Few people visit the historic Sutliff Bridge without popping into Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern for a pork tenderloin or brew.
The 800 foot-long pedestrian bridge with three giant steel arches spans the Cedar River in the Johnson County countryside. The rustic-looking storefront has been its neighbor for more than a hundred years on the east bank, always with an American flag waving off the front porch.
“We were pretty hidden until the 1980s, and then it just exploded,” said Baxa’s owner Randy Howell.
An illuminated sign lists the menu of wings, hot beef sandwich, gizzards and other items. Kids can find ice cream treats. Dollar bills, several deep in places, line the ceiling, a wolf pelt, skulls and antlers line the walls, and patrons fill the wood panel-colored tables.
Howell describes Baxa’s as a “traditional country” establishment.
It’s a gathering place, more than anything, he said.
“So many places these days are franchised and don’t have uniqueness to them,” he said.
The destination has been a one-two punch of history and experience, drawing all kinds.
Bike clubs — both motorcycles and bicycles — stop by on group rides. Fishermen, power boaters and paddlers use the spot, which has a boat ramp, as an access point for the river. Others just drive in to grab a bite from the store and eat on a picnic bench on the bridge deck or on the old church pews lining the porch of Baxa’s.
Regulars — many of them local farmers — take turns buying rounds and playing hands of euchre.
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“It doesn’t matter what you’ve got or what you drive, when you come here, everyone is the same,” said Joe Farrier, 55, of Solon, who remembers first coming to the store in 1983. “Most places are going for a demographic, but here everyone is welcome.”
The history of the bridge and store are intertwined.
The store, which is not so much of a store anymore as it is a restaurant and bar, was built in 1899 as a general store. It sold everything from milk and bacon to ammo and buckles, eventually adding the tavern and food as secondary offering. It operated as a general store until the 1980s before the restaurant and bar became the primary calling card, Howell said.
The bridge was built a year earlier after a sandbar in the middle of the Cedar obstructed a ferry crossing so people could reach the Johnson County seat. The bridge was erected for $12,000 in 1898.
The bridge accommodated traffic — cattle and trucks — until the 1980s. As a child, Howell would hear the distinct sound of untethered planks getting dislodged when traffic drove over, and he’d run out and flip it back in place before the next vehicle came.
The bridge earned a place on the National Registry of Historic Places, one of the main factors that prompted officials to invest $1.9 million to restore it after it was knocked down in the Floods of 2008. The store also has had some pivotal moments. It has changed hands at least 18 times, mostly between generations. The upstairs, which is now storage space, used to have a small apartment, where Howell lived as a child.
Howell, who has been owner since 2002 with his wife, Chris, took over at a time of disrepair. Other unincorporated river villages along the Cedar, including Cedar Valley, Cedar Bluff and Rochester, had all but folded as a destination. Howell said he was determined not to let the same fate befall Sutliff.
“We decided to invest rather than end up like Cedar Bluff and Cedar Valley,” Howell said.
They expanded, added a patio where bands play, and upgraded the kitchen. Still, they’ve kept to the store’s historical roots.
“We aren’t fancy, and we intend to keep it that way,” he said.
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IF YOU GO
WHAT: Sutliff Bridge and Tavern
WHERE: 5546 130th St. NE, Lisbon
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
DETAILS: (319) 624-2204, sutliffbridge.com