At 16, Joe Noonan was too young to understand why the upstairs of the two buildings his parents purchased downtown was laid out the way it was. There were 15 small bedrooms with a steel bed spring in each one, and Noonan wanted to know why.
One day, he saw the elderly neighbor who had lived next-door for decades, and he asked about the rooms and beds.
“The guy laughed and said, ‘Son, that used to be a whore house,’ ” Noonan recalls, chuckling at the memory. “I was like,
‘Oh, I didn’t know.’ So finding that out was interesting.”
That utilization of the current Ole Planters Restaurant, 316 N. Main St., is one of many before Noonan’s parents, John and Betty Noonan, purchased and opened the restaurant in 1976. In the years since, Noonan has come to know the entire history of the building, and he’s adding to that historic narrative by remodeling the upstairs of the restaurant into residential apartment space for his family.
From a general store to restaurant
The building that houses Ole Planters Restaurant was built in 1836 and was originally two separate commercial spaces.
If facing the restaurant, the business on the left was a general store, and the business on the right was a men’s and women’s tailoring shop. The couple who owned the general store also owned the tailoring business, and they lived above both properties.
For several years after those initial businesses shuttered, there were retail stores in the space, and saloons and dance halls occupied it, also.
However, all business in the building halted after the 1973 flood destroyed it and other downtown buildings. The following year, a group of residents concerned about the downtown’s historic preservation formed the Historic Hannibal organization. They purchased 316 N. Main St. and other buildings for $1 and extensively renovated the properties to their original historic appearance.
Family-run for 42 years
In the 1970s, the Noonan family moved from Texas to Missouri to be near Betty’s elderly mother, who lived in Shelbina.
“My father had big parties in Texas, traditional Texas barbecues, gourmet meals, that kind of thing. And he worked as a traveling apparel salesman, so he got recipes from all of these different ladies,” Noonan said. “He was basically the internet of today because he was trading recipes, and then on weekends he worked as a sous chef at the local country club.”
John took those experiences and started Ole Planters Restaurant in 1976, which he named after the former Planters hotel across the street that was torn down in the ’60s.
“We started small and worked our way up. We had this (first) section, then two years later we got this (second adjoining) section,” Noonan explained. “We started as basic as basic can be with two electric home stoves.”
At first when ordering at Ole Planters, customers ordered their meal at a counter, took a number, then their meal was brought out to them. The restaurant switched to table service after being open for about six years. The original menu from those first several years still hangs inside of the restaurant.
After Noonan’s parents died, he and his brother, Jack, took over the business. Today Jack is semiretired from running it, and Joe does all of the cooking, using his parents’ same recipes.
“My mother is the one who taught me to make pies, and I’ve taught my kids how to make them,” Noonan said. “I don’t even have to tell them how much to put in. They just know it. It’s nice to have them involved a little bit.”
One of the things Noonan is pleased to say is that Ole Planters has served a meal to every Democratic president or presidential hopeful since Jimmy Carter — either in the restaurant itself or by taking the dish to their bus.
“The only one we weren’t able to serve was (Barack) Obama, who didn’t come to downtown Hannibal,” he said.
But Noonan’s proudest moments from running the restaurant over the years are when people try the family’s pies.
“The thing I get a kick out of is when someone eats a pie like gooseberry or strawberry rhubarb and they say to me, ‘Thank you. That reminded me of my grandmother,’ ” he said. “Giving them their memory back (of their grandparent’s baking) is something I feel proud about.”
— By Ashley Szatala