The Holiday House was always synonymous with special events, from wedding receptions to wedding anniversaries.
The St. Peter, Minn., supper club was a place where patrons dressed their best to dine on medium-rare steaks, shrimp Rockefeller and garlic toast crusted with melted Parmesan cheese.
And at the door to greet his guests for nearly four decades was Eldon “Jim” Martell, the creator and owner of the picturesque restaurant on a bluff overlooking the Minnesota River.
Martell, who was born in Waterloo, Iowa, died last month in LeSueur, Minn., the place he called home. He was 90. A memorial is planned for later this spring.
“Dad always felt that people should be treated as guests, not customers,” said son Ben Martell. “You serve the hot food hot and the cold food cold. He said people should feel like they’re in your home.”
The Holiday House and its “Garden Court” are history now, a picture-book memory of life from the 1950s through most of the 1980s.
At its peak, the Holiday House had nearly 25,000 members who paid an annual fee ranging from $5 to $25 to belong to the supper club. Members came from nearly all 50 states and even included a traveling salesman from Australia.
“There wasn’t anything like it in the area,” said Ben Martell. “People wanted to belong to something and be taken care of. Dad loved people. He loved telling stories and jokes to people. He loved seeing people smile.”
Martell got his start in the hospitality business after World War II in a family-owned cafe in LeSueur. He originally went to college to be a journalist, but his formal education was interrupted by the war and a stint in the Army.
He rose to the rank of master sergeant and participated in the D-Day invasion of Europe and the Battle of the Bulge. He was decorated with a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and five Battle Stars.
In 1954, Martell and his dad purchased a small piece of land near St. Peter to build a supper club. Because it was located outside of the St. Peter city limits, the fledgling Holiday House could not get a liquor license and so established a bottle club, which allowed guests to keep their own liquor in lockers at the restaurant where “set ups,” or mixes for cocktails, would be provided.
Soon the place was rollicking.
“In its heyday — the late ’60s and early ’70s — people would stay out all night,” recalled Ben Martell, who began working at the Holiday House as a busboy when he was 13. “I remember people waiting in line outside at 11:30 at night just to get in.”
In the beginning, Martell did all of the cooking. Eventually, he partnered with another chef, Ray Schwegman, to run the 300-seat facility.
In a 1980 article, Martell told the Minneapolis Star that he rarely ate dinner at his own establishment “because I just can’t relax” there.
In the early 1970s, Martell was involved with Jolly Green Giant Restaurants, a national restaurant chain operated by LeSueur’s Green Giant food company. But the Holiday House was his passion.
One special event that the Holiday House hosted was the wedding reception for Martell’s daughter, Annie, when she married an aspiring singer and composer named John Denver. Denver’s “Annie’s Song” was inspired by the newlywed couple’s relationship.
Martell was preceded in death by his wife of 66 years, Norma. He is survived by his four children: Annie Denver of Aspen, Colo.; Linda Nelson of Edwards, Colo.; Ben Martell of LeSueur, and Teresa Martell of LeSueur. He had six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.