Good-bye, Barrel Drive-In

(Above) Crews from McKiness Excavating began digging into The Barrel Monday morning.-Reporter photo by Chris Barragy.

Days of root beers, Hi-Boys, KRIB DJ booth & car hops give way to Casey’s Stores growth

by Marianne Gasaway

A 1960s photo of The Barrel. -file photo.

A Clear Lake icon began coming down Monday, making way for a new, larger Casey’s Store to be built on the Highway 18 West site.

A few motorists pulled over near the restaurant to watch the demolition, while others followed the action on social media.  The Mirror-Reporter’s Facebook site offered not only photos throughout the process, but streamed video as crews from McKiness Excavating, of Mason City, dug into the 1958 building.

The sentiment for the day was “sad” from those posting comments to the Mirror-Reporter’s request for Barrel memories on Facebook.

“(It is) always sad to see landmarks crumble,” said Beth Ann Schumacher, president of the Clear Lake Historical Society and fan of the Barrel’s vanilla shakes and chicken.  The Historical Society investigated the possibility of saving the KRIB record booth which sat atop the drive-in, but discovered the venture was “far too expensive and labor intensive.”

Patricia Meints, from Clear Lake, said she remembered when there used to be DJs in the top booth on weekends during the summer.  “Everybody would cruise through and sometimes the DJ would mention something about the people in the cars.  After the Surf, that was the place to cruise, for sure.  It might sound kind of lame now, but kids today don’t even know what they missed out on.”

Demolition work on The Barrel Drive-In began at the rear of the building Monday, March 12. In the background of the photo is the Casey’s store on the corner of Highway 18 and Buddy Holly Place. Casey’s has purchased the Barrel property for future expansion.-Reporter photo by Chris Barragy.

The Barrel Drive-In was built and opened in 1958 by Jack Christensen.  Edward and Lois Kotz purchased it in 1959.  As the story goes, they had been farming in the Garner area and decided that operating a restaurant would be better than milking cows and raising capons. The original Barrel was a small cement block building.  Carhops went out to cars to take and deliver orders.

In 1959 and the early 1960’s, radio station KRIB broadcast live from the booth on the roof of the restaurant.  During those years the Barrel was a popular “hang-out” spot for teenagers.  The canopy was added in the mid-1960’s and the electronic ordering system in 1970.  The first dining room was built in1975, and the second dining room was added in 1991.

Seth Thackery, who started working at the Barrel at the age of 14, leased the business for two years from former owners Deb and Tom Lincoln.  The Lincolns had owned the business since 1998.  Thackery took ownership in January 2008.  In July 2014 Thackery  went public in July with the challenges he was facing to keep his business open.  Almost immediately he received offers to make repairs and help apply for grants to turn the business around.  Thackery was selected for a business makeover worth up to $75,000 which he put to use.  In the end, the efforts made by Thackery and countless others were not enough to save the business and Casey’s General Stores purchased the property for $342,500.  Thackery closed The Barrel for good in the fall of 2016.  He did not respond to attempts by the Mirror-Reporter for comment.

Ed Kotz Jr. spent 40-years of his life involved with the Barrel, doing everything from climbing the ladder to take a root beer to the DJ up in the booth, to cooking.  He recalled that his dad modeled the Barrel’s popular “Hi-Boy” burger after seeing those created by the Big Boy franchise in the southern states.  The Hi-Boy preceded McDonalds’ Big Mac and featured not only two hamburger patties, but a special Hi-Boy sauce created by Ed Kotz Sr.  The Barrel’s cole slaw was also created using a homemade sauce, as was its distinct French dressing.

Among those who worked at The Barrel and were sad to see it go was Ashley (Willms) Scarrow.  “I’m sad to see the Barrel go away.  I have so many great memories of working there on summer nights with friends.  Seth was an outstanding person to work for as well.”

Michelle (Oberbroeckling) Watson worked at the Barrel in the early 1980s.  “Like many kids that grew up in Clear Lake, the Barrel was my first job.  Edward Kotz, Sr., was my first boss.  The job taught me responsibility, how to work with the public, and of course, how to make a root beer float.  It’s sad to see it come down, because I have a lot of great memories of the place -  being a car hop on busy weekend nights to having water fights with my fellow employees after we closed.”  Watson also shared a little known fact about the business.  “The big chicken that sat out front had a name, it was ‘Cooper’, well at least that’s what it was called when I worked there.”

Watson’s brother, Mike, who now lives in Runnels, Iowa, also worked at The Barrel in the mid-1980s.  Like his sister, Mike remembers the fun atmosphere of the restaurant.   “I remember we’d close for a day and Ed (Kotz) Sr. and Ed (Kotz) Jr. would take us on a day trip.  One year we went to Adventureland and the other we got a houseboat on the Mississippi River.”

Roxanne Paulson Dwyer said the Barrel was her first job with a paycheck, so there are many memories.  Topping her list was riding the chicken in the Fourth of July parade.

Mini root beer mugs for the kids, placing orders on the phones in the booths inside, or using the speakers outside were also fond memories shared by Barrel fans.

“Nothing but great memories as far back as the mid sixties,” commented Howard Heinz on the Reporter’s Facebook page.  “Root Beer, great fish sandwiches, great Pizza Burgers, excellent chicken, Hi-Boy’s, it was ALL great!”

A stop at the Barrel was also a family tradition for many, including Jeremy Rosel, who said he would always enjoy lunch with his dad at the Barrel when he was home on leave from the Navy.  Carol Ann Eppens said every time she picked up her daughter from Girl Scout Camp, starting at four-years-old, they would eat at the Barrel following the closing ceremony or when she got done working when she became old enough to work at the camp.  “She is now 20!”

Kotz, who still hadn’t been by to see the demolition on Tuesday morning, was considering taking a look.  “The Barrel— and the community— was very good to us while we were there.  Life goes on.”

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