some things in life simply go together and that was certainly the case with Betty and the cooking staff at the coffee shop. On board was Mrs. Leonida Koenig, Dorothy Tuchscherer- who were sisters with the maiden name of Giesinger-and Barb Hilzendager, and they were accustomed to serving home cooked meals. They anchored their service by providing delicious food to hungry customers. Betty says, “Right from the start, the four of us clicked. We had a great time “taking care” of the coffee shop. They truly were my mentors.” All three were seasoned cooks skilled in many areas: cooking, baking, waiting on customers, and serving a bus load with confidence. They presented their cooking with a style and order, and they worked hard. Betty recalls that Mrs. Koenig had a system in which the meat, mashed potatoes and the vegetable were carefully placed on each plate.

Dave and Gloria did not return to the coffee shop, and this brought about a change for the Andy B. It was at this time that Ken and Betty purchased the business, and renamed it The Hub. Ken came up with the name. This was just one of the many things he thought of while running the business. Betty was now in charge of the coffee shop and says, “I never scheduled these ladies. They knew when they had to be at The Hub; their caramel rolls were perfect and were enjoyed daily by customers as a standard.” They were the saving grace, as Betty managed this busy restaurant while working right alongside them. Betty tells that after a hectic run in the restaurant she would say, “OK, ladies it is time to take a break, have a cup of coffee, sit and rest before we tackle the next rush.” That rush might have been Ken bringing a load of potatoes from Edinburg to be stored in the kitchen basement.

Did you ever take time to look at the beautiful Hub sign? This tall sign is stunning with its design of the North and South American continents, red and blue lights, and its revolving feature. Again, this was Ken’s idea. You can see that his education on the farm, Navy, and time spent at Bishmann Manufacturing aided him greatly in operating this extensive business. Ken knew the business needed to grow, and he charged forth adding on the supper club, the overflow room, the pub, the motel, three bay service station, and convenience store. These added to the coffee shop which meant that there were seven businesses under one roof. Not to be forgotten was Rugby’s first car wash. The Hillmans belonged to a restaurant association, and when it came time to expand, they contacted a professional restaurant designer in the Twin Cities. He sketched the plans. In time as the service bays were repurposed, a bottle shop was added.

With the addition of the supper club, brought Chef Roger Bingston who created the first menu with his skillfulness of pan and flame. Jan and I can recollect dining at the supper club and Betty greeting us wearing an aqua chiffon dress with matching pumps. This was the style, and Betty brought it forth with grace, ease and candlelight. Our first moments in the door were beautiful, luminous, and we knew the gathered vapors in kitchen would please our appetite. An English pattern of prints in warm tones such as rich clays, greens, and deep navy blue existed in the wool carpet with speckles of red which blended perfectly with each season. Tall, deeply tanned rounded top dining chairs trimmed in chocolate brown made this supper club the finest one around for miles.

These changes happened around 1973, and when the place was completed, they had a staff of 125 people. Betty was in charge of the scheduling and did so for five weeks in advance. This proved to a winning method as employees could plan ahead easily. The employees knew that the Hillmans were interested in them beyond working at the Hub, and respected their private lives. When mothers worked on Mother’s Day, each of them received an orchid to wear on their coordinating uniforms. If the roads were bad, employees could count on Ken coming to get them and take them home.

Betty demanded that aprons and dishcloths be clean, and changing them often sent her feet into a twirl of happiness as she jigged about the gleaming chrome. Betty was quick to mention that she and Ken were blessed with many, many loyal employees who worked hard and took great pride in their service to customers. She commented without these dedicated folks they would not have been able to achieve the success that they did. At this time, the Hub was open 24 hours a day- and it was busy! Their willingness to bake from scratch, create homemade salad dressings, and cook with care even when the order tickets were a mile long, made their restaurant. They hosted anniversary and birthday parties, and countless Christmas gatherings. New Year’s Eve was huge-with no reservation taken and customers standing in the halls.

A delight for Ken and Betty was hosting a staff Christmas party. The Hub was closed, and all employees were invited to a sit down meal and dance at Andrew’s Steakhouse. This event was special and employees took the time to dress up and completely enjoy the evening. Betty commented that after each of these parties, she and Ken would be awake half the night visiting about what wonderful, loyal employees they had. They both agreed, “This is a good life and we have been blessed.”

In October of 1977 a fire started in the kitchen area and damaged the Hub complex. The smoke and heat damage was extensive to many areas including the supper club where the chairs melted and the brass chandeliers fell from the ceilings. Ken pressed forth with rebuilding, and the employees of the Hub were “Simply amazing as they helped us clean and restore things in so many areas. We could not have done this without their loyalty.” The rebuilding took several months, but once complete, the Hub was once again the meeting place.

Betty recalls Sundays were the busiest day of the week- not only for the restaurant, but also for the gas station. True to Betty’s attention to detail, not only did the wait staff of the restaurant have attractive and matching uniforms, so did the service station. On Sundays, attendants wore white shirts, black ties and they held contest to see which team could pump the most gas. Betty’s teammate was Jerry McGee, and they had a great time. With each full tank of gas came a complete vacuuming of your vehicle, right at the pump. Now that was truly full service, and once again, added to the uniqueness of the Hub.

