Tourists knew Al's, but locals knew AlMy friend and former sports-writing boss, John Egan, once wrote that if South Dakota has a blue belt across its middle, Al’s Oasis is the buckle.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
My friend and former sports-writing boss, John Egan, once wrote that if South Dakota has a blue belt across its middle, Al’s Oasis is the buckle.
John went on to note that the renowned tourist attraction in Oacoma marks the middle of the state and the middle of the Missouri River. He added:
“For those traveling Interstate 90 between Sioux Falls and the Black Hills, the buckle loosens up at mealtime.”
John Egan’s piece was about Al’s Oasis, but he told the essential story through glimpses into the life experience of Al and Veda Mueller. They created the Oasis half a century ago when they moved a family business from downtown Oacoma out of town next to the new route of the highway. They started small, but things just kind of grew and grew.
When I was a little kid, the store was in Oacoma proper. The place has been in the current location for all of my adult life and a good chunk of my childhood, though, and Al has always been there. Every time one of the older folks from my childhood passes, it feels as if I’m losing a piece of my own life. It felt that way when I read of Al Mueller’s passing last weekend.
For years and years before my mother had a heart attack and moved from her home in Chamberlain, she spent countless hours at Al’s Oasis. She went there for sure for lunches and for suppers, and I don’t know but what she snuck in more than a few trips across the old Highway 16 bridge for coffee into the afternoons, too.
In my former job as a reporter, I traveled a lot. When I’d pass Chamberlain, I’d often pull off and visit my mother, if only for a few minutes. Sometimes she was home, and we’d sit around the house and talk. Quite often, I’d find an empty house, and I’d climb back in my vehicle and drive across the bridge to Al’s. Once in a rare while, I’d be surprised, and her old Chevrolet wouldn’t be in the parking lot. Most times, though, if she wasn’t home, she was at Al’s, with her favorite group of friends, surrounded by a restaurant and grocery store staff that treated her as if she was part of the family.
I liked that about the place, the way they took my mom in. They treated her royally, and it always seemed to be such a genuine affection for an aging woman who had lived alone for half her adult life. I’m pretty sure the affectionate attitude started with the owner of the place, and his name was Al.
I’d often see Al when I stopped to see my mother. Sometimes I’d walk into the cafe, and Al would be at the salad bar getting his meal or in the aisles talking with members of a tour bus as they sampled the buffalo burgers. Sometimes, he’d be sitting with my mother and her friends, not for long most times, but long enough for them to know he appreciated their presence and their loyalty.
I remember a time when I stopped at Al’s first, instead of at my mother’s place. It was just about supper time, I was heading home late, and I didn’t feel like stopping in Chamberlain just to find an empty house. I figured I’d cut out the side trip and go straight to Al’s. I didn’t see the Chevy as I drove into the parking lot, but I parked and walked into the restaurant, anyway. Al was there, and he hurried over.
“Say,” he said, “is Marie all right? We haven’t seen her around for two or three days now. People are a little worried.”
I said I was sure she was fine, but he had made me nervous. I backtracked and found her at home. She’d been nursing a cold or bursitis or something, and just hadn’t gotten out. We chatted for a few minutes, and I left for home.
I drove the last stretch of highway home feeling good. It isn’t everybody’s mom who had the owner of a big tourist attraction — and his whole staff, too — watching out for her.