Part of Independence history is about to be bulldozed – but one key piece will be preserved.

Part of Independence history is about to be bulldozed – but one key piece will be preserved.

On Monday morning, workers are to take down the well-known neon sign at the former Stephenson’s Old Apple Farm Restaurant at U.S. 40 and Lee’s Summit Road. On Tuesday, sale of the property there is expected to close, and crews could soon begin tearing down the restaurant, the old family house and the apple orchard building to make way for a QuikTrip.

“Part of it lives on, and the community gets to enjoy it,” says Sharon Stephenson-Butts, daughter of Loyd Stephenson, who with his twin brother Les started and built the famous restaurant.

“Everyone has a memory. ... It was the special-occasion restaurant,” says Gloria Smith, a Jackson County Historical Society board member who has been working with the family on its donation of the sign.

When they were young, Loyd and Les had been carhops at the old Linville’s, where the Big Biscuit stands now across from Stephenson’s. Their older brother, Norman, had the Stephenson’s Orchard – also well known locally for its cider – but the brothers in 1946 had another idea, starting off with a restaurant in a brick building. That went away and was replaced by a stone building – just 10 booths, seating 40 – when U.S. 40 was rebuilt. The sign out front just advertised barbecue, chicken and cold beer.

They kept growing. In the middle of the building that today resembles a barn, that stone structure still stands.

And the word spread.

“The hickory-smoked chicken is prepared by splitting it and then laying it on grates over a fire of hickory and apple wood, cooking it very slowly until tender,” American Restaurant Magazine wrote in 1954.

“Ham, pork chops and ribs,” it went on, “are also hickory-smoked in the same manner.”

A decade later, the restaurant’s recipes for green rice, apple fritters and apple dumplings made the Better Homes and Gardens “Famous Food from Famous Places” cookbook.

The memories tend to be personal, too. Among other things, Stephenson Butts remembers the shrimp: “They were like chicken legs.”

“This was the Eastern Jackson County restaurant,” says Steve Noll, executive director of the Historical Society. (Like many who grew up here, he has a story or two: He had a summer job there in 1969. “All the cool kids were at Woodstock,” he jokes. “I went to Stephenson’s.”)

The brothers kept at it. From 1964 through 1966, they expanded again, now with seating for close to 400. A kettle and an apple were added to the sign.

“That’s when they decided to do the barn look,” Stephenson Butts said.

And people kept coming. It was the place to go for that special dinner.

“I would venture to say everybody I know has a memory,” says Smith.

That neon sign out front kept beckoning customers. In an era in which the glare of electronic signs is everywhere, it’s easy to forget there was a time when neon was notable, fairly expensive and not that common. Steve Stephenson, Sharon’s brother, says the restaurant’s neon sign dates to sometime in the ’50s, and Noll points out that other than at a couple of old hotels, there just aren’t that many local neon signs from that era.

That sign will go into storage and will need some restoration – the Historical Society will ask for donations – before it goes on display at a location yet to be worked out, Noll said.

The restaurant lasted until 2007. Its closing was like a death, Stephenson Butts says. A little later came the auction, selling off all of the memorabilia – the funeral, she calls it. Now the buildings will go.

“And this is going to be the burial,” she says.

Ron Stephenson, Sharon and Steve’s cousin, points out that their grandfather bought the farm at the site around 1920, meaning the land has been in the family for about 90 years and some of the trees soon to come down are about that old.

Is he sad to see it go?

“Yes and no,” he says. “... If all it has is memories, then maybe it’s time to move on.”

“The good thing,” says Steve, “is to get some finalization on it.”

But Sharon says it important that some of it be saved.

“It’s like passing on something for the community to see,” she says. “... It won’t be forgotten.”