The Hornets Nest, an American story. ©Jim Hinckley’s America.

The Hornets Nest is a nondescript little cafe. No flashy neon signs. No fancy eye catching architecture. A simple sign topped by a Coca Cola advertisement reads, “Great Food – Great Friends – Great Times. It was our kind of place, and we were disappointed by the food, the service or the price.

Aside from a few homely touches the interior is as plan as the outside. The menu offerings are American staples. A few have catchy names such as the “K-Starter” and “Jayhawker” that only have meaning to the locals. And based on what customers were ordering, ice cream and pie are the popular desert offerings of choice.

Hamburgers, fried chicken, french fries, grilled chicken salad and similar fare dominate the menu.Tacos and burritos are also offered, a hint that even on the plains of Kansas the face of America has changed a bit since the era of I Like Ike buttons.

It is the kind of small town diner that was ubiquitous before the generic era of fast food and hotel franchises, Walmart, and supermarket chains. And it is the only cafe and ice cream shop left in faded Chetopa.

An American Story

The Hornets Nest, and Chetopa itself, is a time capsule of sorts. Here is preserved the American story, and a glimpse of what might be our future.

Cheryl Barnes has worked at the cafe for 43 years. She commutes from nearby Miami, Oklahoma, a Route 66 community.

A scrawled note from a second grader on the menu at the Hornets Nest is a small town touch.

She was a mere child when her father walked out on the family, and her mother knew little about the restaurant business. So, she and her mother learned together. And now Cheryl works with her daughter. She must be a fair boss as Evelyn, a waitress, started working at the cafe more than 20 years ago while still a teenager.


Chetopa, as with rural towns all through the plains, is fading. In 1890 more than 2,000 people called this town home. As of 2021 the population was a mere 921 people, a  28% decline since 2000.

The town founded on April 18, 1857, was originally an Osage Nation village named after Chief Chetopah. The future looked bright and promising when the M, K & T Railroad was given exclusive right to cross the Indian Territories.

Remnants of the towns glory days abound along U.S. 166 and U.S. 59. And scattered here and there are modern, shining buildings that stand in testimony to the pride and tenacity of folks that call Chetopa home.

Ghost of Christmas Future

The Hornets Nest may be a nondescript cafe that few travelers notice. But for locals it is an institution where memories were made. It is an oasis, a place to stop for coffee and pie, and talk farm prices with neighbors.

And it is a place where friends and neighbors share concerns. On the day my dearest freind and I stopped in for a bite of lunch a weathered old farmerr in faded bib overalls, and his aged wife, were enjoying a burger. A stream of customers greeted them by name, and inquired about their kids and grand children. A few asked for some insight about the unseasonably warm day.

Vandalism seemed to be a popular topic with customers. A few days before our stop, someone had tossed a rock through the cafe window. Cardboard was tapped over the hole until it could be repaired. This and similar incidents in town was seen as a troubling trend.

We talked with the owner, and the waitress, and listened as they reminisced about the survival skills of grandparents that were lacking in modern generations. That conversation was tinged with a hint of foreboding about the future, anxiety, and uncertainty.

The Hornets Nest

Our fall tour included stops at a number of cafes and diners in faded little towns where the glory days are distant memories. A common theme in conversations with waitresses, farmers and truck drivers was a foreboding about the future.

My memories of travels, road trips, and stops in small town America span sixty years or more. With clarity I remember the tension of driving through Alabama and Mississippi in the early 1960s. And I remember road trips during the Vietnam War era, the Carter years, and after 9/11. But this is different. I don’t recall a time when it seemed that there was once common thread tying it all together. I can’t remember a time when so many people seemed to look toward the future with apprehension rather than with optimism and hope.

Interesting times. This trip was the opening lines for a new chapter in the American story, something we share at Jim Hinckley’s America. 









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