Today is Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Home cooking, homey atmosphere at Four Winds

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Ann Butler, left, and June Andrews, aka Cupcake, have toiled a combined 95 years in the restaurant business. Butler operates Four Winds Restaurant on Sparta Pike, and Andrews has been a waitress here for 41 years. Photo by Ken Beck Four Winds Restaurant waitress Rena Butler has served a hot breakfast and refilled coffee cups for truck-driving partners Arlene Collins and James Payne of Asheville, N.C., who are hauling a load to the West Coast. By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson PostIt’s a Saturday morning at 8 a.m., and within hearing distance of a diesel horn blast from the interstate, 15 vehicles form a huddle of sorts around the Four Winds Restaurant on Sparta Pike. Of the 15 vehicles, 11 of them are pickup trucks.Originally a truck stop, the eatery today is a family restaurant but could equally lay claim to being a pickup truck stop.Nothing fancy here: 11 booths, a front counter, no stools and big, plate-glass windows on three sides. There’s a jukebox that might be playing a tune by Charley Pride, George Strait or the original Hank Williams. A few gumball/candy machines collect coins, and two boxes of bubble gum and mints on the counter tempt those with sweet tooths and jingle in their pockets for a stray nickel.A sign posted near the restroom door proclaims: Cows May Come & Cows May Go But the Bull in This Place Goes on Forever. Another sign warns: Customers Parking Only! No Sleeping on Lot. Family photographs adorn the wall, most showing grandchildren on ball teams of seasons past.Welcome to Ann Butler’s home away from home. She’s operated the Four Winds for 29 year. It’s a way of life that she has lived for 54 of her 68 years. As she said, “It’s all I’ve ever known.”Her second-shift waitress, June Andrews, more commonly referred to as Cupcake (her former CB radio handle), expresses similar sentiments. After 41 years in the same cafe, Cupcake has waited on more hungry truck drivers, farmers and fishermen than you could shake a soda straw at and poured enough cups of hot black coffee to fill Center Hill Lake. “I have a good time. I enjoy my customers,” Cupcake said. “We’re like a big family. I’ve got a lot friends since I been here.”Speaking of a big family, Butler, her sisters, children and other relatives keep the Four Winds hopping 24 hours a day, 51 weeks a year.  The crew includes sisters Emily Blanks and Inez Gibbs, who cook; son Jeff Butler, who cooks; daughter Rena Butler, waitress; son-in-law Rickey Harville, dishwasher; grandson J.D. Butler, dishwasher; niece Cathy Goodall, waitress; niece Samantha Gibbs, dishwasher; and son Joey Butler, self-proclaimed handyman and loafer. Butler first saw the light of day in the Kenny’s Bend community near Rock City in Smith County, about 5 miles over the Wilson County line. She grew up on a farm with two brothers and four sisters, the offspring of Holland and Thelma (Thompson) Gregory.“I went to work at the Rock City Cafe when I was 14 and worked there for five years,” Butler said of a small diner that still stands on the side of Highway 70.In 1963, Ann and her late husband, J.D. Butler, bought that café and ran it for three years. Then, almost overnight, they saw their small but thriving business shrivel on the vine in the name of “progress.”“The day the interstate opened up, business dried up. We stuck it out there for six more months and then went to Hartsville and the City Cafe,” Butler said. At the same time, the hard-working couple, who were married for 34 years, until J.D.’s death, opened another restaurant, the 231 Cafe near Castalian Springs, where Highways 231 and 25 intersect. They ran both places for two years  In September 1967, the Butlers came to Lebanon and set up in the Cloverland Truck Stop. The now-extinct cafe was parked just across Sparta Pike from her present restaurant, and they operated it for 14 years.In 1981, the Butlers hopped across Highway 70 into the Four Winds Truck Stop. During the past 29 years it has evolved into a blend of family restaurant that serves blue-collar workers, farmers and old codgers.“Used to a lot more truckers were on the road. At midnight this place would fill up with drivers who worked for Kroger, UPS, Ripley Shoe Trucks, Consolidated Freight, Roadway, Thurston,” Butler said, drawing from her memory bank.Open 24 hours, the Four Winds feeds different groups of regulars for breakfast, lunch and supper, but there are some who often will eat two to three meals a day here, such as Ray Ricketts (aka Cat Daddy) Mr. Alvin and Miss Billie McKee, Dot Fisher, Milton Tuggle and Louis Simms.“I got to eat somewhere. This is the closest place to eat and a good place to eat,” said Simms, 83, who drove an 18-wheeler for 22 years for Tucker Freight Lines and lives on a farm three miles distant. “Ain’t many restaurants like it. They have that home cooking. I’ve been eating here about as long as they’ve been here.”Customers have come and gone over the years, and the after-midnight crowd continues to evolve, as the truck drivers diminish and nocturnal hunters disappear.“Used to, coon hunters would hang out here. Most of em’s died off,” said Butler’s oldest child, Joey, who serves as the maintenance man. “When they tear something up or screw it up, I fix it.”Joey favors the booth at the back right, a place he calls the Amen corner. “Never told a lie back here,” he quipped. “No coat, tie or shirt needed for service but hip boots recommended.”A cafe comedian? Indeed. But the dining den of regulars and other family members are quite adept with the wisecracks themselves. The restaurant, like the Cheers pub of prime-time TV fame some years back, is a place where almost everybody knows your name.Son Jeff, who has been cooking pinto beans, turnip greens, steak and gravy and fried chicken here for 20 years, confessed, “I like to aggravate everybody who comes in. Somebody’s got to keep the old-timers straight.”His sister, Rena, has waitressed here for 29 years. She makes six to seven pots of coffee every morning, which means she fills about 150 cups of coffee during her shift. She describes her patrons as “friendly, and they shoot the bull crap.”The Four Winds has had its share of celebrities who dropped in for a meat-and-three (a deal at $5.95) or a piece of pie and cup of joe on their way to and from Center Hill Lake, a popular fishing spot for country music stars. Those include Little Jimmy Dickens, Tom T. Hall, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Gretchen Wilson, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, among others. There have been other forms of excitement at the restaurant that is seeing its fifth decade of service. Once a Cadillac came barreling through the front and knocked the jukebox to the counter. And Butler can’t count the times that big rigs have smacked the side of the building or plowed into employees’ cars parked in the lot.The proprietor of the Four Winds has cut back her schedule in recent years, saying she works, “No more than I have to. I’m got it down to two-three days a week now.”On Wednesday and Friday afternoons, Butler can usually be found visiting with family and customers that seem like family. “I cook. I wash dishes. I’m a jack of all trades,” said the restaurant queen, who commutes from her home in Rock City.A collector of salt and pepper shakers and dolls, Butler has raised six children and enjoys spending time with her seven grandchildren and great-grandchild. She plans to keep working for “as long as I got a breath in my body.”Her favorite meal is their all-American hamburger, which she feasts upon at least once a week. But what she likes most about the restaurant?“I enjoy the company, the crowd, the gossip,” says the woman who is closing in on 50 years of restauranteering. “You can learn anything down here.”Ken Beck may be contacted at
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