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Breakfast with a legend

Princeton woman served Frank Lloyd Wright weekly at small Wisconsin cafe

Sally Benson, of Princeton, waited on Frank Lloyd Wright at a small café in Dodgeville, Wis., in the 1950s.

Sally Benson, of Princeton, waited on Frank Lloyd Wright at a small café in Dodgeville, Wis., in the 1950s.

When she was a teenager in the early 1950s, Sally Benson spent her weekends working at a small café in Dodgeville, Wis. There were a few booths, some stools at the counter and one round table. The Dodge Café was one of two in town, and every Saturday or Sunday morning an older man, accompanied by several younger men, would come in, sit down at the table, and wait for Benson to take their order. The older man gave the order. “It was always the same order,” said Benson. “Milk toast. He ordered milk toast for everyone with water to drink.” It was not until Benson saw an article in the Madison newspaper featuring the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, that she recognized him. “I realized that’s the man I wait on every weekend.”

Benson, of Princeton, didn’t know anything about her famous breakfast customer in 1952. “I didn’t know who he was, and I don’t know if my boss, Mrs. Larson, knew who he was either,” she said. “He was a customer. You would never know he was anyone other than a regular guy from his appearance. He dressed in ordinary clothes, and he never portrayed himself as being any better than anyone else. You could tell he was very intelligent by the way he spoke and how his students (the younger men) acted toward him.” The students/apprentices came to Spring Green, Wis. from around the world to study under Wright and other architects at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Wright would have been in his mid-80s during the years Sally Benson waited tables at the Dodge café.

The café was 17 miles from Spring Green where Wright lived and worked and mentored his students. The café’s owner and Benson’s boss, Mrs. Larson, had rules for her waitresses. Benson remembers them well. “Never be sassy and take the order right away. Don’t make the customer wait, and never rush the customer.” There was one other girl who was a waitress at the café, but Wright always requested Benson. “He never made any conversation with me or with anyone in the café,” she said. “When he came in, I went right over and took his order, no matter what I was doing. I’d serve them their food, and they would eat and talk awhile before leaving.”

Milk toast wasn’t even on the menu at the Dodge Café but Mrs. Larson was not one to turn away a customer. She made the toast, and Benson would dish it up. For anyone unfamiliar with milk toast, Benson explained how it’s made. “Mrs. Larson made all of the bread. She would toast the bread, break it up into pieces, put them into a bowl and pour hot milk over it, and then add a little butter. You eat it like cereal, with a spoon.” Some people add honey or sugar or cinnamon to it. While she believes it’s nourishing, Benson herself never liked milk toast. It was known as a comfort food and was often eaten when someone wasn’t feeling well. When her father was diagnosed with ulcers, his doctor recommended eating milk toast.

Wright was fussy if any milk dripped onto the plate under the bowl. “He would send the whole order back, and we’d start all over again.” Benson never asked questions and just did as she was asked. She thinks that’s one reason why he always preferred to have her as his server.

“He didn’t tip,” said Benson. She remembers one morning, when a student mentioned leaving a tip, that Wright laid a penny on the table. Benson and Mrs. Larson got a big laugh out of that, and she saved the one cent tip in a glass jar and placed it on her dresser.

Frank Lloyd Wright, considered to be one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, grew up in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. He is known for his unique American style of architecture, which emphasizes simplicity and natural beauty. One style he developed, known as Prairie Style, features single-story homes with low or flat roofs, horizontal lines, long rows of windows, a large central fireplace and an open floor plan to add the feeling of spaciousness.

Wright designed and built his home, known as Taliesin, near Spring Green, Wis., where he lived from 1911 until his death in 1959. Taliesin was the name of a Welsh poet and means “shining brow,” It became a work-in-progress over his lifetime as he continuously changed and added to the home. He designed over a thousand homes and commercial buildings during his nearly 92 years. One of the most famous buildings he designed is the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which opened its doors six months after Wright’s death.

Sally Benson, of Princeton, waited on Frank Lloyd Wright at a small café in Dodgeville, Wis., in the 1950s. She pages through a book showing Wright’s architectural works at her home in Princeton. Photo by Cathy Nelson

Sally Benson, of Princeton, waited on Frank Lloyd Wright at a small café in Dodgeville, Wis., in the 1950s. She pages through a book showing Wright’s architectural works at her home in Princeton. Photo by Cathy Nelson

As a young woman, Benson saw Wright’s house on the hill, but she has never taken a tour of the house, the studio or the 600-acre estate. (The Taliesin Estate offers tours from May through October.) She would like to see it one day, maybe during an annual trip to Wisconsin when she visits her sister. There have been a lot of changes to the towns of Spring Green and Dodgeville since she lived there in the 1950s. “They are a lot bigger, for one thing,” she said. And, the Dodge Café is long gone.

At age 80, Benson likes to go out occasionally to eat breakfast. She likes the KBob Café in Princeton and said it reminds her a lot of the Dodge Café where she once worked. “I like to have an English muffin and coffee for breakfast,” she said, adding, “Restaurant work is nothing like it used to be. We had to do everything – scrub the floors, do the windows, wash the dishes.” After spending much of her teen years working from early morning until 10 at night, she tired of restaurant work. After graduating from high school in 1954, Benson got married, had children and moved to Minnesota, where she held other jobs, including working at a plastics factory in Mora for many years.

These days, Benson stays busy three afternoons a week by caring for her two great-grandchildren. “GiGi,” a name given to her by the children, has even bounced on the trampoline with the 2 year old. “I don’t jump normally, just with the little one,” she explained. “But my friend bawled me out and told me to get down!

Sixty-plus years after working at the Dodge Café and serving milk toast to Frank Lloyd Wright, Benson urges her grandchildren to work hard. “Jobs are hard to come by, I tell them, so show up and do the little extra things.” Doing the little extras, like making milk toast for Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices, can give more than job satisfaction. Benson has memories for a lifetime.

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