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Weidmann's: Meridian landmark in transition

By Staff
LANDMARK Gloria and Poo Chancellor sit at the famous counter at the historic Weidmann's Restaurant in downtown Meridian. Photo by Paula Merritt/The Meridian Star
By Fredie Carmichael/The Meridian Star
June 15, 2001
Henry Weidmann was about to close his family's downtown Meridian restaurant one night during the late 1940s so he could enjoy the Christmas holidays. Then he suddenly changed his mind.
A group of Air Force fighter pilots was working late that night and planned to dine at the restaurant because back then it was open 24 hours. When Weidmann learned they hadn't had anything to eat, he re-opened the kitchen and prepared a meal.
Weidmann's Restaurant is still here today, the oldest surviving business in downtown Meridian. Although it's no longer open 24 hours a day, the 131-year-old restaurant still serves a loyal clientele breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Now, however, a group of prominent residents and businessmen hopes to raise interest among enough investors that they will help buy the storied restaurant, restore it and make it a key part of a long-planned effort to revitalize downtown Meridian.
Businessmen Fred Wile, Bruce Martin and Rick Snowden pitched their proposal to more than 75 people last week. Also attending in support were actress Sela Ward and Mississippi State University President Malcolm Portera, both instrumental in downtown revitalization efforts.
Long history
Weidmann's first opened in 1870 as a restaurant-hotel called the European House. For years, many Weidmann family members and descendants believed that Felix Weidmann founded the business; local historian Fonda Rush believes Felix's wife, Clara, founded it.
The restaurant moved around in its early days to several downtown locations before finally landing at its present spot on 22nd Avenue in 1923.
And one thing common among Weidmann customers and Meridian residents everyone has a tale about the restaurant. Besides the U.S. Air Force pilots, Fitzgerald remembered a neon sign that hung over the restaurant's doors in the early 1940s.
The sign read: "Through these doors walk the finest people on earth our customers."
24 hours a day
Weidmann's was open around-the-clock until the funeral of Chancellor's grandfather in 1956. The restaurant served many of the railroaders in a then-bustling downtown Meridian, men who often worked odd hours. The restaurant began closing at night in the 1960s.
Brothers Al and Fred Key circled Meridian nonstop, in a tiny single-engine Curtiss Robin airplane they named "Ole Miss" for 27 days in 1935, setting a flight record that stood unbroken until a NASA mission in 1973. They spent weeks preparing for the flight, apparently at least partly sustained by Weidmann's fine fare.
Jack Shank, a local historian and author, remembered the first time he saw a jukebox was during a visit to Weidmann's in the 1930s.
Chancellor said Weidmann's lunch counter, once a fixture at many restaurants and cafes in Meridian and other cities, has been in place since the business opened on 22nd Avenue.
Treasure chest
Besides the lunch counter, another longtime fixture is a "treasure chest" filled with candy and goodies.
Chancellor said her great grandfather, Henry Weidmann, used the chest to reward children with good manners. She said she remembers trying her best to be awarded a grab into the treasure chest.
Even the restaurant's menu hasn't changed. The garlic boiled shrimp is still prepared the way second-generation Phillip Weidmann fixed it, she said, and the restaurant still serves its special black bottom pie.
Catering to customers
Weidmann's staff took pride in knowing many regular customers and their favorite dishes, Chancellor said. Some even had a special table designated as their own.
Proprietor Shorty McWilliams, Chancellor's father, always had a quick smile and a kind word for regular customers, and an almost photographic memory for where they liked to sit.
One prominent local businessman, Sammie Davidson, had many of his most important business meetings in the back corner of the main room.
Chancellor said Weidmann's has earned its place in the city's history: "It's just a part of Meridian and the South. When people hear Meridian, usually the first thing that comes to mind is Weidmann's."
Fredie Carmichael is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3228 or e-mail him at fcarmichael@themeridianstar.com.