- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

ELEANOR, W.Va. (AP) - Inside the Eleanor Dairy Queen, there’s a picture hanging on a wall of a little girl sitting underneath a tree that once stood in the parking lot.

The tree isn’t there anymore - it was cut down to make more room for parking years ago.

And the little girl has grown up.

But you’ll still find her there.

You’ll still find her behind the counter, smiling, giving hugs to longtime customers.

You’ll still find Brenda Thornton carrying out her parents’ business - something that’s been in her blood ever since she was the little girl under the tree.

In 1962, Eddie Clendenin had an idea.

He worked at Union Carbide in Institute, but with a wife and four young children at home it was difficult to make ends meet. He was looking for something else.

“Things were kind of tough, even with having a job. We kept thinking about getting into something,” he said.

One day, while sitting inside another Dairy Queen, he thought to himself, “This would be nice, you know? It wouldn’t be too big of a thing.”

And so, he went home and pitched the idea to his wife, Bettie.

“He worked another job. One evening he came in from work and said, ‘I’m going to build me a Dairy Queen.’ I said, ‘OK, you go ahead and build it and we’ll work it,’?” Bettie said. “So that’s what we did.”

At the time, the Clendenins lived in a basement along Roosevelt Boulevard in Eleanor, a property they purchased from a family member in 1956.

When it came time to find a location for the Dairy Queen, they decided to look no further than their own front yard.

They built the walk-up Dairy Queen just a few yards from their home in 1962 - and never left. The family has added onto the building throughout the years, adding more space for parking, dining and a lobby.

A few years after opening the Dairy Queen, they built a house on top of the basement, where the couple still lives today.

“That’s when it all started - day and night here at the Dairy Queen,” Eddie said.

Eddie would go to work at Union Carbide by day and work at Dairy Queen each night. He retired from Union Carbide in 1986, and dedicated more time at the restaurant in his retirement.

And Bettie was always be there - morning, noon and night - making her own, original recipes for the restaurant’s famed hot dogs and barbecue.

“It started out just hot dogs and barbecues, but mom made it all,” said Thornton, who now manages the Dairy Queen. “It’s just been used ever since. She made all of it for years and years and years.”

The Eleanor Dairy Queen is a “non-system” Dairy Queen - meaning they don’t serve the official Dairy Queen brand’s food line.

You won’t find hamburgers at the Eleanor Dairy Queen, and if the hot dogs taste different than any other Dairy Queen hot dog you’ve had - it’s because they are.

“Regular stores can’t make their barbecue, they’ve got to buy the system, it ruins a lot of their business,” Eddie said. “A lot of people don’t realize, they think Dairy Queen, and they think we have their line. We don’t.”

Instead, they have their own line of food products - Bettie’s line.

Even today, 54 years since the restaurant opened, the family-owned Dairy Queen still serves Bettie’s original hot dog chili and coleslaw recipes and uses the same brand of hot dogs.

Dairy Queen officials have tried in the past to get the Eleanor location to switch to its branded food line, but Thornton and the Clendenins aren’t interested in changing.

“If we changed, I feel we would lose customers,” Thornton said.

The Eleanor restaurant has found its own spin on other Dairy Queen food favorites - serving up popular dishes and sides like fries and chicken strips from recipes and vendors they prefer to the Dairy Queen brand.

Thornton and other employees even bake and decorate their own ice cream cakes and sell them at the restaurant.

Guests will still find Dairy Queen’s well-known “treat” menu in Eleanor.

Thornton said the family uses Dairy Queen’s line for menu items like Blizzards and ice cream sundaes.

Dairy Queen is in Thornton’s blood.

She was 6 years old when her parents opened the restaurant in front of her childhood home, and it’s been part of her life ever since.

Thornton and her brothers grew up with the Dairy Queen and their mom’s recipes.

She grew up helping her parents, cleaning the parking lot and serving customers.

Through the years, she’s seen changes to things like the building and menu.

She’s seen customers come and go, she’s seen her parents grow older.

“We had to help pick up the parking lot. We had to do things like that. We helped. Shoot, from the time I was 13, I was in here taking orders and doing stuff. I couldn’t stand it. I was always nosey. I had to know what was going on,” she said, laughing. “It’s one of those things. I don’t know how else to say it. Once you get it in your blood, it’s there.”

Bettie, now 82, suffered a stroke nearly two years ago.

Since then, she hasn’t been able to get back behind the Dairy Queen counter like she did for so many years.

While her father spends most of his time taking care of her mother, Thornton said she has stepped in to carry on a family tradition in her hometown.

“(Mom) was here every morning, every lunch hour, every 5 o’clock shift change and close at night, and she was here in between. She was here all the time. Of course dad was here, too,” Thornton said.

The Eleanor Dairy Queen has become a staple in Putnam County.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, guests poured through the lobby and drive-thru for their hot dogs and ice cream treats.

Whether she’s known them their whole lives or had just met them, Thornton greeted many customers with a smile and a hug.

“We have people here in town that have moved away. One of the first places they go when they come home here in town is Dairy Queen. Some of them even come here first before they go home,” she said, laughing.

Bill Runyon, who lives in Scott Depot, said he drives past other Dairy Queen restaurants to get to the Eleanor location - but the quality is what keeps him coming back several times a week.

“It’s so much better,” he said. “I know these folks, but that has nothing to do with it. This is the best hot dog in West Virginia.”

Several others commented about coming in for the “best hot dog in Putnam County” or coming to see Thornton and other staff members they’ve come to know through the years.

Sandie Oldaker, a shift leader who has worked at the Eleanor Dairy Queen for 12 years, said many of the customers have become her second family. Oldaker said she has regular customers who travel to the Eleanor Dairy Queen from Sissonville because of the food and the service - something she prides herself on.

“You get to know them, you watch their kids grow up as they come in,” she said. “It’s just very family-oriented.”

Oldaker said she can remember back to the days when the Dairy Queen was just a walk-up and her parents would stop and get her a milkshake or ice cream cone on a Sunday drive.

She’s come to grow close to the Clendenins and Thornton, and said she considers them a second family.

It’s not work for her, it’s spending time in a place she’s come to love with people she holds close.

“We’re like family now,” she said. “I’ve been very blessed working here.”

Five years down the road, Thornton doesn’t want to see much change at the Eleanor Dairy Queen because “it’s family, it’s home.”

She wants to see it just as it is - just as her parents would want it to be.

“I hope to see it just like it is now. I hope to see it growing and getting better all the time,” she said. “(My parents) taught me to be honest, to always be available when you’re needed and just hard work ethic. By doing a lot of hard work, it has been beneficial to my family. I wouldn’t have what I have today if it wasn’t being here with them and working for them.”


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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