Ownership changes at Station House
By Sonja Kosler
On Monday, March 16 Don and Betty Kennedy marked the end of their 11-year ownership of the Station House Restaurant. The building at the corner of First Avenue and East Main Street has become a Perham landmark. When Don and Betty came to the area in 1995 for a family reunion, they also saw that Betty's sister Joyce was in need of some help. Betty says, "Don graciously agreed to move half way across the United States for an eight-year commitment."
Just three years after that decision, the Kennedys had sold two restaurants and their home in Gresham, Oregon, acquired the old Perham Co-op location, watched the co-op be demolished and the ground cleaned up, designed and oversaw construction and on March 3, 1998 opened their casual fine dining establishment.
While Don says the downtown Perham site wasn't the first location choice, visitors to Perham often think the building has existed since the town's beginning - as a train depot. That erroneous impression comes from Don and Betty's creative use of the site's proximity to the local rail activity. Many of the items used to carry out the railroad theme came from retired engineer Bob Marden of Staples. Betty is responsible for the train track ceiling tiles leading the way to the restrooms and lounge area. Although the Kennedys would like to have installed a real model train system winding through the restaurant, it wasn't practical. Betty found the perfect alternative in a catalogue of ceiling tiles for children's rooms.
That 1995 Thompson family reunion at a park in Frazee gathered 450 family members. Don and Betty both note that the older family members who were present are now gone; they have a strong sense of now being the "older generation."
The Station House offers subtle clues to Betty's family history. The gift shop located in the restaurant is named after Betty's grandmother Evangeline Janera Pierce Thompson, who was born in the Perham area. All of the photographs displayed as part of the home-style décor are portraits of family members. Betty's great-grandfather Burt Thompson was once an Otter Tail County Commissioner. Uncle Jeff Thompson was a police chief. Betty's mother, Bertha Thompson married Elmer Niemela of New York Mills, where his father, Edward John Niemela was the local shoemaker. Betty says, "I have roots here!"
The eight-year plan for a stay in Perham has stretched to 11 and will soon end. The Kennedys look forward to returning to Oregon, specifically the coastal area. Although there are no plans to begin another restaurant, Don says a lodge may be in their future. The move won't be immediate, though. The Kennedys will stay on to assist new owners Robbie and Jeff Paridon with the transition for 30 days and then plan to find their new Oregon home near the end of April, returning to Perham to sell their lakeside home.
The Kennedys have two adult sons. David has worked at the Station House and will stay on for about six months. Jason has a music ministry in the Denver area.
Don and Betty have vacationed every January since moving to Perham, but still have many places to visit including Alaska. For Don, who is a passionate listener of Southern gospel music, a visit to Nashville is high on the list. There he will visit the grave of the admired "Queen of Southern Gospel" Vestal Goodman, who died in 2003.
Betty looks forward to reading, organizing her photo albums and making quilts when they get settled again. Don enjoys the outdoors and sees himself busy - likely with that lodge. There may also be a baby grand piano purchase in the future with time for Don to play for Betty. Betty recalls that their first piece of furniture was a piano.
The Kennedys have close ties to their customers. They've seen additions to families and deaths. They both are visibly saddened when remembering those who have died. The couple has also watched their employees through life changes; many of them have been class valedictorians.
Betty says, "We have the best customers in town - a wonderful clientele. We've made lasting friends who I hope will visit us in Oregon." Several of their former Oregon customers and church members have stopped in at the Perham restaurant for a visit.
The Kennedys sincerely say "thank you to all our wonderful customers. It's been our pleasure serving everyone."
Don says, "It's always been our goal to make everyone happy, even knowing it's impossible."
Don and Betty both express hopes that their customers will be supportive of the new owners and help them succeed. There are no major changes planned, but watch for some surprises.