Secret on Stage Road
Dear Vance: Next to the empty Home Quarters hardware store on Stage Road is a patch of woods with a "For Sale" sign out front, and deep in those woods are many abandoned cottages. Most have caved in or burned. There are also stone walkways, one leading to a bridge by a pond, another leading to an outdoor fireplace surrounded by fancy concrete benches. Who once lived here, and when? It's quite a mystery to my friends and me. - J.H., Memphis.
Dear J.H.: I stumbled upon this place by accident many years ago, when I noticed a long-abandoned concrete driveway leading into that patch of woods, and - nosy parker that I am - instructed my driver to steer the Daimler-Benz down it, while I huddled in the backseat for protection. There was indeed something spooky about these dark woods, and our car crept past a muck-covered pond, crumbling stone bridge, and finally pulled up at the tumble-down ruins of several stucco cottages. I didn't tarry long. The whole place just seemed like it would be a-crawling with snakes and chiggers and other pesky creatures, and in fact a hive of bees swarmed around the entrance to what must have been the main house, pictured here.
At one time, though, this was a pastoral wonderland. I happen to know this, because a few years ago I chatted with well-known Memphis artist Burton Callicott, who actually helped build the place and told me quite a lot about it (thanks, Burton).
I've mentioned Mike Abt's name in this column a few times, but never devoted much space to him, and that's a shame, because he was an interesting fellow indeed. Born in Hungary, he came to the U.S. in 1913 and attended the Cleveland School of Art. In Ohio, that is, not on Cleveland Street here. During a sketching trip down the Mississippi, he happened to stop in Memphis and, being just about broke, landed a job here designing department store windows. Precisely which ones, I can't recall. Anyway, within a few years, he had established himself so well that he became head of Tech High School's art department and also began designing floats for Memphis' Cot-ton Carnival and Christmas parades. Those are two separate events, understand.
But back to your query, J.H. In the 1920s, Abt purchased 11 acres of land along Stage Road, which was waaaaay out in the country then, and began transforming the wooded property into a personal fantasyland. He built a Mediterranean-style main house, studio, garage, greenhouse, and lots of other buildings. Over a period of 24 years, he added the fancy barbecue pit you saw, along with a goldfish pond, tennis court, and lots of other stuff, with stone walkways looping through the woods connecting everything.
Callicott, who just happens to be Abt's stepson, lived there from 1925 to 1932. "Mike Abt just loved to build things," he told me. "My brother and I helped him dig the cellar by hand. The barbecue pit by the road is reached by stone stairs. I did all that stone work, all the walkways, and most of the stucco on the house."Ê
Abt died in 1952 at the age of 55. His wife lived there another 10 years, and when she died the family put the place up for sale. But it never sold, and over the years, an interesting assortment of people called the old Abt place home. Among them was puppet-master and Eads Gallery owner Jimmy Crosthwait, who lived there for 20 years.Ê
"I always felt blessed to be out there," Crosthwait recalls. "It gave you the illusion of seclusion, even though you were between Raleigh and Bartlett. Sort of The Land That Time Forgot."
In the early 1990s, developers built a Home Quarters and a Target right next to the property, and everyone moved off, thinking the bulldozers were on their way. But they never came, and the old place slowly crumbled into ruins, with considerable help from local vandals and the Memphis weather. "I haven't been back there," Callicott told me. "It's just so depressing that I hate to go. It makes me sad, but we had lots of good times there."
He'd certainly be sad to see it now. On my last visit to the place in December, bulldozers were knocking down the trees and clearing the land. All the houses are gone. Only the little stone bridge remained - and probably not for long.
Ohman hamburgers? Oh man!
Dear Vance: Many years ago, I remember some of the best hamburgers in town could be found at a place near Madison and Cleveland called the Ohman House. When I came back to Memphis recently, it had disappeared. What happened to the Ohman House? - J.R., Memphis.
Dear J.R.: It closed, and that's that.
Hmmm - my editor told me that answer, though admirably concise, won't quite fill up the rest of the column this month. Though I suggested that perhaps we could just run the photos really large, he thought it might be better if I tried to say just a bit more. Okay, then.
The first Ohman House opened at 1358 Madison, just east of Cleveland, in the late 1940s. The odd name suggests it was family-owned, and it was indeed - operated by a fellow named William L. Ohman.
The first restaurant was a rather plain little drive-in, but in 1948 the family opened something considerably more original, called the Ohman Ranch House (below). "An atmosphere of the Old West permeates the place," said a newspaper announcing the opening, and they were right. You entered the Ranch House by pulling the trigger on an old six-shooter mounted on the front door, and once inside, patrons found themselves in a rustic saloon, complete with rough wood walls and kerosene lamps (actually, they were electric lights that just looked like lamps). Hungry diners chomped on barbecue sandwiches, hamburgers, and steaks. Outside, a gold neon wagon wheel "turned in the direction of Texas," whatever that means - after all, if it's spinning, how does it point to anything?Ê
I can't say for sure if Ohman offered some of the best hamburgers in town, as you claimed, J.R. Even if I could, I won't. Vance does not endorse, you see.
In the 1950s and 1960s, other Ohman Ranch Houses sprang up all over town. The fanciest one stood at 2439 Summer, near Hollywood. When it opened in 1952, the Memphis Press-Scimitar enthused about the "Spanish mission-style building with a courtyard walled in brick and cypress and planted with yucca and tiny palms." Inside was the same rustic Western motif, with lots of cactus and rope designs, and again you yanked on a revolver to get inside. The distinctive red tile roof came from the Woman's Building that had burned some years ago at the Fairgrounds, and the little cupola was surmounted by "a weather vane pointing to Texas." A weather vane that points in only one direction isn't much of a weather vane, if you ask me, and . . . oh, it doesn't matter.
The grandest Ohman House of all didn't serve hamburgers, though. "You can't get back a $90,000 investment on 35-cent sandwiches," Ohman told reporters. Well, you can if you sell - let's see - more than 257,000 burgers, but I imagine that would take quite a while, so the Summer Avenue location offered considerably more upscale fare. In the early 1950s, in case you were wondering, you could enjoy a tasty T-bone for just $2.85 or a nice filet mignon for $2.15.
The Ohman Ranch Houses thrived during the 1950s and 1960s, but one by one they closed, and the company filed bankruptcy in 1970. The Ranch House site on Madison is today a parking lot. The big place on Summer, now painted a bright shade of orange that even UT fans would hate, today houses an antiques/junk store called the Trading Post.
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