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Jan 27

"The Best Cup of Coffee in the State"

Posted on January 27, 2016 at 2:07 PM by kkocher kkocher

It was the late 1930s, America was mired in the Great Depression, and war was expanding in Europe, but Janie Ree Pitts and May Waters Yarbrough were optimists. How optimistic? Not only did they determine to undertake opening a café, they chose Friday, October 13, 1939 as opening day. Their new establishment: the May-Ree Café, a combination of their names.
old-richter-bldg.jpg
A.M. Aiken had just moved his Seed Store across the street leaving the first floor of the old Richter Building (now Caldwell Banker Realtors) vacant. Mrs. Pitts and Mrs. Yarbrough thoroughly renovated the interior, painting it green, white, and orange to be “modernistic and attractive.” For seating, they provided three tables seating twelve, two private booths, and five counter seats. The Madisonian was sure to point out that the café was well lighted and well heated – evidently something lacking in previous establishments.

The fare? The May-Ree Café served all three meals and specialized in steaks, fried chicken, chop suey and oysters, not to mention, "The Best Cup of Coffee in the State." Conservative prices were promised to be maintained. It quickly became a favorite of telephone company workers because by late November it was reported that a “sixth of the Telephone force [is] eating with them regularly.”

May-Ree-Cafe.jpgBut it was banquets where the café seems to have exceled. On February 14, 1940, the Boy Scouts, their girlfriends, and other guests of honor gathered at the May-Ree for their Boy Scout Week Banquet. As reported in The Madisonian, “The menu consisted of roast pork, dressing, rice, gravy, tomato aspic, potato nests with peas, sweet potato soufflé, cranberries, ambrosia and cake, and coffee. The Valentine motif was carried out in every detail. The place cards were hearts with verses with a heart-shaped bonbon attached to each one. The aspic was molded in heart-shaped pans and tinted red. The doilies bore Valentines also. Scout flags in profusion decorated the walls. White table cloths threw into relief the heart-shaped green vases filled with crimson poppies and feathery greens. The service was perfect.” 

Mention of the May-Ree Café then disappeared as suddenly as it broke on the scene. It would seem it closed before reaching a first anniversary. While optimism was part of the mix in opening their restaurant, it may have also been a necessity for Mrs. Yarbrough. Her husband John had died suddenly, at age 33, in June of 1939. After the closing of the May-Ree, Mrs. Yarbrough left Madison for Macon and employment at the Welleston Company. Ree Pitts, on the other hand, lived out her life in Madison dying in 1981 at age 88. In the interim she worked with the Madison Post Office and assisted in the operation of Ye Olde Colonial Restaurant, which was owned by her nephew, Joe Ree Cunningham.
Madison Moments, a weekly blog highlighting Madison's rich history, is a creation of the Madison Historic Preservation Commission in collaboration with other City Boards and Departments. This installment was contributed by the Historic Preservation Commission and written by Ken Kocher, HPC staff. This volunteer board protects the community's wealth of historic resources - most notably the Madison Historic District, first listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

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