Mantorville's 1,100 residents can breathe a sigh of relief Friday when they kick off their annual Stagecoach Days festival in their historic village, about 80 miles south of the Twin Cities.
The Hubbell House, considered Minnesota's oldest restaurant, survived some touch-and-go days during the COVID-19 pandemic — coming out on the other side with new owners and new optimism.
"Our community really pulled through for the Hubbell House and is a significant reason for why we are still open today," said Kendra Joseph, marketing director for Powers Ventures, a Rochester restaurant and catering business that took over the Hubbell House last year.
Despite two COVID closures that led to most of the staff being laid off, the Hubbell House eked through the pandemic thanks to loyal customers and staff, plus a robust takeout business. The Pappas family owned the Hubbell House since 1946. They worked around the clock to keep it going by "washing dishes, prepping food, taking orders, running food out to cars," said Joseph.
It's not really surprising the Hubbell House is alive and well, considering that the restaurant — built with locally quarried, 2-foot-thick blocks of Mantorville limestone — has survived the Civil War, Prohibition, the 1918 influenza pandemic, a couple of world wars, the Great Depression in the 1930s and a not-so-great recession in 2008.
"For over 169 years, the Hubbell House has been here to serve our customers, in times of good and bad," Joseph said, "and we are here to stay."
Opened in 1854 when Minnesota was still a territory, the Hubbell House originally was a 16-by-24-foot log hotel "of undistinguished architectural merit," according to a 1974 application that landed the building on the National Register of Historic Places along with much of the rest of the town.
John Hubbell and Frank Mantor, entrepreneurs from out East, hopped off a stagecoach between Winona and St. Peter and staked the original claim in 1854 for what became Mantorville.
Hubbell replaced the wooden hotel structure in 1856 with the current three-story limestone building, which "retains the warmth and charm within its walls that greeted the weary traveler of a century ago," according to the 1974 application form.
As a popular stop for Mississippi River travelers heading west to St. Peter, the Hubbell House began amassing an impressive guest list. Sen. Alexander Ramsey, President Ulysses S. Grant, New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley and Dr. William Worrall Mayo were among the early visitors.
After the Pappas family took over in 1946, the Hubbell House's guests included Helen Keller, Dwight Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson; baseball greats Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew and Kent Hrbek; and entertainers Roy Rogers, Danny Kaye and Bruce Dern.
Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan noted in 1970 that the Hubbell House was just "a hoot and a holler from Rochester" on Hwy. 57, and called it "one of the gems of historic architecture in a town that is trying to refurbish its history." Flanagan raved about the homemade split pea soup, "served with a basket of homemade butter rolls and crunchy garlic toast. All I can say is, Wow!"
Not everyone was so kind; in 1976, the Star's Taste editor said she was disappointed by the "simply adequate restaurant fare." But the food apparently hasn't stopped customers or even supposed ghosts from dwelling at the Hubbell House, where a suicide victim and a drunken patron falling down the basement stairs died in separate tragedies.
"We definitely have ghosts at the Hubbell," said Joseph. "Our staff over the years have shared various stories of encounters. ... hearing eerie sounds of people pacing or shouting their names when no one was around." She said a group of ghost hunters visited about 20 years ago and "found paranormal activity in various areas of the restaurant."
More concretely, the new owners have found a blend of loyal customers and long-serving employees.
"Whether it's been our bar regulars or couples who celebrate every wedding anniversary with us," Joseph said, "almost every diner in the Hubbell House has some type of special connection with us."
Alaina Pappas-Mitchell and Kate Pappas, daughters of longtime owner Don Pappas, remain on staff. Jarry "Fuzz" Gardner has been working the cooking line at the Hubbell House since 1974. Leona Blatti and Jan Smith worked for the Pappas family for more than six decades.
Once the COVID cloud cleared, "most of the Hubbell employees chose to come back," Joseph said, "something that can't be said for all employers who had to lay people off."
That's among the reasons that new owner Joe Powers said: "We are extremely honored to carry on the legacy of the Hubbell House."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.