Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Big Shoe's Barbecue left behind hard shoes to fill in Terre Haute
“We barbecue everything but the baby, we boil him.”
So reads a now fading hand-painted sign facing a gravel parking lot at the former location of Big Shoe’s Barbecue at 1112 S. 12th St. in Terre Haute, Ind.
Big Shoe’s slogan once was “the most slyly vicious in the business," noted authors Greg Johnson and Vince Staten in their book, “Real Barbecue.” "The dark humor springs from a gentle soul … a slow-moving bear of a man with the kind face of a basset hound.
"After a handshake and a friendly hello, the joke is obvious: The baby would be absolutely safe with Big Shoe, although a stray spare rib might be in serious danger,” they added.
Alas, Ellis Mills, a.k.a “Big Shoe,” is no more and neither is the historic barbecue joint the Tennessee native operated with his wife, Gladys. Two large signs in the shape of boots still hang outside the building where area-born celebrities such as actors Scatman Crothers and Phil Harris, sportscaster Chris Schenkel and Indianapolis 500 legend Tony Hulman once frequented.
I wish that I could write that I also was among them, but all we found on a recent visit to Terre Haute was a shuttered operation. A fire pit and a couple of smokers stand idled inside one of the buildings, with a couple of sauce mops hanging nearby.
A “closed” sign appears in front of familiar looking checkered curtains in a window.
Big Shoe’s web site -- http://www.bigshoesbarbeque.com/ -- had given us false hope that we would be able to eat at what was once one of only three good barbecue joints in Indiana listed in Johnson and Staten’s guide way back in 1988. Apparently the site remains online in order for the family to market their sauce.
According to various sources, Ellis and Gladys Mills (pictured here) moved to Terre Haute in 1936 and opened the restaurant around 1950, after he had worked for years as an iron worker. Because they had 10 children, they decided to sell barbeque on the weekends to supplement their income.
They sold it around town and later at fairs – including at the Indiana State Fair.
She cooked the meat and prepared sandwiches. He sold the barbeque at various "after hour joints." Because he wore a size 15EEE shoe, he earned the nickname "Big Shoe," which became the name of his business attached to their home.
In the place's early days, at a time when Terre Haute had a reputation as a party hearty river town, Big Shoe’s was the kind of place to go when other places closed. In order to shut things down in the wee hours of the morning, Mills would turn up the jukebox and punch a particular selection, “You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here.”
Today, the jukebox is gone, along with nearly everything else. “Big Shoe” died in September of 1994. Gladys followed him into death in January of 2010.
Their children operated the restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays after his death, but all that is left is a web site for sauce. The phone number doesn't work and I wonder whether anyone will respond to an e-mail.
It would be nice to try their “sweet yet spicy” vinegar-based red sauce.
As I wrote earlier, I never had the privilege of eating here, but I’ll conclude by sharing thoughts from an appreciative, anonymous reviewer from San Antonio, written in December of 2008:
“I ate there at Big Shoes over 50 years ago when "Big Shoe" was the grill-master. I have always considered their Bar-B-Q, by far, the best in the world," he wrote. "The small restaurant was just a room with a sawdust floor in one large room with a pit grill. The furniture was just miss-matched old used tables and chairs with butcher paper for table clothes … The flavor was so good that if I could have eaten the bones, I would have.
“There was no where in the world that I have eaten Bar-B-Q that was as good or that came close. Not in Terre Haute, Indiana -- or anywhere else … Here in San Antonio, Texas, people brag on Texas Bar-B-Q, and it is good, but nothing I have ever eaten compares with Big Shoes in Terre Haute, Indiana.”
That's quite a statement.