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Chieftain

 

You probably haven’t noticed (or cared), but in the opening sequence of the movie Wayne’s World, as the camera pans a street scene, you get a glimpse of a giant Indian, maybe 20 feet tall, set up on top of some business. The reason I noticed (and care) is that I know where that Indian’s brother is. He’s standing in front of the Chieftain Motel, in Carrington, North Dakota. Jud and Gen Tracy put him there in 1965. Years ago I had the opportunity to talk with Jud and Gen about their business.

I’m going somewhere with this, and it has to do with the story of most every town on the plains. Most of our towns were founded as railroad towns, but over time, those that have survived have become highway towns.

That’s how hotels became obsolete. Every town had a hotel or two near the railway station. Most of them are gone now, and where they remain, they are no longer used as hotels. In my old home town of Ellinwood, Kansas, for instance, the Wolf Hotel, across from the Santa Fe depot, is an antique store.

In the early 1920s Jud’s father, Don Tracy, ran such a hotel–the Linton Hotel, in Linton, North Dakota. Among his guests was the young Lawrence Welk, who shared a room and bed with his drummer; Jud showed me the register. When the hotel burned down, Don Tracy bought a movie theater in Carrington. After the Second World War his son came home to Carrington with his bride and they bought the Garland Hotel.

This was already late to buy a hotel. The lodging business largely had moved onto Highway 281, into the Rainbow Gardens. This was a stucco cabin court, beautifully and whimsically landscaped by Japanese-American proprietors, Harry and Anna Hayashi, who unfortunately were  interned during the war. That’s another story.

Jud and Gen sold the hotel in 1948, ran a restaurant downtown for eight years, and then bought a 10-stool diner on the highway. They expanded it and named it the “Big Chief Cafe.” When they bought the A & W, they named it the “Little Chief Drive-In.” They had caught on that an American Indian motif was a good hook for the cross-country tourist trade.

Thus in 1964, when they built their new motel-restaurant, it was christened “The Chieftain.” The restaurant featured the Big Chief Belly Buster, a giant hamburger. Times were good for highway service businesses: “We had US 52 and US 281, plus ND 200 running east and west from Minnesota into Montana,” explains Jud. “There was a lot of traffic.”

But what about the big fiberglass Indian out front? Jud saw one like it in front of the Thunderbird Motel, on the south side of Minneapolis, and said to the owner, “Rodney, where did you get that big Indian out front? I have to have one of those!”

The manufacturer, in California, was happy to oblige. The company sold its monstrous figures in modular form. The legs of all were the same, but the top could be either an Indian or a cowboy, whichever you ordered. Obviously, the company sold at least three of the Indian model–the one in Minneapolis, the one in Carrington, and the one in Wayne’s World.

Jud and Gen–Gen ran the restaurant–had the Chieftain for ten years before selling and retiring. It’s still a flourishing enterprise.

I came away from my visit carrying a memento–the recipe for Gen’s famous Chieftain beer cheese soup, made from butter, chicken stock, grated carrots and celery and onions, parsley, cheddar cheese, and a couple pints of Budweiser. The proportions are large, but next time I need to serve 200 guests, I’ll be ready.

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