Tendermaid founder remembered for personality, piesPublished 11:15am Thursday, January 3, 2013
In the early 1920s, a young Mildred Thatcher worked through her studies by the light of a kerosene lamp at a modest home in Le Grand, Iowa, that had neither electricity nor plumbing. When she went to sleep, she brought along a rock that had been set on the stove to warm her bed at night. It was the beginning of a life of limited resources and hard work that would give her the drive to start an Austin legacy.
“She came from nothing and grew up through the depression,” said her grandson, Jeff Thatcher. “It really set her internal compass.”
Mildred Marie Thatcher, 101, passed away Saturday at Our House in Austin. The centenarian, along with her late husband Jerry, was known to many as one of the Tendermaid Sandwich Shop’s founders. She was famous for her homemade pies and cakes.
Mildred was born Feb. 6, 1911, in Le Grand, Iowa. She was the third of seven children born to George and Mary Coffin. Mildred graduated from Le Grand High School in 1928 and married Jerry the following year. The couple lived in Marshalltown, Iowa, where she worked at Woolworth’s Department Store. They later moved to Austin and opened up the Tendermaid in 1938, in a spot Jerry had carefully chosen. He had spent some time walking around town, counting cars at different street corners to see where the busiest areas were and where would be best to put a new restaurant. His research paid off, since it came to be known as one of the social hubs of Austin.
“They’d stand two or three deep waiting for stools,” Jeff said.
Mildred put long hours and care into seeing her customers satisfied, and never let her work ethic falter.
“She would get up early in the morning and bake pies for the day,” Jeff said, adding pies were a popular lunch item at the time and Mildred’s baking set the shop apart.
She was known by her family and customers for her warm personality, but her tough upbringing had also given her a firmer side that she could use when she needed to.
“When grandma laid the law down, it was pretty much black and white,” Jeff said.
She and Jerry managed the restaurant until they retired in 1968 and sold it.
Since Mildred’s retirement, the Tendermaid was passed along six times. Sara and Gary White, who took over in 1997, now own the little sandwich shop. Sara grew up near Mildred’s son Bob’s house, and came to know the family well.
“This was my husband’s dream, to own this,” Sara said. “They were very supportive when we took over.”
While they knew the family, she and Gary had only met Mildred in person once, when they had met during an interview with the Daily Herald in 2008. She remembers to this day her first impression of her.
“She was so engaging and just so pleasant and kind,” Sara said.
It was a bonding experience for the two, as they swapped stories about owning the Tendermaid.
“The more we talked about it, the more she remembered,” Sara said. “It was so fun hearing her stories and the she did things back then.”
But that isn’t to say much has changed in the shop’s almost 75 years of operating. There have been no additions to the building, which still sits exactly where the restaurant began all those years ago. Apart from a few more condiments, Sara said the Tendermaid has stayed the same: a place where Austinites come for the food, the service and the friendly atmosphere.
“The only thing that’s changed really is we can no longer bake our own pies at home, which we really miss,” Sara said.
In her free time, Mildred was an active participant in the Austin Garden Club. She also liked to sew, and made a lot of blankets as well as clothing for children and dolls.
“That was one of the things she missed as she got older and lost dexterity in her hands,” Jeff said.
To this day, there are still customers who come into the restaurant and reminisce about Mildred’s delicious pies and warm personality. Many families who used to live in Austin make the Tendermaid their first stop when they return to town for the holidays. Former employees stop by, too, and point to her work ethic as a model for their own, even after they left the Tendermaid.
“She’s had an impact on them for a lifetime,” Sara said.
Mildred was preceded in death by her husband, parents, two brothers and four sisters. A private family memorial was held.
About half a year ago, a family member brought Mildred her last Tendermaid sandwich, Jeff said, as she was no longer able to make it to the shop. Though she has passed, Mildred and Jerry’s legacy continue in Austin.
“People come to see that, the originality of it all,” Sara said. “It’s definitely an icon in Austin. We’re carrying on an amazing tradition that the Thatchers started.”