Running the Hub was a family affair, and all three of the Hillman children Kim, Kelly, and Craig were involved. Kim Anderson, now of Moorhead, recalls that after church each Sunday they went to work in the restaurant wearing their Sunday clothes. She also mentioned that summer help-consisting of many college students-often requested that Betty hold a spot for them the next summer as they enjoyed working at the Hub. Kim also mentioned the generosity of her father. Many folks stopped at the Hub hungry and wanted to work for food. Ken’s response was always this, “First you sit down and have a good meal, and then we will talk about work.” She said that she and her sister both had their wedding receptions at the Hub and that guests sat in every single spot! Kim recalls that she worked in many areas of the complex with the last being a clerk at the motel.

Kelly Wolfe revealed that without many key people, the Hub would have failed. She remembers her mother often going to each table to visit and ask customers about their meals. One of the greatest things that her parents instilled in her and her children was to have a good work ethic. She stated that you never knew what brought people through the doors-maybe they had been saving for a special event or maybe it was an evening out. “Mom trained us that it was about the people, and not the tip, and that good service was given to all customers.” She also mentioned that she felt the Hub employees were like family – they took care of each other. Kelly’s first job at the Hub was helping Ma Haman with the dishes on Sunday, and in time, she was allowed to make butter pats with her sister. She remembered that on Sundays, the cooks used 5 pickle pails of pancake batter to conquer the breakfast appetites of customers.

Craig Hillman recalls the whole family gathering at a table for meal. “We seldom ate at home, but Mom wanted us to eat as a family at the Hub.” He also remembers his mother’s attention to uniforms, selecting colors and styles that looked professional, and that she could be hard core if you happened to show up at work looking sloppy. Betty would send you off the floor to a motel room where you would remove your uniform press it and look presentable. Once again, the vigorous will of Betty-the trademark that customers and employees respected. Craig revealed that his dad often opened at 3 a.m. for the hunters who returned year after year. “We had hunters from many states and dad enjoyed giving them special attention. We provided an area to clean birds and store their catch.” He also reflected that in the restaurant that he and his wife Alesia own and operate in Alexandria, MN, they exercise many of the management methods they both learned while working at the Hub for many years. Ken and Betty actually called the Hub home, as they took residency in Room 31 on the second floor of the motel. They usually did this during the winter months. Craig also recalls the interest his parents took in his racing, and they chartered a bus for customers to Minot, provided treats. Upon returning home, riders were treated to a hamburger and coffee.

In Craig and Alesia’s MN restaurant resides a piece of Hub history displayed proudly above the fireplace. Ken’s dad had forged an eagle himself and presented it upon the opening of the pub. He was elated that Ken and Betty had grown their business and marked this moment with this keepsake which keeps an eye on the many customers of the swivel chairs. The supper club and the pub shared a doubled sided massive fireplace which was crafted out of petrified wood. Craig, Ken and Uncle Skip collected this petrified wood at a farm near Hettinger, ND. It was the centerpiece of both rooms and countless photographs were taken in front of this impressive background and the hearth. The mantel was created by Skinner Tester of Leeds and was always decorated for the holidays. Remember the Christmas greens and poinsettias around the fireplace and the tasteful weavings of greenery through all the chandeliers?

The Hillmans sold the Hub to Dennis and Candie Fred, and they ran it for several years. The Hub is now history, and many of us have fond memories of this servant of hospitality. As we look ahead, we can only hope that the new business that will rise will be as kind, generous and memory making as the Hub. I wonder, will there be any Early American chairs for comfortable coffee drinking?

Beer Cheese Soup

The Hub Supper Club

Beer cheese soup was a tradition in the supper club. It was served beside the wagon wheel salad bar from an attractive soup container which looked like a rustic barrel.

12 cups cheese sauce

bottle of beer (Betty liked to use a complete bottle)

1 cup of water

Green and red dried peppers (a small handful)

Few chopped onions

1 teaspoon Worchester sauce

1 teaspoon Accent

Heat cheese sauce, beer and water over medium heat stirring often. Once well heated add pepper, onions, Worchester sauce and Accent. Heat until hot and serve with popcorn.

I took the time to convert this recipe to a home version which I discovered works best if you make a paste. Often cheese sauces that are available for commercial use are difficult to purchase for home use. I therefore made a paste, added stock and light cream to recreate something similar. I do believe Betty would approve as it has excellent taste.

cup butter

cup flour

4 cups chicken stock

cup chopped onions

1 teaspoon Worchester sauce

1 teaspoon Accent

1 to 2 tablespoons of red and green died peppers

cup half and half

1 15 oz. jar Cheese Whiz

1 bottle of beer

Blend the butter and flour in kettle to make a paste. Then add chicken stock and onion simmer for 15 minutes. Add half and half, Worchester sauce, red

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