Now and Then: Hays House, a historic landmark

By Caitlin Adams

Travelers on the Santa Fe Trail frequented the Hays House.

COUNCIL GROVE – In 1857, trader Seth Hays opened a restaurant at this spot on the Santa Fe Trail that has drawn visitors for more than 150 years. Hays House is the oldest continuously running restaurant west of the Mississippi River.

Council Grove was a regular stopping place for travelers to get sustenance and stock up on supplies on their way to what is now New Mexico.

Hays House claims to be the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi.

Hays House was not only a restaurant in its early days. It was a place for mail distribution, court hearings, town plays, and the newspaper printing. Church services were held on Sundays after covering the liquor bottles with a sheet.

Throughout the years, history and food have stayed in the spotlight. The multi-room restaurant includes a bar and crystal room upstairs, a tavern downstairs, and a main dining area and Kaw room on the main floor. Each room has a history to go along with it and can be reserved for meetings and special occasions.

In 1975, Charlie and Helen Judd took ownership of Hays House. Helen’s grandparents, the Whitings, had owned it since 1911. Rick and Alisa Paul purchased Hays House and sold it in 2002. Bill and Debbie Miller and Galen and Lori Fink now own Hays House in partnership.

Helen Judd grew up in Council Grove, taught in California with her husband Charlie before moving back to rejoin the family business. They restored Hays House, but maintaining the integrity of the building was important. One architect advised them to tear down the restaurant and rebuild. They hired a new architect.

Rick Paul started working for the Judds in 1981. After he bought the business, he continued the tradition of keeping history alive. He focused on quality ingredients and published a cookbook still available today. When the Pauls decided to sell the restaurant, they looked for a buyer who would respect its legacy. Selling to locals, the Millers, helped ensure the restaurant’s traditions would continue.

The crystal room contains some of the Helen Judd’s family crystal along with a display case holding her grandmother’s hats. Visitors often reserve this room for family celebrations such as engagements, anniversaries and special birthdays. The local Rotary club meets weekly in the tavern where their various certificates, flags and banner are on display. The Kaw room features real arrowheads from the area along with pictures of Native Americans from Council Grove. This room is often reserved for meetings and smaller celebrations.

Throughout the restaurant, paintings, pictures and historic artifacts cover the walls. Guests are encouraged to explore the restaurant during their dining experience and are welcome to go upstairs and down, as long as they are not in use. Inside the covers of each menu contain the history of Seth Hays and the restaurant.

As much as history attracts visitors to the restaurant, so does Hays House’s down-home cooking. Most famous is the pan-fried chicken, along with their steak, brisket, dill dressing and peach and strawberry pie. For a taste of everything, a breakfast and lunch buffet is offered on Sundays. Prices start at about $7 for a salad, burger or sandwich to about $10-20 for an entrée or steak.

In the first days of Hays House Restaurant, wagon trains travel through Council Grove. Today, hundreds of motorcyclists travel through Council Grove on a traditional monthly bike ride. Main Street looks different, but Hays House still offers hospitality, whatever the mode of transportation.