By Susan Redden
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The familiar A-frame architecture that was a Joplin attraction on Route 66 for 20 years will serve as a stop for some travelers during the Route 66 International Festival that begins Thursday.
Owner Hugh Hills said he can’t even guess how many hamburgers were served at the former Mr. Swiss restaurant at Seventh Street and Sergeant Avenue.
“We sold a lot, and a lot of ice cream too,” said Hills, who turned 88 on Tuesday. “Malts were 19 cents, and we had 30 flavors.”
Volunteers with the Historic Murphysburg Preservation District will be on hand Saturday to work with members of the Route 66 Alliance on a preservation project at the former restaurant at 635 S. Sergeant Ave. The building is at the entrance of the historic district, which is on a self-guided driving tour for Route 66 visitors.
“The alliance wanted to do a preservation project on the route while they were here, and we suggested this building,” said Paula Callihan, a member of the Historic Murphysburg Preservation board of directors. “We think this is one of the last hamburger stands on that part of Route 66. Our goal is to get visitors on the route to stop and learn about the history of these kinds of Route 66 businesses before they leave the Joplin stretch of the route.”
Hills said the restaurant opened as a Mr. Swiss franchise in April 1967. He bought the business in October of that year, and he and his family ran it for 20 years, first as a Mr. Swiss, and then as Hillbilly Hills when the Mr. Swiss company went out of business.
Son Tom Hills started working there when he was 12, and daughter Connistet Lipe started when she was 14. Hills’ wife, Emma Sue, took over supervising the Seventh Street location when her husband began running a second restaurant that was built on North Range Line Road.
“We worked hard; it was seven days a week,” Lipe said.
Both siblings kidded their father, saying he was too generous with youngsters who stopped in, giving them ice cream treats made at the store and sold from a freezer case.
“I think he gave away more than he sold,” said Tom Hills. “He would give kids a paper sack and tell them to help themselves — and we were the ones making them.”
The practice was “good advertising,” Hugh Hills insisted.
In addition to hamburgers, sandwiches and ice cream, the restaurant served spaghetti red that used chili from Hugh Hills’ own recipe.
“I had people ask me for it, but I didn’t give it out,” he said.
After the restaurant closed in 1987, the building was rented out. It has been used as a beauty shop, a Chinese takeout restaurant and a car lot. It currently is vacant.
At 88, Hills still runs his own lawn mowing business. He said he mowed 23 yards, but the Joplin tornado cut his business down to 19 customers.
“I started mowing yards when I was 10, and I was paid 10 cents an hour,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I think that money went further.”
He also lost his home in the May 2011 tornado. He now is living in an apartment owned by his son, not far from the old business.
THE PRESERVATION EFFORT is set for 9:30 to 11 a.m. Saturday, though Historic Murphysburg Preservation members already have done some preparatory work, said Paula Callihan, a member of the group’s board of directors. A board detailing the history of the location will be in the building’s window.