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GREAT APPLE PIE BRINGS SUCCESS TO BLOOMINGTON BUSINESSMAN

Blog post by Randi Richardson

Mention the name Boxman around Bloomington today and most people will conjure up an image and, perhaps, a memory of Player’s Pub on South Walnut, a dilapidated property the owner would like to raze against the wishes of the Bloomington Historical Preservation Commission.

Boxman’s first KFC franchise was situated in the front yard of his home, much to the chagrin of his wife.  Postcard from the personal collection of the author.

Many people from Monroe County have either long ago forgotten Henry Boxman and the restaurant that he brought to national prominence in the 1950s or else never knew of him or his business.  In fact, Henry was an astute businessman whose influence as a restaurateur extended well beyond Bloomington and Indiana in spite of his humble beginnings.

Henry was born in June 1903 near Columbus, Indiana, to John Henry and Anna M. Boxman.  He had nine older brothers and sisters.  His oldest sibling, Martha, had already married by the time of his birth.  John Henry supported his large family by farming.

When Henry was barely a year old, his mother was stricken with spinal meningitis and died two weeks later in October, 1904.  If that wasn’t enough bad luck, in September 1919, it was discovered that John Henry had facial cancer and he was buried beside Anna in March of the following year.  At the young age of 17, Henry was an orphan.

Given the tragedy that had befallen him, it isn’t hard to image that Henry’s education ended after completion of the eighth grade.  One might even wonder how he made it that far.  But Henry, a tall, lanky young man with a ready smile, was also smart and a very hard worker.  By 1925 he was living in Richmond and enjoying success as a tobacco salesman.  In April of that year he felt confident enough to marry a hometown girl, Hattie Belle Zigler.

With a helpmate at his side, in 1928 Henry opened a little restaurant at 422 S. Walnut called the Dew Drop Inn.  It was patronized by students from the nearby high school who met there over well-filled, inexpensive plates of hot dogs, hamburgers, baked beans and barbecue sandwiches.  But Henry aspired for more.  He recognized apple pie as America’s most popular dessert, and it was his dream to make the country’s best apple pie.

A decade later, the little restaurant had doubled in size, it had a new name, Boxman’s, and a nice, new menu as well.  The address was 422-424 S. Walnut, and the Boxman family, that now included a son, lived above the restaurant.  Little did Henry know that the Great Depression was just around the corner.

A partial view of Boxman’s menu showing many prices well below a dollar.  Although the menu is undated, the 4-digit phone number suggests it is from the 1940s.  An artifact from the author’s personal collection.

Unlike many businesses that failed during the depression, Henry was able to hang on by working long hours for little pay. By 1939, it wasn’t at all surprising for him to put in an 80-hour work week for an average monthly, net income of less than $200.  Meantime in 1940 he was still living with his family above the restaurant.  But all of his effort was beginning to pay off as he became well known for his food, especially his pie.

One day, just out of the blue, a man named Duncan Hines stopped in at Boxman’s for a bite to eat.  This is the same Duncan Hines whose name is now associated with a well-known cake mix, but back then he was a just a traveling salesman from Chicago who spent a lot of time on the road.

In 1935, Duncan and his wife compiled a book listing the exceptional restaurants he had visited.  The book was so popular that he was given an opportunity to write a newspaper column published three times weekly in major newspapers across the U. S.  Beginning in 1949, and every few years thereafter, Duncan wrote about the great food at Boxman’s and often shared a recipe or two from the restaurant..

Finally Henry, with the aid of multiple outstanding reviews from Duncan who had become a well-recognized food critic and not a little nudge from his friend Col. Harland Sanders’ of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame who lent his name to Boxman’s endeavors, realized his dream—one of the country’s best apple pies.  Or at least among the best known apple pies.

Boxman’s first KFC franchise was situated in the front yard of his home, much to the chagrin of his wife.  Postcard from the personal collection of the author.

Duncan Hines died in 1957.  Perhaps it was that event that prompted Henry to sell his restaurant the same year.  Whatever the reason, that’s what he did.  A few years later, in 1963, he opened Bloomington’s first KFC restaurant.  Much to the chagrin of his wife, it was located directly in the front yard of his private home at 432 S. Walnut.  He opened a second KFC franchise at the College Mall in 1968.

Henry died in Bloomington in August 1991 after a long, productive life.  Among many other things, he was a past president of the Indiana State Restaurant Association; board member of the National Restaurant Association, and member of the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.  He was survived by Hattie, his wife, and two children, Charles H. Boxman of Indianapolis and Jane Ann (Boxman) Kalb of North Port, Florida.

During the coming months it will interesting to see what happens to the buildings where Henry had his restaurant, the one so many people across America knew so well for their desserts.  Perhaps in some homes yet today pies made from Henry’s recipes come to the table hot from the oven to the joy of happy families.

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