Burton 's Cafe, located in the small southern Illinois town of Whittington, is known for its "white pie, " a homemade concoction topped with whipped cream and pecans.
Home of the Famous White Pie
Amber Kay Cook
Why do so many people know about Whittington, Illinois? It is near Rend Lake, but that is not the reason. "White pie" is the probable answer. Not too many years ago, the Benton Evening News received a letter from an aggrieved upstate Illinois couple who had driven all the way to Franklin County to eat a piece of white pie. Their letter complained that their arrival turned out to be on one of the rare weekdays when the establishment was closed.
Whittington began as a railroad town, and business life centered around shipping and freight hauling. Just west of the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad and east of Illinois Highway 37 (popularly known as the Whittington Curve), there was a corral and barn used by horse and cattle traders. Seeing the potential for profit, Blake and Ruth Burton converted the scales house there into a restaurant called the Sugar Bowl.
Elizabeth Britton remembers, "Burton's Cafe really emerged out of the cattle auction barn they had there. Blake's mother began making hamburgers to sell and would keep them hot in a kettle of sauce. She was also famous for baking raisin pie. After Blake married Ruth, she taught her daughter-in-law how to bake pies. The auction was on Tuesdays so men would come to buy, sell, and trade cattle, and also to eat hamburgers and raisin pie. Ruth later added the white pie that is so famous. She would put whip cream and pecans on top. Freda Webb then continued the pie making tradition."
Blake and Ruth Burton opened the first cafe in 1945. The building housed the cafe for eight years. It was also used for community sales every week and as a part-time trading post for farmers. A variety of interesting things were sold there. Watches, jack-knives, and even cattle were brought there to sell. While they were trading their wares, buyers and sellers would enjoy eating hamburgers and raisin pie.
The new cafe, now called Burton's Cafe, was built in 1953 when the curve was taken out of Route 37. It expanded, and gas pumps were installed. Successive owners kept its name and reputation.
For more than fifty years, Burton's Cafe has been a popular morning meeting place. Men and women from the surrounding area gather to hash out the day's problems; whether it be politics, weather, oil, sports, or school, they would always seek a solution for it. Farmers meet to discuss their crops and the prices they expect in the fall. On most mornings you can find the "liars table" crowded. If you don't get there early enough, you might have to sit at another table.
Burton's has been an asset to Whittington's economy. At the present time, Burton's Cafe employs thirteen area workers. One lady has
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worked there for forty years. She is the pie maker, Freda Webb, of nearby Ewing. Pies at Burton's have been a long time favorite and still are today. The Benton Evening News highlighted the role of the long-time pie maker: "In this day of frozen foods, short cuts, and calorie consciousness, the art of pie-making is in danger of disappearing as the hallmark of kitchen excellence. Freda Webb of Ewing keeps the flame burning, however. Over the years, diners at Burton's Cafe have entered and left their diets behind. Webb confesses that despite the rigorous schedule, she enjoys the pie-making as well as the compliments she gets. Even though she could be retired, Mrs. Webb enjoys the challenge of baking anywhere from twenty to twenty-five pies every day."
While Burton's Cafe has gone through many changes over the years, it still maintains its reputation. Faithful patrons know that this is one of the very few places that still serves simply good, old-fashioned, country favorites such as ham and beansówith cornbread, of courseóchicken and dumplings, and meatloaf with mashed potatoes.
So, if you want some famous white pie or food cooked the old-fashioned way, get off Interstate 57 exit number 77 and let your nose lead you a mile north. [From Ewing Eighth Grade School Class's, "A History of Whittington, Illinois"; David Goss interview of Elizabeth Britton, Nov. 10, 1992; David Goss interview of Billie Winemiller, July 22, 1992; student historian's interview of Freda Webb and Bob Jones, Sept. 9, 1996.]
14 ILLINOIS HISTORY/DECEMBER 1996