The laughs, the tears, the desserts of a  favorite local eatery

“You know intuitively that you are not supposed to talk. But everybody does.”

That’s the opening to Mary Jo Hendricks’ description of her beloved former restaurant, The First Grade. Anyone who knows Hendricks would also believe those sentences describe the bubbly, Mother Hen to a tee as well.

Hendricks opened the breakfast, lunch and high-tea eatery in 1984 in the former first-grade room of the century-old Central School. Over the years, as The First Grade expanded into two classrooms and the principal’s office, it also gained much notoriety. As tour groups and locals alike found the delectable desserts, healthy sandwiches and wholesome soups to be go-to, fresh favorites, The First Grade came to be featured in such publications as Midwest Living, Taste of Home, Reader’s Digest and Minneapolis-St. Paul magazines as well as the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Fargo Forum newspapers and, of course many times in the Herald-Review.

“If lunch was as good in first grade as it is in The First Grade, we’d all still be in grade school,” wrote the Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine article.

“The First Grade takes you back,” continued Hendricks in her personal portrait of the establishment. “Skip the crowds. Skip the waiting in line. What is required - no, what is needed, is a place to go back to. Someplace comfortable, but proper.

“Someplace where sandwiches are whole grain and hearty; and where muffins are described in terms of Morning Glory and Blowing in the Wind Bran, and where the sweet smell of mischief still floats in the air,” adds Hendricks who likes to joke that she was in the first grade for 13 years. “Someplace where the ABCs of life - and of dining, are practiced. Where you can reach over, take an authentic Primer off the chalkboard shelf and read that Dick and Jane still walk and run.”

Community leaders made The First Grade their regular meeting spot for lunches during the busy work week - a place to unwind and laugh. Tour buses stopping through town were pleasantly surprised to find the stop full of hometown, homemade charm and were happy to spread the word further down the road. Mothers and daughters made it a weekend tradition to enjoy a fancy cup of tea and quiche together, while listening to the piano music of Florence Huntley who delighted patrons on a regular basis. Celebrities, such as Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich and country music singer/songwriter Johnny Cash came to taste Hendricks’ cranberry/raspberry pie.

In fact, actor George Lindsey, best-known for his role as Goober Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show,” said the cranberry/raspberry pie was “like eating a holiday” when he was in traveling through on a hunting trip.

During the annual Judy Garland Festival when the Munchkin cast from the original “Wizard of Oz” movie came to town, they always stopped by The First Grade.

“I became very good friends with the Munchkins,” says Hendricks who had T-shirts made one year for them that read: “Hate Kansas, took dog, went to Grand Rapids, Minnesota.”

Hendricks believes the relaxed atmosphere at The First Grade was another reason it was so popular. Credit should also be given to Hendricks herself.

“It was a place where people felt so welcome they just did whatever there.”

Called Mother Superior or Principal by some and Mama Jo Jo by most, Hendricks was known to have an open office to anyone wanting to just talk.

“My office was in the back; it was the kindergarten room and it was like a confessional - with tears and all that stuff,” she giggles. “For 13 years, I really didn’t know what I was doing but I did have the people skills.”

When tour buses pulled up to Central School, Hendricks would ring her bell and when the people filed into the restaurant, she would make them stand up tall, take their hats off and proudly recite The Pledge of Allegiance.

“Then one day a bus from Canada came and I said, ‘OK, I guess we can sing O Canada.’”

The First Grade has been closed for more than 20 years but the stories and memories of the quaint classroom eatery are still almost as fresh as the breads and cookies once served there. Approached almost daily by people who bring up their fond thoughts of The First Grade, Hendricks has decided to compile a book. She’s hoping people will submit their photos and share their memories to contribute to the book.

“I’m very proud of that place; of what happened there. People would come in and say they felt crappy at first but so good when they left,” says a smiling Hendricks as she sorts through a folder full of letters, news articles, photos, postcards, old menus and more. “It’s amazing the memories people have.”

From the quilted aprons and hats of the servers to the school bell that rang for birthdays, the white gloves and doilies on the tables to the popular veggie pita that came to be a signature dish, all memories of The First Grade are all welcomed for the book.

“People are so happy when they think about (The First Grade) which is what’s pushing me,” says Hendricks of compiling the book. She already has plans for funny chapters such as “The Blandin Dinner Disaster” about a catering gig gone bad; “My Dear, You Need Me,” about Florence Huntley’s suggestion for piano music; “12 Teaspoons of Pepper, You’ve Got to Be Kidding,” about a recipe mishap; and more.

Those who would like to submit their memories of The First Grade are invited to send them to: Memories of The First Grade, P.O. Box 5068, Grand Rapids, Minn., 55744; or email to barendt@grhr.net or papajojogr@gmail.com; or call the Herald-Review at 218-326-6623 (attention Britta Arendt) for more information.

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