White Fence Farm
|White Fence Farm|
|Other locations||Lakewood, Colorado|
The original White Fence Farm location is in Romeoville, where it has served travelers on historic US Route 66 since the early-to-mid-1920s. It was founded by Stuyvesant 'Jack' Peabody, son of Peabody Coal Company founder Francis S. Peabody and himself CEO of Peabody Coal at the time. It was opened on a 12-acre plot that Jack Peabody owned across U.S. Route 66/Joliet Road from his 450-acre Lemont horse farm, where thoroughbred racehorses were bred, boarded and trained. The story was that Jack Peabody often had weekend guests at his horse farm, but there was no restaurant in the area where he could entertain them – so he started one himself. The roadside restaurant, which opened in a converted farmhouse, was known then for its hamburger sandwiches and Guernsey milk products, including ice cream.
By the time U.S. Route 66 opened in November 1926, White Fence Farm had already served several thousand customers. It was even reviewed several times during the Peabody years by the early restaurant critic Duncan Hines, who had been a fan of the restaurant since the late 1920s. After Prohibition ended, Jack Peabody promoted California wines at the restaurant and helped to revive the California wine industry, just as he had earlier helped to revive thoroughbred horse racing in Illinois during the 1910s and 1920s. Peabody operated the restaurant successfully until his death in 1946. After that, the restaurant was first leased to a few different renters, then eventually sold by Jack's son, Stuyvesant Peabody, Jr.
Change in ownership
Since 1954, the restaurant has been owned and operated by the Hastert family. Robert Hastert, Sr. was the first family owner-manager. Hastert had begun as a wholesale poultry dealer at the Aurora Poultry Market during World War II and later owned the Harmony House restaurant in Aurora, Illinois, which he had opened four years before he bought White Fence Farm. The property had gone through several operators and/or owners after being sold by the Peabody estate. Family legend has it that Bob Hastert, Sr. settled on the purchase price for the restaurant property with the previous owner, an acquaintance who had gone bankrupt, by using the flip of a coin.
Hastert was uncle to and his son, Bob Hastert, Jr., was the first cousin of former Speaker of the House Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL). Bob Jr., who had converted an industrial-sized hospital autoclave into an outsized pressure cooker for the restaurant's unique method of cooking the chicken, took over the operation of the restaurant after his father's death in 1998. Bob Sr.'s wife, Doris, also worked at the restaurant, usually as a hostess. Laura Hastert-Gardner, daughter of Robert Jr., is the restaurant's current owner and manager. The restaurant's famous fried chicken recipe was added to the menu during the 1950s by Bob Hastert, Sr., who, by his granddaughter's admission, told the chicken recipe origin story several different ways at different times and may have just as easily borrowed the recipe from someone else as brought it with him from Harmony House.
The restaurant building was expanded several times under the Hasterts. It now has several dining rooms, with seating for more than 1,000 customers. It also features a side room and gallery that includes an antique car collection, other antiques, and Jack Peabody's collection of original Currier & Ives prints, among other nostalgic displays. During the summer, the restaurant has an outdoor petting zoo.
White Fence Farm bills itself as having "the world's greatest fried chicken," which is pressure cooked and refrigerated in bulk before being individually flash-fried to order. In fact, ever since the Hasterts acquired the restaurant, it has been in near-constant competition with its nearby rival, Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket, for the title of best fried chicken on Route 66 in Illinois and best corn fritters. Once a matter of dueling billboards on Route 66, the competition is now limited to a contest between menu items. Whereas Dell Rhea's can claim that it began serving its famous fried chicken years before its competitor did, White Fence Farm can justly claim that its alcoholic brandy ice dessert – made strictly for adults – is memorable and unique.
The Colorado location is largely similar to the Romeoville location; however, it is owned and operated as a separate enterprise by the Charles Wilson family and is the only incidence of franchising that the Hastert family has ever allowed. White Fence Farm also operates several satellite carry-out locations throughout southwest suburban Chicago, an enterprise that was begun by Bob Hastert, Jr.
- Traska, Maria R., "White Fence Farm: An Unlikely Peabody Venture Lives On," Mayslake Peabody Estate Newsletter, Spring 2012
- Breslin, Meg McSherry (October 24, 1998). "White Fence Farm Owner R.C. Hastert (obituary)". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 24, 2014.
- Metcalfe Kornecki, Lynne (May 30, 1993). "Pickin' the Right Chicken". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 24, 2014.
- Goldsborough, Bob (July 08, 2010). "Robert J. Hastert, 1936-2010; Ran White Fence Farm restaurants". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 24, 2014.
- Trebe, Patricia (August 16, 2006). "Doris Mae Hastert, 1913-2006; Longtime Lemont restaurant owner". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 24, 2014.
- Pang, Kevin (September 8, 2011). "Get your fried-chicken fix on Route 66". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 24, 2014.