Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sam Kee and the State Cafe

’Way back in 2010, I wrote about the State Café in the railroad town of Huntington, Oregon, in a posting called Oysters on the Snake. There I promised to write more later about oysters. And, some time soon, I will do that.

Meanwhile, I want to say a bit more about the State Café, which my menu showed was operating in Huntington about 1917-1918. I recently asked the Huntington Historical Society if they had any information on the café. Here’s their response:

"The café was run by Sam Kee and was a Chinese Cafe, it wasn't in business very long, there was a story that the Chinese would cook squab, baby pigeons. Not sure where the State Café was but the Chinese café next to the Smoke House, one of the Chinese cooks brother died and people got scared to eat there. Lot of prejudices, the reason for the sign at the end of Grady's "All white Help" was because of the fear of Chinese, no one else."
Huntington, ca. 1915. Baker County Library, Baker City, OR 2006.2.99

So, now armed with a name, and with more resources available in online digital format, I went looking for Sam Kee. I first found him in Wallula, Washington, a railroad town that, like Huntington, was on the Union Pacific (UP) system. The Pendleton East Oregonian (January 21, 1907) picked up a report from the the Wallula Gateway that “Sam Kee, the well-known restaurant keeper, while eating chicken, got a bone fastened in his throat.” He was taken by train to Pendleton where a doctor “removed the bone by making an incision in Sam’s windpipe.”

Three years later, Sam Kee was running a restaurant in Umatilla, Oregon, also on the UP line. The East Oregonian (October 18, 1910 et seq.) ran several articles following the events there when an inebriated former UP employee, S. Lovelace, apparently tried to force Sam Kee to provide food to a destitute man; after Sam declined to do so, Lovelace left the restaurant and returned with a gun, and proceeded to shoot. Sam grabbed a gun and returned the fire. Sam lost a finger, but Lovelace later died from a shot in the groin. The coroner’s jury found that Sam had acted in self defense.

On March 20, 1911, fire destroyed three businesses on Umatilla’s Railway Avenue, including “Sam Kee’s restaurant.” He recovered quickly; on May 13, the East Oregonian reported that Sam Kee had leased a building on Main Street and was fitting it up for a restaurant.

Sam Kee next shows up in another railroad town, Klamath Falls, on the Southern Pacific lines; an ad for Sam Kee, restaurant, serving chop suey and noodles, appeared in the Klamath Falls Evening Herald of September 13, 1912, and for some time thereafter. The geography and context make me fairly certain that the Wallula and Umatilla Sam Kees are one and the same, but since few newspapers are yet available for searching, and since the name Sam Kee is not uncommon and is also easily misspelled, Sam Kee in Klamath Falls may, or may not, be the same man.

Finally, Sam Kee shows up in several items in the Oregonian in the 1920s, charged with narcotics possession and gambling violations in Portland. Is this the same Sam Kee? Again, it’s hard to say; I don't think it’s the same fellow, though I may be wrong. But here’s an item from Baker County, published in the Oregonian on July 1, 1924, about our fellow in Huntington:
BAKER, Or., June 30.—(Special.) Sam Kee, Chinaman, owner of the State café at Huntington, was arrested yesterday charged with the possession and sale of opium. Kee was placed in the county jail. He waived preliminary hearing before United States Commissioner Patter[s]on and was bound over under $2500 bail.”
Union Pacific System railroad bridge, ca. 1920

What can we deduce from this scattered pile of ostensibly newsworthy miscellany? I conclude that Sam Kee was a reasonably successful restaurant operator who catered to laborers, especially railroaders. The  Facebook page of the Huntington Historical Society shows a booklet of meal tickets issued in the 1920s for the State Café, providing $5.50 worth of eating for $5.00; meal tickets were just the thing for the working man. Although Sam Kee may have served chop suey and noodles in Klamath Falls and elsewhere, in Huntington his menu is firmly focused on hearty all-American fare. A close reading shows no chop suey, and four noodle dishes. While the plain noodles and chicken noodles might betray a Chinese cast, listings for noodles and coffee, and noodles and catsup, both read like they are just plain carbs for hungry Joe Railroader, not exotic dishes from Asia. It looks like Sam Kee spent nearly two decades feeding the working men of the railroad West. He also smoked opium, and he probably gambled. The State Cafe offered 22 different oyster dishes. More oyster lore soon, I promise.

Thanks to the Huntington Historical Society and to Marylou Colver!

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