By Nancy McNab, Vice-Chair
As with any other building that’s been in Eden Valley since the late 1800s, Valley Inn has quite a history. As much as I can figure, it began as an implement dealer, tire and battery garage, and Red Crown gas station, probably early- to mid-1900s. It has served as the post office, municipal bar and liquor store, housed an apartment (last residents – Gene and Mary Lou Theis) and, for nearly 42 years, a privately owned liquor store, bar, and restaurant. The current owners purchased Valley Inn April 8, 2002, from Butch and Donna Belanger. Butch and Donna purchased Valley Inn in 1980 and ran it for 21 ½ years. In the years prior, Valley Inn was a municipal bar and liquor store. Melvin Utecht managed it during this time. His wife Dolores didn’t actually work as an employee, but often found herself behind the counter. She mentioned when things got busy, Melvin would just say “call Dolores, she’ll come help!” One thing I hear often when discussing older buildings with this kind of history is that some come with a rumor of a resident “ghost.” Melvin Utecht was well known for being able to control and disperse an unruly crowd (you know who you are) and, to this day, locals believe it may be Melvin making his presence known if someone gets a little out of line. If you are up to no good in the Valley Inn and the lights flicker, be aware that Melvin may be sending you a little warning since it sounds like he is still pretty protective of the business today. The bar business itself has some history in this area. For a number of years, Meeker County was a “dry” county. It was voted dry June 30, 1947, and with Eden Valley in two counties (Meeker and Stearns), a number of bars sprung up along the north side of Meeker Stearns Street. In 1953, liquor could once again be sold in Meeker County. As you can imagine, a number of changes have taken place in the building over the years. A big remodel took place creating the dining room and was celebrated with a Grand Opening in January of 1980. Probably the last time you could get an entire filet mignon meal for $4.75! While Butch Belanger was owner, there was a kitchen fire causing extensive damage which led to another remodel. In 2002, a local group of five with an adventurous spirit decided to take a chance. Comment from the group, “None of us had any bar experience – what were we thinking!?” Additional changes since then, the liquor store was moved to 405 Meeker Avenue East and is run as Valley Liquor Warehouse. The enclosed patio addition on the east side of the building, finished in 2010, came in part due to the indoor smoking ban. You should check out the new outdoor area if you haven’t done so yet. It’s looking pretty spiffy out there.
I recently had the opportunity to visit with current owners, Ross Amundson and Michele Johnson-Amundson, Barry and Julann Albright, and Randy and Michelle Hanson. While most of the partners have kept their “day jobs,” Julann Albright transitioned from working 12 years in healthcare as a nursing assistant, first at the Litchfield Hospital and then at the Watkins nursing home, to managing the day-to-day operations of the Valley Inn. She joked about the challenges of learning as she went, considering her experience in the industry was limited to a little time at the Country Kitchen in her youth. Julann is pictured by the Valley Inn kitchen. For such a small space, described as a two-person limit, they manage to roll out a lot of great food. An exciting new offering on the Valley Inn menu is locally raised beef. A nice treat for their guests, and a great way to help support local agriculture. This group describes the Valley Inn as the place where food, friends, and fun come together. Over the years, a number of big names have appeared here. In the late ’70s the Chmielewski Fun-Time Band appeared. Word has it that Governor Jesse Ventura paid a visit during Butch Belanger’s time. Of the current owners, some of their favorite memories involve watching the Vikings football games and celebrating (or too often commiserating) with their patrons. They were thrilled to have Vikings players Carl Eller (defensive end, ’64-79) and Rickey Young (running back, ’78-83) in attendance for a meet-and-greet. They’ve enjoyed watching some young local musicians such as Greg Michael Huberty and Lisa Ruprecht who played at the Valley Inn while still in high school. In addition to great food, Valley Inn offers many options for entertainment. You can find music, bingo, darts, meat raffles, and keys for cash. There are groups that gather there to play cards and socialize. They also have meeting spaces available. When you run a business like this, there are often unusual occurrences, the things that make you shake your head and go, “Really, did that just happen?” When you get this group together for a visit, the fun stories start rolling. The names will be kept out to protect the … well, you know.
So, a gentleman was waiting for his friend to get off duty one evening. Thinking he’d gone home, they did cleanup and locked up for the night. In the middle of the night, the police and owner Barry Albright were notified by the alarm company that there was an issue at the bar. Turns out the gentleman had gone to a quiet corner to rest while he waited and “fell asleep.” When confronted, he fessed up to borrowing a 7UP and a jerky since he woke up hungry – no charges were pressed.
Next, a person broke in early one morning and was witnessed on video bouncing off a screen when trying to escape through a door that literally went nowhere. Third, a person clearly missed reading the posted sign stating “no shirt, no shoes, no service!” On a bet, apparently, this person removed their clothing and “streaked” through the bar. Some bets should just be left alone. And one they may not be aware of is a former city employee almost turning the Valley Inn into a drive-thru (it was brakes or ice, not sure which.) Among their favorite memories would be Valley Daze, always guaranteed to be a little crazy. In the early days when they hosted Valley Daze street dances, they remember even being responsible for street cleanup as well, often dragging themselves home early the next morning. Running a bar and restaurant can come with a variety of challenges. Massive street construction, making it virtually impossible to get to the building at times, the conversion to “smoke free” and, as you can imagine “COVID” with only carry-out available for months. No matter what happens, they always manage to keep the doors open for our community. Valley Inn and all those involved want you to know how much they appreciate the support of the community and all their great customers through thick and thin, in good times and bad. Their advice to anyone starting a business in Eden Valley: It’s a great town to be a part of, so be involved as much as possible. If you are looking for employment, visit Valley Inn and ask for Julann. You can watch for posts on their Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/valleyinnmn. They currently have 15 on staff with some of them being part of the team for almost 15 years, and they are always looking for new smiling faces to welcome to the team. Visit the Valley Inn at 198 State Street North in Eden Valley. Their current business hours for the kitchen are: Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; bar: Sunday
8 a.m.-10 p.m., Mon.-Wed., 8 a.m.-11 p.m., Thurs.-Sat., 8 a.m.-1 a.m.