As a young girl growing up on a farm near Olean, the former Reta Bond aimed to convince herself that she would move to St. Louis after graduating from high school and never again “milking another cow or hoe potatoes”.
To some extent, she kept her promise by meeting Jack Casten on a blind date while living in St. Louis. However, after the couple married in 1957, she soon found herself back in the country, where they then worked hard to run a small drive-in business.
“We finally bought a house in Eldon,” Reta said. “Jack and I had been talking about opening a drive-in, and it just so happened that a family who owned a gas station near the junction of highways 54 and 17 said they would build us a building to rent, if we were managing it.”
They accepted the offer, and Casten’s first iteration of Dari Freeze was operational by the early 1960s. Their family kept the house in Eldon, but moved a small trailer behind the drive-in so they could stay close while operating the business during the peak spring and summer months.
In high school, Reta had worked part-time at an Eldon drive-in and as a waitress at Randall’s Restaurant. At the restaurant, she wore a white uniform with a black apron. At home, her family had no running water, so she washed her uniform by hand and hung it out the window to dry on her way to work.
“Years later I still wore a white uniform when I worked at our own drive-in because I just thought it looked more professional, but by then we had running water,” she laughed.
“Jack had a full-time job, so I ran the drive-in during the day and he helped out in the evenings and on the weekends. He came home one day and said he bought an old house in Russellville. The building just looked awful and was falling,” she added.
Reta recalled that her husband had argued that the house could be rebuilt and used as their home and a new drive-in. Selling their home in Eldon, they moved to Russellville in 1965 and spent the next few months busy renovating.
When the drive-in opened, most of their business came from traffic along Route C to and from the Lake of the Ozarks. Casten’s Dari Freeze has quickly become a popular destination for tenderloins, foot-long hot dogs, chili, ice cream, milkshakes, fries, and other tasty foods and treats.
“The drive-in was located right on the freeway across from Trinity Lutheran Church, and most of our business came from out of town,” she said.
“We did, however, have locals who stopped and ate every day,” she added. “There was a window, patio seats, tables and bar stools inside, as well as a pinball machine and a jukebox.”
Similar to their previous drive-in business, Jack worked full-time during the day while Reta, who was raising a young son and two daughters, ran the drive-in. She had the help of Betty Payne and Ruby Shikles, two older local women, who helped her with cooking, serving and occasionally babysitting.
“They were very helpful and did everything that needed to be done,” she said. “It worked really well for everyone because I needed help, and they liked going out and seeing people.”
There were also a number of local high school students who worked their first jobs at the drive-in, where they received advice from Reta “to make the customer feel important and always look busy”.
One evening, Reta said, she and her husband were working inside the drive-in and heard a car stop outside, honking their horn. When they looked out the service window, they were surprised by the strange sight that greeted them.
“Elmer Enloe, one of our regular customers, was sitting in his car with a dozen pigs of varying sizes,” she laughs. “They were in his lap, on the dashboard, in the back seat and in the passenger seat.
“He had gone to the sales barn in Olean and bought the pigs. He was on his way to his farm in Enon to drop them off, but stopped at the drive-thru for a tenderloin sandwich, fries and a soda.”
In 1970, Jack was hired by the railroad, so the couple made the decision to close the drive-in after running the Russellville site for five years. Reta then worked at the local MFA Exchange, then became a postmaster relief clerk in Russellville, Olean, Lohman and Centertown.
Jack died in 2001 and was buried in Enloe Cemetery. The drive-in has long since been stripped of its advertising, the walk-in window closed, and the rest of the interior converted to a conventional home, where Rita continues to reside.
The younger generation has no memory of Casten’s Dari Freeze while many older residents vaguely remember its existence along Route C. But for Reta, it remains an important, if brief, facet of the local business history of the community.
“We were busy and did well along the highway, but we certainly never got rich,” she said. “We used to run the drive-in when times were tough, but everyone was in the same boat back then.”
“But the only memory I have left is that everyone was friendly and supportive…and that was appreciated. It really was a close neighborhood that I still call home,” she concluded.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes a series of articles on the history of the Russellville area.