Iowa truck stop to close after 45 years
WILLIAMS, Iowa (AP) – It’s strange to mourn the closing of a truck stop, an often-gritty traveler’s potty stop that sells mud flaps and smells deep-fried.
But when it was announced earlier this month that the Boondocks U.S.A. Truckstop near Williams would close Oct. 20, Iowa residents expressed sincere lament.
Where would we meet halfway?
The Boondocks became a legendary venue off Interstate Highway 35, 100 minutes or less from anywhere and nowhere, where Iowa residents met family members, dropped off kids, or took a road break for a hot beef sandwich.
Bob and Mim Welch have owned and run it for more than 45 years. The couple is known to travelers, truckers and troopers of all stripes, housing hundreds during notable Iowa blizzards, and revered by employees that included a deaf pie baker, a tow truck driver who suffered a stroke and poor local kids who needed money for college.
“I’m very sad about it. I grew up with the place and can’t imagine it not being there,” Kate Ehrsam, 29, told the Des Moines Register . “They took care of their employees and gave us really good advice.”
Ehrsam broadened her small-town experience after landing a job as a Boondocks waitress at age 14. She met her future husband there, a state trooper. And the Welches financially helped her through college so she could become a kindergarten teacher in Greenfield.
Bob Welch, 82, has suffered recent health issues, but said he’s closing because he can’t find enough employees, and the nearby large chain truck stops, such as the Flying J Travel Center across the interstate and the Love’s Travel Stop a few miles south, ate into business.
“I thought it would take a fourth of my business,” Welch said. “It was more like three-fourths.”
He takes a call on his flip phone, which is fitting; this is the flip phone of truck stops, reminiscent of earlier times.
“We deliberately kept it the same,” Welch said.
No bright neon, fancy walk-in coolers or grocery-store-sized aisles packed with hundreds of options. Just big wooden letters on a place where you could still get a quick tire repair, eat a chicken-fried steak or buy an animal figurine or trinket if you forgot a gift on the way to the relatives.
“I don’t make a skinny soy latte,” said Deb Christenson, a 22-year manager standing behind the cash register. “You can get a cup of coffee over there out of the pot.”
Mim Welch, 81, said truckers told them not to change a thing. They liked a venue where the same rotating padded counter stools comforted them before a steaming pile of the house favorites.
A family-owned independent truck stop isn’t unusual, though chains comprise the majority of those in the U.S., according to officials with the National Association of Truck Stop Owners. But the successful ones become iconic because of the location or history.
The Welch family has a deep history here, growing up on nearby farms. After graduating from Iowa State University, Bob Welch got a marketing job at Phillips Petroleum Co. for 11 years. He used his engineering degree and on-the-job promotion skills to build a truck stop on 17 acres after squirreling away $28,000.
“I was my own engineer, architect and contractor,” he said. “I know every brick and block in this place.”
The cafe was made of family history. Mim Welch’s farmer parents once cut down several trees with a two-man hand saw in the 1940s, her mom wearing her house dress pulling on one end, an image preserved on 8-millimeter film. They took the lumber to a mill on a bobsled and stored the cut boards for nearly 30 years in a shed.
Bob Welch asked his father-in-law, Frank, if he could use the wood, which so hard you had to drill it, and it’s why a cafe beam is inscribed with his initials, F.H.
Before the truck stop and cafe was opened on June 5, 1973, Bob Welch had a great idea. What about the name Boondocks? After all, it was in the middle of nowhere, Bob Welch said. Mim Welch didn’t like it. Sounded derogatory.
“Over the years, I had to admit he was right,” she said.
Few knew of nearby Williams (population 333) off exit 144. Boondocks, they could remember. The Welches began printing Boondocks caps and T-shirts, and they flew off the shelves. Bob Welch ordered T-shirts three times a year.
Another great stroke of luck, or genius, was the timing. I-35 ended near there, and a controversial diagonal path was under dispute, cutting through prime farmland. During the delay, Boondocks was the pivot point on the way north.
“We gave away 30,000 maps of a 30-minute shortcut,” Bob Welch said.
When the interstate was finished three years later, Bob Welch thought he would lose business. He said it only increased. The Boondocks was already known far and wide.
A 30-unit motel was added in 1978, and the space between the cafe and truck stop was enclosed for a gift area and restrooms.
The Welches housed 600 people for two days during a nasty snowstorm in the 1970s. State Patrol officers took turns at the grill and washing dishes. Three marriages resulted among stranded travelers.
Another dining room was added on later, and troopers liked it for the privacy, meeting between their offices in Fort Dodge and Cedar Falls.
Others met there, too.
“This has been a meeting place for years for a custody exchange,” said Christenson of divorced parents living in different parts of the state dropping off kids for visitation with the other parent. “I broke up fights in the parking lot.”
The Welches worked seven days a week for 44 years, until they began taking off Sundays just a couple of years ago when they ended 24-hour business. They raised three kids, who started young by tossing parking lot trash in five-gallon buckets.
Two prospects are interested in buying it, Bob Welch said, but they will hold an auction if that doesn’t pan out. They will miss meeting so many regular customers, who saw this as an oasis on the prairie.
“When I saw it on Facebook, I was in tears,” said customer Tom Simpson, who drove from Spencer to get Boondocks souvenirs and landed the last two T-shirts. “In Iowa Falls the boys would drive over to Webster City to fight, and this was our stop to eat. Then before Vietnam, I worked over in the mines there and would stop here – lot of memories.”
Twenty-two employees will be out of work, but the Welches will miss all who have worked there through the years, from farm wives in early years, to young kids who needed a dime.
“Mim and I got a lot of joy out of being able to help them,” Bob Welch said. “That’s our life’s work to see the success they’ve had.”