It is easy to still be bummed out about what has happened to our little town. Every day, it seems like another building comes down and all too quickly the image of what used to be on that vacant lot fades from our minds. In all of the demolition, though, the rebuilding has begun. Houses are being framed. Rite-Aid reopened very quickly. Little Caesar’s pizza opened this week. The folks that own China King are working furiously to get their place back in operation, and there are several more construction projects going on all around the town and county that show that progress is happening.
Still, in the middle of everything, just down Prestonsburg Street, stood an empty lot, and the memory of its former tenant had not faded in the slightest. The Freezer Fresh was an icon in West Liberty. We all knew someone who had worked there at one time or another. My grandmother worked there over 40 years ago, and I have some very dear friends who worked there when we were younger. We’ve all circled the lot…cruising. We’ve all stood out front talking with friends, waiting on an order to come out of those little windows. We’ve all sat in our car, drinking a Reese’s milkshake and eating a double decker with slaw, watching folks drive by. We’ve watched as out-of-towners unfamiliar with the place order a large ice cream cone and then find that they can barely fit it out the window.
After the tornado hit the county, leveling the Freezer Fresh as it went through, a lot of us were wondering if the last bite we’d had there was the last one we would ever have. Rumors came and went about whether it was or was not going to reopen, and hopes went up and down right along with those rumors. As recently as last week, I had heard pretty convincingly that it was not going to open, and I just hated to hear that. I still had hope that it might, but that started to fade pretty quickly with every report I heard.
It may seem silly to some people to pin so much interest and hope on a little hamburger shack, but I think that for a lot of us, the Freezer Fresh symbolized more than just burgers and shakes. It was a landmark in West Liberty, a reminder of a time that was simpler somehow, even without so many “conveniences” as we have now. It was also somewhat of a rare thing these days, an independent “fast food” restaurant, of sorts. There was no drive-thru…no fancy digital cash registers. Just a block building and a calculator.
You still see them out there along the older roads, in the smaller towns, with similar names…names like “Frostee Freeze”, or “Tasty Freeze”…there’s even a Freezer Fresh Drive-In still open in Ohio (that looks eerily similar to our own!), but they are getting fewer and farther between. Frenchburg’s version closed down in the past few years. Morehead doesn’t have one at all. The rapid expansion of the fast-food franchise has driven so many of them out of business. There were a lot of folks that figured when McDonald’s came to West Liberty, the Freezer Fresh was done for. That was not to be the case at all. They kept right on rolling, even as more fast food places opened in town, some right down the street!
However, a force bigger than McDonald’s would prove to be the true test of their staying power. After being leveled in the tornado, they faced the same questions so many business owners in our town and county have had to face after dealing with two tornadoes in a week…is it worth it to reopen, especially in these economic times? Add in the layers of long hours, health concerns, fights with insurance companies, new building code compliance issues, and a host of other hoops to jump through, and you can begin to see why even though it held such a special place in the hearts of so many, the decision to reopen would not be an easy one to make, for the Freezer Fresh or any other business that was lost.
In the face of all those decisions, however, it gives my soul a level of happiness that I cannot begin to explain to know that the Freezer Fresh IS reopening. I first saw a few comments here or there yesterday on Facebook, and as my wife and I drove through town last night to take a peek, I spotted some stacks of block and a cement mixer on the empty lot. That made me happy.
This morning, I drove through to find several rows of block already in place. THAT made me ecstatic.
Facebook has been lit up today with comments from folks expressing how happy they are that it is coming back, and happiness is something that has been in short supply around these parts for the past 3 months.
We still have a long way to go.
There remains so many people without a home, living in a temporary structure or staying with family or friends…people who lost everything and still don’t know how they will ever get any of it back.
There are business owners still fighting with insurance companies and trying to cope with the loss of wages while they do, pondering all the while whether they should keep up the fight or just take the money and move on.
And there are still several other landmarks gone from the city that I know many of us would like to see rise again, including the two beloved churches that stood within sight of one another and were so much a part of what made downtown West Liberty unique.
Getting the Freezer Fresh back may be a small victory, but small victories are still victories, and with every house or building that comes back, hope and spirits are lifted.
The Freezer Fresh returning is something we can all rally around because it was one of the true icons of our town.
It not being here made it feel like a giant piece was missing.
And while there are still many other pieces to replace, this is progress…progress that I cannot wait to taste.