What was the Longhorn?

If you never had the experience of visiting the Longhorn, or of living in Grinnell while the Longhorn was still operating, we hope this section can inform you of the role it played in the community.

The Longhorn was located at 1011 Main Street in Grinnell from 1961-1997. During those years, there was a large turnover of those who passed under that longhorn sign – owners, managers, employees, musicians, and customers alike. The restaurant served as a common gathering place for everyone in the area. The back room, called the Angus Room, was often reserved for organization meetings and celebrations. If your meeting was not at the Longhorn, you might still go there for dinner before or drinks after. When school let out, kids would share a basket of their fries and a round of cokes. Many evenings there was live music, comprised of professional musicians or local talent. Most nights, the bar was flowing with affordable drinks, like their signature Scotties or many pitchers of beer.

As is often the case with affordable joints like the Longhorn, many a college student was attracted to their competitively priced food and alcohol. Apart from a short-lived boycott in the 70’s, tensions between town and college patrons ran fairly low. It was well known that Tom and Mary (long-time owners) weren’t too hung up on who was in their restaurant, as long as they were paying.

For over three decades, the Longhorn played an important role in the Grinnell community. When closing time was 2am, the Longhorn was open for as many as 19 hours a day. There was a rotating crew of approximately 45 staff members in its heyday. So if you didn’t have your first job at the ‘Horn, you might have had your first legal drink there.

The Beginning

In 1961, an addition was built south of McNally’s SuperValu store along Main Street in Grinnell.  The building was constructed by Jim and Ed McNally to be home to a new restaurant. It was first operated by Paul Labieniec, husband of Ann McNally. From the beginning the Longhorn had a western theme:

Featured will be saddle tan seats, palomino for contrast, walnut paneling, burnished brash western style lamps, all tastefully done throughout.

Tom & Mary Parmley

In 1965, Tom Parmley purchased the Longhorn. A year later he wed Mary Butler. Tom & Mary created a culture at the Longhorn that endeared them to staff and customers alike. They regularly hosted live musicians, despite the fact that there was no stage. They served food until 10pm and drinks until 2am, and there was hardly a day when people weren’t there at closing time.

It was common for groups to gather for drinks at The ‘Horn after meetings, or dinner before them. Norma Audas Lynch remembers:

I worked there for years when Tom and Mary Parmley owned it in the 1960s and 70s. Great lunch and dinner restaurant that became a fun Grinnell College student hangout late at night. The students would get big bowls of free pretzels with their pitchers of beer. Some would stuff their pockets with pretzels for dorm munching. I loved interacting with the students.

Ownership after 1981

In 1981, Tom & Mary sold the Longhorn to aspiring restaurateur Mark Liberson. Mark was a recent Grinnell College student. After a few years of running the Longhorn, he went on to run several nightclubs in the Chicago area in the 1990s.

In the mid 80s, Phil Gibbons owned it for a while.

Then in 1988, longtime staff member Evelyn Felper and her husband Gordon became owners.

The Felpers retired in 1994, selling the business to Connie and Dave.

The building owners – originally the McNallys and later the Groths – were also a part of the story through the years. As was Chris Riddle, who was in the mix somehow.

In 1997, after serving the community for 36 years, the Longhorn closed.

Music in front of the coat rack

Tom & Mary were strong supporters of live music who didn’t let the limited space stop them from bringing in some great musicians to entertain. There were regular locals like David Ferneau who played most Friday nights. And there were those who played the Longhorn as a part of tours of small venues.

One such performer was Robert “One-Man” Johnson. The 2014 Iowa Blues Hall of Fame inductee recalled his days at The ‘Horn:

While I truly enjoyed my many gigs at The Longhorn, it was also one of the toughest ever. There was no stage. When you entered the place there was a small baffle wall to buffer cold air. Just on the other side of the wall was a coat rack and then a line of booths. There was a tiny 4 foot by 6 foot space for the musician with the coat rack behind and a television above his head. People moving from one side of the restaurant to the bar area would sometimes move the microphone aside as you were singing or reach behind you to grab their coat and hat. When the annual girl’s basket tournament was on, folks would burst into cheers as their favorite team scored a basket. The Longhorn was hardly a concert hall, but folks were so down to earth and friendly, these difficulties seemed to be just part of the experience! The club and its Grinnellian clientele loved and supported Live Music, something which is quickly disappearing in America! But, Boy! Talk about musicians ‘paying their dues!  

