He’s been a small-town boy all his life, but Ernie Edwards is no square. Between 1937 and 1991 he ran the most happening joint in Broadwell, Illinois, pop. 200: the Pig Hip restaurant on Route 66, where he served his famous Pig Hip sandwich, told corny jokes, ran illegal slot machines, and even performed quickie marriages.
In 1990 Edwards was among the first six inductees into the Route 66 Museum and Hall of Fame, which is 30 miles up the road at the Dixie Truckers Home in McLean. In the course of the ceremony, he got into some friendly trash-talking with Chuck Beeler, owner of the Dixie. At issue was whose restaurant served the better ham sandwich. “Well, I blushed all over myself,” says Edwards. “I got up and said, ‘All I can tell you is that I use fresh ham instead of cooked and cured ham. But what really makes it better than that is when a hog scratches, it has a tendency to raise its right leg and scratch. That makes the skin tough. So we let places like the Dixie use that. We only use the left side.’ It went over like a lead balloon.”
The crowd may simply have been too familiar with the quip, which Edwards has been using for decades. At 86 he’s a bit long in the tooth for short-order cooking, but in June his restaurant will reopen as the Pig Hip Route 66 Museum and Visitors Center. Edwards, who’s lived in the tidy gray house on the south side of the Pig Hip since 1937, is restoring the restaurant with help from the preservation committee of the Route 66 Association of Illinois. Earlier this spring two dozen members volunteered their time and labor to patch the diner’s roof, reglaze its windows, and paint the wood exterior.
The chairman of the preservation committee, John Weiss of Wilmington, says the Pig Hip is an important part of the highway’s storied past. “We can’t save everything, but we need to save symbols of how things once were,” says Weiss. “This is a great representation of a mom-and-pop restaurant. And what really makes it unique is that he lives next door and is willing to be curator of an icon.”
Edwards’s family came to central Illinois in 1932, in the depths of the Depression. His father, Ernie Sr., was employed by the state making shoes for handicapped children. Ernie Jr. was born in Murphysboro in 1917, and lived with his family in a succession of small Illinois towns–Granite City, Salem, Jerseyville, Lincoln–before making his own home in Broadwell in 1937. He was just 20 years old when he opened the Pig Hip, and his only previous experience in food service had been operating a popcorn machine at county fairs and the Illinois State Fair. “I introduced yellow popcorn at the state fair,” he says.
With a start-up loan of $100 from his parents, Edwards built the original Pig Hip, which held just three tables and 12 chairs. An electric train operated by the Illinois Traction Company stopped nearby on its run from Saint Louis to Peoria, and Chicago Motor Coach buses also brought a steady stream of customers. Later, in the 1940s, Edwards expanded the place to seat 75, added a four-pump filling station, and opened the eight-unit Pioneer Rest Motel just north of the Pig Hip. (His sister Bonnie ran the motel until it closed, also in 1991.) In 1941, Edwards opened a second diner, the Tizit, in Lincoln, seven miles north of Broadwell. “We made up cardboard plaques with eight sides on it,” Edwards says. “We saw we could write ‘Tizit’ both ways [vertically and horizontally] with the z in the center. We painted those things yellow, got some ladders, and placed them all over town. But we served Pig Hips.”
A customer accidentally christened the Pig Hip, which initially had no name. One day soon after Edwards opened for business, a farmer came in and asked him for a sandwich. Before Edwards could recite the menu the farmer pointed at a pork roast sitting on the counter and said, “Just cut me some slices off that pig hip.” Edwards thought the phrase had a nice ring to it. He later designed a logo–a chubby humanoid pig in an apron wielding a carving knife–and had a local painter make up some wooden signs, which now hang on the walls of the restaurant amid various plaques, pictures, and curios.
Although Edwards eventually expanded his menu to include steaks and hamburgers, the Pig Hip sandwich would always be his signature dish and best-seller. He made it with fresh hams from a Broadwell slaughterhouse. “We’d bake them and slice them real thin, about the size of a quarter,” Edwards says. “We’d use a three-inch bun instead of a four-inch bun. The meat was around the outer edge. We’d put the lettuce, tomato, and secret sauce on top of that. When you took a bite, you didn’t pull a whole great big slice of ham out. The Pig Hips went over real big, although all my successes were mistakes.”
In its heyday, the diner was a lively nightspot. Edwards had a liquor license and served Blatz, Schlitz, and Stag beer, and says he also ran a sideline in illegal gaming. Customers could try their luck at slot machines, punchboards, and a pinball machine (pinball was a gambler’s game at the time and banned in many Illinois jurisdictions). The machines, according to Edwards, were provided and serviced by a local hood named Coonhound Johnnie. “He ran moonshine and liked to hunt,” Edwards says. “He was Capone’s supplier around Chicago. He had a truck and he had the rear bottom of it fixed so he could put about a dozen five-gallon cans of moonshine in there. Then he put a canvas over them. Over the canvas, he placed about six or eight barking dogs in crates. So if the federal revenuers reached in the dogs would nip at their hands.”
