MAPLE PARK – They were not the ladies who lunch, but rather the ladies who served the ladies who lunched.
More than 50 former employees of the now closed Mill Race Inn gathered for a reunion Thursday at the Acquaviva Winery in Maple Park.
Among them was Michelle Farwell of St. Charles who worked there from 1980 to 2007, starting out bussing tables for a year, then became a hostess for a year and then a waitress for 25 years.
“I worked there 27 years,” Farwell said. “I was 18, right out of high school. We were truly a family back in the day. And so many of us worked there for so many years and went through growing up and marriages and births and deaths and everything. It was a wonderful happy environment all the time.”
Ann Carlson, formerly of St. Charles Township, said she worked there from 1960 to 1995.
“I did everything,” said Carlson, who has since retired to Sun City in Huntley. “I was a waitress, a head waitress, receptionist and I trained the girls on the computer.”
Cindy Snow, who worked there from 1974 to 1982, and then from 1991 to 1996, together with co-worker Stephany Frerichs – who worked there from 1975 to 1988 – won a Bahamas cruise for themselves and their husbands in a contest of wine servers.
“We were called ‘The Mill Racers,’ and the Mill Race Inn sponsored us,” Snow said. “It was held by American Express in West Dundee in 1982. There were 23 restaurants, five from St. Charles.”
Contestants had to open a bottle, pour two glasses of wine and then follow an obstacle course to hand it off to the second person in the team who followed the obstacles back to the beginning, Snow said.
“We weren’t the fastest, but no drop of wine was spilled,” Snow said. “You were penalized 15 seconds for spilling wine.”
Snow and Frerichs both live in Maple Park and maintain a friendship that began at the Mill Race Inn.
In the midst of all the joy in their reunion was the bittersweet knowledge that the restaurant they so loved will likely be torn down.
The iconic eatery closed in January 2011 and went into foreclosure. Shodeen Development in Geneva bought it in March.
David Patzelt, president of ShoDeen Construction, said the company is still considering its options for what to do with the property.
“We are working with a second architect and planner to see what ideas they have,” Patzelt said. “We are still in think-tank mode.”
Bonnie Off of North Aurora, who also came to the reunion, had been a co-owner. Her family had owned it since her grandfather bought it in 1946 until they sold it in 2004.
“The Mill Race Inn was a magical place – it really was,” Off said.
The Mill Race Inn began as a blacksmith shop in 1842 owned by Julius and Edward Alexander, according to the history of the property.
In 1933, sisters Ann and Marjorie Forsythe turned the smithy into a tearoom. They called it the Mill Race Inn, taking its name from a grist mill upstream, where water diverted from the river turned the mill wheels, called a “mill race.”
“Kate Rafferty who owned the Little Traveler came to the Forsythe sisters and said, ‘I have all this carriage trade coming to the Little Traveler from the North Shore and there’s no place for them to eat,’ ” Off said. “The Little Traveler at that time didn’t have any kind of food service.”
At the height of the Great Depression, the Forsythe sisters opened a little lunchroom in the little blacksmith shop, the original stone room of the Mill Race.
Off’s grandfather, Ray C. Johns, bought it in 1946 and operated it for three generations.
His daughter Raye Ellsworth – Off’s mother – ran the business after that, adding a waterfront boardwalk and distinct venues inside called the Gazebo, The Mill Grill, The Duck Inn and Mallards.
With each addition and new offering, Off said, the restaurant venue welcomed a new and expanded clientele. The family sold it in 2004.
Off said she approved of the Shodeen family buying the former restaurant property.
“I really was pleased when Kent [Shodeen] bought it because I know that he will get it done – that they will get it done,” Off said. “They can do it politically. They can do it financially. It’s not going to sit there and rot any more – which was breaking my heart.”