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50-year career fueled by root beer

By Deb Trygstad, M.S.

Jerry Palmer just turned 100 years old in the middle of a pandemic. He is legally blind but still lives in own apartment in Barnesville, Minnesota. Jerry has also had his share of health concerns surviving cancer, five heart surgeries and a small stroke. He is perceptive, humorous and can remember dates and experiences from the past like nobody’s business. And many of the stories revolve around his long career.

Jerry and his mom pose for a quick photo at one of the A&W frachises they ran -- note the classic frosty mug in her mother’s hand. Contributed photo

Jerry owned and operated A & W franchises in three states for 50 years, starting in the 1920s when he was just a kid. His mom started him down this path after she bought the first ever A&W franchise. He bought his own franchise while in World War II.

It all began on Sept. 9, 1920 when Jerry was born the second child of Mabel and Ernest Palmer from Neillsville, Wisconsin. As with most families back then, Jerry and his three siblings were raised on a self-sustaining small family farm with about 88 acres raising dairy cows.

The family did well until the 1930, at the onset of the Great Depression, when his father lost his life in a hunting accident.

“He was hunting with his brother-in-law and had just shot a doe, but he decided to stay longer to try and get a buck,” said Jerry. He was standing on a stump which was hollow and decided to have a smoke. As he lit the cigarette, his gun dropped down inside the stump and accidentally went off, killing him.”

Wayne, Wendell, Jessie and Jerry Palmer in their younger years.

Despite the loss of her husband and the Depression, his mother raised the four children with the help of her elderly aunt who became like an adopted grandmother, and continued to run the family farm. When Jerry was 13, his mother remarried to a mason, William Keillor, and they continued to live on his family farm. In 1936, Jerry was 16 and they moved off the farm into town in Tomah, Wisc. Shortly thereafter his mom and William purchased their first A & W franchise in Tomah. The cost was $250 for 25 years.

His step dad built a small brick block building on the lot they had purchased behind their house. The street was the parking lot. Customers could walk up to the counter or kids (tray boys and tray girls) walked up to the car and took their orders and brought them their food on a tray. School teachers and farmers would generally purchase these franchises, he said. Back then A & W only sold root beer, later they added hot dogs.

“At one time, Wisconsin had the most A & Ws of any state,” said Jerry

A & W Restaurants was started by Roy Allen and later his partner Frank Wright who set up a root beer stand at a parade honoring WWI veterans in California. In 1924, Allen bought out Wright.

A couple of Jerry’s “tray boys” at the Sioux Falls A&W. Contributed photo

Jerry’s mom purchased her second A & W franchise with a partner in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That A & W was a wooden building made with 4 by 4s on leased land. The motto was, “Come as you are, eat in the car.” Jerry was going to help her out with this restaurant when World War II came along and he was called to serve; finally, being stationed for three years in Iceland. Jerry has many stories about his time in the service. There he got experience as a cook which served him well when he returned home because he bought out his mother’s partner at the Sioux Falls A & W franchise while he was in the service. In 1950, he met and married his wife, Rosemary (Alice), in Sioux Falls and the couple went on to have three children.

At that time, A & Ws were springing up all over the country. In 1955, a separate franchise was started in Montana attached to A & W: The Burger Family where Papa Burger, Mama Burger and Baby Burger were born. Owners could purchase this franchise for a flat fee with no royalties, said Jerry. Owners had to buy their own bulk hamburger back then and purchased the spices from the company.

In 1963, A & W bought them out and introduced the Teen Burger, one of the first double cheeseburgers with bacon. They still sold root beer a 10-ounce glass for a dime into the 60s and baby mugs were free.

The classic look of one of the first A&W franchise. Contributed photo

Jerry remembered one year when A & W was offering a promotion to launch the new burger program: buy one burger for 25 cents and get the 2nd one for 1 cent. Sioux Falls hosted an event with all the basketball teams all over the state came to Sioux Falls. Jerry said they ended up selling 10 times more hamburgers than they regularly sold; normally 30 pounds, that weekend 300 pounds. He said by noon he had to go home and take care of his hands because they were blistered from cooking so much. He had everybody he knew helping.

Eventually Jerry wanted to expand and build a restaurant with indoor seating so he purchased two acres and had blueprints drawn, but financing didn’t work out so he had to sell the lot to Mr. Donut. He still owned the A & W franchise so the family decided to purchase an existing drive-in in Lebanon, Missouri. This drive-in had the covered canopy outdoors where people had the menu and pushed the button (intercom) to order. Kids still brought you out your food and it was full service.

Since A & W’s were not open in the winter time, Jerry had opportunities to travel. There were A & W conventions held every year. Jerry even got to meet Mr. Roy Allen at one of these conventions. He attended conventions in California, Florida, Texas, Chicago and Detroit, different locations every year. One year he went to Hawaii, which he especially enjoyed.

Jerry holds a mug of rootbeer at his apartment in Barnesville. Photo by Deb Trygstad

When Jerry’s lease ran out for the A & W in Missouri, he decided to call it quits and retire with Alice. In 1996, they moved to Barnesville, Minn., to live closer to their daughter, Alice. His wife passed away shortly thereafter. Since then, Jerry has worked as a janitor at his church, at the Barnesville Food Shelf and volunteered at Barnesville HELPERS. He drove for them until he was 90.

Jerry still gets around in his motorized scooter and absolutely loves it when people come over to listen to his stories.

Jerry has many stories about his 50 years operating A & W restaurants. Here is one that can’t be verified, but it is a good story that took place in Lebanon, Missouri, told in his own words.

“Have you ever waited on someone on the police wanted list? It was a spring night, damp and cold, and business was pretty slow. My son and two other employees were working with me. At about 9 p.m., I was deciding if we should close early or stay open until 10 p.m., but then a truck drove up. The building was located on the back of the lot with the parking lot in the front. There were no other cars in the lot. This truck drove up as close as you can to the building. It was a greenish white color like you see on vehicles that are being refinished because of rusting. The truck had a picture of a star on it with a homemade enclosure in the back. I got a funny feeling in my stomach.

Jerry can often be seen cruising around on his scooter.

“Three people got out of the truck and then six more got out of the back, all about college-age. They came up to the window and ordered their food. This one girl just stood there by the window and ate her food. The others ducked down. I didn’t know where they went, probably to get out of the wind. This girl and I were no further apart than a few feet. We just stood and looked at each other.

“All the time I was trying to figure out how I could inform the police. We had a phone but you could not use it to dial out. I was thinking how I can tell my son to go and call the police. If I had my son call the police, would they follow him? Should I wait until they leave and then call the police? Should I have the police meet me at the interstate so I could tell them which way they went? All those thoughts went through my head but I didn’t do any of it. Finally, they left.

“About two or three months later this girl’s picture was in the paper and I recognized her. It was Patty Hearst.”

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