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Grub's good behind bars in Aledo

ALEDO -- You'll get more than bread and water behind bars at this jailhouse.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Kay Yadon

Former Mercer County sheriff Dick Maynard and his wife, Jennie, bought and renovated the abandoned Mercer County Jail to create The Slammer restaurant in Aledo.

Steaks, ribs and hearty sandwiches are served daily to customers seated in jail cells at the former Mercer County Jail, now The Slammer restaurant and Great Escape bed and breakfast.

Nearly 10 years after the College Avenue jail closed, former sheriff Dick Maynard and his wife, Jennie, reopened the place in January 1997.

``People have a preconceived notion that it's a superior place to dine, and it's not,'' Mr. Maynard said from a cell decked with a jail-themed, black-and-white-striped table. It's a place where anyone can go, he said.

``We've had people call here and ask if we have a dress code,'' Mrs. Maynard added, smiling. ``I told them, `Of course not. Shorts or jeans are just fine.'|''

The couple, who own several other town businesses, including the Aledo Opera House, bought the former jail in 1993. The last four years have been spent renovating the four-story building, which originally opened as a jail in 1909.

The Slammer carries reminders of Mercer County law-enforcement history, with photos and newspaper clippings of former police officers, old signs listing jail rules, and some original plumbing fixtures restored by former sheriff Marvin Thirtyacre.

The dining rooms are labeled Solitary Confinement, Drunk Tank and Bullpen, with adult and children's menu items carrying out the theme.

So the wait staff does not have to run from level to level to submit orders, four computerized ordering machines recently were installed. The computers, similar to the kind used at fast-food chains, should speed up service, the Maynards said.

The bed and breakfast, which costs $55 a night for two people, is on the second and third floors of the building's east side. The rooms, where the Maynards lived when he was sheriff from 1958 to 1962, are named after prominent county residents and landmarks.

Mr. Maynard and his crew nearly are finished overhauling the jail's attic into six more bed-and-breakfast rooms. A sauna and whirlpool will be available to guests, he said.

The first year of a business usually is bumpy, and the Maynards said they've had to make some changes to keep afloat. Although they are optimistic about its future, the couple said Aledo doesn't patronize the place as much as expected. Its out-of-town clientele keep the restaurant going, Mr. Maynard said.

Not too many people drop in for lunch. Some weekdays, only two or three customers visit during the noon hour. More customers come for supper on weekends, but the business hasn't been filled to its capacity of 175 since its grand opening, Mrs. Maynard said.

``We were so swamped at first,'' she said, adding the restaurant has cut its staff in half, to about 25, since opening.

``People probably should have been turned away,'' Mrs. Maynard added. ``You know, if they have to wait too long for service, they won't come back. And we want them to come back.''

Beginning this month, instead of its usual seven-day schedule, the restaurant only will be open for reservations Monday through Wednesday. It will reopen Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. On Saturday, the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The Maynards said they hope the new hours will help them balance their bank books and accommodate customers.

``We're making a change, but we want to be very careful so the people will see it as a positive one,'' Mr. Maynard said.

When it opened in the early 1900s, the jail could house up to 35 prisoners and was called one of the better-equipped detention facilities in the region. By the early 1980s, however, prison housing standards changed, and the jail did not meet state space requirements and needed structural repairs.

Some county leaders began pushing for a new jail. Mr. Maynard, then a county-board member, opposed the idea. He said he and another board member got the Illinois Department of Corrections to agree the site could be renovated, but Mr. Maynard lost his bid for re-election to the board soon after.

Eventually, backers of a new jail were successful. The new jail opened on Aledo's west side in 1988.

The Maynards said they are glad they rescued the unique Aledo landmark. ``I've never had a suspicion that I wasn't happy,'' Mr. Maynard said. ``I don't regret buying it at all.''

-- By Kay Yadon (February 2, 1998)

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