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Back 40 history long and unique

May 14, 2012

The Fairway Back 40 as it looked in 1950. (Photo provided)

    For over 60 years, the Back 40 Junction, with it's museum-quality antiques and railroad memorabilia, has been a hotspot for dining and a topic of conversation for area residents and travelers alike.
    The Back 40 began as the Fairway Back 40 when, in 1950, Decatur resident Clete Miller purchased the restaurant, which was then located at the intersection of highways 224, 27, and 33, where McDonald's is located today.    Miller said he wanted to capture the feel of the Adams County farming community while providing diners with more than just good food. He wanted people to have an exciting experience, something to talk about after they left.
    "Restaurants aren't just a place to dine," said Miller. "They're stress removers. The more you can do that, the more you can help people have fun; well, that's what it's really about."
     According to Miller, Fairway was meant to look like an old barn, sporting an Amish buggy and a windmill, as well as other farm-related decorations.
    Even the names of the dining areas related to farming. The main room was named the Middle 80, then there was the small South 20, the East 30, the Front 40, the Storm Cellar, and, of course, the Back 40, which was the bar area.
    In fact, Miller said the Back 40 really did look like a farm. It had a corn crib, a barn, a back house, and the beer was kept cold in an old horse trough. Adding to the atmosphere, the bartender always wore coveralls and there was a pet mongoose in a cage on the bar.
    "There was a seat that gradually went down when someone sat on it," Miller said with a grin. "People would bring their friends in and have them sit in that seat. The guy would get to talking and he'd be getting all the laughs, and he thought he was really being entertaining. Pretty soon his chin was almost resting on the bar. There was always something going on. There was always something to talk about."
    At a time when waiting in line for a restaurant was somewhat unusual, Miller said the weekends were especially busy, with customers patiently waiting up to three hours for a table.
    Always innovative, when the large freezer became outdated, rather than using the area for storage, Miller renovated the room to make it look like an old storm cellar. Moving in a piano and printing out song books, Miller turned the old freezer into a sing-a-long room where patrons could go while waiting for a table.
    "People liked that. It was something a little different, and they could go in there and sing and visit with friends. It was a fun way to pass the time."
    Along with creating a unique atmosphere for patrons, Miller introduced a first-class smorgasbord, a fairly new concept at the time. Offering a selection of choice-cut meats and seafood, along with all the trimmings, the Back 40 smorgasbord is still a favorite of diners today.
    Miller believed in giving back to the community as well. Each year, he bought the grand champion steer from the 4-H fairgrounds, then would have the steer unloaded in front of the Fairway with the kids who had raised them.
    "It was a way to show support for a great program and help the kids out at the same time. I think they really got a kick out of it."
    One of the most popular promotions MIller offered each year was 100 free chicken dinners to whoever brought in the largest ear of corn.
    "People would bring in their corn and the ears would be hung up around the bar. When the contest was over, Jay Gould, who at that time was the farm director of WOWO, would come down and award the prize. Of course, you couldn't do something like that nowadays because everything is combined."
    There was also Miller's Wall of Fame, which displayed caricature drawings featuring good people from the community as well as from around the world; and the Wall of Shame, which featured the not-so-good people, mostly from the world but occasionally "some local person got on it, too, if he didn't behave himself."
    When McDonald's approached Miller in 1975 about selling his business, he could have refused. After all, he had a established a successful restaurant at a prime location in the heart of Decatur. Why would he give that up?
    Miller saw this as an opportunity to try something new, an opportunity to implement the ideas he had for a depot-type restaurant, mixed with the homestead feel so familiar to area residents.
    "When I went to build the new building, I told the architect that I wanted it to look like an old train station. I didn't have the train cars then, I just had the idea. I came across the train cars about the same time the new restaurant was being built."
    While looking for vacation ideas for himself, his wife Bette, and a group of friends, he heard of a company in Garrett that rented railroad cars for trips. What he found instead was the 1917 Travel Car and 1890 Red Caboose that he eventually purchased from Jack Ferris, a former Fort Wayne resident and fellow train enthusiast.
    Miller moved both railroad cars to Decatur over the roadways, with the 86-ton Travel Car making the long trip from Louisville, Kentucky, something that couldn't be done today, he added.
    "It was quite an undertaking. Thank goodness for, at that time the Soya Company and the Yost Company, or I wouldn't have been able to do any of it. To find a car like that again, well, there isn't any, and to move it like that again would be impossible. It was just a different era, and it worked out."
    Miller used the Travel Car as a waiting room of sorts. Just as he had used the Storm Cellar at the Fairway location, the Travel Car was where those waiting for a table would pass the time.
    "People could go back and play cards, and there was a kitchen where they could be served a drink. In the front they could sit around and enjoy themselves while they waited. I think it was much better than just standing in a line outside."    After moving to the current location in 1975, Miller continued to operate the Back 40 for approximately five years before leasing the restaurant to the Azar's Corporation, finally selling the restaurant to Azar's about four years ago.
    "It was a really sad sight to see the train car demolished. I don't want to put blame on anyone, these things happen, and I have a really good relationship with Azar's. I wish things had been different, because it's something that could never happen again (bringing the train car to Decatur). It was something truly special and it's gone now. It's the end of an era.
    "I've never given any thought to my involvement in the place and the community. Through those years, it was just trying out a lot of new ideas and thinking beyond that never entered my mind. It's the little things you do in life to amuse yourself that count."
    Over the years many things have come and gone, but the Back 40 Junction is still going strong due, in part at least, to the standards that Miller nurtured from the very beginning.

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