Swinging Wide the Doors:
The Circle R Drive-In Opens Fifty Years Ago,
With one turn of the key on a fateful June morning half a century ago, the doors of the Circle R Drive-In Restaurant swung wide, bringing a completely new dining experience to Columbia and adding several words to the local lexicon, including carhop, curb service, and drive-in. Not since the grand opening of the Meadow Hill Inn in the spring of '47 had an Adair County eatery attracted such attention.
The first hint of the good things to come appeared in a short front page article in the April 11, 1956 Adair County News, less than a month after Ruel & Runie Wooten purchased a parcel of land from C.T. & Louetta Jones:
Drive-In Restaurant To Open In Columbia Soon
A new Drive-In Restaurant is now under construction in Columbia and should be open for business by late May or early June.
Located on the site of the former Hilltop Café, on Jamestown Street, the new building is being built by Mr. W.R. Wooten, owner of Wooten's Department Store. Paul Caldwell is doing the construction work.
The new restaurant will furnish curb service and will feature short orders, sandwiches and ice cream.
Mr. Wooten has employed a local man and wife team to run the restaurant for him.
Just a few weeks later, the Circle R doors opened for the first time on the morning of Tuesday, June 26, 1956 and began a tradition that's been going strong for an incredible fifty years. An article in the Wednesday, June 27 edition of the News gave an astonishing array of details about the new restaurant, right down to the color scheme and the names of the carhops:
New "Circle R" Drive-In Opens
Restaurant On Jamestown St. Owned by W.R. Wooten
A new "big city" type of drive-in restaurant, the "Circle R Drive-In" of Mr. W.R. Wooten opened Tuesday on the outskirts of Columbia. Under construction since early March, the new building is on the site formerly occupied by the Hilltop Café on Jamestown Street, just beyond the top of the hill.
The restaurant, which features curb service, is under the management of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Rowe of Columbia. Aiding the couple are outside "carhops" Joyce Lee and Diana Thompson, inside waitresses Betty Hoover and Faye Pelston and Dietician Mrs. John Pendleton.
With parking spaces for over 50 cars at one time the "Circle R" has an outside covered wing to protect a number of them from either the sun or rain.
The interior of the drive-in is a cool shade of green to match the knotty pine paneling and inlaid linoleum block floor. The entire building is air-conditioned. The kitchen, over which Mrs. Pendleton presides, is finished in white tile.
Complete with outside loudspeaker for the record player, the new business should give tourists and new-comers to Columbia a good first impression of the town.
In addition to curb service, short orders and sandwiches, Mr. Wooten's "Circle R" will feature "King Freeze" ice cream, shakes and malts.
A large ad, apparently a reproduction of the entire menu, appeared in the next issue (July 4) of the News. The ad noted that the Circle R was open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday (11 p.m. on Saturdays) and from 2 p.m. 'til 11 p.m. on Sundays. The ad also mentioned:
* "The Circle R Drive-In Restaurant is a new organization, Our success will depend on our ability to serve you in a way in which you will be satisfied...Our aim is to be an asset for the town of Columbia to be proud of...;"
* the option to "Order by Phone. Your order will be waiting when you arrive or ready for you to take home. Phone number 5511;" and
* "We make our own ice. It is as pure as the pure as the water you drink and is untouched by human hands."
But, ohhhhhhhhhh, the culinary delights of the menu itself!
For a mere 95 cents, you could enjoy a Kingburger -- "Twice as big. Twice as good. ¼ lb. of freshly ground beef in two patties. Smooth melted cheese. Shredded lettuce with our own special tartar sauce and pickle" -- with french fries, cole slaw, a large Coca Cola, Richardson's Root Beer, or a cup of coffee, and an "extra large, extra thick" malt or milkshake -- your choice of chocolate, pineapple, strawberry, or butterscotch. What a deal! (In January, 1957, Mr. Wooten "incorporated" the name Kingburger; the paperwork is recorded in Adair County Miscellaneous Record Book 3.)
Other items from the extensive menu included the Hill‑Billy Bacon and Tomato Sandwich with "Plenty of thick sliced bacon...A three‑decker for the hungry person," for 40 cents; a deluxe cheeseburger, 30 cents; a Hot Pup (french fried hot dog) with relish or barbecue sauce, 20 cents; and breakfast (two eggs, bacon, biscuit or toast, jelly, & coffee), 60 cents. For an extra dime, you could get "cured ham (not country)" instead of bacon.
It didn't take long for the Circle R to attract attention outside of Adair County. A front page Adair County News article in the September 5, 1956 edition stated:
The new Circle R Drive-In restaurant owned by Mr. W.R. Wooten gained some national publicity recently in the trade magazine "Drive-In."
The nationally circulated magazine devoted nearly a column to a description of the Drive-In and a story of its erection and operation.
Almost exactly a year after the Circle R opened, the News reported in the July 10, 1957 issue that the Wootens had sold it the previous week "to J.D. Harper of Harper's Market and Chester Caughron, Glendale, California, formerly of Columbia...No changes in management or service will be made." (The deed was recorded July 8th, 1957. Messrs. Caughron & Harper were brothers-in-law.)
And now, 50 years after Joyce, Diana, Betty, and Faye served those first Kingburgers and extra large, extra thick shakes, it still packs 'em in. Happy Birthday, Circle R!