Other artists known to have performed there: Woody Lee, Larry Heagle, Dave Wopat, Rob Lumbard (another future Iowa Blues Hall of Famer), Mike Richson, Roger Schnieders, David Winchester, Kathy Sherida, Peter Young, Chris Frank, and Skip Birong. Birong talks about the Longhorn on pg. 54 of his memoirs you can read here. Other names of musicians remembered are Gordon Sumner, Poor Howard Stith, Ron Hanna.

A great place to work

Many people worked at the Longhorn over the years. Some students came and went, but there were many long time employees who became legendary.  Many people still remember Opal’s friend chicken and gravy. Ronda was know for her 1am call of “Last call for alcohol” and for ushering out the last drinkers at 2am with the firm but loving shove. Evelyn Felper started as a waitress in 1970, became the owner with her husband in 1985, and finally retired when they sold in 1991. Once owner Mary Parmley enjoyed it so much, that she came back to serve as the cook when the Felpers took over.  And there was Darlene and Ginny and Susie and Barbie and too many others to name. Every year they would have wonderful fun at the staff Christmas party. Mary would buy each employee a personalized gift which many of them still remember. It truly was a family that made an impact on the lives of those who worked there.

More than one “Longhorn Poems” survived to give a glimpse into the fun had by the staff.

When you need a good laugh, go to Susie’s at the bar. She’s got more stories than you’ll find in a pickle jar.

And if you need a kind word, because you’ve got a shortened fuse, chase down Ginny in the Angus Room and you certainly will never lose.

You still have Evelyn Felper, with her ever-smiling eyes. But how on earth do you get along without Darlene to cut the pies. 

[excerpt from  poem labeled “Longhorn II” by Jody Potter]

Familiar Faces of The Regulars

Like many successful businesses, the Longhorn had a group of “regulars”.  They knew the names of the staff and the staff knew what they usually ordered and where they liked to sit.  The scrapbooks from Tom & Mary included many of these faces of the friends who supported the business and made it the special place it was. And the stories!  Opal’s birthday cakes for special friends – a roll of TP with frosting and a candle delivered to their table! The Longhorn “mooner” who would put his head through the opening under the bull horns and “moo” and then “moon” people on the other side.  And there was Glen who just seemed to always be there, hanging out in the Angus room.

Here are few of those special faces.

College Student Hangout

The Longhorn holds memories for many Grinnell College students. It was the location of many first meals in town, and many first drinks (or just many drinks for some!). Because it was a popular place for students, it was not uncommon for the police to do a walk through to check ids, something actually captured in one of the pictures shared below.

For a generation of students a pitcher of “Scotties” was a favorite.  The recipe is recalled as a pitcher of beer, 3 shots of tequila, and one shot of Roses lime juice.

Scott Hanson, for home the drink was named, remembers:

Here’s the history of Scotties….I created it with the help of Barbie from “The horn”….after a rainout baseball game of the Grinnell Jayhawks semi pro baseball team…it became a huge drink over the years, even served by the pitcher…..beer, tequila, and roses lime!

Joanne Bizek Platt recalls:

We used to play backgammon for glasses of Scotties. One Friday night we went to the ‘Horn to settle up and I over-imbibed. I couldn’t get out of bed all weekend. That ended my love affair with Scotties.

And the students enjoyed the place and the relationships as well.

Joanne Bizek Platt says:  I loved Ronda, the waitress. She would give us every other round on the house if we’d wait for her to get to us and never yell “help me Rhonda.”

Bob Stanis wrote of Ronda: She was a class act. She never lost her composure and handled rowdy tables of college students like the pro she was.

