WEST LIBERTY — When it comes to restoring a small town that has been devastated by a tornado, a tasty hamburger sometimes can be just as important as a two-by-four.
Certainly a lot of people in West Liberty feel that way, now that the Freezer Fresh is back.
The Freezer Fresh Dairy, a tiny, locally owned restaurant that had served burgers, shakes and hot dogs for almost 55 years, was leveled March 2 by the tornado that destroyed most of downtown West Liberty.
During the past seven months, as West Liberty struggled to recover, many folks would drive by the site of the old restaurant wondering whether the town would ever be the same if the local institution failed to return.
For a while, owners Paul and Janet Franklin weren't even sure they should try to rebuild.
But rebuild they did.
A new Freezer Fresh opened Sept. 13 on the site of the original restaurant.
How big a deal was that?
So many hungry people turned out for the grand reopening that customers had to stand in line for 21/2 hours to place orders. No one complained. Business has been like that ever since.
"It's given everybody hope that the town is going to come back," said Aaron Frederick, who stopped at the Freezer Fresh on Wednesday with friends Mark Ward and Mike Day.
Ward said that of all the West Liberty landmarks lost in the tornado, the Freezer Fresh might have been missed the most.
Ward, Frederick and Day had been out dove hunting earlier Wednesday. But when lunchtime neared, they jumped into a pickup and headed for the Freezer Fresh, just as folks here have been doing for generations.
"When the restaurant reopened," Day said, "it was like a little bit of normalcy returning to the town. That means a lot."
Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley says the return of the Freezer Fresh is one of the most important signs yet that West Liberty is shaking off the effects of the tornado. Conley, by the way, says he's been a Freezer Fresh regular "probably since I first got my driver's license."
"It's a great, iconic place that has had such an impact on the county for all these years," he said. "It's a great asset to have back."
It all started in 1958. Lynn Nickell, back home in West Liberty after military service, decided to open a restaurant. It would be small and simple: burgers and shakes, no seats. You'd walk up to a window to order your food, then take it home or to your car to eat.
Nickell borrowed the name "Freezer Fresh" from a motto printed on the cups he bought from a Cincinnati paper company. He recalls that opening day "was a disaster." A big crowd showed up, and the ice cream machine didn't cooperate. Fortunately, things smoothed out after that, and Nickell operated the business until 1968.
James Elam and Glenn Lykins took over until selling the business to the Franklins in 1987.
Janet Franklin, who was busy cooking burgers Wednesday, said she and her husband were so heartbroken when the Freezer Fresh was destroyed that they almost decided to retire.
"Paul is 77 and I'm 71, and we seriously thought about not going back," she said. "But everywhere we went people would ask, 'When are you going to build back?'
"This sad little town needed something. So after three months we decided to rebuild. Everybody's been so excited to have it open again, serving the same food. I was afraid that if we sold it to someone else it wouldn't be the same. And that's what people wanted: the same ice cream, the same food."
In other words, a return to normalcy, which is a very valuable commodity anywhere these days, particularly in West Liberty, where folks are rebuilding shattered hopes and dreams.
Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.Twitter: @heraldleader.