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Key to good restaurant is friends

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Kay Yadon

Leo Wedekind, left, eats lunch at his Country Cafe in Eliza with `regulars' Richard Furnas and Rolland Engle. Many loyal customers, like Mr. Engle, have keys to the store, trusted to come in and make coffee if they get there before the owner.

ELIZA -- Leo Wedekind smiled bashfully over a plate of fried catfish, his face turning red as lunch customers around the table talked about him.

``Everybody knows Leo,'' said Rolland Engle, an Eliza Township employee who nearly every day visits the Country Cafe that Mr. Wedekind has owned eight years.

Mr. Engle once spent the night in a booth there, when winter weather made roads too rough to drive back to his Aledo home. He didn't need to ask permission. He has a key.

The 65-year-old owner, recovering from a recent stroke, hands out keys to loyal customers, trusting them to fix their own coffee before he arrives. Residents say they rely on the only restaurant in the area for support and companionship, in good and bad times.

``It's home,'' Mr. Wedekind said, smiling at his friends. ``We feel that way, don't we? It's like a big happy family.''

Many say this atmosphere could only be found in a rural setting, where neighbors take time to know each other. People in the community trust each other, often leaving their cars unlocked with keys inside.

No one has ever broken in or stolen anything from the cafe, and Mr. Wedekind is not surprised. ``We respect people,'' he said. ``We expect the same treatment and we get it.''

Mr. Wedekind and his wife, Pauline, not only open their business to the neighbors, but also their hearts. Many say the couple rarely forgets birthdays, graduations or weddings.

They are involved heavily in the community. Mr. Wedekind is Eliza Township supervisor, and is on the Mercer County Board and Lion's Club board. Mrs. Wedekind often spends hours baking goodies for church events. Both volunteer to other local groups.

If someone's sick, they'll fix them a meal or pie from the restaurant, without expecting pay. Mr. Wedekind won't grab just any pie, he'll specially prepare one of the person's favorites.

The community recently wanted to repay the couple for their good deeds, especially because the Wedekinds were in a slight rut. Mr. Wedekind had a stroke in July, a day after returning from vacation.

Soon after, his wife fell and broke her ankle. Then she fell again, hurting her knee on the other leg, confining her to a wheelchair until they healed.

In October, Eliza residents held a tribute reception for the humble couple. Hundreds of people poured into the small cafe, leaving anonymous donations to help the family offset bills.

Although Mr. Wedekind gets tired easily, he has continued to work half days at the restaurant and eat lunch with his friends there. Mrs. Wedekind is recovered and back to work in Aledo, her husband said.

``We feel like we belong to the community,'' Mr. Wedekind said. ``I like people and people like me.''

The cafe is at 649 155th Ave. in Eliza Township, next to the township maintenance building and about a mile away from the community center in the former Eliza Elementary School.

Approaching west on Illinois 17 in Joy, turn right at the ``Westmer High School'' sign and proceed down the country road about 15 minutes. Turn left at the barn with a fading rainbow painted on the side, and drive until you reach Eliza. For more information, call 537-3597.

One man who always eats lunch at the Country Cafe said the place is easy to find. ``Go down the blacktop, follow the pickups and you'll find out where it's at.''

-- By Kay Yadon (February 2, 1998)

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