Edwards says running the slots took some fancy juggling. “When the senate was in session, we always put our slot machines in the basement,” he says. “As soon as they were over, we’d put them back in. One night a state trooper from Chicago was here. He was looking around and called back to his office. He said, ‘I know I’m at the Pig Hip…but I don’t know where the Pig Hip is at.’ After he left, a laundry truck came to pick up the machines. They took the machines out to Coonhound’s barn, where we stored them for a couple of days.”
Though Al Capone was imprisoned between 1931 and 1939 and then an invalid until his death in 1947, Edwards claims his association with Coonhound Johnnie led to a personal encounter with the legendary crime boss. “One night Coonhound called me and said, ‘We want to go to Springfield for a meeting.’ Capone was with him. I’d seen his picture many times–Scarface. I drove them down to Springfield in my Buick. They crawled in the backseat of my car. They went through the back door of the Cloverleaf Restaurant at Fourth and Jefferson. They always had these meetings when the senate was in session. I guess senate people were there, but I don’t know. After about a half hour they came out, crawled in the back of my car, and I brought them back. That’s all I wanted to know.” Edwards says with a laugh, then adds, “You baby boomers haven’t lived.”
Another name Edwards likes to drop is that of Colonel Harland Sanders. One day in the spring of 1938, he says, Sanders stopped by the Pig Hip with a business proposition. “We sat at the counter,” Edwards says. “He was trying to sell me a franchise. He hadn’t sold a franchise yet. I tried to talk him into selling mine with his, but he didn’t want to do that. He pointed to a table and said, ‘You get a chicken and I’ll get my pot and herbs and I’ll fry the chicken.’ It was nothing but a pressure cooker pan. Well, he fried that chicken, we ate it, and it was good. Then he said, ‘I hate to run, but I’ve got a prospect in Springfield.’ He got down the road a little ways and I got to thinking, ‘Hey, that guy talked me out of a dinner.’ A few years later I saw him at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago. He was standing there in his white suit with his chicken sign. I walked up and said, ‘You don’t remember me, but I remember you and I’m real hungry.’ We wound up friends.” (Biographical sources on Colonel Sanders say that he didn’t begin his franchising operations until the 1950s, but he did then visit restaurant owners across the country in much the way Edwards describes. Edwards stands by his chronology.)
Edwards’s mother and father took over management of the Pig Hip when he went into the army in the early 1940s. Edwards says he was trained to operate amphibious tanks but soon found himself back in the kitchen. “When we got to Japan, our mess sergeant was discharged,” he says. “They went through the roster and saw I was a cook. I was working on my tank and they said, ‘Today you are a mess sergeant.’ I fed MacArthur and Eisenhower. Earlier today I had a couple stop here from Japan. They couldn’t speak much English. I spoke in Japanese. They stopped in their tracks.”
On top of his other accomplishments, Edwards is also a retired justice of the peace. His qualifying certificate, authorized on April 7, 1953, by Illinois governor William Stratton, hangs on the restaurant wall. “I married over 300 couples,” he says. “When you went to the courthouse to get your license, they would recommend a preacher or a justice of the peace. When no one wanted to marry them, they’d find me. I did it for $3. I needed the money. I’d get my wife or a customer as a witness.”
To raise funds for the new Pig Hip, Edwards is selling miniature made-in-China porcelain figurines of Route 66 roadside attractions–the Nature Ark Alligator Farm in Catoosa, Oklahoma; the Coral Court in Saint Louis; and of course the Pig Hip–for $15 each. “The other day a couple came in and bought one of my little houses,” Edwards says. “I had a shirt with a pocket on it and the fella stuck something in my pocket. He said, ‘Now don’t check that pocket until I leave.’ I had forgotten about it. Later that night, I looked in my pocket and there was a $50 bill. So this afternoon my wife and I went to the greenhouse and bought $64 worth of flowers for the front of the restaurant. We love flowers.”
Edwards has been widowed twice–on both occasions losing his wife to cancer–and married three times. His current wife, Frances, used to waitress at the Pig Hip in the 60s, at which time she was married to a truck driver who’d later leave her for another woman. Ernie and Frances renewed their acquaintance after his second wife died in 1981. “My married daughter was having dinner at the Tropics in Lincoln and she saw Ernie sitting alone having dinner,” Frances says. “She talked to him, came home, and said, ‘Mom, why don’t you call Ernie?’ I said, ‘Hey, I’m in the phone book. I’m not lost.’ Anyhow I did call him. I invited him to dinner on a Tuesday and he turned me down. But he called me a couple days later and we went out.” They married in 1984.
Edwards considers himself father to nine children. “I’ve got three sons–T.J.; Reverend Bill, a Baptist minister; and James, a hay farmer. My second wife had two, my present wife has four. T.J., thank goodness, made a nice fortune. He’s retired and lives with his wife near Peoria. He’s only 36. He worked for UPS until he broke his back and got a good settlement. Just the other day he told me, ‘If anything happens to you, don’t worry. The Pig Hip will be taken care of for ten years.’ And the association will work with him. That’s good.”
Edwards stops and eyes the photographs on the walls. “I’ll miss this place when I’m gone,” he says. “I like telling stories.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.