Marking the memory a student poses under the Longhorn sign, circa 1990

Remembering the Longhorn

Robert “One Man” Johnson

I believe it was winter of 1976 when I first played music at The Longhorn. My booking agent had set up the date a few weeks before. My wife and I lived in Chippewa Falls Wisconsin and we awoke early to make the long drive down to Iowa. Snow was falling hard already but increased as we went further south and by the time we reached the Iowa border it was very treacherous. We followed a snow plow for quite awhile and then a semi. At one point, truthfully, the drifted snow was higher than the roof of the semi. We finally skidded into Grinnell and located The Longhorn to find it locked up with a sign that said “Closed due to the storm!” I peered in and saw movement inside so I pounded on the door. Tom Parmley came out and I introduced myself. He said he had tried to call to cancel that morning, but no answer. I said, “Can’t we give it a try?” Tom got on the phone and called everyone in town and a great crowd of Grinnellians turned up for the show! Lots of fun!

The following memories of the Longhorn were shared on the Poweshiek History Preservation Project Facebook page.

Joanne Bizek Platt remembers:

Peter Young graduated right before we arrived in fall 1980 and was going to medical school at U of I. I think he had a standing gig to play at the ‘Horn every Friday night. I especially remember him singing “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” and “Help Me, Rhonda” in honor of the unfortunate, harried waitress named Rhonda who had to endure a bunch of drunk college kids every weekend.

Dave Hanson:

Favorite food at the longhorn: a pizza burger. It was chicken-fried steak with mozzarella and marinara sauce. Yum. We Hanson’s were regulars, especially Sunday after church.

Kim Locker:

I think my love of fried cheese curds started here!! And I remember the unique table tops with the western emblems printed.

Linda Hotchkin:

I worked there for 13yrs and met some wonderful people and still have friendships with the ones I worked with. Tom and Mary were good to their help so we worked that much harder and LONG hours. As a second job my husband would clean the floors after closing time around 2:30-3am every Saturday.

Audrey Bierman

Stealing the Parmleys photo was a thing back in the day. It always returned.
Longhorn was a crossroads for town and college and served a great purpose creating community.
Scott Hanson:
Here’s the history of Scotties….I created it with the help of Barbie from “The horn”….after a rainout baseball game of the Grinnell Jayhawks semi pro baseball team…it became a huge drink over the years, even served by the pitcher…..beer..tequila…and roses lime!
Jody Potter:
My sister, Ronda, got me a job at the Longhorn back in 1972. I worked 4pm to 2am five nights a week. I waited on many many college kids as that was their hangout. Really fun memories of Tom and Mary Parmley and co-workers!
Scotties were named for Scott Hanson…if memory serves. Some students would ask for chocolate sundaes, and then drop them in their beer!
Chris Wray:
Went there every weekend with my Grandpa Laird Wray when I was a little boy and enjoyed one of their delicious cinnamon rolls and chocolate milk! Alvin Sheeler always came over and sat with us and visited! Great memories!!
Doug Cameron:
Jerry Hagen and I used to eat Opal’s Fried Chicken there on Wednesday night before school board meetings.
Jim Fisher:
Eating breakfast on Sundays before church with Dad. Also, all the after school days for french fries and cokes. Broke my heart when it changed.

Kimberly Nicole Latzke

My Grandmother Cora worked there. I would walk up and get hot cocoa with marshmallows and sit and talk with her.
Brenda Hilliard McDonald
My husband used to take our little daughter there every week for a cherry Coke. The waitress would add extra cherries to the Coke to surprise her.
Anneke Nagao
I loved going there as a kid when there was live music. Traveling musicians from all over played there.
Sherie Rehberg
Mom worked at McNally’s when you could go to the Longhorn from a passage near the meat counter. We often had family get togethers there. Had great pecan pie!

Send us your memories

Send us your memories using the form below. Do you have pictures related to the Longhorn you’d like to share? We’d love those too! Get in touch with Monique Shore at the library to discuss details. 641-990-5162 or mshore @ grinnelliowa.gov.

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